Removing Truth from the Classroom: Student Response to the South Carolina Anti-Truth Bill

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As someone who has been a student in South Carolina for the past eighteen or so years, the future of the K-12 education within the state is something I care deeply about. More specifically, I am concerned about the education of the next generation, what lessons they are being taught, and how this will impact them both personally and socially. Currently, access to historically accurate, intersectional, and critically examined education is under threat, and thus I want to share my major concerns about the “South Carolina Transparency and Integrity In Education Act,” also known by many of us as the “Anti-Truth Bill.”

Section 59-29-600 of House Bill 5183 states that it is the intent of the general Assembly that “all students learn in a positive learning environment where they are made to feel welcomed, supported, and respected.”  These words are highly appealing as this type of environment should be the norm, but it is also important to address the irony behind them. Historically, a sense of belonging, support, and respect has never been prioritized for marginalized identities across all levels. Let us consider the lack of comprehensive sex education — if sex education was taught at all. Those heteronormative sex education lessons never considered the identities of queer students and left them feeling as if their love and attraction for others was wrong and bad. There is also the case of gender roles being both overtly and covertly taught by teachers. Through the presentation of a cisgender binary, young girls are taught that they are in almost every way inferior to young boys through dress code mandates, requests from teachers for a group of “strong boys” to move classroom furniture, and the reiteration of “boys will be boys” as opposed to proper discipline. This binary also allows transgender and non-binary children to have their gender identities completely ignored and discredited. In addition, and arguably most prominent in a southern state such as South Carolina, think of the many English classes where children of color had to listen to their white classmates and/or teachers read racial slurs from their literature books such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I want to emphasize that I am not making a commentary on what books should or should not be banned from classrooms. However, young Black children should not be forcibly exposed to white teachers reading the N-word explicitly to the class. How are teachers ensuring that these Black children are “made to feel welcomed, supported, and respected”?

Academic environments have not served queer folk, women, or children of color for years, yet now the comfort of students is being called into consideration? The sudden importance of student comfort is only now being questioned because the social hierarchy and privileges of certain identity groups are being threatened by critical thought and open dialogue within classrooms. Well, one might ask, how do we know that this bill is not meant to serve and protect marginalized identities? My answer would be Section 59-29-620, where the bill prohibits discussion of implicit bias and thus restricts discussion surrounding the discrepancies in housing applications, hiring practices, neighborhood policing, court decisions, and many other social interactions, due to innate prejudices. This section also prohibits the critique of meritocracy and the false idea that “hard work ethic” alone will make you succeed, which we know not to be true due to obstacles presented by systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia Therefore, this bill is a means to protect male egos and white fragility and uphold homophobic ideologies by starting with children as young as five years old.

What also concerns me is the impact this will have mentally, emotionally, and psychologically on young children. If this bill passes, students’ questions and feelings about un-protected identities will be suppressed. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and other children with non-heterosexual identities will not be allowed to ask about their attraction, what it means, and why they feel differently from what is being taught. Transgender children, both binary and non-binary, cannot verbally express the distress they may be having due to body dysphoria. Children of color cannot question or challenge the microaggression they experience both in and out of the classroom. If these students cannot talk about their experiences, then they will not be able to identify the issues in a safe environment or learn why they have faced — and continue to face — negative and unwanted interactions. If they cannot identify their experiences and vocalize what situations and feelings they have endured, then the problems cannot be addressed, and problems such as stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination will continue to be minimized in the classroom. The dismissal of these very real situations will enable white, straight, and cisgender male students (and cisgender female students when considering transphobia) to be comfortable in their bigotry and deny marginalized students the tools to be advocates for more diverse and inclusive environments socially, academically, and professionally.

This suppression will cause students to suffer internally because stereotypes and microaggressions are going to exist whether or not they are talked about in the classroom. Therefore, not creating an environment where students can ask why they are treated differently because their skin color is darker or why they were not allowed to marry someone of the same gender before 2015 will only make it worse for students directly being affected by the bigotry this bill refuses to acknowledge. In this process, it will only affirm the privileges certain people already have and not force straight, white, and/or male students to critically examine their place in society. It will tell students they are on an even playing ground when in reality, students with marginalized identities continue to have obstacles in their path. So, these minority students will be told that in today’s society, everything is fair, equal, and inclusive, while they live something entirely different. They will question why this is: Why am I not succeeding despite my hard work? Am I wrong? Am I bad? Do I even belong? These negative thoughts, suppression, and internalization can result in isolation, depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and so many other mental health issues stacked upon the typical mental distress of being a student in the American education system.

As a product of the American education system in South Carolina, I reflect on my own experiences. Had this bill been implemented as I went through grade school, there are so many vital discussions and lessons I would have missed. I would not have been able to question my sexuality safely, and I would not have been able to grow comfortable with my queerness. I would not have been able to understand why one of my Black classmates was so excited to see Barack Obama become president that she carried around a coffee table book to every class. I would not have been able to reflect on how one of my peers created a different persona online to explore his gender identity and why society made him feel like he had to hide it.

I also probably would not have been able to have the same undergraduate experience. About a month ago, the bill that is currently in senate included language that prohibited the teaching of certain subjects in all educational institutions, including private institutions of higher learning, such as my university, since they all receive some state funds – minimally in the form of financial aid.  In the newest version, only K-12 education is affected, meaning that higher education institutions are not included. Because of the ongoing changes to the bill, however, I still find it important to discuss the way the bill could have affected South Carolina universities; it is very possible that those institutions will be included again in a bill that keeps getting amended, or in a future bill. As I discuss the possible implications this bill could have had on higher education, please remember that while South Carolina colleges and universities are not currently targeted, they have been previously and could be again.

I think the most obvious impact the bill would have had on my time at Furman University is that two of my majors would not exist: Africana Studies (AFS) and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies (WGS). However, it is not just the AFS and WGS labeled courses that would be affected. As a liberal arts institution, interdisciplinary coursework is offered and encouraged. Therefore, classes such as Race, Class, and Gender in the Media (Communication Studies), African American Religious History (Religious Studies), Stereotyping, Prejudice, and Discrimination (Psychology), and Women in Economics (Economics) would not be offered. The entire liberal arts experience would simply be non-existent.

Now, there would have been a technical loophole for universities like Furman: if they wanted to keep teaching these classes and subjects, they would simply need to stop receiving state funding. However, the hidden effect would be the financial impact that has on students. If Furman did not receive state funds, then a portion of my financial aid would disappear, and I would not even be able to attend a university like Furman. Thus, only students who can pay tuition without that aid would be able to take these classes, and comprehensive education becomes a privilege to those who can afford it.

From implicitly pushing an “us vs. them” narrative, to prioritizing the mental health of certain students, to creating financial privileges, this bill clearly does not serve all children. It would not have served my education or many of my peers. It protects discrimination. It furthers the prejudicial divide. It does not support or respect those who need it most. This bill is a promotion of a segregated state hidden behind a pseudo-inclusive façade, and that is why I am concerned about the future for the next generation.

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