What I learned teaching critical race theory to American teenagers overseas
I have taught critical race theory (CRT) for the past ten years in three different overseas American schools, and that experience has solidified my unequivocal belief that teaching diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are fundamental to an effective liberal arts education, still very relevant in preparing our youth for the world they will inherit.
Despite growing backlash abroad and at home, my key observation is this:
A teenager growing up overseas as an expat, though generally quite culturally competent, is wholly unprepared to return to the United States, where they will have to navigate in a society still coming to grips with its differences, and especially its historical baggage over racism. If the person returning is “of color”, he is not aware that he will be raced in America. If that person is White, she is ignorant of the impact she will have as an ally (positive) or as a microagressor (negative).
CRT presents a balancing perspective to the sanitized, biased viewpoint textbooks have provided our youth for generations. Therefore, teaching CRT provides a positive step toward the ultimate goal: a just society rooted in equal opportunity. Where better than our schoolhouses to address this objective?
Race and ethnicity in America is either a negative or a positive doing, respectively. It can never be neutral. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in the landmark Bakke case, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race.” That’s intuitive.
My own experience with critical race theory traces back to a transformative period early in my career as a school leader. As one of the original members of METCO (busing students from Boston into the suburbs), our community grappled with the challenges our students of color faced each and every day. (Watch my TEDx talk about the day our community was canvassed by the KKK.) A doctorate at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College reinforced these lessons.
From there, in moving overseas to raise our biracial children outside of the American bubble, we were surprised to see how little conversation there was about race, culture, and social justice, even in such a diverse city like London. President Obama, who himself taught topics in race and society at the University of Chicago Law School, had just been elected, and the prevailing attitude (among many Whites, at least) was that we were finally post-racial. The case was closed on racial injustice. History was just that: history. As I launched my own high school course titled “Race, Culture, and Human Rights”, I fought to raise awareness on the idea that we were not yet post-racial, but instead still living in a society where bias was systemic, where overt bigotry had simply gone underground. The school and my students were receptive. Students continued to enroll in the course.
In the ten years I have taught CRT from an ally perspective, there has been a steady supply of highly publicized racial incidents that prove why such a course is both necessary for our youth and also relevant for our society. In exploring topics such as privilege, prejudice, racism, ethnicity, culture, and informed action with my students, I have made several observations about this generation, which gives me hope and confidence that our future will indeed be positive:
- They don’t carry the baggage that we do, when it comes to skin color and stereotypes, or America’s history of oppression of certain groups. They are sponges, soaking in the big ideas presented to them, but doing so with appropriately-skeptical minds.
- But these “sponges” nevertheless carry with them prejudices, and have not been immune to the influence of media, family beliefs, or experiences. These biases must be unpacked and debunked, and it’s not easy to do so even though they are young.
- They resist labels and being labeled. It vexes them why we adults try to put everyone into neat little boxes. They check the ethnicity box on the SAT, but don’t understand why it’s even there in the first place (I tend to agree). Moreso, many in this generation don’t fit nicely into the categories presented to them. Ignoring these labels becomes a thing of pride.
- Skin color is not a big deal to them, and is not even important in their world. They puzzle as to why the adults around them are so caught up in these superficial differences among us.
- Economic disparity is more troubling to them than race. A solid majority of my students support affirmative action in undergraduate admissions when it comes to providing opportunities for students coming from households living in poverty, while at the same time arguing vehemently that skin color should not be a plus-factor for admissions.
- They are clueless about their own privilege, especially unearned white privilege, but are receptive to becoming aware of how they can leverage privilege to help uplift others who don’t have it.
- They love culture, and are fascinated by it. The explorer Wade Davis calls culture “humanity’s greatest legacy”. Once students come to grips with race and our differences, they relish a deep dive into celebrating our cultural uniquenesses.
- They are not sure how to react to systemic racism. They can feel as helpless in stemming institutional discrimination as we do.
- Nevertheless, this generation is passionate about making a positive impact on the world, and now that they are informed, they are ready to act. The creativity I witness after providing them some suggestions gives me tremendous hope for our future.
Let’s be clear. Teaching critical race theory in schools is not about creating a generation of woke young adults. It is about awareness, of oneself and of the society one lives in. Nor is CRT about infusing guilt onto young people, who have not created the world they live in. Furthermore, guilt-offsetting behavior by well-meaning adults through overcompensating for injustices, real or imagined, only makes the problem worse, and fosters divide. It’s simply time to incorporate critical race theory into our schools’ curriculum, for the express benefit of our youth, so they can be active and discerning citizens. Isn’t that a fundamental purpose of education?