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The Attack on "Critical Race Theory": What's Going on?

Lately, a lot of people have been very upset about “critical race theory.” Back in September 2020, the former president directed federal agencies to cut funding for training programs that refer to “white privilege” or “critical race theory, declaring such programs “un-American propaganda” and “a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue.” In the last few months, at least eight states have passed legislation banning the teaching of CRT in schools and some 20 more have similar bills in the pipeline or plans to introduce them. What’s going on?

Watch our conversation about the current battle about “critical race theory” in the context of a much longer war over the relationship between our racial present and racial past, and the role of culture, institutions, laws, policies and “systems” in shaping both. As members of families and communities, as adults in the lives of the children who will have to live with the consequences of these struggles, how do we understand what's at stake and how we can usefully weigh in?

EmbraceRace, Melissa Giraud: Andrew and I were talking about where we were first exposed to Critical Race Theory, if at all, right? And I was saying that for me, it was formative. In college, I took a Black woman's memoir class, and Patricia Williams wrote this great book called The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Which was amazing. It was my last year of college. I would not have been exposed to it if not for taking that great class with Elizabeth Alexander. But certainly not exposed to it later when I was teaching K through 12. How about you?

EmbraceRace, Andrew Grant-Thomas: Graduate school, I read quite a bit of Critical Race Theory, Dr. Bell, Patricia Williams, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda, and Charles Lawrence. And I think of Mari Matsuda, for example, talking about how when you think of issues about gender, look for the race and the class. In that how are race and class, for example, playing out in issues that seem to be about gender? If the issue seems to be about race, not to say it's not about race, but also, it's about gender, it's about class, it's about place. Think about how it's playing out there. I mean, just that apparently simple little instruction was mind blowing for me. There's so many examples of really, really important stuff.

EmbraceRace, Melissa Giraud: So we're excited to be having this conversation about the attack on so-called (but not rally) "Critical Race Theory" in education.

Shee Covarrubias square

EmbraceRace, Andrew Grant-Thomas: And we have two guests tonight. Really glad to have them.

Shee Covarrubias, is a single mother of two residing in LaVista, Nebraska. As a parent to bi-racial children, it is, and has always been important to Shee that all children receive a balanced education that is reflective of the true and accurate history of this country. Shee is a tireless advocate for equity for all marginalized communities under the eyes of the law. Her advocacy extends to both her community, as well as the education, and I love this part, not only of her children, but all children. Welcome, Shee, great to have you.

Shee Covarrubias: Thank you.

Kerry Ann Escayg square

EmbraceRace: Our second guest, Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg, who is a Professor of Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Hey, Kerry-Ann. Her research focuses on anti-racism in early childhood education as well as children and race. As a social theorist, Dr. Escayg has utilized elements of Critical Race Theory, oh my goodness, Black Feminist Thought, and Anti-racist Education to offer new perspectives on children's racial identity development, including strategies to promote positive racial identity among Black children, a research-derived protocol to assess children's play, and an anti-racist approach to US early childhood education. And you know we need to talk about that Kerry-Ann, after this. In addition to her scholarly and activist pursuits, Dr. Escayg writes short stories, poetry, and children's literature. And we hail from the same neck of the Caribbean woods, as it were. Welcome. Really glad to have you both here.

What is Critical Race Theory (CRT)? And what is it not? What are some of the basic ideas that distinguish it as an approach?

Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg: Okay. So in order to understand Critical Race Theory, one must also understand the historical origins of Critical Race Theory. So it is a body of academic scholarship developed by legal scholars of color, who in the 1970's, recognized the limitations of critical legal studies. More specifically, while critical legal studies challenged and exposed this assumption of the law as being neutral, it did not take into account how US jurisprudence maintained racism. So, Critical Race Theory, and Critical Race theorists, accord this primacy to race and racism, when explaining US society.

One of the principal founders of Critical Race Theory is Derrick Bell, and much of his ideas have influenced the framing tenets of CRT. One of which is racism as endemic, or racial realism. So in other words, Critical Race theorists basically state that racism is normal to US society. And in line with that, there's another tenet that speaks about interest convergence.

But what does that mean? It means that racial equity or racial equality occurs, or attempts for these occur, when White self-interests are being considered. And an example of that, and this is from Derek Bell's work, is the Brown vs. Board Education ruling in 1954. Now, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, they were challenging this in the courts before. Right. But what led to that ruling was not a shift in consciousness, not this moral conviction, but rather, there was this need to portray US in a much more positive light, because of the Cold War.

Another principle of CRT is whiteness as property, and such as derived from Cheryl Harris words. And basically in a nutshell, it states that the law has been used to create this White identity, but not only that, to attach or to give privileges, both material and psychological to White individuals. So there's interest convergence, racism as endemic, whiteness as property.

