How Feminists and Academics Are Fighting the Right’s ‘Anti-Woke’ Agenda

Demonstrators outside the Florida State Capitol on Feb. 15, 2023, protest Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ plan to eliminate AP courses on African American studies in high schools. DeSantis says the courses violates the Stop WOKE Act, which curbs race-related and gender curriculum from Florida classrooms. (Joshua Lott / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Like many of you, the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) has been watching with increased alarm, anger and frustration the legislative efforts by the Republican party to limit our academic freedom, censor the teaching of African American and gender studies, and place us in an untenable situation where we are forced to defend ourselves and our livelihood. The attack is personal. It is rooted in anti-Black racism, patriarchy, transphobia, whiteness and xenophobia—a propagandistic argument designed to whitewash our collective history. We are under attack.

Last week, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled House revisited a previously vetoed proposal and voted to restrict how K-12 grade teachers can discuss racial topics within their classrooms—making it the 28th state that has either limited how teachers can discuss issues about race and gender or is considering passing legislation.

Florida HB 999, currently working its way through the state legislature, specifically bans “the use of pedagogical methodology associated with Critical Theory, including, but not limited to, Critical Race Theory, Critical Race Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Radical Feminist Theory, Radical Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Social Justice or Intersectionality.” As such, it provides states with the model that they need to go forward.

Some of these bills are so vague and wide-reaching that they are laying the foundation (breadcrumbs!) for future legislative attacks against any academic work, person or group that critiques the U.S. and supports racial justice and gender equality. It will not stop unless we stop it. The attacks against critical race theory and intersectionality, coupled with the intentional campaign to reframe the term “wokeness” as a veiled slur against Black, Brown and other marginalized people, are reminders that in this country, as bell hooks taught us, classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.

As educators and activists, we understand why this is happening and why it is vital to raise our collective voices to speak into this moment. It is not simply a debate about curriculum; it is a fight about the direction of this country.

This is not a new fight; it did not start with Ron DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill or his anti-woke campaign. It did not start with Donald Trump’s memo labeling CRT as “divisive,” while issuing an executive order banning racial justice training. It did not even start with the groundbreaking work of The 1619 Project. This is an old battle that has its roots in the anti-literacy laws that were passed in Confederate states from 1740-1834. It has its roots in the Roberts v. City of Boston case, in Plessy v. Ferguson, in Roe v. Wade. It has its roots in anti-LGBTQ discrimination. It has its roots in white supremacy and the pursuit of manifest white destiny.

NWSA is the nation’s largest network of feminist scholars, educators and activists. One of our primary objectives is to promote and support the production and dissemination of knowledge about women and gender through teaching, learning, research and service in academic and other settings. We actively draw on feminist scholarship and stand squarely in support of intersectionality as a guiding methodology.

We are more than just an academic association. We are activists. We are freedom fighters. We are feminists. We are scholars.

We understand that there are times when we must speak up because our silence will never protect us, and if we are not careful, our silence will always appear to be a sign of silent approval.

We have never chosen and will never choose to stand with oppressors. We will never request the master’s tools to dismantle his house; instead, we will shape and craft our own tools to burn it down so that something better can be created. We will never eat their crumbs just because they have tried to convince us that we are hungry.

We will continue to stand on the side of justice and against those seeking—either because of their fear or their need to control and silence us—to tear down the racial, social and gender justice work that has been done in this country.

Demonstrators on Feb. 15, 2023, in Tallahassee. (Joshua Lott / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

May 3: Teach-In and National Day of Action

As statements have been released across the country, NWSA has carefully reviewed each one and elected to sign on to a few that align with our politics.

One statement, co-written by former national president Beverly Guy-Sheftall, includes a call to participate in the Freedom to Learn National Day of Acton on May 3. We are currently working to organize a teach-in at 12 p.m. ET on May 3. We are writing a lesson plan and will make it available to all our members.

NWSA is based in Baltimore, so we are organizing on the ground with scholars in the area.

Join us in hosting a pop-up teach-in on your campus. Picture all of us, teaching the same thing on the same day at the same time.

What else we can do to participate at this moment actively? If you are interested in joining us or are planning an activity you would like to share, please add them to our Google Doc

Some of the ideas shared by Freedom to Learn include:    

  • Coordinate on as many campuses as possible any form of collective action (e.g, teach-in, rally, banned book reading, march)
  • Coordinate activities in as many state capitols as possible (Florida, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, etc.) where anti-CRT and DEI laws, book banning, anti-trans legislation, voter suppression, abortion elimination laws and rejection of the AP African American studies courses have passed or are being proposed. 
  • Coordinate activities in as many public places as possible, organized by grassroots organizers domestically or internationally. Regional offices of the College Board may be a fitting location for protest.

Please let us know what you are planning to do and what you need from us at this moment. We stand ready to fight with you, until it is done.

Two important events in the lead-up to May 3:

1. Resisting Erasure: Black Women Scholars In Defense of Themselves

Wednesday, March 29, at 8:00–9:30 p.m. ET

This panel discussion is hosted by the African American Policy Forum and moderated by Beverly Guy-Sheftall of Spelman College. It features Kimberle Chrenshaw of Columbia & UCLA Law; Cathy Cohen of the University of Chicago; and Evelyn Hammonds of Harvard University. The panel will be an opportunity to take seriously how the ability to theorize and produce knowledge by Black women, girls and femmes who were “never meant to survive” has always been contested and under threat.

Register here.

2. Freedom2Learn Weekly Organizing Meeting: The Road to May 3

Thursday, March 30, at 7:30 pm ET

The Freedom to Learn Network is hosting the first of Weekly Activation Convenings. These seminars will be held every Thursday night, with additional sessions on April 6, April 13, April 20 and April 27 to mobilize stakeholders, answer questions, and facilitate networking between people and organizations looking to attend or plan an event.

On Thursday, the first session, CrenshawCheryl Harris of UCLA Law and Khalil Gibran Muhammad of Harvard Kennedy School, among others, will provide an overview of the National Day of Action and provide step-by-step instructions on how to get started organizing for May 3.

Register here.

A luta continua, vitória é certa. The struggle continues; victory is certain.

Up next:

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Karsonya (Kaye) Wise Whitehead, Ph.D., professor of communication and African and African American studies, is a three-time New York Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker and the award-winning radio host of Today with Dr. Kaye on WEAA 88.9 FM. Her scholarship examines the ways race, class and gender coalesce in American classrooms, as well as in political and social environments. She also serves as the president of the National Women's Studies Association.