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Not so very long ago, when we were children, my fellow white Gen Xers and I learned a whitewashed American history. That recent history can not only help explain white parents’ defensiveness about the teaching of race today, but also reveal the need for today’s children to learn basic concepts of critical race theory (CRT) in school.
Make no mistake: the uproar about CRT, complete with parents protesting at school board meetings, is the most recent manifestation of the decades-long backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. If it weren’t critical race theory, it would have been something else, because the anti-CRT movement is not really about CRT, which is a form of scholarship mostly taught in law and graduate school.
But complex legal scholarship is not being taught to children, just like scholarship from any advanced field of study is not taught to children. So why the hostility and panic about CRT?
Because of the idea, entrenched in conservatism for decades, that even talking about race is both racist and unfair to white people.
We are now more than five decades past the civil rights era, yet we still cannot confront our country’s history of racism and the persistence of racism today because many white people find such ideas to be a threat, in and of themselves. However, just the opposite could be true: learning about race can be liberating, and help white people take positive steps towards a stronger and more just society.
I used to think that race was something other people, people who were not white, had. Until I began to study race seriously, I had not given a lot of thought to my identity as a white person or what that meant. Why? Because, through what I was taught, I had been indoctrinated into the belief that white was universal, the default–unnamed, and unraced.
And then I learned that it is exactly that belief that is so dangerous, because it is rooted in a racial hierarchy of white superiority. I needed to become un-indoctrinated through study. I needed to understand that whiteness itself is an invention. That recognition was, and is, freeing.
I suspect some of the anti-CRT protestors look back on their own early education and remember the same things I do: the school plays about Pilgrims or our Founding Fathers. There was no mention of genocide or slavery in these performances. Instead, I remember our unquestioned acceptance of these people as our heroes, a vision that is upheld by the 1776 Commission, curriculum guidance released late in the Trump administration.
Likewise, I remember when we were each assigned a different explorer to research in 4th or 5th grade. We were all excited to learn and share the wonderful discoveries these men made in the Americas, but with no reference to the people already living here. In the rare moments when we learned about Indigenous peoples, as we did in 4th grade in our unit on the Lenni-Lenape, the takeaway was that they were exotic and interesting–but now extinct, like dinosaurs.
Lesson after lesson, class after class, year after year, we got the message that those responsible for “discovering” this land and creating this country were good and special people. And beause of them, so were we. Criticism of them meant criticism of us.
As a child, I learned what I was supposed to learn. I didn’t learn that 1619 had any relevance to the founding of slavery, or that slavery had even occurred in my home state, New Jersey. And when race did come up, I certainly didn’t learn that it was a social construct, something fabricated by those justifying the superiority of Euro-Americans.
I suspect the other Karens who are protesting CRT had a similar education to mine. This is not to say that white women perpetuate racism more than white men, but that white women, especially white mothers, are particularly encouraged to protect whiteness in the name of protecting the future for white children.
We already know from the past few years that Karens, most of whom are not actually named Karen, are defending white spaces. They are patrolling the borders of whiteness, from those, usually Black, who are driving, bird watching, sleeping, jogging, barbequing, shopping, or doing other daily activities. When Karens claim the need for personal safety, we need to ask: what is being endangered? Perhaps a fundamental belief that white people are not only superior, but that the space—even, or especially, when it is public space— around them is sacred.
Otherwise, why would it matter if Black people entered it?
Is it any surprise, then, that CRT, and the many things that are not CRT but are stuck under its umbrella, is provoking a similar reaction, as race enters educational space? School has been a sacred space inciting the vigilance of white women for decades. Recall, if you will, the infamous photos of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, with rage-filled white women presumably hurling racist epithets at Black students who were integrating the school. My fellow Karens and I were born later, in the 1960s and 1970s, but we were certainly influenced by the backlash to integration and the growth of predominantly white suburbs in places like central New Jersey.
That too was part of our education.
As I think about how many white women are caught up in anti-CRT rhetoric today, I look back on what I learned: if my goodness is tied to the goodness of our Founding Fathers, and my exceptionalism is tied to American exceptionalism, then any criticism of the United States, our founders, or our history is a personal attack on me. If that’s the foundation many of us learned years ago, then it’s a short step from even talking about race to the embrace of white victimhood and rejection of white guilt.
But there can be a different outcome. Ironically, critical race theory—the very thing white people are now so afraid of—is exactly what I found so liberating more than 20 years ago when I encountered it in graduate school. It told the truth through counter-narratives that resisted and better explained the history I had learned growing up. It explained the role that race has played in our country and how systemic racism persists over time.
I only wish I had learned these things at a younger age.
Who would I be, and where would I be, if I had never encountered CRT? I could still have gotten my doctorate in English, as I did in 2003, and I could still have become a professor. However, I would not have written the dissertation about CRT that allowed me to begin a lifelong journey of developing a new mindset, one that questions the racial myths I was taught and teaches other people to do that too.
The anti-CRT protestors who say they seek freedom from white guilt are actually the ones who perpetuate the idea that guilt is the answer to ending white supremacy. They are making discussions of race personal when our focus needs to be systemic. They presume that the offense, and the solutions, are personal when CRT teaches the opposite: that we are not responsible for what occurred in the past, but do we have a responsibility to learn the truth about our history and society and act on it.
For years, I have used CRT as a foundation when talking to other white people about race and racism, and at least some of them listen and become open to reconsidering the whitewashed history they were taught too. Denying our history and punishing teachers who teach the truth causes needless harm, and doesn’t move us closer to a just society.
As writer James Baldwin tells us, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Karen Gaffney is an English Professor at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), and creator of the website Divided No Longer.