Critical Race Theory and the encroaching silence
When an institution overseeing K-12 education boldly denies faculty teach CRT, we have a recipe for widespread censorship
In much public discourse, Critical Race Theory is being conflated with other teaching approaches related to social equity, writes Rachel Showstack. When an institution that oversees K-12 education boldly denies that faculty teach CRT, we have a recipe for widespread censorship. (Getty Images)
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Rachel Showstack is associate professor of Spanish at Wichita State university and founder of Alce su voz, an organization that supports health equity for Spanish speakers in Kansas.
Academic institutions have a responsibility to acknowledge social inequities that divide our communities, explore the roots of those inequities and engage in conversations about what can be done to create a more equitable society. However, in a workshop about language and social justice that I recently organized for Kansas world language teachers, one teacher raised a concern about how discussions of language and social equity could be viewed by parents and school districts as too political.
This teacher’s concern is understandable, considering that teachers in Kansas can be fired without reason and some school board members and political figures are fighting against allowing conversations about systemic racism to occur in schools.
In an interview with KSNT, Sen. Caryn Tyson (a Parker Republican) said she wants to “make sure that race is not an issue,” by creating legislation that would prohibit the teaching of Critical Race Theory in Kansas schools. Curriculum derived from this academic tradition, which examines the historical role of race and racism in the inequities within institutions, is not generally found in grade school education in the first place.
The Kansas State Board of Education released a statement in July clarifying that CRT is not a part of Kansas’s academic standards. However, the board’s statement does not speak to the real problem: in much of the public discourse on this matter, CRT is being conflated with other teaching approaches related to social equity.
When an institution that oversees K-12 education boldly denies that its faculty teach CRT, we have a recipe for widespread censorship.
In the summer, the Kansas Board Regents started asking universities in Kansas if any of their faculty used CRT in their teaching. Whether we said, “Of course not,” or, “Yes, I do, and it is a fundamental component of my scholarship,” many of us were concerned about the prospect that a state government could potentially begin a campaign to insert itself into curricular decisions. News outlets often conflate CRT with related concepts like “social justice” and “culturally relevant teaching,” and some people believe these are all aimed at “making white people feel bad about who they are.”
This could not be further from the truth. As a person of European heritage who frequently discusses issues of language and social justice in my applied linguistics courses, I feel better knowing that we are collaborating to work toward social equity.
Unfortunately, race is an issue in Kansas, and it is tied in with policies and decisions that are made in areas from health care to education to criminal justice. As a sociolinguist, I am particularly attuned to contexts in which race is intertwined with language. For example, in hospitals and health clinics, individuals who are viewed as racially different (a construct often connected with a person’s language use) are afforded less opportunity to communicate with health care providers than Anglo-Americans.
In Spanish language education, traditional textbooks primarily feature images of light-skinned Spanish speakers, erasing the presence of African and Indigenous roots in Latinx communities and making it difficult for African-American students to see themselves as proficient Spanish speakers. Outside the classroom, Anglo-Americans tend to receive praise when they demonstrate Spanish language skills, while many of my Latinx students find themselves in situations in which someone complains about their use of Spanish in public.
The varieties (sometimes called dialects) of Spanish spoken by racially marginalized groups are often viewed as less correct and therefore omitted from language textbooks or marked as inappropriate in curricula designed for Latinx Spanish speakers. These are issues that we should be talking about in language education. Unfortunately, in most language classes in Kansas, including most of those offered at my institution, “race is not an issue.”
The recent public discussions about Critical Race Theory play an important role in the political platforms of some candidates running for office in Kansas in November. School board elections are nonpartisan. However, the 1776 Project Political Action Committee — with the motto “Promoting Patriotism and Pride in American History” — is dedicated to abolishing the teaching of critical race theory and the 1619 Project in public schools and is supporting 13 school board candidates in Kansas who include this stance in their platform.
While much of the anti-CRT discourse uses language that makes it sound like the stance supports equity (similar to Sen. Tyson’s assertion about making sure that “race is not an issue”), the avoidance of discussions about systemic racism actually help the racist discourses and inequities that continue to exist in Kansas and across the United States.
I fear that if we do not continue to raise our voices, we will end up, after many tiny changes that amount to giant ones, losing our freedom to think and say what we think. Educators, especially those of us with tenure, have a responsibility to continue to explore social inequities and solutions to those inequities in our teaching, and Kansas voters need to step up in November to ensure we do not elect candidates who value patriotism over truth.
Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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