A Teacher’s Thoughts on Critical Theory

Gabrielle D’Arcy
7 min readMay 21, 2021

Racially-segregated diversity trainings. Children’s books about “whiteness” being read in classrooms. Black Lives Matter curricula being implemented in public schools across the nation.

In our nation’s ongoing culture wars, there is perhaps no subject as hotly debated as Critical Race Theory. Democrats believe it is simply an honest retelling of history, while Republicans are going to court to ban it from public institutions. But whether we love it or hate it, critical social justice theory is here, and its prominence suggests that it is worth examining in greater detail what its influence will be on our public life — and whether we want it there in the first place.

Critical race theory began as an academic framework for exploring differential outcomes in America’s criminal justice system. Sentencing disparities between blacks and whites prompted researchers to interrogate the ways in which our justice system discriminates against African-Americans. These academics sought to explain these phenomena using a few simple principles: that racism is not shocking or unusual, but normal and embedded in the American social fabric; that the system deliberately privileges white Americans in order to limit the achievements of minorities; and that the interests of black Americans and those of white Americans diverge entirely, and that what is best for white Americans must necessarily harm black people.

The result was Critical Race Theory. This field of study has existed for many years, but following the election of Donald Trump in 2016, American media culture witnessed what seemed like an overnight explosion of social justice language and rhetoric. Suddenly, Teen Vogue was decrying cultural appropriation and explaining white privilege. Books like Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” became national bestsellers and were devoured by white liberals who acknowledged America’s troubling, ongoing inequities and wanted to make the country more tolerant. Viral images from colleges and even museums explaining how “worship of the written word” and “a sense of urgency” help uphold a culture of white supremacy in America. The New York Times’s “1619 Project,” a journalistic work that argues that our nation’s true founding was in the year 1619, when the first slave ship arrived on American soil, is being taught in public schools. And now, in 2021, Critical Race Theory is so widespread that conservative politicians are trying to ban it from our education system.

As a teacher, I admit my bias when it comes to the topic of ideology being preached in schools. It is my belief that a school’s job is to teach students how to think independently, not tell them what they should think. Our constitutional principle of secularism should apply both to preaching a particular religion, and also to telling students what they should believe about particular laws or social patterns. But while I may be skeptical of CRT’s methods, I am deeply sympathetic to their objectives. Like most of us, critical race theorists do genuinely want to make the world a better place, which they demonstrate through their unwavering commitment to studying inequality. Though they may be overzealous at times, at the core of their activism are many kernels of truth, and perhaps we should focus on what CRT gets right as frequently as we discuss where it goes wrong.

CRT is very interested in the ways in which America engages in historical revisionism in order to sanitize its darker chapters. While all American children learn about slavery and Native genocide in school, these horrific atrocities are often reduced to a footnote on the American story, rather than a central feature. This, CRT activists argue, is evidence of the fact that American exceptionalism is a myth penned by whites, because for Native and black Americans, these injustices weren’t one small feature of our nation’s history — they were central, formative, and their legacies can still be observed. Critical theorists assert that we should teach a more comprehensive reading of history, rather than a whitewashed one, and ensure that diversity features more prominently in our school curricula.

This, of course, is accurate. Slavery and Native genocide were unspeakably awful and should feature more prominently in our history curricula. We should delve much more deeply into Native and black narratives. We should read about slavery more from the perspective of the enslaved, and we should engage meaningfully with Lost Cause mythology and how the deliberate suppression of nonwhite perspectives leads to an inaccurate reading of history.

Many of us share CRT’s desire to emphasize the diversity in American history. But diversity of skin color isn’t the only type of diversity that matters. A truly comprehensive, rich, thorough study of the American story would read and engage with both liberal and conservative perspectives. It would compare and contrast black Republicans’ writings with those of black Democrats. It would take a deep dive into what different parties believe and why, and how different groups of people react to those ideas. That is true diversity, and a truly accurate study of our nation’s history.

Periodically, infographics from CRT-centered events go viral online and are shared as evidence of the theory’s absurdity. One notable example was an image from a public school arguing that asking students to show their work is one of the ways in which “white supremacy culture” manifests in classrooms. This is false because teachers need to be able to track students’ thought process, particularly in math, so they can determine whether and where the student is getting confused. But there is a kernel of truth to the idea that emphasizing a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, rather than allowing students to creatively and uniquely solve problems, is toxic and discourages student learning. Something I often hear from my fellow teachers is “You shouldn’t need to count on your fingers anymore” or “You should be able to do this in your head by now.” To a child who is already struggling to solve the equations, this sounds like there is a fundamental gap in their knowledge that renders them incapable of doing the work. Rather than encouraging them to strive for success, this will lead to them feeling defeated and believe there’s no point in even trying, because they simply can’t do one of the steps of the problem.

While this isn’t white supremacy, CRT activists do have a point that this obsession with mental math can particularly disadvantage students who received a disrupted or incomplete educations, which will disproportionately be low-income and often minority students. However, plenty of students of all races and classes struggle with math; and all students would benefit if the educational system emphasized ensuring students understand the material well enough to get the correct answer, in whatever way worked for them, rather than obsessing about students all solving the problem the same way. Permitting students to creatively solve problems and express their knowledge isn’t “anti-racist,” it’s just good teaching.

Another hotly topic in the culture wars is the renaming of schools and other public buildings. While some of these renaming projects are absurd on their face — removing Abraham Lincoln’s name from a school is an affront to our common humanity — renaming schools that were named after Confederate leaders is just morally right. We teach history because those who don’t learn it are doomed to repeat it, and we teach names of evil, genocidal maniacs like Adolf Hitler so that our young people understand and can confront hate. But we wouldn’t name a building after Adolf Hitler, because teaching history doesn’t necessitate elevating the name of historical figures to a place of prestige and honor. I think a good rule of thumb is that, if a reasonable person wouldn’t name a building constructed this year after a particular historical figure, we shouldn’t keep that person’s name on older buildings, either.

For all conservatives’ criticism of critical race theory, I think we can all agree that one of its core tenets is true: there are undeniably inequities in our education system. There are three times as many segregated schools now than there were pre-Brown v. Education. Black students and low-income kids are much more likely to drop out of school, and drop-outs are in turn more likely to wind up in jail. Discussing the barriers that black, Hispanic, and low-income students face in their education need not result in an attack on meritocracy or calls to eliminate advanced math classes. There are plenty of meaningful anti-racist projects we can pursue that will have a positive impact on disadvantaged students’ material reality. Initiatives to de-zone residential neighborhoods so affordable housing can be built in high-performing school districts, for example, could have a huge impact on low-income kids’ ability to attend highly-rated schools. Such policies will much more of an impact on children’s wellbeing than mandating that wealthy white kids read “White Fragility.”

Like many others, I disagree with some of CRT’s fundamental tenants, like the idea that America is irredeemably racist. But I also passionately agree with many of its aims, like increasing opportunity for all and eliminating the barriers that low-income and minority children face in their education. Holding a microscope to these obstacles has been one of CRT’s great successes, and rather than just fighting wokeness itself, we should be seeking to construct a better methodology to make our shared objectives a reality. Rather than waging culture war battles against those we disagree with, we should listen to and learn from each other’s ideas. We should consider them in isolation, rather than attempting to map them onto a larger pattern or ideology, carefully weighing the pros and cons of each. We should criticize ideas, not people. And rather than assuming that our neighbor is a fascist because he opposes CRT or a communist because he supports it, we should assume that our friends across the aisle want the same thing we want: for our schools, our politics, and our great country to be the best they can be.