Critical race theory: the debate over censorship in education

Lily Bertles '22 and Amanda Edge '22

           You’ve likely heard the term “Critical Race Theory,” but could you confidently define it? If not, then you are certainly in the majority. There is a multitude of misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding this highly politicized term that has sparked intense debate over whether or not it should be taught in schools. It seems that despite people’s strong opinions regarding CRT, they don’t truly know what it is. 

          In a survey sent out to Upper School students, 37% of the 27 students who responded said they had an understanding of what CRT is. When asked to define CRT, respondents gave varying answers that touched on some principles of CRT but didn’t properly define it. One student wrote that CRT is, “A curriculum and way of thinking that examines society as defined by our races, and it falsely states that certain races are more "privileged" than others and that people should repent. It has been highly politicized by both sides.” While this answer is more of an opinion than a definition, the final sentence holds truth. 

         CRT became an issue at the forefront of candidates' platforms in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election. Glenn Youngkin, the newly elected governor, openly opposes CRT and promised in his campaign to ban the use of Critical Race Theory or related "inherently divisive concepts" in Virginia public schools. In January he issued an executive order accomplishing just that, saying in a speech that "We should not be teaching our children to see everything through the lens of race." Experts of CRT were quick to point out his misinterpretation of the concept which is not taught at the K-12 level. 

         As defined by Britannica, Critical Race Theory is a cross-disciplinary intellectual and social movement of scholars and civil rights activists who seek to examine the intersection of race and law in the United States. It’s a theory that’s taught at the law school level, mostly as an elective. So naturally, in an email, Mr. Mallett wrote that “We do not teach CRT at SSSAS.” This statement was reaffirmed by Mrs. Adams who claimed that CRT is, “a graduate-level concept that is taught in law schools. I don’t know any Independent school or any public school that teaches it.” Thus, people like Governor Youngkin, aren’t opposing CRT, they’re opposing an inclusive, diverse, identity-centered curriculum that they’re incorrectly sweeping under the umbrella term of CRT. 

        If you take the language “Critical Race Theory” out of the equation, you can see that the issues that are really up for debate are things such as teaching history through a more inclusive racial lens, and book bans on literature that amplifies voices of the oppressed such as The Bluest Eye By Toni Morrison and Maus, a nonfiction graphic novel about a Holocaust survivor and his son.  

        History teachers, Ms. Hardwick and Mr. Garikes try to incorporate different perspectives into their curriculum and believe that as history teachers it is their job to present students with all the facts and allow them to develop their own opinions. For example, when teaching about Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence in his AP government classes, Mr. Garikes includes the fact that Jefferson owned many slaves and had several children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings, and allows students to infer how that may have affected our countries’ founding document, and show that the framers of our constitution were great, but flawed men. 

        Specifically, Mr. Garikes said: “Well, I think that the way to teach history is not to be afraid of what occurred, what actually happened, whether it was uncomfortable to learn about it or not, I think, as a history teacher, you want to look at the facts and put them all out there.”

        Ms. Hardwick said that she makes sure she’s “offering multiple perspectives, and making sure we're not missing out on voices or perspectives” in her classes. She also clarified that she is not teaching CRT, rather, “We talked about systemic racism in [AP U.S. History]. We talked about instances of that, but my class is not teaching critical reasons. It is looking at things and breaking down how those things relate to race or women or minorities or gender or whatever it is. So I think the number one thing is that [CRT] is not being taught in any of these spaces. So, I have a hard time when someone brings up the Critical Race Theory debate because I'm like, yeah, what you're doing is giving credence that this is a debate that is happening. And it's not.”

         We also spoke with Mr. Wenger, Associate Director of Equity and Diversity, to get a better understanding of the potential backlash the school may get for teaching Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging [DEIB]. He claimed that there has not been much controversy surrounding DEIB, but parents have asked questions about it. One question he mentioned that parents have raised is whether or not CRT is being taught at SSSAS, to which the answer, of course, is no. 

        Why might parents be hesitant to support DEIB being taught in schools? According to Mr. Wenger: “I think often they come from a place of color-blind thinking which is an artifact of the Civil Rights Movement. To this day people on the right side of the political spectrum love to quote Dr. King from the, I have a dream speech- like don’t judge by the color of your skin but by your merit- but that’s only one line from a man who wrote and spoke and put so much out there. It’s like cherry-picking if you guys remember, it’s a form of propaganda, it’s card stacking. I’m gonna take this one little data point and be like “that's what Dr. King promoted.” It wasn’t until around 20 years ago when people really started thinking maybe this isn’t the right way to go about this. We can’t not see color, it's a foolish endeavor. You can’t trick your brain into thinking you can’t see the color of someone’s skin. But I do think a lot of times that comes from color-blind thinking. I don’t think anyone who thinks that way is certainly a malicious person. But I do think that they could stand to learn more about the flaws of color-blind thinking and why it won't get us to that racial justice.”


         But should parents even have a say at all? This question of parents’ rights has been on the table for a century, dating all the way back to whether or not parents have the right to use their children for labor or the government has the right to mandate compulsory education. 


         At SSSAS, teaching about different identities and inclusivity is important, but after conducting interviews and research, trying to understand where Critical Race Theory fits into the SSSAS curriculum, the answer is clear: nowhere.