It happened on the yellow bus. I was 9, in 5th grade, and the only Black girl riding to North Side Elementary School. As far as I know, I was the only Black person — child or adult — in the whole school. I felt alone, utterly alone, as a brown-haired, freckle-faced white boy laughed, pointed, and called me the N-word, over and over and over again. I will never forget his white, freckled face contorted in a menacing smile. He was laughing at me.
I was locked in place, trapped in his hate. I suppose my face was distraught. Slowly, my friends, white friends on the bus, told him to leave me alone. He moved on, but I never did.
In all the hand-wringing agitation against discussion of racism and systemic oppression in schools, what the right-wing has intentionally and inaccurately mislabeled Critical Race Theory (CRT), the emphasis is on white children: what they feel and how they feel, when the truth of American racism is taught to them. No one focuses on Black children: what they feel and how they feel, when the truth of American racism is experienced by them.
Black children experience racism long before white children learn about race. Our national conversation about when and how schools teach the history of racism in America must focus on the victims of racist systems, policies, and people. BIPOC children all across this nation experience personal, real, felt harm because of racism. They suffer. Given this fact, why are so many conversations about school curricula focused on the feelings of those who will never experience the torture of racism at all?
Maxe Hinds is a junior at George Washington University. An International Affairs major with a double minor in Dance and French, Hinds attended the International School of Brooklyn (ISB) from 1st to 8th grade. “ISB was an international baccalaureate school,” Hinds explains, “which meant that I was in a French language immersion program for 8 years. Because of that, I became fluent in French at a very young age.” After she graduated from ISB, Hinds attended one of the highest ranked independent day schools in the country, The Dalton School, where she graduated in 2019.
Tragically, none of the privileges associated with her background and education created a safe space for Hinds, and, she says, “every single year that I was at Dalton, at least one racially motivated incident occurred.” When she was just a sophomore, “about 10 screenshots were sent around the school of this one White student using racial slurs. Every single screenshot contained the N-word and one photo in particular was of him impersonating the KKK.”
Because racism persists as a vile system of exclusion and degradation — and because our children are rarely given the tools to begin to learn how to successfully dismantle it — institutions like Dalton don’t have the systems to effectively manage racism, even when it surfaces in such an explicit, unambiguous way.
Hinds says, “The student was not expelled. He was simply ‘asked to leave’ and ended up at a very good school somewhere in the UK. There was no record of this indicated on his transcript since it wasn’t an official expulsion.”
Without some form of accountability, there is no real lesson learned, and learning lessons is the whole point of school. More importantly, Black children bear the weight of white adults’ decisions. “I felt violated after this incident,” Hinds says, “and did not feel like Dalton made any efforts to protect their Black students.”
Dalton is not an outlier. Racism is inescapable in schools because racism is inescapable in society. This racism impacts every K-12 school around the country, public and private, even schools where adults believe that everyone gets along. A 2019 Southern Poverty Law Center questionnaire found that, while two-thirds of educators who responded said they “witnessed a hate or bias incident in fall 2018,” fewer than 5 percent of those witnessed attacks were reported in the news.
Hinds first experienced a micro-aggression when she was 4 or 5, and a white girl, she says, “kept pointing out how much darker my skin was in comparison to hers. Though this obviously wasn’t a racist encounter, it made me feel ‘different’ or ‘other’ at such a young age.” Hinds reflects that she “can’t even recall a distinct moment when I first experienced racism. In one way or another, it has always been a part of my everyday experience.”
Children’s experiences with racism physically harm them. In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatricians published a policy statement that declared, “Racism is a social determinant of health that has a profound impact on the health status of children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families.”
Racism is entrenched in American schools because too many Americans hijack any attempt to eradicate it. When grown-ups refuse to learn how policies, systems, and laws have been constructed to subjugate Black people and other people of color through time, kids in school have no chance at being free of them.
Educators are trying to do the work, despite the polarizing tensions of the CRT debate. Indeed, African American educators have been doing the work of supporting Black children since long before the debate even started. Patricia Hogan Williams is head of the nation’s largest private Christian school with a predominantly African American population, the Imani School in Houston, Texas. Established in 1988, Imani students “have won five national speech awards, three national science fairs, two science fairs sponsored by NASA, and many state awards in math, art, engineering.” A feeder for Houston’s top high schools, Imani produces results with sound pedagogy and emotional support.
“Racism is insidious,” Williams insists. “It is transmitted by words spoken and sometimes most clearly by words not spoken. The choice of textbooks, the pictures on the walls, the songs that are sung, the history that is taught or not taught, these are parts of the ‘hidden curriculum’ that tell a student that you belong or that you are not worthy. I have a sign in the teachers’ workroom that says, ‘No malice is required to destroy a child.’ The subtle ways a teacher speaks, the way she responds when a student gives the wrong answer, these are things that often go unnoticed, and certainly not reported, but the impact is real, and it is lasting.”
Though Williams and her husband raised their three sons in Houston, she grew up in a small Texas town where, she says, “racism was like air. It was all around, all the time. There were signs on the water fountains in the courthouse and anywhere else there was a water fountain or restroom that said ‘Colored’ or ‘Whites only.’ Boys were always told not to look at white women on the street.”
Educators across racial lines want to teach this truth in validating ways. Shannon Macaulay is a white 9th and 12th grade English teacher at Meadowbrook High School in Chesterfield, Virginia. She says that Meadowbrook has 92.8 percent BIPOC, mostly African American and Latinx, enrollment. Macaulay runs the yearbook and journalism programs in a classroom that reflects the school’s racial demographics.
“I absolutely do not agree that learning about racism and America’s racist history will harm white children,” she says. “I read statements about white children being told that they are bad because of our history of slavery and racism and I really wonder where that is happening or if it’s a fear that’s being pushed.”
According to filmmaker Michele Stephenson, the CRT debate is being pushed as part of a broader movement against facts. Co-Founder of the Brooklyn-based film company Rada Studio, Stephenson and her husband worked with education experts to produce their feature film, American Promise, and book, Promises Kept.
“The anti-truth movement is the new face of white supremacy,” Stephenson says. “CRT is a new buzz word on an old trope and effort to maintain white power.”
Macaulay says, “anything that addresses cultural relevance, equity, or allowing voices other than white voices to enter the discussion is being labeled CRT without truly understanding what those things are. I wonder why so many white parents are afraid of opening the discussion to all voices and all members of our communities. We are better together, and I have a hard time understanding a point of view that doesn’t get that.”
Because of exclusion and inequality in America’s schools, BIPOC have had to organize to best educate our children in both de jure and de facto segregated schools. We have done so with limited public dollars, locked in the domestic terror of white hate and physical violence against our children, for hundreds of years.
“So white parents need to get over it,” Stephenson says. “We have no choice but to face our common history, address the discomfort and work on building a community that goes beyond individual harm. What is rarely taught in schools alongside Black American experiences is the long tradition of white abolitionist thinking and actions — others who stood in solidarity and took risks to make this country a better place. Why can’t we teach that? We would deprive our white students of those role models if we listened to the anti-truth movement advocates today. History is messy, complicated, and has been told from the perspective of the conqueror since the European settlers arrived here. Time for that to change and to understand that we all become better citizens when we know the truth about our history and commit to making this world a better place.”