A social studies teacher is fired for stating that white privilege is an established fact in his “Contemporary Issues” class and for showing a poetry performance by a Black woman.
An English high school teacher is fired after parents complained about her reading and writing assignments on an award-winning young adult novel in her elective contemporary literature course.
A principal is forced to resign after parents started issuing complaints, which began when someone posted a comment on social media about a professionally taken photo of him and his wife, an inter-racial couple, celebrating their anniversary. The district told him to remove the photo. Then parents complained he was teaching critical race theory and promoting the belief that white people are inherently racist.
A science teacher is accused and arrested after students reported, with video evidence, that the teacher had posited that science was based on facts, whereas religion was not. Students were outraged at what they considered an attempt to malign their religion. What enabled their outcry was a law that stated that “outraging the religious feelings” was punishable. During the investigation, “some of the students admitted that they had recorded the class lecture intentionally and in a pre-planned way.”
Throughout the U.S, laws are popping up that target the teaching of “divisive concepts,” which purportedly include topics such as race, gender, sexuality, and dark moments in American history or anything else that could make students “uncomfortable.” These laws also prohibit the teaching of ideological “viewpoints.” In a country that claims to be a defender of free speech, states are passing laws that will silence students and teachers and censor a wide range of literature. Indeed, even before laws were signed, nervous school board administrators and librarians culled libraries of books in an attempt to pre-empt criticism.
Supporters of these bans do not understand – or they choose to ignore – some basic ideas about teaching. First, there is no such thing as objective history, and teaching the history of any nation as if it was all based in facts is at best wishful thinking, if not downright intentionally misleading. We are constantly uncovering new details that fundamentally change our understandings of past events. We find new primary sources and new original documents. We discover material that helps us fill in historical gaps. Because most of history is a record of those in power (e.g., the movers and shakers and the winners), we constantly deepen and widen our knowledge when we include experiences, actions, and contributions of people previously omitted in our history books. This is not unlike the sciences, where each discovery leads to a more complex understanding of how things (our bodies, the environment, space, diseases) work. Education is not simply about conveying facts. It is about exposing the processes through which information is gathered, while recognizing the limits of our current knowledge. To teach otherwise would be teaching a lie.
As an example of our evolving understanding of our world, take, for instance, the concept of race. In the 18th and 19thcenturies, European and Euro-American scientists believed that some races were biologically inferior and used a variety of methods, such as craniometry (the measurement of the cranium), to try to prove racial evolution and to justify racism and slavery. Today, however, we know that race is not a biological fact: humans are not divided into racial genetic clusters. Instead, race is entirely a social construction, and the roots of this system of classification come from settler colonialism and a politics of discrimination. Further, science is revealing the multiple ways in which racism affects people biologically through everyday harm. So, while race cannot be measured by studying genes or other biological differences, racism can be seen physiologically. Yet students regularly enter my classroom with outdated and objectively wrong ideas about race. Learning how ideas of race and racism have changed over time and cultures is critically important for correcting assumptions still held by society today. To ignore this material – to avoid conversations about race and racism because they might make students feel “uncomfortable” – is harmful to everyone. It severely limits all our students’ future ability to participate fully in society.
Second, the most effective teaching occurs when students have hands-on experiences and find the subject matter relevant to their lives. In some classes, this might occur in discussion and debate. Most students today are very curious about topics of race, gender, and sexuality, and they want to learn more. They want to understand people different from themselves, but they generally do not know how. This is especially true for white students who grow up in predominantly white communities. In fall of 2020, I was teaching an introduction to cultural anthropology course. I have always started the course by diving into race because it is an excellent way to get students to realize how culture shapes our views and our experiences. Because that particular semester began after the brutal killing of George Floyd, race and racism were on students’ minds more than ever. White students in particular had lots of questions; they wanted to discuss, listen to different perspectives and experiences, and understand. During discussions, white students talked about how they never thought about race before; growing up, their skin color was a non-issue; a few said they were color blind. They spent their childhoods in predominantly white schools, neighborhoods, and churches, and the majority never considered race to matter. In contrast, Black students described being confronted by race daily and constantly, except perhaps at home. Not only were they disproportionately aware of their skin color, as compared to their white classmates, but their experiences were colored by numerous incidents of racism. White students in my class that semester found this difference in experiences to be eye-opening.
