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Courtesy Nelva Williamson
(NEW YORK) — Recent attacks on race education, via the targeting of “critical race theory” in schools, have put Black educators — and the lessons they teach on racial inequality — under scrutiny.
For Black educators across the country, Black History Month offers a chance to focus and deeply explore the role of Black Americans in the making of the United States as we know it.
The racism that Black people in America have experienced for centuries is inseparable from that history, educators say, and to ignore it is to ignore the truths of their own community and livelihoods.
To some, like Houston social studies teacher Nelva Williamson, the attacks on race education are personal.
“I lived through the Civil Rights era. I was a young child when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed,” Williamson told ABC News. “I am connected to the history and even stories that my mother has told me: growing up in the Deep South, during Jim Crow, voting rights and things of that nature. I bring all of that into my classroom and give a face to what I’m trying to teach my students.”
Some educators say lessons on Black history not only feel personal, but also help Black students feel seen in classrooms that may typically teach mostly white narratives.
“It was like they finally saw themselves,” Williamson said of her Black students.
However, these lessons are being villainized by anti-critical race theory advocates, educators say. Legislation in at least 35 states ban or restrict these kinds of lessons — putting basic racial history lessons at risk.
Some parents and Republican legislators argue that educators are “indoctrinating” students with certain lessons on race that make students feel “discomfort” or “shame.”
Critical race theory seeks to blame white students for the actions of people in the past and teach that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist,” according to a 2020 executive order from former President Donald Trump.
Critical race theory is an academic concept about systemic racism that is taught in law schools and higher education courses. It seeks to understand how racism has shaped U.S. laws and how those laws continue to impact the lives of non-white people.
The theory isn’t being taught in K-12 classrooms, according to educators opposing the legislative efforts against critical race theory.
These educators argue that the history of racial oppression in the United States is not a thing of the past, and therefore, ongoing education on race, diversity and systemic racism is necessary. They say this legislation can be used to restrict these discussions.
Anti-race education efforts are an effort to turn back the clock on racial equality by hiding these key lessons from future generations — and by erasing the history, trials and tribulations of Black Americans, they say.
“Black history is American history, right?” said Shawanda Bonner, an English teacher in Florida.
Legislation like the recent efforts to curb “critical race theory” could have barred some of the powerful conversations she’s had in the past with her students, she said.
Bonner said that when a student told her that some people believed she taught too much Black history, she held a classroom discussion about the importance of listening to other people’s stories.
Black educators say that engaging in open and transparent dialogue about racism like this, and the way it continues to impact them and students of color, has been a valuable tool for students of all backgrounds.
Bonner and David Ring, a social studies, economics and government teacher in Texas, said their experiences as Black educators can help them connect with their students and add perspective to lessons on race.
“I’m a Black woman in America, so when I teach, I’m bringing that understanding of needing empathy, that understanding of listening to other people’s stories, that understanding of not giving in to your discomfort, but standing in it and pushing past it,” Bonner said.
Ring said he is one of few teachers of color in his school.
He said his students are able “let their guard down and ask questions that they might not feel comfortable asking other teachers or their parents” about race and racial injustice.
Without these conversations in the classrooms, educators fear that students will be missing out on tools for their future. Learning about the moral wrongs of the past can help students prepare to face and address failings in the present and future, they say.
“A lot of my students — I know for sure they have left me as humanitarians and as anti-racists, and I’m proud to say that,” Bonner said.
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