‘Critical Race Theory’? Here’s What Teachers Say They’re Actually Teaching

Critical race theory has, seemingly out of nowhere, become a hotbed issue ― at school board meetings, in conservative politicians’ speeches, and in media outlets, predominantly Fox News.

In April, May, and June, “critical race theory” was mentioned a whopping 1,640 times on the conservative cable news outlet. During that same period, the phrase was mentioned just 250 times on CNN and 264 times on MSNBC, according to some number-crunching from The Washington Post.

So what is it, exactly? Primarily taught in law and graduate schools, critical race theory (C.R.T.) is an academic framework that examines how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism. Essential race theorists posit that racism is not just the product of individual bias but deeply embedded in our legal systems and policies.

In the last year or so, the idea that “critical race theory” is being taught in K-12 schools has been pushed to the forefront by, among others, Chris Rufo, a conservative activist who came to prominence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and a national reckoning about racism that made “white privilege,” “white supremacy” and “systemic racism” everyday language.

As Rufo and similarly minded ideologues claim, kids across the nation are being indoctrinated to believe that being white in America is fundamentally racist.

Of course, teachers and school administrators being targeted at school board meetings have insisted that they aren’t teaching critical race theory. Instead, many educators have argued that conservative activists are weaponizing the legal scholarship term, using the trumped-up charge as a convenient way to ban diversity and equity initiatives among school staff and curtail teachings on race and U.S. history that they find too progressive. (Indeed, Rufo has made no secret of his hopes to turn C.R.T. into the latest conservative boogeyman to stoke fears and motivate the right.)

Thanks in no small part to wall-to-wall Fox News coverage, Rufo’s rage against critical race theory has been an incredibly effective campaign so far. School may be out for the summer, but school board meetings are still in session and packed full of parents speaking out against C.R.T. As of early July, six states have passed laws that seek to ban instruction on “critical race theory” in K-12 schools, though these laws rarely mention critical race theory by name.

Many educators are fearful that concern over critical race theory ― however far afield it may be from the actual academic definition of C.R.T. ― might be used by parents to protest lessons on anything remotely related to racism, equality, or even works by BIPOC authors.

After an exhausting year of remote or hybrid education, many K-12 instructors say they’re being unfairly maligned for what amounts to teaching American natural history. Death threats, firings, and harassment are some of the consequences educators are facing across the country.

And yet teachers ― the folks dealing with the lion’s share of criticism as “indoctrinators” or worse ― have been sorely missing in this conversation. With that in mind, we recently spoke to educators across the country and asked them a few simple questions: “Are you teaching C.R.T. in your classroom? If not, what do you teach about race in your classroom?”

Here’s what they had to say, in their own words. (Note: Some teachers asked to use their first name only for the sake of their privacy and safety. A number of them work in districts where C.R.T. is a contentious issue.)

Responses have been edited for style and clarity.

“I am a white, male teacher, and my students are primarily Black. The race is not a subject we shy away from.”

I’m a high school history, economics, and civics teacher in Baldwin County, Georgia. I like to say to my students that I teach history without blinders. That means, for all parties, we look at their successes and failures and judge them accordingly. A nuance level is required to get the most out of an A.P. U.S. or world history class. The whole story of our country is remarkable and devastating. Yet, when approached in its entirety, it can be hopeful. The best thing about this country is what it can be. And it is my students who can shape it in their image.

I teach my state’s standards covering the entire breadth of American history. I do take special care to spend some time on aspects that our standards do not do a good job addressing, including native societies, Black culture, immigration, and the role of Black men and women in the founding and sustaining of our nation.

My class is discussion-based and student-interest-driven. For instance, when something happens in the world (say the Capitol being attacked, an election, or a topic comes to the forefront like police brutality), we read what the research says, bring all the opinions to the table, consider the historical imperatives. I let the students’ ideas fall where they want to. The Second Amendment is a big deal here in the South, so we spend a lot of time on its history and questioning the popular narratives surrounding that issue.

I am a white male teacher, and my students are primarily Black. The race is not a subject we shy away from. My white students or students of other races and ethnicities are free to participate in whatever way they are comfortable. I spend a lot of time demonstrating how much we have in common. There is no need for racial guilt of any kind. I am open with my recently found knowledge that my family owned slaves related to Robert E. Lee. I do this to show that the distant past does not have to define you unless you let it. But not being aware of where you came from makes it impossible for you to change for the better. ― Zach Balkcom, a high school teacher in Baldwin County, Georgia

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“If students ask why Black people had to sit at the back of the bus, are we expected to just ignore it?”

I’m a second-grade teacher in Texas. We teach content that is required by the Texas Education Agency. These standards are called the TEKS. We do not even begin to touch on any of the tenets of C.R.T. However, I can incorporate diversity and celebrate BIPOC culture and achievements while also adhering to state standards.

For example, one of our standards is to identify important historical figures and explain how their contribution has impacted the community. We research and discuss leaders such as Thurgood Marshall, Irma Rangel, W.E.B Du Bois, Cesar Chavez, and Ellen Ochoa. I also incorporate books by BIPOC authors when covering our reading standards; even though my district is predominantly white, it’s essential to promote representation and recognize the work of BIPOC.