And owing to the works of Kimberlé Crenshaw, for example, another tenant is intersectionality. Intersectionality, argues that we cannot be reduced to one social identity. In fact, our experiences may be due to race, class, and gender. And in line with that, is the counter-narrative tenet. Counter-narratives, or storytelling, can be traced to Derricks Bell's Chronicles, in which he uses fictitious stories to illuminate how the law, in essence, maintains racism. Now, in some context, in some scholarly articles, the counter-narrative is used to express for example, the author's experience with racism. But CRT scholars suggest, for example Gloria-Ladson Billings, that when we are considering this particular approach, or this particular tenet, we must situate the personal experience, and more of the historical and contextual analysis of racism.

One of the driving forces, so one of the most significant impacts of CRT, is that it gives voice to oppressed groups, to African Americans, to marginalized communities. It does not emphasize silencing. Which is what we're seeing right now. This actually does the opposite. It challenges silencing by saying, these myths, these stories of the dominant group, exist for a specific purpose. But by way of agency, and by way of resistance, oppressed groups tell their own stories. And in listening to these stories, and listening to the analysis of racism, you get a better understanding of what US society looks like, and the impact of racism on racialized bodies.

Now CRT has branched off in the fields of education, for example, and scholars use those tenets to examine for instance, disproportionate discipline, as a function of whiteness as property, as racism as endemic. And in my own work, in the field of early childhood education, I use the principles of CRT to interrogate, or to create new thinking, new insights, about White children's racial attitudes. Because for some, their analysis seems to be confined to developmental theoretical orientations. But when you use a CRT lens, you're saying, "Well, children express these racial attitudes, especially White children, because they're internalizing whiteness as property. They're internalizing that White identity carries certain privileges that are not given to other identities." So, it's a movement. It's a legacy of resistance. CRT is definitely, in my opinion, here to stay, because you cannot silence the people who are committed to change.

One of the most significant impacts of CRT is that it gives voice to oppressed groups, to African Americans, to marginalized communities. It does not emphasize silencing. Which is what we're seeing right now... [CRT is] a movement. It's a legacy of resistance. CRT is definitely, in my opinion, here to stay, because you cannot silence the people who are committed to change

Dr. Kelly-Ann Escayg

EmbraceRace: Thank you Kerry-Ann. I won't try by any means to summarize that, but I do want to lift up one, perhaps, intuitive way of thinking about it that's embedded in what you said, which is... I think many more of us are willing to acknowledge that as human beings, we're not neutral on issues of gender, right? So there's gender ideology, where we are raised and acculturated to thinking about gender as a neutral category race, class, et cetera. And that the things that we create, those biases, those inclinations, also permeate the things that we create. Organizations, laws, policies.

And then some of the particular tenets that you lift up are particular ways that we believe that this is true, but I do want people to take away... I mean, it's feels actually completely logical, I hate to say, that creatures with the bias that we have, would create, again, products. Much of the world is created, as it were, in our image, right? Or in the image of some of us, and that those biases permeate those objects. Thank you so much.

EmbraceRace: Yeah, that was really fantastic. It's almost we have to do back flips to get to how CRT is being interpreted, in this sort of attack. Because it's like, how are apples and oranges? What's going on?

What are you both are seeing on the ground? When people say they're anti CRT or, "Stop teaching CRT in our schools," what are they talking about? How is that related to actual CRT?

Shee Covarrubias: Well, I mean, I think primarily, I would say, it's really not related to CRT. A lot of what I have been seeing amongst the community and it's everywhere from educators to parents, to all of that, is a complete lack of real understanding about what CRT really is. I think Kerry-Ann gave a great description from an academic perspective, because she is a CRT scholar, of what Critical Race Theory really is.

I think there are so many people that I've seen in the community that hear this dog whistle of Critical Race Theory and how it's bad, and it's going to teach White children to hate themselves, because they're White. And that's not obviously anything that it's about. The thing I'm seeing the most is fear, and that fear is being, I would say, fed by a lot of things that people are seeing in the media. And by what I have found over the last probably 20 years, just in life experience, is people's lack of interest in educating themselves. They would rather be spoon fed, and learn from someone else, than actually put forth the effort to take some time, read a book, do the research themselves.

One of the things that I try to focus on when I have conversations with people that are very, "CRT is bad, and we don't want our kids to learn about it. And it's gonna teach White children that they should hate themselves. And that White people are bad." All of that stuff that we all see on social media and in the news. The one thing that I try to explain to them is, if they had a real understanding, and not even a Kerry-Ann level understanding, of what Critical Race Theory is. And please forgive me for maybe even oversimplifying it, but in its simplest form, CRT is really looking about how laws have been written to institutionalize racism, and that racism is a social construct.

