I See Scared White People: Critical Race Theory and the Safety of our Children
“Are you just going to tell us that all white people are racist?”
I’m hearing this worry from leaders who are managing a growing anxiety in their stakeholders regarding CRT. I’m seeing this made-up issue continue to rise in our work every day, challenging the public and private commitments folks have made to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The purpose of the CRT controversy is political, but the outcome is not. We are being bombarded by a new version of an old and toxic message, that it is acceptable to erase people and their stories. There’s a feeling that talking about race and racism is somehow dangerous; that it targets white people and puts them at risk. These ideas—let alone the incited drama—set us perilously backward on our slow journey towards real racial equity in the United States.
The curriculum is an easy target for this feud right now. In COVID’s unrelenting wake, parents feel powerless to ensure their children’s safety, never mind their learning. The people weaponizing CRT through our schools are playing on this anxiety, telling us to urgently shield our kids from a curricular boogeyman—one that literally does not exist outside of these shameful politics.
The tactic is working: folks are taking sides, blowing up social media, and picketing school board meetings. The popular chaos is not because the newscasters, viewers, voters, or consumers care so deeply about scholarship or history or even textbooks: It is because people—especially white people—are afraid. It leans on the ugly stereotypes with which we were raised that say Black people are inherently dangerous to us and our white children. It exploits a common misunderstanding that equity requires loss; that for one person to gain liberation, another must lose liberty. Toni Morrison said: “If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem.” And so we do.
CRT opponents are using our babies’ classrooms to send the confused but compelling message that white children must be diminished if Black and brown children are no longer inferior. As a single mom to two young women, I understand that any threat to our children is scary. But this one’s just not real. It’s fear-mongering, make-believe.
This is the same fear I have seen in so many DEI trainings and C-suite strategy sessions. There is a frustration that arises when we begin to see our own racial identity problematized or questioned. Our white grand and great-grandparents contributed to the development of a country that prioritized being “white” in America over everything else to ensure our survival, our prosperity, our right to a home. We have lost track of ancestral lines, lost touch with extended families, and abandoned ethnic traditions, languages, and even names. Whether we recognize it or not, whiteness and its privileges have become the thing for which we have given up everything else and most defines our experiences. We didn’t personally ask for it, but we do daily reap the benefits.
Robin DiAngelo’s much-ballyhooed solution to our privileged position is to call out white “fragility”; to say that white people need to quit crying, take responsibility for this mess and fix it. While often true, this language does nothing to keep everyone in the room and may actually help politicians with their divisive lies. The work required of white people to confront racism is real, as is the wrenching grief that comes with that work. Humans avoid hard things and so white people avoid this. But we are not fragile. We are only afraid.
We do not—as the fear mongers would have us believe—need to raise our children to be as frightened as we are, or to be ashamed of their white skin. We just need to be willing to understand and acknowledge what that skin protects and provides. We stay on the outskirts of these questions, arguing about whether or not to go in, pointing fingers, and fussing about which road to take. These choices, and our safety in making them, are things Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color do not enjoy in America. Allowing racism to go unnamed and unchecked is a game in which all of us lose—our humanity, our freedom, even our happiness. Either we all win or we all lose. We have to choose, and act, together.
Every child should be proud of who they are and where they come from. But that can no longer come at the cost of others’ well-being. We need to worry less about who’s casting aspersions on our character and worry much more about acting within our character, and our values. We need to have conversations with our family and friends and coworkers; seek to examine, share, know more and inspire awakening in ourselves and the people we love; and lean in to our humanity and allow for the details and differences of others to enter our awareness, decisions and actions. Do not become paralyzed in your leadership because people are riled. There is a way forward in which we are part of the solution, rather than wringing our hands at the problem. That would be the best use of our voices in service of our children. That would be the best example we could give.