More than 20 states have proposed — and five have passed — bills that would restrict what students can and cannot learn about the role of enslavement in US history and the ongoing impacts of racism in America. Many state representatives are attempting to create a culture of unsubstantiated fear and apprehension that schools are becoming places of indoctrination.
In Rhode Island, a bill introduced in the House of Representatives would add a section to that state’s Board of Education Act titled, “Prohibition of teaching divisive concepts.” It would prevent schools from teaching that Rhode Island and the United States are “fundamentally racist or sexist” and that an individual, “by virtue of their race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past.” In New Hampshire, House Bill 544, would ban imparting knowledge of critical race theory in public classrooms or in private work spaces. In Massachusetts, the group Parents Defending Education filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the US Department of Education in response to Wellesley Public Schools’ convening of an affinity space (a well-known inclusion and belonging strategy in public and private institutions) in March to support the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders community after the March killings of eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent, at Atlanta-area spas.
As diversity, equity, and inclusion professionals in Massachusetts public schools, we are concerned that efforts like these will dissuade us from furthering our work. Our students and fellow educators need us to continue to address systemic racism (i.e., significant disproportionality of Black and brown students referred to special education and school discipline) and diversify our educator workforce. This work helps raise student awareness of how policies can shape their life outcomes and how they, too, can recognize and challenge all systems of oppression that impact various groups.
With well-coordinated attacks on equity work in schools surging, we often hear from a small but vocal group of opponents who resist understanding the impact of race and racism on American life. In order for us to do our work, to interrogate the ways in which race and other social identity markers impact teaching and learning, we must do so within a historical context. Most of us are practitioners entering years one to three in a role that is fairly new to Massachusetts schools. School year 2019-20 saw a surge in the creation of DEI positions in public schools in the Commonwealth. At least 15 districts have created administrative positions dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Our students of color, for example, are starting to believe that we will truly see them and hold accountable actions and practices that are harmful and compromise their safety. They are more willing to come forward and share their experiences of marginalization — such as daily microaggressions by teachers, classmates, and coaches, and the lack of representation of their identities, cultures, and narratives in classroom discussions and curriculum. Students now share their experiences of blatant racist acts and slurs that would have previously gone unreported for fear of inaction or even retribution. They are willing to speak up within school systems that often have the best of intentions yet sometimes fall short. They have helped us live the mantra that when we know better, we do better.
Centering our students of color in curriculum and policy development does not teach white students to hate themselves and their country. Educators are talented professionals who teach students of all ages and all identities to engage with deeply complicated material in age-appropriate ways that encourage thoughtful and respectful discourse. When white students learn about historic oppression, they learn to connect the collective impact of generational privilege to their personal role in making schools, communities, and the nation a place where everyone has an equitable opportunity to thrive.
Speaking about the impacts of race and racism is not inherently racist, and not talking about racism doesn’t make it disappear. We remain hopeful — for a new world awaits our students. It is a world in which the impacts of racial inequality will be marginalized, one in which our nation’s history would be used as an important tool for transformation for the better.
Johnny Cole is director of Equity and Student Supports for Lexington Public Schools; Joseph Corazzini is assistant superintendent of Equity, Diversity, and Community Development for Framingham Public Schools; Becky Shuster is assistant superintendent of equity for Boston Public Schools; Charmie Curry is director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Wellesley Public Schools; Kathy Lopes is director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Newton Public Schools; Jessica Boston Davis is director of Equity and Excellence for Somerville Public Schools, and Caroline Han, is director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Wayland Public Schools.