Hannah Blomgren: Utah’s teachers and students are afraid to speak out about racism

Silence about racism can hardly be considered a neutral stance.

“I dressed up as a cockroach, to kind of make a statement, because people call me that in the hallways,” one 11th-grade student explains to me about his Halloween costume.

“Yeah,” pipes up another student, “I dressed up as a human-eating cat because people call me a ‘cat-eater.’ It’s a nasty stereotype about people from my country.”

Racism is alive in Utah schools, and it’s not hiding in the shadows. It rears its ugly head and roars at the sky. The inability of teachers and students to have candid discussions about racism in classrooms due to censorship has led to this grim reality. A reality in which students who are afraid to speak out attempt to combat discrimination through covert methods. Students stated they were only confiding the true meaning of their Halloween costumes to those they felt they could trust.

This is why the recently released audit commissioned by the Utah Legislature is so incredibly worrying. Within its list of “potentially questionable content” lie issues of white privilege, racism, settler colonialism, slavery, genocide and land theft. Teachers are afraid that if they address these important and ongoing issues in class they will be reported to the Utah State Board of Education’s hotline, disciplined or fired.

Meanwhile, teachers are grappling with the urgent need for more resources and training for culturally responsive and trauma-responsive pedagogy. How are our students supposed to feel as though they belong? How are our students supposed to focus on learning, in environments where they are stressed, harassed and bullied?

The Legislature’s determination to unearth biased and non-neutral content is misplaced and uninformed. Silence about racism can hardly be considered a neutral stance. The audit ultimately revealed that there is no evidence that critical race theory is widely taught, despite the concerned outrage of some parents. These types of audits only increase misplaced speculation and out-of-context use of small classroom excerpts, which fuel excessive surveillance of educators. Teachers are knowledgeable experts in pedagogical standards, but they are not being treated as such.

The Legislature’s apparent concern for the comfort of students does not extend to all students. Mandating that students need not grapple with the unpleasant history and present climate of racism disregards the distress of students who are affected by racism. Research shows that the perpetuation of this distress leads to poor educational outcomes for students of color.

The audit also included an examination of teacher trainings and has marked as questionable trainings that discuss the true and violent history of settler colonialism. If educators are not learning this history, they are, in fact, more likely to retain biased attitudes and act accordingly in the classroom. BIPOC students, particularly Black boys, are more likely to face harsh discipline from educators due to such biases.

One study out of San Diego showed that Black boys, kindergarten through third grade, are a whopping 522% more likely to be suspended than their peers (Wood, 2021). Experiencing such undue discipline early on in life sets students up for disciplinary actions inside and outside of school that enter them into the prison-industrial complex.

In her book “We Want to Do More than Survive,” Bettina Love, a professor of educational theory and practice, states, “Education reformers take up space in urban schools, offering nothing more than survival tactics to children of color in the forms of test-taking skills, acronyms, grit labs, and character education. The barriers of racism, discrimination, concentrated poverty, and access to college – persistent, structural barriers – cannot be eradicated by tweaking the system or making adjustments.”

We must be able to confront racism head-on as teachers, explicitly and meaningfully with our students in the classroom.

Hannah Blomgren

Hannah Blomgren is a master of education student at the University of Utah, pursuing her teaching licensure with an emphasis in secondary physics teaching. She holds a B.S. in physics teaching and astronomy and has previously worked in astronomy outreach in public schools in both Utah and Hawaii.