There have been many times in my career when we have covered Black History Month, M.L.K. Day or Abraham Lincoln and conversations with students have organically turned to equality and civil rights. These conversations are always age-appropriate, but if students ask why Black people had to sit at the back of the bus, are we expected to just ignore it? As teachers, our job is to help turn these tiny humans into compassionate, responsible, respectful global citizens. Part of that is recognizing the injustices in our past and emphasizing that we all are valuable and important as individuals.

Teachers are professionals, regardless of what many of our detractors claim. We are completely capable of having age-appropriate, school-appropriate conversations about race and equality. Moreover, we are hard-pressed for time to effectively cover our required curriculum in the public school system. It’s laughable to think we have time to indoctrinate our students. Teachers are no different from every other profession in that there are always some bad apples, but overwhelmingly, teachers are not the villains we are being made out to be. We have literally dedicated our lives to their children for very little money, and the way we are being treated is heartbreaking and insulting. ― Brittany Norton, a second-grade teacher in Texas

“The primary goal … is to teach kids to critically read, write and think.”

I teach high school English in a very conservative district in Placer County in California, where there have been very heated board meetings. I can tell you, I have never used the words critical race theory in my classroom. My class focuses on the essential question: How does society influence the individual, or how does culture influence an individual’s identity?

One of our core texts is “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. We analyze all the perspectives in that book. Scout, the innocent white girl, watching as her father, defends a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. The way Scout internalizes society’s racism and her confusion about this. How she is treated at school and in her community because of her father. We look at Atticus and his choice to defend Tom Robinson, knowing it is futile in a society condemning Black people solely based on color. We look at Mayela, a lonely white woman who accuses Tom of rape. And, of course, we look at Tom Robinson.

The primary goal of my English class is to teach kids to critically read, write, and think. Look at the text. Any text: novels, articles, ads, social media, commercials. Identify what the argument is, how it is being formulated, decide whether they agree or disagree, and communicate why. We look at speeches from former President Donald Trump and speeches from former President Barack Obama. What is the argument? How are they trying to convince you? And are you convinced? Why or why not? What does the author or speaker want us to know, and what do they want us to believe? ― Tracy, a high school English teacher in Placer County, California

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“I try to include as many perspectives as possible.”

I’m a middle school history teacher in Colorado Springs. I try to include as many perspectives as possible. For sixth grade, I taught colonization of the American continent and compared English colonization with Spanish colonization. This has African diaspora, including slavery being established in 1607 and how it diverged from indentured servitude based on race and the establishment of slave codes in the late 17th century. Although the instruction contains aspects of slavery, much of what I teach is from a colonizing point of view and the Amerindians. For civics, we analyze the Constitution and the Three-fifths Compromise and how it did not include enslaved Black Americans, Amerindians, and women. I teach how only a minority held power and could vote. Civil rights do come into the picture when we talk about the law and fundamental human rights. We talk about free speech and the Bill of Rights and how rights have been limited in the past, such as with Jim Crow.

I pull material from sites that end in .org or .edu to not appear controversial, although Howard Zinn and “A People’s History” are part of my materials, and I use primary sources. We use a lot of pictures where students try to determine what is going on. One source is looking at the Ferguson protests and the police versus protesters. The questioning used doesn’t ask questions, such as “Why are people are racist?” but “How do you feel about the author?” or “Why would someone do something like this?”

There’s been a lot of controversy in my district (Colorado Springs D49) about race matters. Just last year, an art teacher in an elementary school was reprimanded because an education video they watched featured a mural with the phrase Black Lives Matter. The district sees this as part of a controversial movement of racial division, so they claim he should have sent a permission letter to parents who might want to opt their students out o the lesson. Now our district is poised to ban C.R.T. It makes me apprehensive about teaching social studies next year because I don’t believe they really know what C.R.T. involves, and I fear that they can label any race-based instruction as C.R.T. ― Mike, a sixth-grade social studies teacher in Colorado Springs.

“We look at racism in studying world events like colonialism and the Holocaust.”

I had never heard of C.R.T. before the recent political hysteria, and I would not say that I intentionally teach it. In seventh grade, I teach about the historical origins of race and how it is a social construct that still has a huge social impact. We look at racism in studying world events like colonialism and the Holocaust. Our analysis of primary documents reveals the undeniable effect of racism from long before our nation was founded. Students in my class can identify the effect of racism in the laws created and the role of white supremacy in starting the Civil War and ending Reconstruction. When it comes to racism in modern America, my students of color teach me. One of my hardest-working, straight-A students, had his backpack searched at a convenience store. He’s Ethiopian. My best response to hearing experiences like this is to teach my students how to advocate for change. ― Alex Cooper, a social studies middle school teacher in Washington state

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“It’s impossible to discuss the history — of the present — of the country without discussing race.”

I’m a high school teacher who teaches English and film analysis in Loudoun County, Virginia, where the C.R.T. debate is currently raging.