And when you see places like Texas, for example, that are passing laws banning Critical Race Theory, what they're doing, is they are validating the thesis for the theory that they're trying to denounce! And they don't even recognize that. So what I've seen a lot in the community that I have been working really closely with, is just a lack of basic education of what people are railing against, and what they're fighting against. And it's very, very frustrating.

EmbraceRace: One thing I wanted to pick up on there Shee, is, yes, there's a lot of confusion, a lot of misunderstanding, a lot of people not doing their own homework, and that's being very deliberately encouraged. Right. So we know that there is a Christian Rufo. This is a conservative activists and journalists, who is largely credited, if we can use that term, with stoking these fires. Aided and abetted by Tucker Carlson. And there's no question that he doubtless legitimately has a problem with Critical Race Theory as he understands it. But he also very cynically chose Critical Race Theory because he believed that the term itself would be easy to manipulate. Right? And he had very deliberately pushed in all sorts of things he surely knows are not Critical Race Theory, because he thinks, that again, that term itself... He talks about "critical," being something people will respond negatively to. "Race," and "theory," all being terms. So he thought, "Eureka, this is wonderful. I can stuff anything I want into this, including the sorts of things that the people I would try to reach are going to have a problem with." And aided and abetted by Fox News, et cetera, he has been substantially successful.

Shee Covarrubias: I would even go so far also, just to say, one of the things that I found, I actually had this conversation with someone the other day. A lot of people are hanging on to the letters. I think they've even gone away from the words, right? The words are there, Critical Race Theory, but I think a lot of people have just hitched their wagon to the letter CRT. And a conversation I had with a parent the other day was, "Okay, what do you know about culturally responsive teaching? Those letters are also CRT." There is a difference between Critical Race Theory and culturally responsive teaching, right?

And I think some people hear CRT and they think, "I don't want my children at the elementary school level," for example, "learning about racism." Well, if you truly understood the difference between the two CRTs, right? That's not what, quite frankly, either of them are about. But again to your point Andrew, a lot of people have heard what has been said by Christian Rufo and by Tucker Carlson, and now they've put their fingers in their ears and they don't want to hear anything else. And as a parent, and as someone who is involved with the school systems here in the Omaha Metro Area, I've seen a lot of, "This is what I'm being told by the legislature, and they're smart, and I'm just going to trust what they're saying."

When our governor went to a town hall, and in the town hall, a woman stood up and asked him if he could explain what Critical Race Theory was, he audibly stumbled over his words and suggested that she read a book. So when the leader of our state can't even articulate what he may or may not know about this, but he's railing against it, and the fact that so many people are counting on their level of education based on others, it's scary.

When our governor went to a town hall, and in the town hall, a woman stood up and asked him if he could explain what Critical Race Theory was, he audibly stumbled over his words and suggested that she read a book. So when the leader of our state can't even articulate what he may or may not know about this, but he's railing against it, and the fact that so many people are counting on their level of education based on others, it's scary.

Shee Covarrubias

EmbraceRace: I want to just read a note sent by our friend Mary Kelly, who knows that Rufo, this activist, has publicly announced on Twitter that he's distorting and lying about CRT in order to, quote unquote, brand it in a certain way. So very deliberately political from the beginning.

Kerry-Ann, can you share some of the ways that the struggle, what it looks like on the ground for you?

Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg: For me, as an anti-racist and CRT scholar, I apply those both frameworks in my teaching. In fact, I refer to my pedagogy as anti-racist critical race pedagogy. So in my classroom, teacher and students are exposed to discussions on racism. I don't teach any of my courses without integrating some key historical facts about US society, and more importantly, about the field of early childhood education.

So from that perspective, I can talk about my experience, students, I've had some who resisted, and some who appreciated this kind of learning experience. But something happened in Omaha recently, and a student came to me and she said, "Dr. Escayg, I want to be an anti-racist educator, but when I see what's happening," as she mentioned, "in terms of legislator, and just basically shutting down opportunities for educators to have these kinds of discussions, Dr. Escayg, what do I do in such a case?" So in my opinion, what is needed is institutional support, at all levels, for example, elementary, secondary, and at the university and college level, so that when there's opposition, when there is resistance, we have people in positions of power, positions of leadership, who recognize the value of CRT. Who are not going to continue the misinformation, the dissemination of all these half truths and lies, but who would actively withstand them, and challenge them and say, "No, a genuine learning experience involves learning other perspectives, even though those perspectives, those lived experiences, may differ from your own."

