It’s the key question children incessantly ask as they try to make sense of everything around them. Their curiosity plays a big part in helping them build concepts, skills, vocabulary, and figuring out how the world works.
Encouraged by conservative groups across the US, however, politicians are trying to place legislative restrictions on children’s curiosity, and on even the most thoughtful, sensitive efforts by teachers to help children learn about cultural differences. The furor over so-called “divisive concepts” like Critical Race Theory (CRT) and LGBTQ rights is a manufactured panic, but the fear around it is having real effects. Since January 2021, 37 states have introduced bills or taken steps that would restrict teaching CRT, and more than 100 bills have been introduced targeting LGBTQ people nationwide.
The bills that have been enacted or proposed threaten teaching and learning in schools and universities. Even if they are not enacted, these proposals are being taken seriously, and have a chilling effect on how children learn. Teachers will now have to ask themselves if simply acknowledging readily observable facts – that racism exists and that families come in different forms – means that they’ve given instruction on prohibited divisive concepts.
Identifying concepts as divisive and abasing clearly isn’t helping, and frankly is misleading. As Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading contemporary social science scholar who helped introduce “Critical Race Theory” more than 30 years ago points out, “CRT just says let’s pay attention to what has happened in this country and how what has happened is continuing to create differential outcomes so that we can become that country we say we are.”
Many anti-CRT proposals and statutes rest on the dubious premise that some children may be made to feel bad because of their race. In fact, an accurate understanding of history can and should be used to generate empathy for groups that have suffered oppression, including ethnic, racial and sexual minorities, immigrants, and working-class and poor people.
AAA has long stood on its research-based record that racism is a learned, cultural response and that LGBT discrimination flies in the face of widely accepted family and household arrangements. Throughout history and across cultural groups, state control over how cultural history is taught has been a means of oppression and stigmatization of disfavored groups, serving to discount if not erase altogether a broad community of U.S. citizens and residents by depriving them of the full ability to exercise a fundamental right. This discrimination has been shown to have severe social and psychological impacts and invites the public to discriminate as well. It also imposes adverse effects on their children which is unconscionable.
Children are our future and teaching them about equity and self-acceptance is critical. Talking about race and LGBTQ issues is not just unavoidable, but essential to building empathy and equality into our schools and culture.