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A Stark Divide: On Critical Race Theory in the Classroom

photograph of students studying at desks in classroom

“Hear me clearly: America is not a racist nation.” So declared Senator Tim Scott in his address last month. Refusing to acknowledge a messy explanation of how institutional racism contributes to significant racial disparities in criminal justice, healthcare, education, and economic outcomes, Scott chose the tidier, more familiar framing of racism as an all-or-nothing character trait. As though racism must always take the form of a conscious and deliberate act. As though offenders must have violence on their mind and evil in their hearts. As though longstanding inequities could be the simple work of a few bad apples.

But Scott’s pronouncement wasn’t designed for nuance, it was meant to serve a particular political function: contesting the need for race-based education in our schools.

“A hundred years ago, kids in classrooms were taught the color of their skin was their most important characteristic. And if they looked a certain way, they were inferior. Today, kids again are being taught that the color of their skin defines them, and if they look a certain way, they’re an oppressor.”

Race-based education, Scott claims, is infected with the very same racial essentialism it seeks to expunge. Whatever their intentions, these educational programs are thought to be reductive — they reduce individuality and personal responsibility to a matter of skin color and treat race as though it were the only relevant characteristic defining one’s social identity. But, as Scott argued, “It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination.” As such, race-based education stands accused of being divisive. By focusing exclusively on our differences, it pits us against each other rather than bringing us together. Perhaps most damning of all, race-based education challenges an article of faith: that the social, political, and economic rewards reaped in this life are proportional to the sweat of one’s brow.

These charges, however, misunderstand (and sometimes willfully misconstrue) the purpose and aims of race-based education. Critical race theory, the unnamed villain in Scott’s address, is designed to question the ways we perceive our society and the ways we are perceived. These reflections provide us the opportunity to develop and strengthen our racial and social literacy. At its very core, critical race theory challenges each of us to appreciate our situatedness (or perhaps “thrownness”). There is no view from nowhere; we all speak from a specific perspective informed by a unique lived experience, and we each possess a particular point of view. If we are to truly come together and bridge that gap, then we must learn to recognize these differences and begin to develop a shared language with which to communicate — identifying the barriers to the inclusive and just society we wish to share, as well as articulating the work needed to dismantle them.

Critics often assert that critical race theory is not a proper pedagogical model because it focuses on what to learn rather than how to learn. In truth, however, it offers us an alternative lens by which to gain perspective on our social situation and consider the ways things could be otherwise. In this way, critical race theory delivers real educational goods: the civilizing of students, the enlargement of imagination and empathy, the cultivation of rich and meaningful autonomy, and the development of independent judgment by challenging dogmatic ways of thinking and perceiving.

The political war being waged on race-based education is not new. Senator Scott’s statements echo Trump’s proclamations that critical race theory represents “radical indoctrination,” and Scott’s words speak in support of Trump’s (since rescinded) ban on the “un-American propaganda” in diversity and inclusion initiatives. Critical race theory is smeared as left-wing proselytizing, the toxic by-product of the Great Awokening spilling out of the ivory tower and threatening education reform from grade school on up. To escape being swallowed up by PC culture and white guilt, there is but one recourse: Resist. And many conservative state legislatures are responding by outlawing any and all attempts to broach the subject of slavery and segregation in American history in the classroom.

In the wake of recent events, many schools have been prompted to reconsider their traditional course offerings. Unfortunately, proposed changes to the education curriculum are continually cast as a struggle over the soul of the nation. Just last month, Cornel West and Jeremy Tate referred to Howard University’s dissolving of its classics department as a “spiritual catastrophe,” signaling the “spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness run amok in American culture.” Contrary to faculty’s explanation, they depict Howard’s decision as a loss of faith. Lacking the strength of conviction to defend the sacred texts, Howard succumbed to pressure from the woke mob. The barbarians are at the gates.

In defending the discipline from would-be reformers, West and Tate emphasize the formative power the study has for its disciples. “Engaging with the classics and with our civilizational heritage” they argue, “is the means to finding our true voice. It is how we become our full selves, spiritually free and morally great.” But the idea that one must assimilate oneself into Western culture in order to find one’s true identity and have anything meaningful to say is precisely the problem. It may very well be true that only through understanding our place in history can we ever hope to know ourselves, but the question that remains is: whose history?

This question is especially pressing for a discipline like classics. Even scholars within the field are beginning to question the ways in which the study lends itself to supporting white supremacy narratives, promotes Eurocentrism, and is instrumental to the construction of whiteness. As classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta has argued, “the production of whiteness turns on closer examination to reside in the very marrows of classics.” So how might we separate the meat from the bone and dismantle the power structures that seem inextricably fused to the life-blood of the discipline?