And, in fact, it actually highlights, coming back to those tenets of CRT, how whiteness as property continues to manifest in educational spaces, in institutional contexts. But again, when you have educators like myself, I'm not saying I'm the only one. But when you have educators like myself, and also administrators who will support critical scholarship, then we're in a better position to oppose these kinds of resistance.

EmbraceRace: Kerry-Ann the notion of whiteness as property, as you said, very key. I know you touched on it before. Can you tell us what whiteness as property means?

Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg: Right. Just a basic definition, I don't want to go into the legal aspect of it. But a basic definition is that White individuals do receive privilege, and this these kinds of privileges are not only economic, but also psychological. And institutions in the US are responsible for these privileges. Both historical and contemporary privileges can be traced to the rule of the law, in creating these privileges. So I think one of the reasons for the backlash, one of the reasons for the opposition, is the idea that White privilege exists.

Now, again, we're talking about CRT, so I'm going to do a little bit of storytelling here to remain true to the scholarship. When I bring such discussions up, there is that kind of backlash. I have students who are angry, students who say, "No, I did not have any kind of privilege." And this stems from one of the cultural ideals of American society, which is a meritocratic myth. Your success or your failure is based on your endeavors. On what you do, it can be traced to your efforts, right? So when you have that ideal so ingrained in US society, then when students are confronted, especially White students, are confronted with the fact that yes, White privilege does exist. And I saw a question and I'm just going to respond to it, what does it look like?

So economic White privilege, and the fact that Whites fare better economically than Blacks. Again, being traced back to historical laws and policies, but also there's a second element of White privilege, and I'll frame around a story. The psychological element of White privilege is perfectly illustrated when a Black mother has to think twice about, "Should I let my son go? No. I need to have this conversation with them, especially with police brutality happening." But the anxiety, the fear of a Black mother, or a Black father, when the child or the son leaves the home, is not experienced by a White parent. That is an element of psychological White privilege. And in bell hooks work, she talks about whiteness as terror. CRT frames this perfectly to illustrate the divergence, the divergent live realities between Blacks and Whites. We do not live, and I'm saying we, as a collective people of color, right, we do not have the same experience as Whites. And that's due to the long lasting effects of slavery and colonization.

But one of, I guess, the opposition right now, is just this dismissing of history. "Let's forget it. It's in the past." But one must interrogate such a stance. Because if a person says that, to me, it means not only you are misinformed, but you're also, you're not aware of your privilege. And perhaps even more dangerously, you are dismissing the pain, the trauma, and the daily experiences of Blacks in this country.

The opposition right now, is just this dismissing of history. "Let's forget it. It's in the past." But one must interrogate such a stance. Because if a person says that, to me, it means not only you are misinformed, but you're also, you're not aware of your privilege. And perhaps even more dangerously, you are dismissing the pain, the trauma, and the daily experiences of Blacks in this country.

Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg

EmbraceRace: Thank you so much, Kerry-Ann. The experiences are very different as people of color, of BIPOC folks than of white folks. And it's hard to look at how many presidents we've had and how few of them have been of color. It's hard to look at economic differences. It's hard to look at incarceration rates among people. It's hard to look at all of these things and not... If it's not systemic, if our institutions don't favor whiteness, if there isn't White privilege embedded in our institutions, then why is this happening? It ends up being, it's like you either don't value people of color. Either something's wrong with people of color, or it's institutional. I mean, to me, it feels that way.

And when people say, "No, it's not institutions," and they take it to the individual level, which I think is what's happening with this anti-CRT, right? It's sort of like, "No, don't look at the institutions. Don't look at the fact that 95% of authors are White. Don't look at all of these things, at the disparity rate you're talking about in schools, of punishment. Let's not look at that. Let's look at how my child is being made to feel uncomfortable at school by learning about racism."

Shee, can you talk about the battle and experience that you were a part of back in April?

Shee Covarrubias: Yeah. So back in April, it was brought to my attention by a friend of mine who works in the school district that my son attends, and that my daughter will be attending in the fall. That there was a book, that a YouTube narration of the book was provided to two elementary schools. The book is called Something Happened in Our Town. It happens to be my four year old's favorite book. She asks to read that next to Goodnight Moon, every night, before bed. She loves them.

EmbraceRace: We've had the authors on our show.

Shee Covarrubias: Yeah. And the big hubbub was the YouTube narration was provided to students at school, a child went home, who happened to have a parent in law enforcement and was asking questions, parents got angry, parents went to the media, who then went to the school district, and the superintendent laid the blame at the feet of the teachers, and then issued a written public apology to law enforcement. And that just... My head exploded. I kind of went on a terror, to be quite frank. I went to the school board, every individual on the school board, the superintendent, as many staff members as I could. I did as much research as I could. I spent two and a half hours on the phone with the superintendent of curriculum to understand how this happened. And if it really happened the way that he said. And all of that. Only to find out that he didn't read the book until after it was brought to his attention.

