Paul J. Kuttner: Teach my white son about racism

Utah schools should not try to spare my son’s feelings by avoiding the truth of our history.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Monica Wilbur expresses her opposition to critical race theory at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Standing behind her is Betty Sawyer, who holds an opposing point of view.

I am a father of a 9-year-old white boy in the public school system. I want him to grow into a confident, secure young man who is proud to be himself. I also want him to see the world as it truly is — even when that truth is difficult.

The Utah State Board of Education’s new rules on educational equity in schools include language demanded by legislators and parents who think “critical race theory” is a danger to white children like mine. In doing so, they are failing him, and all other children who deserve to know the full truth about our country.

In the name of not making children “feel bad,” Utah will end up coddling our children and leaving them unprepared for citizenship and adulthood.

On its face, the language added to the rules is largely inoffensive. Nobody wants our schools to teach that one group is “superior or inferior to another,” or that discrimination is OK, or that the content of a student’s character is determined by their background. In fact, we need honest conversations about race and equity precisely so that we can respond to discrimination and correct our long history of explicitly and implicitly presenting some people as superior to others.

I am concerned, however, by the vague language which states that schools may not teach that “a student or educator bears responsibility for the past actions of individuals from the same sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other protected class as the student or educator.”

What this means depends on how you define responsibility. One definition of responsibility has to do with assigning blame. Is my son personally to blame for the crimes of other white people? Of course not.

However, does my son have some responsibility to address injustice? Does he, like all of us, have a responsibility to his fellow humans to stand up when something is wrong?

I want my son to become the kind of person who accepts that responsibility rather than turning a blind eye, who is honest about his advantages and the burdens others face. I hope our schools can instill that in him.

In addition to being a father, I work with teachers in Salt Lake City. I’ve seen them implementing new approaches to teaching that address the intellectual, social, emotional, and cultural development of our increasingly diverse student body.

It is clear, when you see these approaches in action, that they are not “code words” for teaching hate, as one ill-informed legislator has claimed. They are hard-won educational innovations that move us closer to effectively teaching not just some students, but all students in our schools. If these new rules and the debate around them scare people off from this work, that will be a travesty for our children.

I have also read up on critical race theory. It is a valuable area of thought and research that helps us to see how racism has shaped the laws, institutions, and systems in which we live. However, it bears little resemblance to the talking points of lawmakers and activists crying out for it to be banned. That makes me even more worried that we are not really talking about banning a specific area of research (which is bad enough) but rather that we are trying to push the history of racism and white supremacy back into the closet, out of sight, in the vain hope that it will somehow go away.

Do not underestimate my son. Do not coddle him with a whitewashed version of history. That is not education and will do him no good.

Paul Kuttner

Paul Kuttner is a father, educator and community engagement professional in Salt Lake City.