Teaching is not simply pouring facts into an empty vessel; students already have ideas and questions, and it’s our responsibility as educators to provide them with opportunities to question, critique, assess, and come to their own conclusions. Schools, colleges, and university campuses are ideal arenas for thoughtful debate that can span across the ideological (“viewpoint”) spectrum, and educators work hard to create environments for all views to be shared while ensuring that crucial tools of logic and research are being used. But the laws that are currently being passed throughout the U.S. will effectively censor these constructive discussions and prevent students from learning and asking questions in a safe environment. If they don’t have this opportunity in school – in a place where they are supposed to learn, question, and debate – then when will they?
Vagueness is Dangerous
Some of the laws being passed in U.S. states have long lists of prohibited topics, and as guidance for watchful parents and administrators, lists of prohibited words (including “woke,” “equity,” “patriarchy,” “cultural awareness,” and “multiculturalism”) have been distributed. But one of the worst components of the laws is the vagueness. When a law is vague, it is vulnerable to abuse. The legal prohibition against making students “uncomfortable” is eerily similar to the penal code in the Indian subcontinent, first crafted by the British colonialists but left mostly intact in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The last example given at the start of this essay, about a science teacher who explained the differences between science and religion, took place in Bangladesh, where this law still operates (all other examples were from the U.S.). In India, there are numerous court cases and arrests of citizens accused of “hurting religious sentiments” – usually the religious sentiments of the majority. For example, eating beef – food for many Muslims, Christians, Adivasi, and Hindus (beef is an inexpensive source of protein in India) – has recently become a flashpoint issue for Hindu nationalists who have built up a fake argument that beef eating hurts the religious sentiments of Hindus. In 2015, Manohar Lal Khattar, Chief Minister of Haryana state and a senior leader in the BJP party (the current ruling party in India), stated that “Eating beef hurts the sentiments of another community, even constitutionally you cannot do this. The constitution says you cannot do something that offends me, I cannot do something that offends you.” By connecting beef eating to a law against hurting people’s religious sentiments, there has been a dramatic rise in arrests, lynchings, and other extrajudicial violence against beef-eaters in India, resulting in many deaths, particularly of Indian Muslims.
From the standpoint of Europe and the U.S., where eating beef is normalized as part of culture for most (vegetarians excluded), the example of beef eating as a cause for vigilante justice or arrests may seem absurd. But in fact it is a good example of the slippery slope of language in laws that use safeguarding emotions as a legal requirement. I cannot imagine anything more subjective than this. Who gets to judge if someone’s religious sentiments are hurt? What if something that hurts one person is a religiously endorsed practice by another person, and abstaining from the practice would hurt that second person? Who gets to decide if a student is uncomfortable because of a subject matter or a pedagogical approach to learning about an issue? What if eliminating whatever caused a student’s discomfort leads to another student being uncomfortable? Or worse, what if eliminating opportunities to discuss or answer student questions about race, LGBTQ+, or other identities, or about discrimination causes a student so much distress that they suffer emotional hardship and suicidal ideation? The physiological effects of racism have been tied to higher morbidity and mortality among African Americans, including higher rates of maternal deaths in childbirth and complications from COVID-19, as well physical and verbal attacks. According to a study about transgender suicide rates, published in PubMed in 2020, “Fifty six percent of [transgender] youth reported a previous suicide attempt and 86% reported suicidality.” So, who gets to judge which sentiments are more important?
