Twelve years ago, I helped create the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) Committee for one of our nation’s most prestigious independent schools. At the time, I had no training or background in that sort of work. I was just a Black mom whose two Black sons had never read a school-assigned book in which people who looked like them weren’t the “magical negro” trope or in chains (or athletes, servants or criminals).
Our committee sent out a survey to take the school’s temperature, asking people questions about the school’s current DEIJ practices. From the amount of repudiation the survey received, you might have thought we were pushing student heroin use or advocating for our school to become an “open carry” campus.
I was both shocked and wounded when I learned that some of these sweet moms who had invited me into their homes and showed up for my kids’ birthday parties were so vehemently against even the idea of expanding our curriculum. This, for me, translated to, “While we do like you and your family, Black lives don’t really matter when the academic futures of our white students are at stake.”
There is a great deal of confusion surrounding critical race theory (CRT), which is being hotly debated among the constituents of our nation’s independent schools.
I scrambled to educate myself about it, and as far as I can tell, critical race theory is simply the concept that racism is something embedded in our legal systems and policies. This means that CRT in the classroom teaches that racism is part of everyday life, so people, even well-intentioned white people, can nevertheless make choices that fuel racism.
Hallelujah, someone finally said it out loud.
But the problem with critical race theory is that it has a reputation of pitting people of color against white people. Folks think that studying a less Eurocentric curriculum will ultimately harm all students, including the Black ones, as it might hurt their chances of competing at the highest academic levels for those rare college spots.
Last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tried to score points by grilling Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about teaching critical race theory in the U.S. military. Milley responded, “What’s wrong with having some understanding about the country that we are here to defend?”
But like so many of America’s elite schools, ours too is a business. And at the board level, there are always lively discussions about how to grow, evolve and keep up with the times without sacrificing the tuition dollars that keep us going.
Will donors turn away if we swap out “To Kill a Mockingbird” for a book by a Black American author? Would parents enroll their kids somewhere else if we offer “The 1619 Project” in the lower school?
Our fiduciary responsibility is to consider everything before changing anything. And we’re not alone. Private schools across the country, such as Brentwood and Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles, and Dalton in New York City, are grappling with how to keep their white full-tuition-paying families happy while honoring the history and experience of their marginalized students and faculty. And I am dismayed ― no, pissed ― to learn that in addition to CRT, there is a term invented by Black people that has been weaponized against us.
According to a 2017 editorial in the Sunday New York Times, there are three main pathways by which social movements gain power: cultural, disruptive and organizational. Disruption manifests in our society as sit-ins, boycotts, protests and the like ― anything that threatens the cost of doing business as usual. Disruptors make it their mission to draw attention to the inequities that we Black people and other marginalized groups face in our country daily, by targeting people’s pocketbooks.
In this way, we who have been disempowered can reclaim our power by saying, “You will no longer be getting my attention, my money or my vote,” sending the message to the oppressors that we are mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it anymore.
The term “cancel culture” originated in the 1991 film “New Jack City” (“Cancel that b*tch, I’ll buy you a new one”) and a 2014 episode of “Love and Hip-Hop” titled “You’re Canceled.” At the National Republican Convention last year, one delegate described cancel culture as something that the “left” created to erase our history and encourage lawlessness.
Really? Shall we talk about erasing history?
While in school, I learned that Columbus “discovered’ all these people when he arrived here and that those so-called “Indians” welcomed the Pilgrims with a Thanksgiving feast. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned the truth about the atrocities committed by European invaders against the original occupants of this land. I wept when I understood how they’d been killed, pillaged, raped and stripped of their lands and dignity. And I blamed myself for not learning it earlier.
Did I miss this in school? Was this taught during a week that I was sick or not paying attention?
The same feelings of inadequacy came up again when I watched HBO’s “Watchmen,” starring Regina King, a series that opens with a graphic depiction of what is commonly known now as the Tulsa Race Massacre. When I looked it up the next day and found that it was based on the indiscriminate slaughtering of Black people, children and adults alike, in Oklahoma in 1921, I was furious.
OK, I see a pattern here.
When my older son was in middle school, his eyes would glaze over while we read chapters about the founding monarchs of Prussia, Russia and England. At some point, I flipped to the end of the book, looking for the chapters about the great kings and queens of Mali or the Inca and Maya dynasties. And what of ancient North America? Isn’t it odd that we learn all about other nations’ great geological discoveries? Yet when it comes to our own, it all amounts to a pile of arrowheads and primitive drawings? And wasn’t our culture canceled by white historians and academics because to tell the real story would make white people feel bad about themselves?
Cancel culture has somehow become the new rallying cry for the right. They say that is the left’s way of punishing anyone they disagree with, mocking them for canceling everything from Dr. Suess to the Fourth of July. But as my friend Beverly says, “Consider the nefarious actions of the folks who deliberately and decidedly canceled the culture of their fellow Americans. While we might hurt your wallet, you can’t accuse us of erasing an entire culture from existence.”
White parents and students alike have long balked at or rolled their eyes at Martin Luther King Day celebrations and wondered if obligatory commemorations like Black History Month were a waste of time. Surprisingly, I agreed with them on that point. Black History Month had devolved into a series of days filled with “Black” food and fabrics, culminating in the inevitable all-school “I Have a Dream” assembly.
So, yes, I’d like to see Harper Lee or Mark Twain replaced with Ishmael Beah and James Baldwin. I want my kids to know more than just George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks and MLK. I say that we need to teach critical race theory in school so that everyone can understand that the system to which we all subscribe and in which we live is rigged against marginalized folks. We all need to ensure that the culture of a people can never be canceled again.