And the area that I live in, the school district that my children attend school in, is 76% White. And what I conveyed to both the school board and the superintendent was, you essentially, whether it was intentional or not, and I talked to a lot of people about the difference between intent versus impact. And regardless of what your intention was, the way I read his behavior was, "Oh my gosh, there are parents in the district that are upset. And they happen to be White parents that were upset. And we care more about law enforcement's feelings, than we care about your lived experiences." And that didn't sit well with me.

That is really where I kind of dug my heels in and really immersed myself in what was going on in the education system, as it applies to what is and is not taught. And then over the course of 30 days, the sheriff's department released a professionally produced video that was literally threat, intimidation, emotional blackmail, around the same book. So, yeah, exactly, Melissa, exactly. It was disgusting.

Which kind of ties back to what you just asked about what's at stake, right? From my vantage point, as a parent, my son is going into his sophomore year and my daughter's starting pre K. So I have one that's almost done, and one that's just beginning. From my vantage point, everything is at stake. And I know that sounds really grandiose and very oversimplifying, but the reality is, I've read a couple of different studies that say, by 2050, that what is known as the White people in the United States will no longer be a numerical majority. By 2050. And if you can do math in your head, which generally I'm not very good at, but that's less than 30 years from now. And if we have legislators that are going the route of, "We're going to take away the ability to have children understand the real history of this nation," we are setting our children up to not be able to compete on the world stage, number one. Number two, our children are not going to be able to understand empathy.

If you don't understand a culture that is different from your own, if you don't understand how a Black child at 16 years old has to be in fear when they go somewhere at night because of the color of their skin. If you don't have an understanding as to why that is. You can't empathize with that person. And I think that in its purest form, being able to empathize with another person is the first step in moving toward positive change and improvement in society. And when things like this happen, like the legislative things that they're doing in Texas, have such a far reaching impact that I think so many people don't understand. Quite frankly, it terrifies me, and I think everything's at stake.

My son will be done in two years. There can't be a significant enough changes to affect his education. But my daughter is just starting. My children are biracial, they're White passing. My son is White passing, identifies as Black. My daughter's four, so she's not old enough to identify as anything. You ask her who she is, she tells you her name. But I don't want my daughter to go through an education system that doesn't show her anyone like her. That doesn't show her or teach her about anyone that looks like her mom, or her cousins, or her aunts and uncles. I don't want that for her.

From my vantage point, everything is at stake.

Shee Covarrubias

Shee Covarrubias: And Kerry-Ann was at a learning community meeting that I spoke at. And one of the things that I said was, regardless of my personal opinion, as to whether or not you want your children to learn about this, I would fight for your right to opt your child out, right? Regardless of what they think of your choice to opt them out of that type of education, I would fight for your right to do that. I'm struggling with the fact that the legislature thinks it's okay for them to decide for my children or anyone else's child. If you don't want your kids to learn it, that's your business, but you don't get to decide for my children or others.

EmbraceRace: Thank you. So I want to lift up there empathy. You're talking about the representation. You're talking about, certainly, the right of families to decide for themselves, to have input. Not have some family decide for other families what education looks like.

Kerry-Ann, I'm going back to the idea of Critical Race Theory as a mode of analysis, as an explanatory framework. It is a very, very different thing to assign the bulk of the responsibility for racial inequity and inequality to individuals, or to communities, to families, to family structures, right? To assign the bulk of responsibility there, as opposed to what we call systemic factors, the law, policy, institutions. What we understand, how we understand how we came to be in this place ,has a great deal to do with what we think is appropriate for going forward. How we remedy the issues, it seems to that's at stake.

What do you see at stake, in addition to what's been said already, that concerns you?

Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg: Daniel Sorlózano, a prominent CRT scholar, in his work, mentioned about critical moments in history. And I do believe we're living in a critical moment now. With the events that unfolded last year with George Floyd's murder, what happened was, in my opinion, I'll preface that by saying, in my opinion, was that among many White Americans, this sort of awakening occurred. A passion was ignited to discover more about racism, the legacies of racism. And if we were to critically examine the intersection in terms of the time period in which this propaganda started in regards to CRT, and then what was happening with George Floyd's murder, we see an intersection there.

In other words, I believe that this misinformation about CRP is to suppress the development of critical consciousness among White Americans. It is an attempt to, again to suppress the awareness of how deeply rooted racism is in this society. Because African Americans, Americans of color know that it exists, we live with it every day. But what is happening right now, again, in my opinion, is deliberate, and is designed to stop the development of White, anti-racist identity.

