A Georgia Law Restricts What Educators Say in the Classroom—But I Refuse to Be Silent

Discomfort is not only a part of education, but also a part of life. Can someone tell Georgia lawmakers?

Visitors at the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park Visitor Center, housed in the former Plains High School in Plains, Ga. Passed last year, Georgia’s divisive concepts law bans the teaching of nine race-related topics. (Matt McClain / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Reading may be fundamental to students’ education, but according to Georgia lawmakers, this is only the case if the ideas students read do not reflect “divisive concepts.” On such matters, educators are supposed to remain silent. 

Georgia’s so-called divisive concepts law does not expressly define the term. Therefore, even those who may wish to comply with the regulation can have trouble understanding what is prohibited. This begs the question whether such a law could survive a constitutional challenge based on the doctrine of vagueness.  

Instead of a clear definition, the law (defined in the bill as the Protect Students First Act) imprecisely states, “Divisive concepts’ means any of the following concepts, including views espousing such concepts.” Then, it goes on to discuss nine separate prohibited race-related ideas. A few include a prohibition against the idea one race is inherently superior to another race, or that the U.S. is fundamentally racist, as well as discussions that would cause someone to feel anguish, guilt or any other form of psychological distress because of their race are also prohibited. 

How the Divisive Concepts Law Effects Teachers

Despite the lack of a clear definition, when Katie Rinderle—a then-fifth grade reading specialist in Cobb County Schools—read a book on gender fluidity to her class, she was admonished and fired. Rinderle purchased the award-winning book, Scott Stuart’s My Shadow Is Purple, through a district-approved reading fair. She used her own funds. In February, the Georgia Board of Education upheld Rinderle’s dismissal

In this case, simply exposing students to ideas about gender fluidity seems to be equated with the prohibition on the espousal of ideas that might politically indoctrinate students. 

I am saddened—but not surprised—that racialized, gendered or otherwise non-dominant perspectives are under attack. Georgia public schools rank among the worst in the nation, according to a recent WalletHub study. It seems clear, we should be helping students to think critically about important social issues, not banning them. In an opinion piece on the incident, Rinderle boldly declared, “Censorship not only threatens our students and teachers, but democracy at its core.” 

There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.

Audre Lorde

The written text of the Georgia law focuses on race, not gender identity. Perhaps this is pretext. It may also, unintentionally, recognize both the complex and multi-faceted nature of identity. In a 1982 address delivered at Harvard, Audre Lorde stated, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Those words ring truer now more than ever.   

The Georgia law restricts what educators can say in the classroom. You can talk about this, but you cannot talk about that—even if the two are inextricably linked. These legislative ideas are not limited to the K-12 system. In a piece titled “Finding Black Joy in a World Where We are Not Safe,” I reflect on how they impact higher education as well. 

Racialized and Gendered Lenses

As both a mother and a college department chair, I am concerned about these and other legislative actions, which aim to silence certain ideas. My perspective as a racialized minority matters. Let me explain. 

You have likely heard of the 1 percenters. Well, I am part of the 2 percent: Just over 2 percent of Black female professors have tenure, and even fewer are full professors. Fewer still serve as department chairs. We are overrepresented in the contingent workforce and underrepresented in leadership. That embodiment of being both Black and female, leaves us hyper-visible and invisible at the same time. We are perceived “bodies out of place,” a term I further describe in my book, Bodies Out of Place: Theorizing Anti-blackness in U.S. Society.   

I proudly identify as both Black and female. The world, as I see it, is filtered through a racialized and gendered lens. This law encourages me and others not to discuss my reality because it might make someone feel bad. As a mother and social scientist with graduate degrees in English, law and sociology, I believe it is critical to normalize discomfort. The brain is a muscle, and muscles require exercise, or they will atrophy. Discomfort is not only a part of education, but also a part of life. 

That embodiment of being both Black and female, leaves us hyper-visible and invisible at the same time. We are perceived ‘bodies out of place.’

Perhaps only some people’s discomfort is unpalatable for the legislators. Trust me. No one was ever concerned with my discomfort. More than my discomfort, I am concerned with educators’ ability to teach effectively. 

As the AAUP notes, “When faculty members can lose their positions because of their speech, publications or research findings, they cannot properly fulfill their core responsibilities to advance and transmit knowledge.” This is the case for the K-12 educators, too.  

Considering heightened attacks, many faculty are afraid to speak up or even teach critical perspectives. I do not criticize them for that fear. I simply cite the words of Audre Lorde: “Our silence will not save us.” 

In the wake of a series of high profile attacks on a host of other beautiful, brilliant, Black women, now, more than ever, I would love the freedom to explore so called “divisive concepts.” I would love to be given the benefit of the doubt to do so.  

This is what being given the benefit of the doubt would look like for me.

  • My passion is not anger. My excitement is not irrationality.
  • My opinion or view—though contrary to your own—is not wrong or uniformed.
  • My hairstyle—however I may choose to wear it on any given day—is not unprofessional.
  • My characterization of your comment as racist, sexist, homophobic is because it is, not because I am too sensitive.
  • My intolerance of your willingness to take up all the space or time in a meeting and refuse to cede it to others or credit the woman who just said that is indignation, and it is righteous. 
  • Black history is American history, and a fuller understanding of this history necessarily requires teaching it attentive to a racialized and gendered lens.  

For many, silence contributes to our physical and emotional distress. In sum, it is killing us. Therefore, I will not be silent. To do so is to be complicit in my own oppression. For me, it is better to speak.  

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.

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About

Barbara Harris Combs, J.D., Ph.D. is a professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Kennesaw State University.