“Look out for the trigger words,” the woman says. She’s perched on a chair in front of the room. She’s well-dressed yet funky with elegant boots, a demure sweater and some colorful jewelry. “‘Equality,’ ‘diversity,’ ‘inclusion,’ ‘marginalization,’... These words are CRT. If you see these words in your kids’ homework, you need to speak out.”
I am in a meeting held by a local right-wing mom’s group. It’s an organization catering to mothers who are bent on protesting at school board meetings to stop the supposedly evil critical race theory agenda from being taught in public schools and address other typically conservative concerns.
Critical race theory is not currently being taught in public schools.
There are about 20 of us. We are all maskless, all (apparently) white, mostly women and all on the younger side. I’m in my early 40s and I seem to be the oldest person in the room. A group of children, including my son, the only one in a mask, are scampering merrily in a play area down the hall while a young woman with a baby in her front carrier keeps an eye on them. On the wall by the door of our seminar room is a sign. It says: “Children should be: Heard. Respected. Encouraged. Loved. Appreciated. Guided with Compassion. Given Freedom to Learn Without Coercion.”
What exactly that last phrase means is ominously vague.
For several years now I have been worried about the increasing right-wing views that I have noticed in my demographic (white suburban women). Before 2016, I always thought of Nazis as mainly historical villains that belonged in Indiana Jones movies or old news reels or the sad stories my grandfather told me. Now, however, as the last Holocaust survivors are dying, I am aware that fascism is creeping back into the world at large in terrifying ways.
I wanted to know how I could fight against the appallingly stupid yet dangerously widespread disinformation that is entrancing many of my friends and neighbors. Basic facts about COVID-19 are being dismissed by whole states as part of the “liberal mainstream corporate media.” Bodies from COVID victims were stacking up in ICUs and filling the morgues back in 2020, yet I was still called a “child abuser” by people on the street because I made my son wear a mask. Why are people going nuts? Why are people dismissing science and history in favor of conspiracy theories? And, most importantly, how could we nudge the nation in a saner direction?
I was especially curious about activist groups that specifically target suburban women. These groups seemed intent on making life more dangerous for my child. According to my local right-wing women’s group, masks should not be allowed in school. They told us to stop worrying about kids dying of COVID. They were also vocal about not wanting racism and its deep, formative history in the United States to be taught. Some of these people literally do not believe white privilege exists because, according to them, the Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War were overwhelmingly white. (No, I don’t understand that argument either.) Others feel parts of our country’s history shouldn’t be included in curriculums if it makes people ― namely white people ― uncomfortable.
Every teacher I knew was struggling with COVID restrictions and dealing with students venting their post-pandemic trauma through increasingly disruptive behavior. School districts across the country were dealing with staffing shortages due to teachers burning out from stress. Why add to teachers’ difficulties by threatening school instructors who dared to teach topics like Jim Crow laws, the civil rights movement and the repercussions of slavery in America?
“Some of these people literally do not believe white privilege exists because, according to them, the Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War were overwhelmingly white. (No, I don’t understand that argument either.)”
To learn more, I joined a local right-wing Facebook group for moms. It’s a private group that requires aspiring members to answer some questions before they’re granted entry. One question was “Why do you want to join?” I replied, “I want to be more involved with my kids’ school.” A week passed and then a moderator for the group contacted me privately. “Can you be more specific about what issue most concerns you?”
Yikes. Security was apparently very tight with this group. They weren’t going to let just any mom glide in using a few generic answers.
“I’m mostly interested in issues that involve keeping kids physically in school,” I messaged back. “Zoom school was devastating for my kid and I don’t want that to happen again.” I wasn’t lying about any of that. It’s one of the few opinions I share with many conservative parents.
The moderator sent me a thumbs-up emoji and let me into the group.
Once inside, I found the members were all stripes of Republican and I was pleasantly surprised to see opinion was not monolithic in the group. Several moms argued against the more far-right posters. One woman posted an objection to children reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” in class. “Divisive Concepts,” she wrote with a broken heart emoji. Underneath was a screenshot of a direct message from someone who appeared to be a student that read, “I’m in English right now. We’re currently reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ There’s a part where Calpurnia brings the kids to church with her and another black woman is being extremely racist towards Scout and Jem. My teacher was saying it was not racism because white people have a higher power over black people in society and that black people can’t be racist.”
There were several indignant emoji reactions in response to this post. One mom, however, pushed back. “Well,” she commented, “the woman at the church complained that Calpurnia had brought white children to the Black church, possibly one of the few places Black people felt any sense of freedom and safety. It’s a little absurd to call the woman racist, given the context.” This comment got a couple “likes” and no pushback.
Another surprise I found in the Facebook group was that some huge media outlets were giving them a platform. One of the founders of the group posted that she had done an interview with The New York Times as part of a story on parental rights.
The New York Times! I was dumbfounded. None of the women who ran the pro-Democrat “Indivisible” groups in my town had even managed to get an interview with the local paper!
I scanned the comments and my eyes nearly popped out of my head.
“It’ll be fine,” another mom wrote after the initial poster expressed concern about The New York Times possibly misquoting her. “It’s a lesson I learned the hard way after the BBC screwed me.”
The BBC! The BBC was talking to these women?
I had to know more.
Unfortunately a few of the moms may have become suspicious of me. Perhaps I had “liked” too many comments by moms pushing back against the anti-CRT posts. Perhaps some moderators had found the very liberal comments that I had posted on other public news articles. In any case, when I expressed interest in joining an in-person roundtable discussion event, I saw that the location of the event suddenly disappeared. I messaged the group moderator about the event location.
“Just a heads up,” she messaged back, “I think most people will not be masking. Is that something you’ll be comfortable with?”
