When the University of North Carolina declined to tenure Nikole Hannah-Jones after recruiting her for a chair in journalism, the media reported that Hannah-Jones’ use of critical race theory was a factor. Just this week, 20 state attorneys general successfully lobbied the Department of Education to refrain from naming the 1619 Project as an example of the type of work the DOE hopes to fund through a history curriculum grant program. These actions have pushed the debate about CRT’s role in education into the national spotlight.
There are two basic premises of Critical Race Theory:
- that race is socially constructed rather than a biological reality, and
- that racism is enmeshed in social and political systems as well as personal prejudices.
This means that racism is part of the fabric of daily life and the primary way to defeat racism is to critically examine and change social assumptions, policies, and practices that reinforce racial injustice.
For organizations that nurture children’s spirituality, Critical Race Theory is thus a powerful tool for spiritual identity formation and ethical action. It provides children of color with alternative explanations for their experiences of discrimination. It helps children who are white recognize their privilege. And it showcases ways that children and adults have resisted racism historically so that children can join the ongoing movement for civil rights.
One of the most basic ways to use CRT with children is through storybooks. Elementary Education specialists Eliza Braden and Sanjuana Rodriguez point out that children’s literature typically privileges English and reinforces cultural stereotypes, even when the topic is a Latinx child or story. They suggest that adults need to help children notice and question the assumptions behind cultural stories. Here are some examples adapted from their work:
- If a book has text in a language other than English, ask “Why do you think there are more English words than Spanish [or Japanese, etc.] words?” or “Why do you think the English words are at the top of the page and the Spanish words at the bottom?” This helps children recognize the assumed dominance of one language over another even when talking about another culture.
- If a book focuses mostly on foods, costumes, and holidays to represent a culture, add depth to the story by sharing other more information. Wonder aloud with children about what else might be part of everyday life for the story’s characters by asking, “What do you think [character] does when not celebrating [holiday]?” or “What kinds of clothes do you think [character] typically wears to school?” If there are children in your group who are part of the depicted culture, ask them to share more about their everyday experiences. This helps children expand their understanding of diverse cultures beyond stereotyped characteristics.
- Link stories themes to topics in the news and public policies. A book about a family immigrating to the United States could prompt a discussion about the use of the term ‘illegal alien’ and how that label might feel to an immigrant child. A story depicting persons of color solely as janitors, housekeepers, and bus drivers could spark an online search for persons of color with higher status jobs. This helps children see how race is politicized and persons of color devalued, and also broaden their awareness of how intelligence and professional competence cross all racial groups.