This morning I read an article about a lawsuit filed against two charter schools in Minnesota. Evidently a group of parents are suing for failing to protect their Black children from racial harassment. They are being joined in the lawsuit by at least two dozen nonprofit advocacy groups.
The events they describe are horrific. A White student threatened to poke out the eye of a kindergartener because she looked “different.” One Black student had to change clothes after being spit on repeatedly. A swastika was drawn on a school bus. White students bit, punched, and kicked their Black peers and called them “monkeys,” even stating that they “looked like the inside of a toilet.” One parent confessed that her son had endured so much abuse that he told her he didn’t want to be Black anymore.
How can we address unsafe school environments like these? Pending legislation in Kentucky would prohibit any discussions about race, sex, or religion that might make a student experience “discomfort.” Yet I would argue that such discussions are fundamentally necessary in schools to curtail racism, sexism, and religious intolerance.
Several years ago I witnessed a skilled kindergarten teacher lead her young students of varying racial backgrounds in a discussion of Robert Coles’ The Story of Ruby Bridges. As a reading comprehension exercise, they drew pictures of the different events in the book and then had a conversation about their drawings. In their discussion, the children affirmed the value of all their peers. The students learned from this lesson that all people are important, and that hatred should not be tolerated.
Did a few students feel “discomfort” in this lesson? Yes, perhaps. Some of the White children might have felt sadness that people who looked like them were yelling at little Ruby. Some of the Black children might have felt sadness that someone who looked like them was an object of hate. But my guess is that after having conversations like this one, none of the children in that classroom would have ever thought about puncturing the eye of a Black classmate because he or she looked “different.” In fact, by emphasizing empathy in this and similar lessons, the teacher created a safe environment where students genuinely cared about one another.
What would this classroom have been like had the teacher not felt free to have conversations about racial differences? Unfortunately, NOT talking about race can have serious ramifications, especially for students of color. Avoidance of conversations about race is grounded in the notion that taking a “colorblind” stance would limit racism. However, research does not support this assumption.
In a 2006 report published by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, the author states that “Race can be a divisive issue. It is tempting to take a color-blind approach that reduces attention to race . . . However, recent advances within the fields of social psychology and sociology have demonstrated that the color-blind approach to race may be impractical, at best, and at worst harmful to the quest for racial equality and interracial good will” (p.10). The author further states that “[b]y drawing people’s attention to the positive attributes of groups to which they do not belong, color-conscious approaches are much more likely than color-blind approaches to provide solutions to problems such as prejudice, discrimination, and inter-group conflict” (p 6, emphasis mine).
I urge Kentucky legislators to think carefully about the potential results of the proposed anti-CRT legislation. Do we really want classrooms where students cannot read books about Ruby Bridges (or Rosa Parks, or Frederick Douglass, or Martin Luther King)? Do we really want classrooms where teachers cannot address racial, gender, or religious harassment because it might cause some students to feel uncomfortable? As the saying goes, we need to be careful what we ask for. We might just get it.
Dr. Rebecca Powell is a former elementary school teacher and Professor of Education at Georgetown College.