We Taught Critical Race Theory

And here’s what our white students at Vanderbilt University said, in their own words, about what they learned, write Ebony Omotola McGee, Devin T. White and Lynette Parker.

September 28, 2021
(Shevchuk Boris/istock/getty images plus)

Critical race theory is the public issue du jour. Many talking heads on the usual cable news outlets have spent more time vilifying it than learning anything about it. And it’s not only talk. Bills intended to prevent the teaching of CRT have passed all over the country, from New Hampshire to Idaho and from Texas to Tennessee. The former president called discussions of race in schools “left-wing indoctrination” and promoted “patriotic education” as an alternative, as if discussing the history and theory of racial difference is unpatriotic.

This framing, and others like it, is the art of the straw man. The straw-man strategy has demonized CRT’s adherents, attaching to them nearly anything critics don’t like. Calling CRT unpatriotic shuts down conversation. Any attempt of well-meaning people to rescue the original intent of the theory has been rendered hopeless, drowned in the media din.

Until recently, CRT was a topic in legal scholarship unknown to most people, which makes it an easy target for opponents to craft and spread their own untrue narratives about the theory. We teach CRT at Vanderbilt University, and one of us, Ebony, has been teaching the subject since 2016. She has published dozens of papers and a book (Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation) using this theory that have contributed to its body of scholarly work.

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The critics of CRT claim that teaching it is divisive. That it teaches white students to feel guilty about the past and ashamed of themselves. That it teaches students of color to demonize white peers and blame them for every struggle in their lives. The critics also claim it is a sort of “Crow Jim” -- Jim Crow in reverse -- that reinstates a form of racial segregation simply by asking all students to confront the historical reality of race in this country. But did anyone bother to ask the students? Do white students actually feel alienated by learning CRT?

We did ask our students. Out of 14, three identified as Black, one as white and Indigenous, and 10 as white. Here are some of the anonymous written comments from our white students in particular that we received after teaching this past semester’s course in CRT:

  • “All of the instructors showed genuine interest in students’ learning and in us as people.”
  • “I learned so much not only from the content, but it helped me to be a more analytic and human person.”
  • “The care that [the instructors] have shown to the students in the course was unparalleled during my time at Vanderbilt.”
  • “These educators should be commended for the care, humanity and authenticity in which they taught this course during a global pandemic.”
  • “It never felt like my position as a student was over here and my position as a real person was somewhere over there. They were connected.”

We didn’t hear about alienation or divisiveness. These comments suggest that teaching CRT spoke to the students in all their humanity. Our white students did not leave feeling pummeled and guilty. They learned as much about themselves from the class as our students of color did. And when we asked students for their suggestions on how to improve the class, none of them reported feeling guilty, singled out or shamed. None of the comments we received verified the claims of CRT’s critics.

There’s no antiwhite indoctrination in our CRT class. That’s another straw man. There are just scholars and students, studying, questioning and learning. And rather than segregating races, a tool used by white supremacy to oppress and otherize marginalized people, our CRT students of all races learned together and taught each other. One student explained, “The instructors challenged us to dig deep and encouraged us to bring our own gifts and talents into the work,” emphasizing the universality of the material.

A Manufactured Controversy

Critical race theory, true to its name, teaches critical thinking. Everyone says they want students “to learn how to think.” And they should think critically about every area of their lives. Thus, CRT prepares students to recognize the academic and social issues operating in a real-world context. Critical thinking is one of the most important skills employers are looking for today. And in an era when employers are increasingly concerned with diversity, equity and inclusion, critical thinking equips students to interrogate stagnant policies, practices and ideologies that impede broadening participation.

But how do we, as educators, teach critical thinking skills if we ban courses that challenge students to think analytically about some of the most important issues of our time?

Colleges and universities include both an academic and a social component. CRT melds both components. In our teaching of CRT, we are aware that by challenging students about critical issues like historical and contemporary structures of racism, we sharpen critical thinking, and by teaching students about laws, institutions and wrongheaded beliefs, we make them privy to how inequity morphs and becomes masked as neutral, colorblind rhetoric. Critical thinking skills even help students to question the rationale for banning CRT courses. That is critical thinking at its finest.

Students understood the practical value of what they received in this course. As one of them reported, the CRT course instructors “genuinely care about their students and see to it that we make connections to our personal, academic and professional life. With all that’s going on … I most appreciated having a space to critically examine our world.”

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The current manufactured controversy about CRT is promoted by right-leaning pundits and politicians using their intentional ignorance of the theory to sabotage it. Take it from researchers of the subject: these critics have no idea what CRT is and have never set foot in a classroom like ours. If they had, they would see students engaged, challenged and critically grappling with the material. They would see students of all races and ethnicities learning to question assumptions, analyze and come to independent conclusions. “This course offers valuable insights that all people studying education should consider,” said one of our students -- a sentiment that other students also expressed.

What the know-nothing critics of CRT really fear is education itself -- a populace that sees easily through fallacious, straw-man arguments. It is the only reason we can think of that they would want to ban CRT: to make students less analytic, less critical of received ideas and more ignorant about themselves and their neighbors. And is this really the choice we want to make for higher education in this globally competitive 21st century? If we ban such education from the university, why have institutions of higher learning at all?

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Ebony Omotola McGee is professor of diversity and STEM education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. She is the author of Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation. Devin T. White is a doctoral candidate in the department of learning, teaching and diversity at the college, where he researches STEM education. Lynette Parker is an equity and inclusion in STEM postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt. Her research interests include interrogating social justice practices in education and examining how forms of racial and social oppression impact education, educators and communities of color.

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