The impact of that, from an educational perspective, but first I want to center Black children in this discussion or analysis. The impact of that is that Black children will continue to experience schools that do not empower them. Educators who do not believe in them. Educators who, because of their biases of their own socialization, do not recognize the impact of racism in children's lives. Educators who are ill equipped to develop authentic, reciprocal anti-racist partnerships with their parents, so the child can succeed in all areas, developmentally, academically. There are so many consequences of this censoring of CRT. And for White children it reinscribes their view of this myth of White superiority.

Another consequence for White children is that they're not given the opportunity to recognize how they themselves are, and could be, in the future, agents of social change. So at both ends of the spectrum, we're seeing some negative consequences for Black children and White children. And in terms of adults, the impact of this would be that policies to redress historical wrongs, policy to ensure a more just social order, okay, will not be put forth. Policies to ensure that, for example, African Americans are provided with loans for housing. Policies to ensure the psychological safety of Blacks will not be considered. So it's, in my opinion, a redoubling of efforts using the law, to ensure that White supremacy remains the chief defining characteristic of American society. So that White Americans continue to live in this space that affirms and enriches them, but at the same time marginalizing racialized groups.

I believe that this misinformation about CRP is to suppress the development of critical consciousness among White Americans. It is an attempt to, again to suppress the awareness of how deeply rooted racism is in this society.... [this suppression] is deliberate, and is designed to stop the development of White, anti-racist identity.

Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg

EmbraceRace: This really isn't about Critical Race Theory. So as you defined it Kerry-Ann, or as you said, Critical Race Theory is very much primarily an academic theory taught in law schools. In real, that's what it is. Critical Race Theory certainly has been very influential for those of us who write about it, whose ideas have been profoundly shaped by it. But it's not being widely taught in middle schools, and elementary, and grade school, et cetera. The term CRT is, again, so many things have been smuggled in, that are much broader than that. I mean, the anti-racist education, culturally relevant pedagogy, essentially any recognition of race and identity as meaningful categories for understanding what happens in the world and people's experiences. The experiences of families, communities, et cetera. The history, what most of us will call a more accurate history. All of this, as you said, is being threatened because of this of very expansive definition of CRT.

Shee Covarrubias: Yeah, I think that's one thing I was going to say, as well is I think we are all, whether intentional or not, and I think it happens, I hate to say both sides of the line, but it is what it is. I think we all are falling victim to exactly what you just said, Andrew. We are all, even those of us that know what Critical Race Theory is, and know that it is not taught outside of law school programs, PhD programs. Those of us that are aware of that, that know it is not being taught in K through 12, right? We know that. Even those of us that are aware of that, we still fall victim into calling it CRT, right?

I think one of the things that we need to do and when I say we, I mean those of us that are aware of what it is and what it isn't, need to be very intentional about the words that we use. So one of the things I say to people is that words matter, and I'm very, very intentional and careful about the words that I use. So if I say something, you can bet that I thought about it before I said it. You can bet the words I use, I thought about. I think we need to be very intentional about the words that we're using, we're calling it what it is.

It is a legislative attempt at running from the truth. It is a legislative attempt at further whitewashing of the history of this country. It is utilizing something that has been around for decades, to continue to keep marginalized communities marginalized, and in some cases make them even more so marginalized because of a fear of a loss of power, or perceived power. I think we have to get away from using the letters CRT. We have to get away from using the words Critical Race Theory and talk about what it is.

You know the concept of you can't fight fire with fire, like I'm not gonna argue with someone who number one, is not fully educated on what Critical Race Theory is. And number two, is using it as a dog whistle to do things like Texas has done, taking out things like Martin Luther King's, I Have a Dream speech, and the women's suffrage movement, and all of that. I'm not going to talk about Critical Race Theory with someone like that, because that's not what they're doing. What they're doing is they're saying, "We don't want any of the children in the state of Texas to know the truth about what happened in this country." And up until now, we haven't had the ability to shove away this other stuff, and now Christopher Rufo, has come up come in and brought up, "Critical Race Theory that it's this big, bad devil. So let's let's hitch our wagon to that and use this as an opportunity to even further whitewash the history that is taught to our children." That's what we have to fight against.

We have to stop using the words that they are giving us to fight against them. Because unfortunately, what's going to happen is they're going to lower us to their level and beat us with experience, in that sense, because they're playing dirty, and we can't do that. So we have to not use the words that they're trying to use. That's that's just my opinion. That's that's the way that I have been approaching it and the people that I've been working with in the education system here locally.

EmbraceRace: It does seem then that there are a lot of people you won't debate with, right. And as I said earlier in the program, that there are people who will agree with you, on many ideas, who are still very confused about what CRT is and isn't, and how it's used in our schools or isn't. So I guess my question is, I understand that naming is very powerful, right. And to name the terms of the debate determines the direction the debates going in.

