The most recent performative outrage from white conservatives in the United States is declaring that the use of critical race theory to teach American history will make students hate America. Critical race theory doesn’t make you hate America. It is a framework — or lens — to analyze, evaluate, and make sense of a given situation or context. Conservatives, with their rose-colored lenses, ignore the realities and facts of our history and contemporary environment, which exacerbates the social issues we face and provides no equitable solution. The status quo is working for conservatives, and they see no need for change or justice. They have burrowed themselves into an unsustainable paradigm which becomes more indefensible the further they burrow. Outrage over the ways history can be taught is another example of their inability to comprehend the most basic realities of our history and culture.
There are numerous frameworks that take an oppositional viewpoint to the traditional ways in which we look at our world. We’ve spent far too long discussing history from the viewpoint of wealthy white male heterosexuals. In my own discipline of leadership studies, critical theories are crucial to understanding who is considered to be a leader, why certain people always seem to hold power, and what obstacles need to be overcome to enable those outside of the dominant culture to demonstrate their ability as a leader and change agent. But even business and leadership educators can fall short and get stuck discussing Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Warren Buffett instead of Mary Barra, Lauren Hobart, Larry Ellison, and Jason Grenfell-Gardner.
Using a critical race theory framework could elicit feelings of anger, shame, regret, or even hopelessness. But that is only the beginning of the educational journey. That’s not where the exploration should end. The wise teacher does not assign blame but instead validates these feelings within students and then allows them additional space in which to grow and develop and turn those negative feelings into positive actions. The most important aspect of knowledge is determining what you can do with it. How can you apply your learning to your own community or career? What positive outcome can you gain from a newfound understanding of history — or any discipline — when viewed in ways that are unfamiliar to your own experience? For white conservatives, to leave the learning process at nothing more than the initial feeling of hate underscores their mistaken characterization of education as the passive intake of information.
Studying our history through frameworks of race, gender, class, or sexual orientation enables a deeper understanding of who we are as a nation and the actions we must take to ensure we do not make the same mistakes as were made in the past. This will enable us to create a better future for all Americans. It’s not easy and it will hurt. And yet … we can begin to reconcile the dichotomies that exist in our culture, open paths of communication and reconciliation, and keep moving toward the vision of a “more perfect union.”
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