Censoring Conversations on Race Doesn’t Protect Children

Rather than shielding children from the world, we should be working to prepare them for it.

Ms. Classroom wants to hear from educators and students being impacted by legislation attacking public education, higher education, gender, race and sexuality studies, activism and social justice in education, and diversity, equity and inclusion programs for our series, ‘Banned! Voices from the Classroom.’ Submit pitches and/or op-eds and reflections (between 500-800 words) to Ms. contributing editor Aviva Dove-Viebahn at adove-viebahn@msmagazine.com. Posts will be accepted on a rolling basis.

September marked the 60th anniversary of the Sunday morning church bombing that killed four little Black girls in Birmingham, Alabama. In remarks honoring the occasion, Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson urged the audience never to forget: “We cannot learn from past mistakes we do not know exist.” 

Today, lawmakers in the southern U.S. are attacking the spirits of little Black girls and dismantling the teaching of civil rights history in their schools. Lawmakers are barring the education of, or exposure to, an understanding of the purposes and catalysts for the civil rights movement and the lasting impacts of white supremacy and white superiority by insisting on revisionist history and outright elimination of teaching facts in schools. 

In my home state of Texasbook bans on topics span race, racism and representations of the LGBTQIA+. Nearby, Oklahoma House Bill 1775 whitewashes history and Florida recently banned the piloting of an AP African American studies course.

They say they want to protect children. But protecting our children from sadness, guilt or disturbing realities is not always possible. Nor is it desirable. We live in a world clouded with elitism fueled by the entitlement to hate, malign or even kill for what one believes is their right. 

We also live in a world of kind, caring adults with humility who understand that all children have the right to learn unencumbered by ideologies that would limit their ability to develop their understanding. Rather than shielding children from it, we should be working to prepare them for the world.

Mourners at a funeral for victims of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Birmingham, Alabama, late September, 1963. (Burton McNeely / Getty Images)

As an educator and parent of two young Black men, I create and am an advocate for school spaces where children are free to grieve, free to experience the discomfort of realizing life is different based on who you and your parents are, where you live, and the ideology taught to you at home. I also partner with organizations that help limit the impacts of trauma and adverse realities that school-aged children face.

We can all agree on many ways to protect our children. We quickly move a hand away from a hot stove, cut up food too big for small throats, and teach young ones to cross at a crosswalk only after looking both ways. We talk to them about the potential harms of social media and the value of quality time with real people. 

As we model our values, we make choices that make us comfortable. However, another parent’s discomfort should not impede my child’s access to the books they are uncomfortable with or my ability to teach a fact-based curriculum. 

Calls for censorship place adult comfort over the crucial development of critical thinking and analytical skills of children. The parents—and non-parents—fueling the fires of revisionist books and curricular bans infringe on the rights of all children to learn freely in public schools. 

More than two-thirds of children reported experiencing at least one traumatic event by age 16. But, in my time in classrooms, I found that children are not traumatized by discussing race in classrooms and learning about gender, gender identity, or other religions. 

Instead, children were far more traumatized by political rhetoric targeting their parents—perhaps referring to them as “illegal aliens” or “drug dealers”—than guided discussions on race and other social identities.

Add to this a fear for their safety in classroomsmass school shootings, the trauma of shutting down schools at the height of COVID, the global racial reckoning, and the impacts of racism, bias and climate disasters—and it is clear that our policies are not protecting children from stress or discomfort

The greatest irony in the movement to censor what is said and read in the classroom is that schools are a microcosm of U.S. society. 

Children are protected not by shielding them from the harsh realities of our world. We affirm their identity and lived experience by providing tools to deal with personal impacts after a shooting or simply opportunities to share space. The life of a classroom is built on camaraderie that establishes community. 

In the elementary classroom, my students and I wrote, talked, and sang about our lives, joys and doubts. We unburdened ourselves when writing was hard, math problems were not making sense, or schoolyard squabbles hurt our feelings. 

Bans on speech, curriculum, and books—not to mention endless shootings and the ill-conceived intent to arm teachers—only serve to limit the ability of children to build empathy, overcome grief, and talk through difficulties they face. 

As Justice Jackson reminded us on the anniversary of the Birmingham bombing, “The uncomfortable lessons are often the ones that teach us the most about ourselves.”

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Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., is an anti-racist educator and a public voice fellow at the University of Texas-Austin with The OpEd Project.