But it must be true, for both of you, that you're getting people who maybe are sincere, and are coming to you and using the word CRT, and Critical Race Theory. And trying to argue with you using those words. So what do you say?

EmbraceRace: And let me say, just piggyback on that, we have quite a few questions that are essentially that question, right? So whether it's, "I'm a parent, and I'm engaged with other parents who are telling me CRT is this horrible thing, it's in our classrooms. They don't want it." And people are saying, "How do I pivot away, perhaps, from this question of CRT to, Well, what is actually going on in the classroom? Let's talk about that." Or teachers saying about other teachers, or about their administrators. You know, administrators talking about parents. Do you have talking points for people who are in the thick of it?

And forgive me for piling on Kerry-Ann, take any piece of this, but I'm thinking about your being in a teacher training program, right? And engaging teachers who are coming. Those who are being trained right now, of course, are well aware of the struggle around CRT, and it's, of course, just the latest in an ongoing long time struggle around how and what we teach our children. What do you say to them? What are they asking?

Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg: My answer builds on what she mentioned, because I think she indicated a very central and excellent point about CRT exposing the truth. Right? So CRT is about truth telling. It's about ensuring that this representation, this portrayal of America, that only benefits one group is challenged. So one approach is to ask, "What is your understanding of racism?" That's my approach with my students, "What is your approach to racism?"

EmbraceRace: I love that Kerry-Ann, because really, that is one of the central questions, right? So let's pull away from what we call it. Let's not get caught up in the terms and sort of the baggage, the associations with the terms. Let's actually talk about what are the issues? What are we struggling with? How did we get here? How should we approach it?

Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg: Exactly.

Shee Covarrubias: One of the things I do in conversations that I have is kind of what Kerry-Ann said. I say literally, "What are you afraid of? What are you afraid of?" I tend to lead conversations with that question. Because if I can hear and listen to what someone is afraid of, and in some conversations I've heard, "Well, I'm afraid that my child is going to go to school, and they're going to be taught things that are going to teach them to feel bad about being White."

Okay, so why would you think that that's the case, number one? Number two, beyond that, I think from a parent's perspective, because I've been kind of eyeballing the chat here and there, and I've seen some questions about, how do you talk to other parents? And how do you have those conversations with other parents who kind of have their heels dug in on that, again, CRT is a bad thing. The first thing I would say, and I had to do this, right? Like I've been a big person when it comes to community activism, but when this thing happened with that book, Something Happened in Our Town, it opened my eyes a great deal to things that were happening in the education system that I was, to be quite frank, I was ignorant to. I had no idea that some of these things were going on, right.

I had to take the time to educate myself. So the first thing I would say to anyone that is watching this, or watches the replay later, would be to take some time and find resources. And I know that Melissa and Andrew can provide resources, after the fact. Educate yourself on what anti-racism is, and what it isn't. Educate yourself on what culturally responsive teaching is, and what it isn't. Educate yourself on those things, because until you have an education on those that you are comfortable. I can give you 1000 talking points, but if you don't have a comfort level within yourself, based on what you know and you understand, it's going to be difficult for you to have those conversations.

So my number one advice would be to take the time to educate yourself first. Then you can develop your own talking points that you're comfortable with, to have those conversations with other parents, or with educators, or with your county and city legislative individuals. Make sure that you have a comfort level with what you do and don't know, before you engage in those conversations. Because I can promise you, the people that are screaming the loudest against this, they've read a lot. Now they've read a lot that validates their perspective and their narrative, but they've done a lot of research. So before you engage in those conversations, just make sure that you are comfortable with what you do and don't know.

Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg: And I'll just add on that, based on my experience, students generally have a very limited understanding of what constitutes racism. And to further develop their critical thinking skills, I post questions such as, "Well, how did you gain this understanding?" And as the semester progresses, we engage in more reflective exercises such as well, who benefits when racism is portrayed as just individual prejudice? When the mechanisms of power, privilege, and historical analysis are left out, what is the impact of that? So from my perspective, and using my pedagogy, my aim is to help students unearth those perspectives that have been informed by not only their socialization experiences, but the omission of truths and facts that they experience throughout their educational career.

EmbraceRace: You are both activists, we are getting a lot of questions. I know we've touched on some of this, but I want to ask one in particular by a friend. Drew wants to know about the tools and tactics, we as parents, can employ to tackle these anti-CRT, anti-racist education, and whitewashing happening in our school districts and communities?

So we've talked about struggle, we know about legislatures that are passing, quote unquote, anti-CRT legislation. We know that there are at least eight, that I'm aware of, that have actually passed these bills. We know that there are some 20, possibly more, that are planning to introduce them, where there's a real risk of that happening. We know that things are happening at the school district level, at the school level. There's ground being won and lost, mostly lost, right now.

