Critical Race Theory Debates Are Drowning Out Learning Experiences for Students

A Black Lives Matter anti-racism rally at the Vancouver Art Gallery on May 31, 2020. (GoToVan / Wikimedia Commons)

Journey to Justice: A Critical Race Theory Primer” is a joint initiative between Ms. magazine, the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) and the Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice. The primer includes articles, essays, lesson plans, an annotated bibliography and a COMloquium conversation that addresses and examines the perils of teaching critical race theory from kindergarten to college settings. Enjoy the sample below. To explore the full primer, head here.

A lot of people—more than 28 million to be more precise—posted a black square on their Instagram feeds last June to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Many were young people like me. Now, the same schools that are supposed to teach us how to become engaged citizens have become a battleground between culturally inclusive education and anti-critical race theory legislation. Learning to be active allies and participants in anti-racist movements while navigating these debates is frustrating and exhausting.

These debates around critical race theory (CRT) overshadow the experiences of students trying to develop their understanding of a society wrought with injustice. My experience in school is supposed to be globally and culturally enriching. It is supposed to give me the tools I need to fight for a more just, fair and equitable world—a society I can make better. But anti-critical race theory legislation and rhetoric are creating conflict that hinders the learning experiences that I am having now. 

I attend Brigham Young University, a campus situated in an entirely Republican-led county where parents are uniquely concerned with the values and content of public schools. 

So I read How to be an Anti-Racist while my state legislators called an active session to ban CRT in Utah schools. I learned about hip hop’s influence on the Civil Rights Movement while a school board meeting in my county was suspended due to the unruly behavior of public commentators. The education I received helped me to understand the history of race in America. Still, I wondered how to justify the anti-racist principles, practices and tools I was learning to the community around me who wanted to ban those concepts from being taught. 

Much like the rest of the country, Utah’s school board meetings are filled with parents who believe CRT will indoctrinate their children into anti-American beliefs. Even though legislators in the Utah State House have admitted that CRT is not something taught in our schools, representatives dedicate floor time to passing laws against it, and parents show up in their support. The local and state-level concern isn’t about critical race theory since it’s a school of thought only taught in graduate school classrooms, but about recognizing diversity and inclusion and the push for anti-racism in the United States. The “boogeyman” of CRT is interpreted as an attack on Republican values and is creating waves of Facebook comments, emails and testimonies in public hearings in Utah. These messages drown out the experiences, needs and desires of the many students like me who actively seek culturally affirming education. 

Even though legislators in the Utah State House have admitted that CRT is not something taught in our schools, representatives dedicate floor time to passing laws against it, and parents show up in their support.

During the special session Utah held, I spoke with my representatives to address a firestorm of public attention around CRT. In that session, the legislature banned certain concepts they found objectionable in CRT because they would “degrade important societal values.” I heard from representatives supporting my pleas to reject the politically motivated ban. But I was also met with angry words from legislators who wanted to pass the ban, arguing that such ideas should not indoctrinate students. It’s discouraging for me to be in a classroom, learning how to be a better ally for Black and brown Americans, while receiving emails from elected officials telling me I was better off not learning about that.

Students should not have to defend their education, particularly one that brings them a greater understanding of the world and themselves. Groups like the Utah Educational Equity Coalition bring together stakeholders to give community members concrete, practical, civil ways to involve themselves in this discourse, which won’t be going away anytime soon.

Those involved in the CRT debate at every level, from parents to school boards to state legislatures, should seek out students’ experiences before making decisions on their behalf. Though the voices of those opposed to CRT are loud, students deserve a voice within an educational system designed to help them build a more just world. 

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Sydney Ward is a sophomore at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She is an education ambassador with the Partnership for the Future of Learning and the marketing coordinator for Student Voice, a nationwide organization equipping students to advocate for solutions to educational inequities.