Here is what I can’t stress enough: Nobody is teaching critical race theory. I had to Google the term to find out what it was they were up in arms about. It’s a very advanced law school field of study and this debate, for the most part, is manufactured outrage.

We do try and practice something called culturally responsive teaching (note the initials ― C.R.T.). You can probably find documents from our district that mention culturally responsive teaching. All this means is we make an effort to make all students feel as welcomed and as comfortable coming to school as possible: We try and make both the transgender kid and the MAGA teen feel like school is a place where they can be safe, learn, and be respected. It’s not anything any rational person could be against. I’ve seen some of the anti-critical race theory people point to that as “pushing C.R.T.” It isn’t. It’s two different things that happen to share initials.

Some of the loudest voices in the movement in this area have started just flat-out saying they are against equity. I disagree with that, for obvious reasons. I mean, imagine holding a sign that says “Stop Equity!” and thinking you are the good guy. Still, at least they’re honest and not hiding behind the CRT nonsense. Attempts at equity are something that we, as a district, are engaging in.

Race comes up in the classroom for various reasons, but mostly because we live in the United States, and it is impossible to discuss the history ― of the present ― of the country without discussing race. Specifically, I use “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to teach rhetoric as it might relate to the anti-CRT nonsense. To understand and dissect the arguments Martin Luther King Jr. was making, you have to understand the context he was making them. That means we have to understand the situation in Birmingham in 1963 and the people and systems that were in place that led to King being locked up. Once you do that, you can really start examining King’s techniques to make his argument.

Literature is an engine for empathy. Reading literature doesn’t work unless you are able, at least a little, to understand and share the characters’ feelings. When we read “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” they, hopefully, can understand the struggles and frustrations King was facing. Once they understand people’s perspectives other than themselves, they can better analyze what they think about those characters and those people’s actions. It’s not “what” that is important, but “why,” and we work hard to help them get to the point where they are capable of examining and analyzing the “why” in every situation. That’s not critical race theory. That’s just being a functioning human capable of independent thought, which is the point of education and something everyone should be for. ― Patrick Ayers, an English and film analysis teacher in Loudoun County, Virginia

“It doesn’t do the world any favors to send it adults who have big gaps in their understanding of history or our current world.”

As I high school English teacher, I never officially studied critical race theory, but when I teach my students the history surrounding the literature we read, which is often not centered on white authors, I try to teach them the truth as I understand it. We read things like “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson, “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi or “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois. I do some research on my own, looking at voices of people of color so that I, as a white person born in 1980, can understand history more fully.

It doesn’t do the world any favors to send it adults who have big gaps in their understanding of history or our current world. When we know better, we do better. And lots of us are trying to teach our students the truth. ― Clara, a high school English teacher in Colorado

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“Teachers are not diabolical, there is no conspiracy to brainwash our students.”

I teach middle school special education, but we are attached to a high school so I have worked with older students as well. I work in an urban school comprising mostly Hispanic students.

As a special education teacher, a big part of my job is answering questions and helping students to process or digest their general education assignments. So, the issue of racism definitely has been discussed, especially when I have worked with high school students. They have read books like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Other Wes Moore” and “Day of Tears” that address the hard truth of the history of racism in America. We have discussed some systemic racism in the context of internment camps and segregation when students read about these topics in their history classes. We have also talked about police brutality; working at a school with many students of color, unfortunately a lot of my students have already experienced racism and an unfair justice system, so these concepts are not unfamiliar to them.

Students want to know why the things they learn matter and a lot of them are already forming their own opinions about history and about society. My goal is always to guide my students to engage in higher-level thinking and conversation, not to push my own beliefs on them. We do a lot of spontaneous research based on questions that arise and my hope is that they then use the information they find to decide for themselves what they believe about various social issues.

It’s important to consider that students ― especially older ones ― actually want to have those difficult (and sometimes controversial) conversations. They do not appreciate life being sugar-coated. For example, I had a seventh grader come to me one day and ask, “Why don’t we study the history before slavery?” We had a conversation about how slavery has, unfortunately, existed pretty much as long as civilizations have, and he wanted to understand why that was the case. So we talked about greed and oppression and racism. It was a really powerful discussion. I have never once had a student express that they feel “shamed” over these types of conversations. But I have witnessed multiple students develop a determination to play a role in fighting against injustice, bias and racism. A lot of times, they are the ones to bring up these topics to me ― not the other way around. Honestly, young people are amazing and they want to create a better world. Neglecting to have these conversations with them would be detrimental and unfair.

I can confidently say that it is not common practice for teachers to shame white students or teach that society’s problems are due to white privilege. Teachers are not diabolical, there is no conspiracy to brainwash our students. We are just doing our best to teach the truth, to teach facts, and to make sure that all students are treated with equity and respect, regardless of skin color or cultural background. ― Rachel Wilder, a special education middle school teacher in Colorado

Tyson Houlding
Tyson Houlding is a 28-year-old associate at a law firm who enjoys walking, writing, and learning new languages. He is creative and bright, but can also be very unfriendly and a bit lazy.He is an Australian Christian who defines himself as straight. He has a post-graduate degree in law.