A law requiring Washington state school districts to provide cultural competency, diversity, equity and inclusion training to their staff went into effect July 25, despite complaints that it was a way to require that children be taught controversial lessons on critical race theory.
Although the subject of critical race theory has sparked heated debates in school districts across the country, the concept remains nebulous and vague for some people.
“People are afraid of losing power and privilege, and confronting and facing their own role in inequality in our communities and in our history,” said State Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, of the 41st Legislative District, whose children attend schools in the Mercer Island School District.
Senn emphasized that critical race theory is not being taught in Washington schools. She said that as critical race theory became almost a “dog whistle,” the true definition of the theory and the true policies became “misconstrued and misunderstood.”
“I would hope that [my children] learn that diversity is a strength, that there has been discrimination based on race in our past and we have to consistently think about its impact now and into the future. [I also hope they learn] that race is really a societal creation and not a biological one,” Senn said.
Critical race theory became a political buzzword last fall after Gig Harbor resident Christopher Rufo joined commentator Tucker Carlson on Fox News to ask former President Donald Trump to abolish critical race theory training in the federal government. Trump did so with an executive order that President Joe Biden rescinded his first day in office.
Critical race theory is an academic and legal theory studied by those in upper academia. Founded by well-known scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw, who also coined the term intersectionality, critical race theory is a framework for understanding systemic, structural and institutional racism in the United States legal system and society.
It addresses how historical white supremacy turned the construct of race into a system of racial inequities that exist in the foundation of society and continue to harm people of color.
“The recasting of difference and diversity into a pluralist, multicultural vision invites the friends of CRT to move beyond mere sentiment and altruism toward collaborative experience and commitment. Perhaps then we can dream beyond the colors of black and white,” states the introduction of “Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement,” rejecting the liberal approach of racial “color-blindness.”
On Mercer Island, the subject has become a matter of conversation among residents with this year’s school board elections. Currently only one candidate, Elle Nguyen, has stated their position on the matter.
“We must reject critical race theory and other radicalized concepts, and make sure our children are judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin,” Nguyen’s candidate website states.
Several states, including Texas, Idaho and Oklahoma, have passed laws to limit how public school teachers talk about race and history. However, critical race theory itself is not a subject in K-12 education. Instead, what these laws seek to prevent is curriculum that teaches children about race, equity and diversity or that addresses historical systems of racism and white supremacy.
Some parents fear that teaching children about anti-racism and addressing race rather than ignoring it will create bias where it didn’t previously exist. Others say that it is a form of reverse-racism against white people.
“Critical race theory asserts that people with white skin are inherently racist, not because of their actions, words or what they actually believe in their heart — but by virtue of the color of their skin,” U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-South Carolina, said at a news conference in May.
In Washington, schools in Redmond, Snohomish and Whidbey Island have seen parents protest against critical race theory, with some even saying they would remove their children from the school systems.
Some Mercer Island parents have taken to the Nextdoor online group to debate the merits of critical race theory in public schools with each other and discuss the school board candidates.
“This legislation is an important step toward making our schools welcoming and inclusive for our families of color,” said Washington Education Association vice president Janie White of Washington’s new law.
Rep. Senn added that it is important to talk about race and diversity rather than try to whitewash society. She said that different communities have different struggles and joys, and their cultures should be celebrated.
“I think it’s just so important that we teach our country’s history, warts and all. Whether we’re learning about the Holocaust, or about Japanese interment or about slavery, it’s so that we don’t repeat it and so we can understand the long-term impacts of it,” Senn said. “That often does get lost in the conversations and the politicization of this topic. Conflating teaching history that has a racial component with critical race theory is not helpful and not accurate.”