The idea of teaching critical race theory has become a contentious issue. Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, and a handful of other states have banned the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 classrooms in recent weeks.
But what is it?
“Critical race theory is the theory that our systems in this country are bound up in race,” said Kerry Goldmann, a lecturer at the University of North Texas.
“It pretty much offers a space where we recognize how race plays a part in everything that happens in the lives of people in this country,” said Jalaya Liles Dunn, the director of Teaching Tolerance program at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The center is a national nonprofit that specializes in civil rights and public interest cases.
“The idea was to research the institutionalization and the systematic use of racism or some kind of discriminatory behaviors in laws, policies, behaviors, social norms,” said Diane Birdwell, a high school history teacher.
Birdwell has been a teacher for over two decades in Texas, which is one of the states that recently banned the teaching. She said while she’s not opposed to critical race theory, it’s not commonly seen in her history lessons.
“It’s not taught in schools. It’s not a curriculum. It’s a theory,” she said.
Birdwell said what she teaches focuses a lot on primary documents and having students look at context, perspective and purpose.
“What we’re trying to teach students is the why,” she said. “Critical race theory doesn’t mean you ignore anyone. It doesn’t make anyone evil or bad. It just says make sure you tell the story.”
However, that’s not how everyone sees it. Parents and teachers have been voicing their opinions across the nation.
“How are our youngest learners supposed to love and accept one another when they are told they are inherently bad or inherently a victim because of the color of their skin,” one woman said at a board meeting in Wisconsin.
“I don’t think children should be focusing on the color of their skin, focusing on past traumas,” another woman in Florida said, referring to critical race theory.
“I think the reaction to critical race theory is fear, to be honest. I think it’s fear of accepting that our history is not always pleasant, it's not always pretty and it was downright wrong in a lot of cases,” Birdwell said.
While it’s creating quite a bit of buzz, University of North Texas history professor Kerry Goldman said up to now, critical race theory was mostly used by academics.
“It really hasn't been brought to the forefront of the public realm until really this past year, and it’s been really politicized,” she said. “Critical race theory started as an intellectual movement and a legal theory in the mid-1970s and really formally organized by the 1980s.”
Goldmann said it started as a law theory and slowly found itself in other fields, such as humanities and social sciences. As for banning it from classrooms, Goldmann said she’s seen instances like this happen before.
“If you look at the early to mid 20th century, you had a lot of pressure put on educators K-12 to not teach about class inequality. And the reason for that is because politicians were fearful that children would be indoctrinated into ideals of communism simply from learning about class inequality existing,” she said.
“Teachers have a fine line to make sure students feel safe but understand they don't live in a safe space. The world is not safe for them, not for all of them,” Jalaya Liles Dunn said.
For teachers like Birdwell, she plans on continuing to teach history with the facts she has at hand with context.
“Part of history is to see the things that make us uncomfortable, that make us unhappy,” she said.