Roni Jo Draper: Bill would stifle discussions of racism and sexism

Avoiding distress altogether in a classroom is an impossible task.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mauricio Laguan looks over an interactive exhibit highlighting six figures in African American history at the University of Utah's Eccles Health Sciences Library in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.

A bill written by Utah state Rep. Jim Jimenez is under consideration in the Utah State Legislature. HB427 seeks to prohibit the use of some material and topics that are “inconsistent with certain principles.” Those principles being individual freedom, meritocracy and that no individual is inherently racist or sexist due to their own race and/or sex, among others. The bill goes on to state that educators should not engage in instruction that may make an individual “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race.”

On its face, this bill may seem reasonable. But in practice it would stifle discussions of racism and sexism in classrooms like similar bills have done elsewhere. In fact, I suspect that is the point.

I am not in support of curriculum and instruction aimed at making students feel guilt, anguish or distress. Indeed, those feelings are rarely conducive to meaningful learning. At any rate, attempts at legislating an anguish-free curriculum seems aimed primarily at curriculum that would cause white and/or male children to feel discomfort or guilt.

However, children have feelings. Often when teaching lessons aimed at helping children to consider the perspectives of people other than themselves, to empathize with people with different histories and experiences, or to grow in compassion for humanity beyond themselves, children will experience a wide range of feelings. And while educators can and do much to mitigate these feelings, avoiding distress altogether in a classroom is an impossible task.

Additionally, the bill insists that the principles of individual freedom and meritocracy be upheld. Okay, but what about the principle of interdependence that many people also hold? Interdependence suggests that an individual’s actions affect others, and individuals should recognize how the contributions of others have aided them in their own achievements. Interdependence is a principle held by those who understand that society, while made up of individuals, benefits from networks of people including families, governments, and other associations (e.g., churches, clubs, employment).

As a person who has completed three advanced degrees, I certainly understand intimately my own contributions to obtaining these achievements. I am also humbly aware of the contributions of my parents, teachers, authors and many others who influenced and assisted me in my endeavors. I am grateful for schools where I was free to learn and question and grow. I have been, and remain, interdependent on others for my livelihood, success and wellbeing. As such, I am troubled by the enumeration of individual freedom in the proposed bill over other valued principles.

Individual freedom and merit do not take into account the way that systems are often created to support some people in achieving success while they inhibit others from the same. For example, in the United States, laws and policies were in place that prohibited Black and Indigenous peoples from attending public schools with their European American peers. Similarly, in the early days of education in the U.S., girls were not taught to write as it was understood that they could simply rely on their husbands to do their writing.

Indeed, federal civil rights laws enacted over the past 60 years have sought to eliminate discriminatory policies aimed at limiting educational access to children based on race, sex and ability. Indeed, we must remain vigilant in studying the various systems that underpin American life and seek to understand how these systems provide pathways for some to obtain individual freedom and create obstacles for others to do the same.

I am glad to live in a country that takes seriously the problems of the past and seeks to right the course in order to provide all those living within its borders greater access to pursue happiness. However, we cannot hope to ever create a more perfect union if we hobble our children to an education that does not allow them to investigate and articulate discriminatory practices based on race and/or sex simply because those histories are messy, inconvenient, and/or discomforting. Instead, we must be at all times willing to face our foibles as we face our achievements — with grace and hope in a better new day.

Rather than create confusing legislation that may make it more difficult for teachers to discuss racism and sexism, let’s do our level best to support teachers in their endeavors to educate the future of our nation. We can begin by telling our representatives that we do not need greater obstacles for teachers in discussing racism and sexism with young people. Let’s resoundingly reject the passage of HB427.

Roni Jo Draper

Roni Jo Draper, Ph.D., is a former high school mathematics teacher and is an emerita professor at Brigham Young University where she prepared teachers for schools.