In Texas, after a parent complained about an anti-racism book being used in the classroom, which led to the reprimanding of a 4th grade teacher, the school administration instructed teachers to follow the law: “‘Just try to remember the concepts of [House Bill] 3979,’ Gina Peddy said in the recording, referring to a new Texas law that requires teachers to present multiple perspectives when discussing ‘widely debated and currently controversial’ issues. ‘And make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust,’ Peddy continued, ‘that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.’” Texas Republican and author of the bill sought to clarify that the bill was not focusing on matters of “good and evil.” But the debate on the school board revealed how confusing the matter was. Further, if the Holocaust is a matter of “good and evil,” isn’t also slavery and racism? In fact, what led that particular school board to provide more inclusive material in their curriculum was a video that had circulated in 2018 of Southlake high school students chanting the N-word, followed by Black residents coming forward with their experiences of harassment and bullying. How much time and energy will be wasted trying to figure out which emotions matter, how to navigate students’ emotions, and whether their discomfort warrants punishment of a teacher and/or their school?
What will happen – and is already happening – is that teachers will self-censor. Undoubtedly, this is the desired effect of these laws. Teachers will decide not to enter into the minefield of histories of African Americans, slavery, historical and contemporary sexism, or any other related “divisive” topic, for fear of being accused of violating the law. So, what happens when a student, learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., asks about contemporary movements such as Black Lives Matter? Does the teacher simply not respond? Apparently. The risks – lawsuits, job termination, fees, harassment, and withdrawal of state funding for schools – are too great. Educators should not have to worry about navigating these vague and confusing laws with lists of prohibited topics and “discomfort” as a measurement of wrongdoing.
While the vague language imbedded in these laws is problematic enough, the poison is in the power handed over to parents to sue teachers and schools for what they – or their children – consider to be violations. The U.S. is one of the most litigious country in the world, and not only has our healthcare suffered for it (e.g., approximately 80% of OB-GYNs (obstetricians and gynecologists) are sued during their medical careers, propelling many to abandon the healthcare profession), but now we’re subjecting our children’s future to this same threat. The bill in Florida, recently signed into law by Governor DeSantis, gives people the right to sue schools and teachers over what they teach based on student “discomfort.” A disgruntled student only needs to record a lecture, take it out of context, and ignite a lawsuit against a teacher or school.
Actually, sometimes we should feel uncomfortable
It was September 2020, and we were working on our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) workshops at my university when President Trump signed an executive action prohibiting such training. According to the order, the administration considered such training to be “divisive, anti-American propaganda” based in “malign ideology” that “threatens to infect core institutions of our country.” This ideology, the order said, “is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country.” Once the order was signed, federal agencies, corporations, and educators scrambled to figure out what it meant and how to comply. So did we.
We were motivated by a commitment and desire to create a more inclusive community, in the face of compelling evidence that under-represented students, faculty, and staff found the institution to be an alienating and sometimes hostile place; the executive order threatened to stymie our efforts. One colleague suggested we call the workshop something else. Another offered that we wait until after the next elections, in case there would be a change in administration.
After the election, the presidential executive order was revoked. In its place, however, are a host of new state bills being proposed or passed throughout the U.S. The language in these bills is nearly identical to what was in the 2020 executive order. The threat is not gone.
So, what is it that we’re doing that is so threatening?
Diversity, equity, and inclusion training is based on extensive evidence that even if all adults are equal under law, in reality there are vast differences in people’s opportunities, resources, and privileges and how they are treated by others. Some differences are based on historical and societal circumstances; others are due to assumptions people have about others who belong to groups different from their own. This work acknowledges the cultural constructedness of people: we are not born in a vacuum, and other people see us through the lenses of their own experiences, opinions, and assumptions. None of this implies that an individual is to blame. Rather, the focus is on recognizing how we as individuals are shaped by our limited experiences, potentially leading us to treat others in ways that, because of their own culturally rooted experiences, cause them harm or hurt.
There is, therefore, a moral reason for working toward increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion on our campuses and other settings: our shared humanity. If one group suffers, then we all suffer; if we all have equity, then we all benefit. The other reason is pragmatic: we are most successful in whatever we do when we look at an issue from different standpoints. (More on that below.) We do this best when we all feel comfortable and safe enough to share our diverse perspectives.