Can you offer some specific guidance for the people listening on... If they're in a place where this battle is being waged, how can they, beyond furthering their understanding, actually use their action to at least hold the line, if not actually make some grounds? What does this work look like?

Shee Covarrubias: Yeah, so what I've been doing locally is, and Kerry-Ann is aware of this, we have a learning community committee in Omaha, Nebraska. It is comprised of six districts. Each district represents multiple school districts, and two people represent each district. I would encourage parents to reach out to your school board members. Have a conversation with your school board members and find out where they stand on this.

Ask them the questions. And quite frankly, ask them questions that you may not have an answer to, and see what they answer, how they answer you. So reach out to your school board representatives, every single one of them. Reach out to your superintendent, reach out to other administrators within your school district, reach out to your administrators at your school. Have active open communication with the teachers that your children are interacting with, from kindergarten all the way through senior high school.

Make sure that that dialogue you have is open with them for a variety of reasons. Number one, you're going to see where they're standing. And number two, that's going to give you a little bit of a glimpse into what your children may or may not be hearing at school. Because, right, wrong, or indifferent the fact of the matter is, there are people that are teachers that are completely on board with some of this legislation. And it is important for parents to be aware of what their children are hearing at school. And if they have a teacher or teachers that are in support of this legislation, those are things that you need to be aware of.

So the key is, in addition to that self-education, make sure that you know where your school board members stand. Where your school district administration is at. Where your school itself, the actual school, that administration, those teachers, where they're at. And ask them questions. They're there to teach your children, they owe you explanations, they owe you answers to those questions and don't let them not answer you. Challenge them again, and again, and again, because you have a right to know what things are children are being exposed to. And that's where it starts more tactically.

Here, we're working really hard on getting some people that were very vocal in support of this legislation. We have people that are straight up running for office against them, because we don't have enough representation on a lot of these school districts and a lot of these school boards that are not in favor of this legislation. They're either in favor of it or they don't care, so they're just going to go along with whoever else. We need people in those positions that are going to be in support of a full and whole education for our children. So those are the things that I would encourage parents to do.

Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg: Yes. I have two suggestions, both of which are consistent with the main features of CRT. Perhaps it's worth mentioning, or repeating, in fact, that CRT is also grassroots activism. It's not only scholarship, it's grassroots activism. And to just further develop on that point, what you're seeing here today, I'm a scholar. Shee is a parent activist. So we need collaborations between scholars, educators, as well as community activists, because there's power in unity.

The second suggestion I would offer, which is in line with my previous suggestion is that in states where CRT is banned and teachers have no legal recourse to implement critical discussions about race and racism, then the onus is on parents. Parents who are now recognizing the necessity of transformative education, parents who are now recognizing that you no longer can afford to reject discussions about race and racism.

Now, what can you do as a collective, perhaps, organize to have a Saturday school. Organize to have opportunities where children from different neighborhoods come together, and a parent who is familiar with this work, okay, can have discussions with children about this. What I want to emphasize is that parents, you have agency. While the law is being used to limit educators, parents, you still have access to your citizenship rights. They cannot tell you what you can or cannot do in your household. So with that said, implement these discussions with your children, but first, you yourself must be educated.

In states where CRT is banned and teachers have no legal recourse to implement critical discussions about race and racism, then the onus is on parents. Parents who are now recognizing the necessity of transformative education, parents who are now recognizing that you no longer can afford to reject discussions about race and racism... While the law is being used to limit educators, parents, you still have access to your citizenship rights.

Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg

EmbraceRace: Kerry-Ann, thank you. Shee, thank you so much. I mean, that is, of course, a key premise of EmbraceRace. That parents, family members, others, we not only have a role to play, we actually play a role, whether they know it or not.

EmbraceRace: Whether intentionally or not.

EmbraceRace: So let's do it intentionally, thoughtfully, and in as informed a way as we can. We're at time. Really appreciate your time, Kerry-Ann and Shee, here, and your time in community, in your work. Thank you.

EmbraceRace: Thank you so much for all your contributions. Thank you both, and everyone who joined in.

Shee Covarrubias: Thank you for having us.


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Shee Covarrubias

Shee Covarrubias is a single mother of two residing in LaVista, Nebraska. As a parent to bi-racial children, it is, and has always been, important to her that all children receive a balanced education that is reflective of the true and accurate… More about Shee >
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Kerry-Ann Escayg

Dr. Kerry-Ann Escayg is a professor of Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her research focuses on anti-racism in early childhood education as well as children and race. As a social theorist, Dr. Escayg has utilized elements of… More about Kerry-Ann >
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