This discussion regarding what should be excised and what can be rescued within the classics curriculum reflects the substantial difficulty facing us in the larger societal conversation. Unfortunately, these questions are often explored in terms of who is cancelling whom — is the left out to expel all conservatives from the academy, or is the right suppressing academic freedom by claiming that all education is merely liberal ideology? But this way of assessing the debate only encourages us to retreat to our separate political corners. Commentary devolves into scorekeeping: whose tribe is winning? At present, public debate is paralyzed, consumed in accusing the other side of one of two untenable extremes: continuing to actively ignore an oppressive status quo, or burning everything to the ground.

Sephora and Diversity Training

photograph of exterior of Sephora outlet

If you were trying to buy cosmetics from retailer Sephora on the morning of June 5th then you may have found yourself mildly inconvenienced: retail locations across the US were shut down for an hour between 10 and 11 a.m. for employee diversity training, something that had been planned, according to the company, for months beforehand. That the shutdown had been planned for so long came as a surprise, as many had assumed that Sephora had decided to implement diversity training as a response to an incident involving musician SZA earlier in April. At that time, a Sephora employee called security on SZA, apparently to make sure that she wasn’t stealing, an action that seems clear was motivated by racial bias. Sephora apologized for the incident on Twitter, with the diversity training coming soon afterwards, although officially the timing is merely coincidental.

If this all sounds familiar, well that’s probably because you’ve heard it before. About a year ago, Starbucks closed their stores for half a day for mandatory diversity training after a similar incident: an employee in a Philadelphia location called the police because two black men were in their store, sitting and talking to one another. And if incidents of people calling the police on black men and women for completely innocuous activities in general sounds familiar, that’s also because you’ve probably been hearing about them a lot lately: perhaps an incident in which a Yale student called the cops on a fellow student napping in the library rings a bell, or maybe you’re reminded of one of the many, many recent incidents of “___-ing while black” (you can fill in that blank with pretty much any mundane activity).

With these kinds of incidents occurring frequently, we might think that diversity training of the kind implemented by Sephora and Starbucks would be a good thing. Nevertheless, we might still have reason to be concerned about Sephora’s actions in this case.

First, we might naturally be skeptical as to whether Sephora really cares about diversity training, or is simply trying to do damage control. The fact that the mandatory training came soon after a publicly embarrassing incident for the company, combined with the fact that the training was only an hour long, seems to indicate that they are not taking their responsibilities terribly seriously.

We might think, though, that any diversity training is better than none at all, and that Sephora is doing the right thing in attempting to make some things better, even if they could do more. Many news outlets reporting on the incident, however, point to research on the effectiveness of diversity training appearing to be somewhat conflicted: for example, one frequently-cited study reported that while diversity training programs are now extremely common in companies in the US, they do not generally result in greater diversity within the company itself, and warn that mandatory diversity training can induce resentment in employees, which could actually make biases worse. On the other hand another series of studies report that taking certain measures in diversity training such as “perspective-taking” (namely “the process of mentally walking in someone else’s shoes”) and “goal setting” (which involves having employees “set specific, measurable, and challenging (yet attainable) goals related to diversity in the workplace”) can result in concrete improvements, with employees “displaying more support and engaging in less mistreatment towards marginalized minorities.”

There are a couple of lessons we can take away from this, and at least one that we should not. Let’s start with the lesson we should not draw from this, which is that diversity training is, on the whole, a waste of time, or that it does more harm than good because it always breeds resentment from employees. If we are considering what responsibility Sephora has to account for the actions of their employee, then we should not take the mere fact that there is disagreement in scientific studies about the efficacy of diversity training to say that Sephora is not required to take strides to provide its employees with such training. Indeed, it seems that an obvious way to rectify their past mistake and attempt to prevent such mistakes from happening again in the future is to provide employees with the relevant diversity training.

What we should take away is that, like most things, diversity training will only be effective if it is done conscientiously and in a way that is informed by data and evidence. Furthermore, the problems that diversity training is meant to address cannot be solved in as little time as an hour, or half a day: effective diversity training will likely take time and effort, which is not something that can all be accomplished between 10 and 11 a.m. on a Wednesday.

How, then, should we think of the actions of Sephora in this case? Have they done what they ought to have done in response to the SZA incident? While apologizing and implementing diversity training seems like the right way to respond, it is hard to see how one could in good faith really believe that a single hour of diversity training could accomplish the goal of preventing such incidents from occurring in the future. It seems, then, that not only could Sephora have done more, but that they really should have known that what they were doing was not good enough.