So what do we do? We learn to see each other as humans. We learn to recognize when and how our actions and words may be offensive or discriminatory. We learn to look beyond the strange name we cannot pronounce on a résumé and instead evaluate fairly a job candidate’s credentials. We learn to pause before concluding that a working mother isn’t serious about her job simply because she is at home, when in fact she may be working hard at her job from her home. We learn to notice that under-represented teachers may have additional burdens because they unofficially mentor students from under-represented groups at a higher rate and for longer hours than their white peers. We learn that some students come from high schools where they never learned what a syllabus is or how to navigate academic resources such as a professor’s office hours, the library, or the financial aid office. This is about fairness, but it require work.
Although the moral reasons for inclusivity and equity should be compelling enough, there are practical ones also. Here it appears that corporations are ahead of educational institutions in realizing and putting into practice the benefits of diversity and inclusion. Many well-researched studies have demonstrated that diverse corporations perform better. One such study, conducted by McKinsey & Company, studied the correlations between diversity and financial success of 366 companies in Canada, Latin America, the UK, and the US. Their report, published in 2015, shows that “companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.” Why might this be the case? They suggest that “More diverse companies, we believe, are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making, and all that leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns. This in turn suggests that other kinds of diversity—for example, in age, sexual orientation, and experience (such as a global mind-set and cultural fluency)—are also likely to bring some level of competitive advantage for companies that can attract and retain such diverse talent.” Because of findings like this, corporations have been engaging in diversity and inclusion training for some time. They want to attract and retain the best employees.
The second practical reason for improving diversity and equity is particularly relevant to the U.S.: we’re reaching a demographic cliff, and institutions of higher learning need to catch up. According to reports, colleges that are 85% white will struggle to survive because students, and parents will not see them as places to prepare students for the world, including being able to participate in those diverse corporations mentioned above.
If obsolescence is the risk that comes from the status quo, how do we change the demographics of our academic institutions? How do we increase the diversity of faculty and students? It’s actually not at all a simple process. Hiring and recruiting students, faculty, staff, and administrators from historically under-represented groups is not a one-step process. No matter how diverse and excellent our candidate and prospective student pool may be, the tendency is to hire and accept people you think will “fit” into your institution – that is, those who look and think most like “us,” with the name we can pronounce, the life journey and background we can relate to, and so on. If we manage to overcome that bias, then we also must address how to retain our excellent colleagues and students. That involves creating a genuinely inclusive and equitable place where all members of our community feel they belong and can thrive. This requires education, hard and honest conversations, deep self-reflection, and a willingness to listen and be open to change — especially for the status quo.
Working toward a community in which each person feels respected because of their qualities and contributions, where each different and individual person feels like they belong, is not easy. We make mistakes. We sometimes say the wrong things. We’re human. But preparing for that greater world happens in the classroom as we delve into different “viewpoints.” To be sure, teaching about “divisive topics” is never easy. Teachers are humans, and we make mistakes. What works really well one year may flop the next. We constantly have to think on our toes because we don’t know what question will be asked, or how something we say will be interpreted by the many different students in our class. Frankly, teaching is one of the most difficult, important – and apparently grossly undervalued – jobs. Teachers have to be aware of the diversity in the classroom, the diverse experiences, viewpoints, and perspectives, and they have to provide this diverse group of individuals with the tools to think independently and responsibly while also helping those students see themselves as part of a collective.
Our democracy will not survive if our educational systems produce citizens that blindly follow dogma (because it’s “comfortable”). But unfortunately, bans on ideas and viewpoints are also bans on independent thinking and the critique of those ideas. How can our students develop an understanding of why a viewpoint is wrong if they’ve never engaged with that idea? One of the best ways to encourage independent thinking is in a diverse and genuinely inclusive community, in a space where each person can learn to exchange viewpoints respectfully and without fear of punishment.
No one ever said any of this would be comfortable. And frankly, it shouldn’t be. Growing pains are exactly that: uncomfortable. No matter one’s age. But the rewards are expansive, exciting, and worth it, for all of us.