This article was translated into Chinese and published on WeChat through a collaboration with Chinese for Affirmative Action
I loved going to school when I was younger. Even though I moved around numerous times during my childhood, there were certain things I could always rely on in a classroom. I knew I would be able to hear the sound of pages turning during reading time, experience the satisfaction of writing on a whiteboard, and be taught by somebody that I looked up to. Each of my teachers helped me learn more about the joy of reading and nurtured my desire to learn.
However, none of them taught me how to navigate difficult conversations about race and class. Those skills, unfortunately, had to be learned on the playground when other students would sing derogatory songs about my eyes or call me racial slurs.
One of my first memories in school was when an older boy pulled his eyes back and called me a chink. I didn’t know what the word meant at the time, but the hate in his voice signaled it wasn’t good. As an adoptee with a single white mother, I wasn’t sure who I could turn to to process these occurrences. I only knew that I was othered because of my national origin and appearance. Most of the time, I just kept silent when it happened.
After each school year, I would write down my favorite thing about their class, my favorite subject, and what friends I made. Looking back at my journal a few years ago, I realized that I did not have a single teacher of color until my senior year of high school. With approximately 82% of public school teachers being white, talking about race and how it affects social dynamics in and outside of school is critical for all students to contextualize their own experiences. It is especially important for white educators, who may not have experienced any forms of discrimination based on their race, that they become well-versed in how to advocate for their students of color.
Most teachers in American public schools are middle-aged white women (source: edweek.org)
My struggles with being ostracized in school social settings could have been mitigated if I had a better understanding of who I could turn to and if my peers had a deeper understanding of race and class. Though some people may argue that a colorblind approach will decrease racism/discrimination issues, my experience and multiple studies have shown the contrary. My white mother and school administrators believed that not talking about race would help students see each other as equals. But circumventing these discussions only made it more apparent that I had a different racial and cultural background than my peers. I was not equipped to handle these conversations when they came up and desperately wished that somebody could have guided my understanding of belonging.
Children pick up how race affects social interactions from an early age—regardless of whether they’re taught why. According to the Children’s Community School:
Children as young as two years use race to reason about people’s behaviors.
By kindergarten, children show many of the same racial attitudes that adults hold—they have already learned to associate some groups with higher status than others.
By five, Black and Latinx children in research settings show no preference toward their own groups compared to Whites; White children at this age remain strongly biased in favor of whiteness.
Explicit conversations with 5–7-year-olds about interracial friendship can dramatically improve their racial attitudes in as little as a single week.
Moving around constantly meant that I witnessed multiple schools handle these issues in similarly surface-level ways. In my history courses, we briefly skimmed over the California Gold Rush immigration of Chinese people and learned that the Civil Rights Movement put people of color on a level playing field with white people. We didn’t interrogate the effects of hundreds of years of segregation because we were told that it didn’t exist anymore. I knew that this wasn’t true because of my own experiences, but was not given the space to talk about how race influenced day-to-day life.
Critical Race Theory was created to dig deep into the lasting effects of racial discrimination and how it affects our current reality. When I learned about this framework in college, I wished that I had teachers who had known how to structure lessons around it. In the 1980s, Mari Matsuda, Neil Gotanda, and Kimberlé Crenshaw were some of the first organizers to push for an analysis of how race, gender, and class impact the issues Asian American women face.
Asian Americans were always part of the conversation when it came to understanding and fighting against systems that harmed marginalized people. When using CRT as a framework for lessons, students are able to see how history has influenced the way they live now. It is not meant to demonize individual people, but rather build awareness about ways that groups have been historically discriminated against and imagine ways to construct a better future. As Stephen Sawchuk, a Georgetown and Columbia graduate writing on education policy, explains, “The core idea is that racism is a social construct and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.” The racism that Asian American communities face during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, can be traced back to public health policies decades ago that inaccurately depicted Chinese Americans and Chinatowns as “filthy and diseased” during San Francisco’s smallpox outbreak during the late 19th century.
This book discusses how Asians are treated as "scapegoats" in every outbreak of infectious diseases. (Source: ucpress.edu)
Implementing CRT also means developing a deeper understanding of how policies in K–12 education can increase racial inequalities in student outcomes and how we can solve them. The disproportionate expulsions of Black students, underfunding of the majority–Black and Latino districts, and racially segregated schools are all areas that should be addressed.
Liz Kleinrock, a Korean American teacher in DC, explained, “We’re seeing the danger of people who took limited textbook histories and took them as unshakeable truth even with contrary evidence. History CANNOT be taught as a subject where students are passively absorbing information. I hope all teachers take this opportunity to talk to students about how we continue to gain information about the past, and how it informs our present thinking.”
The things you learn in schools aren’t limited to just academic lessons. Schools are places where children learn social, emotional, and academic skills as they grow. In my childhood, I learned about the joy of picking up a new hobby, how to craft a pun that made my sister snort, and how to share my crayons. For people from historically marginalized communities, you may also learn about shame and ostracization. I learned that I shouldn’t bring up being a transracial adoptee unless I wanted people to ask me invasive personal questions. I learned that kids would bully me about my physical appearance. I learned that my teachers expected me to be in English as a Second Language course without asking about my family background.
With Critical Race Theory being used to shape lessons in more schools, I know that current students will have a more solid foundation to understand how their identity impacts their education. Looking back, I wish that I had teachers who understood Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the positive impact it can have on students' lives.
This framework is not meant to divide and incite fear, but rather educate students on how they can create a more equitable world through their day-to-day actions.