I wondered if she was trying to frighten me off. “Yes, that’s fine,” I replied.
I never received the location, but luckily I had written it down before it disappeared from the event post.
I drove to the meeting with my son. The group moderator had been right. When I joined the meeting, I saw that nobody in the packed room was masked. I gritted my teeth and sat down anyway. I was fully vaccinated and my son wore a mask. He was the only one.
I listened to the speakers at the meeting while they discussed how to run for, campaign and pressure school boards. Many parents bemoaned how they had to pull their kids from public schools over mask mandates and instead enroll them in private schools. It was a common story. I got the impression that most of these families had income levels that allowed them to pay thousands in private school fees because they wanted to take a stand on masks. I was probably the poorest person there.
There was a lot of anger directed at teachers. “Rat out these teachers,” one mother instructed. “Find a lawyer who can challenge these teachers.” Another woman disdainfully noted that teachers “don’t even know what they’re doing half the time. They just pull it off the internet.” A third woman said, “There is no discipline for teachers outside of taking away their credentials.” The battle lines were clearly drawn.
I raised my hand. “What do you say to people who are like, ‘Oh, you’re gonna put bounties on teachers’ heads. You’re marching outside of school board members’ homes with guns. School board members are getting death threats and feeling terrorized’?”
I could see several women visibly flinch at the word “bounty.” One woman said she disliked the term “bounty” but she could see the need for “monetary compensation” for those who turn in teachers that were doing things parents found unacceptable. “There are no repercussions for teachers who break the law,” she said. “If we have to offer monetary compensation for people to report teachers, I see no problem with that. It’s an incentive for people to wake up.”
It wasn’t clear what laws these teachers were supposedly breaking. As far as I could tell, teachers ― like everyone else ― got punished if they broke laws.
Another woman raised her hand. “Look, I know we want to change school boards,” she said, “but elections aren’t until 2023. What do we do until then? We just can’t sit around and let them attack our kids. We have to do SOMETHING.”
I caught a gleam in the woman’s eye I didn’t like. Was there some flirtation with insurrection being suggested here? What, exactly, was she saying?
Another woman nodded. “Listen, we’ve tried playing nice. But they just dig in their heels and dig in their heels. We have to start being not so nice.”
“One woman said she disliked the term 'bounty' but she could see the need for 'monetary compensation' for those who turn in teachers that were doing things parents found unacceptable. ... 'If we have to offer monetary compensation for people to report teachers, I see no problem with that. It’s an incentive for people to wake up.'”
I didn’t like where the discussion was going. The moderator guided the topic back to safer ground. “Be pleasantly persistent,” she smiled. “Be annoying. Be the woman at the school board meetings who always shows up. Be the person who, when the meeting organizers see you, say, ‘Oh, God, her again.’ Be that person. And please try to get people to vote in municipal elections.”
Fair enough. A lot of the roundtable debate felt like a Republican version of a Run for Something meeting. Run for Something was a movement started after Donald Trump won the presidency that was meant to encourage young progressives to start their own campaigns for local political office. This right-wing women’s group seemed to be following the same model, but there was an undercurrent of rage among the group members that I had never seen in a Run for Something meeting.
Despite my uneasiness, I couldn’t help but find myself liking the women in the room. They were charismatic. They were energetic. They had no problem letting my low-functioning autistic son play with their children, which is unfortunately rare among a lot of the other mothers I’ve encountered. But this made me even more uneasy. I realized these women were dangerous precisely because they were so friendly. Their condemnation of history lessons about Ruby Bridges and Jim Crow laws and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was repulsive. They were trying to suppress the truth by labeling the unassailable facts of racism in the U.S. as “divisive.” “Equality,” “diversity” and “inclusion” were not virtues to be celebrated but “trigger words” with a poisonous intent. This nefariously clever bit of relabeling disgusted me. There was a very clear far-right agenda at work here.
Groups like the one I joined often appeal to mothers. The pandemic has hit moms especially hard. Lack of child care has resulted in a “she-cession” with thousands of women leaving the workforce to take care of their children. Lonely, frustrated, financially stressed people tend to be prime targets for radical groups. These right-wing women’s groups offer a sense of community and friendship to women who are isolated at home with their kids. It can be frighteningly easy for some people to start nodding along with all the rhetoric about the evils of critical race theory and COVID conspiracy theories if the women espousing them are also offering you coffee and friendship and child care ― and making you feel seen and heard.
I am currently still a member of this local right-wing women’s Facebook group. It has helped me to understand where these people are coming from ― and just how motivated they are. My membership could end up being rescinded, however, as I plan to attend a few upcoming school board meetings to defend the accurate and honest teaching of all parts of American history, especially in regard to racism and what it has meant and means to be Black in this country.
I can’t stop thinking about the gleam in that woman’s eye as she said, “We just can’t sit around and let them attack our kids. We have to do something.” Though some people think merely tweeting our outrage or frustration is productive (it’s not), those of us fighting against the far right need to be more aware of how energetic and organized they’re becoming and the lengths they’re willing to go to in order to get their way. Right-wing activists are attending school board meetings in hopes of transforming our children’s education, and, ultimately, their lives and the future of the United States. It’s time for us to be just as active to ensure this doesn’t happen. We must fight for our children’s safety and their right to learn our nation’s history ― even the ugly parts. Especially the ugly parts.
After all, when ugly history gets ignored, it tends to get repeated.
Phoebe Cohen has walked many paths in life, including living in the Gobi Desert as a Peace Corps volunteer and working as a paramedic in several states. Cohen’s work has been featured in Graphic Medicine, Mutha Magazine and BorderX. She regularly posts on her website Merry Misandrist. Cohen is a part-time cartoonist, writer and nursing student. She has been known to go up to five hours without coffee.