Years ago, I attended a play with the theme of racism. At curtain rise, two actors began berating the audience primarily made up of white people about how this work would make them uncomfortable, uneasy, and fearful. It is a very common theme in “antiracism” and critical race theory.
But if part of “doing the work” to “dismantle systemic racism” is to endure this discomfort, how does that apply to teaching “antiracism” to small children? Should young white kids be made to feel uncomfortable?
Examples abound in CRT theory and popular writing about how overcoming white fragility requires of white people that they sit with their guilt, shame, and unease. Take this example from an NPR report: “‘It’s going to be uncomfortable and you’re going to have legitimate fear,’ if you choose to engage in racial equity dialogue, said Kwame Christian, director of the American Negotiation Institute in Ohio.”
Or this from The New Yorker describing “antiracist” author Robin DiAngelo’s approach: “One has the grim hunch that such an approach has been honed over years of placating red-faced white people, workshop participants leaping at any excuse to discount their instructor.”
Not unlike how if a vaccine makes you feel a bit sick that shows it is working, this discomfort is supposedly evidence that progress is being made. White people unwilling to experience this discomfort are viewed as part of the problem.
Proponents of these methods insist that encouraging these painful emotions is not punitive, but rehabilitative. The pain is meant to be the door white people pass through to truly embrace antiracism and deconstruct white supremacy.
But what happens when CRT is employed in grade schools? If the basic pedagogical tools of confessing privilege and accepting one’s role in institutional racism as a driving societal force are part of children’s antiracism education, is the promised discomfort a part of that as well?
There are only two answers to this question. One option is yes. Making white children feel badly about themselves would be justified under this rubric if it led to dismantling white supremacy. The other choice is no. After all, how many parents would accept the idea that their nine-year-old must be made uncomfortable for the greater good of society?
But if the answer is no, if children are to be spared emotional pain, then how does the toolkit change to spare them? How do you teach a child about his unearned privilege compared to classmates of different skin colors without making him just as uncomfortable as his parents, who are supposed to feel that pain?
At present this question seems to be unanswered, and given that despite efforts to the contrary CRT is used right now in our schools, it needs to be answered. What is the goal in teaching “antiracism” to children?
In about a decade, these white children will be white adults and, according to “antiracists,” they will still be beneficiaries of structural racism, since “antiracists” don’t expect this problem to be solved any time soon. Are we training children to be “antiracists” who are immune from the discomfort CRT calls for? If so, how?
The responsibility to answer this question honestly lies squarely on the shoulders of those who are pushing critical race theory into K-12 schools. They are the ones who insist that the traditional American message of not judging people by their skin color is wrong.
Take this from a 2018 Washington Post article titled, “White Parents Teach Their Kids To Be Colorblind, Here’s Why That’s Bad For Everyone”: “White parents adopt these practices because they believe it will help them raise a non-racist child. From a sociological perspective though, white parents’ racial messages may do more harm than good.”
So the claim is that teaching kids to be colorblind is bad. It simply perpetuates racism. But if we are teaching our white children, both at home and at school, that they must be ever-conscious of skin color and that their own skin marks them as members of a privileged and oppressive group, how do we avoid instilling in them the guilt and shame associated with that? Or do we?
If white adults choose to don hair shirts of self-loathing and flagellate themselves for the sins of their fathers, so be it. It’s not my choice, but who am I to tell them not to. But if public schools, for which we all have responsibility, choose to inflict this on white children, then it is very much our business.
This conversation must happen now, and it must be frank. Parents of white children need to know if their kids’ curricula now consists of reading, writing, arithmetic, and “you’re a racist.”
None of this is theoretical anymore. These lessons are being taught in school buildings and across remote learning platforms. As a society, we need to decide if making white children uncomfortable at school to allegedly curb racism is a path we wish to follow.