Critical race theory encourages kids to think in all-or-nothing terms

Curricula in K-12 schools increasingly approach questions of race by asserting there is a binary dynamic in society in which one subset is made up of oppressed victims and the other of privileged oppressors. Although this framing is part of an effort to sensitize people to instances of racism, what are the consequences of teaching young people that society is divided into these two factions? Children taught to think this way risk growing into adults who split, or think in binary, all-or-nothing terms.

Andrew Hartz describes splitting as “a defense mechanism by which people unconsciously frame ideas, individuals or groups of people in all-or-nothing terms — for example, all good or all bad.” People split because ambiguities cause distress — it’s uncomfortable to think of the oppressor as having virtues and the oppressed as having flaws. However, splitting leads to an incomplete view of the world, and teaching kids to think in all-or-nothing, oppressor versus oppressed, terms fails to prepare them for normal development or participation in a nuanced and pluralistic society. But thinking in binary terms is the likely outcome of curricula that draw from critical race theory, a now common perspective used in schools. Applying this theory encourages children to split, and to fail to develop a mature and realistic view of others and the world.

According to critical race theorists, racism is everywhere, ordinary, permanent, and always just beneath the surface, and race permeates all structures of society, including schools. The goal of critical race theorists and its advocates is to uncover and expose racism through an examination of and focus on systemic power. Inherent within the idea of systemic power is the dynamic of the oppressor, who is typically white and male, and the oppressed, who is typically a person of color. There are two types of critical race theorists. Materialist race critics theorize about how economic, legal, and political systems affect racial minorities, while postmodern race critics are more concerned with linguistic and social systems. Ibram X. Kendi, in his book How to Be an Antiracist, adopts a materialist perspective by asserting that policy is either racist or anti-racist. Professional training on microaggressions advances a postmodernist approach, focusing on minor, verbal racial aggression by whites towards people of color.

Scholars have come to use critical race theory to study a wide range of issues in education by critiquing education to reveal problems and, like with the policy prescriptions of Kendi, to facilitate political change. Gloria Ladson-Billings and William Tate assert that if racism were individual, isolated acts, then one would expect to see examples of black educational excellence in schools, but they claim these examples are not to be found in schools because schools are institutionally and structurally racist. This understanding of structural racism has informed studies of school reform, special education, and education policy, among many other topics. Indeed, a 2006 book chapter by Ladson-Billings and Tate titled, “Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education,” was cited 6,269 times. As such, critical race theory has succeeded in informing educational practice in K-12 schools, but without adequate attention to its unintended consequences.

When children are taught that white people are oppressors — inherently privileged aggressors — and people of color are oppressed — inherently blameless victims — they are not only encouraged to ignore or reject nuance, they learn to view the world in these binary terms and use that way of thinking elsewhere, making it difficult to have conversations or develop solutions to problems. A telling example is how children are taught to think about indigenous people. Every year around Thanksgiving, lessons and activities abound in K-12 schools that elevate the cultures and traditions of native tribes as peaceful, earth-loving artisans and vilify the white European colonizers as disease-ridden, power-hungry thieves. People understandably view this as a welcome change from previous classroom lessons in which the stories of European victors were elevated and those of indigenous people were diminished, but it simply flips the splitting. Now, the lives of indigenous people are romanticized to the point where they have become caricatures who have no flaws or agency and the white settlers are one-dimensional beings, with that single dimension being evil. Thinking of humans only as victims implies that they are not in charge of their own lives and cedes control to the oppressor.

A college student I taught, who we’ll call Jane, illustrates well the negative impact that developing all-or-nothing thinking in childhood can have in adulthood. Jane attended college to become an elementary school teacher, and she completed her pre-service teaching experience on an American Indian reservation. Jane came to college with a love for “native culture.” She admired American Indians’ connection to earth and their arts and crafts, and she was most excited to teach on a reservation so that she could participate in spiritual ceremonies. In her mind, indigenous people were beautiful, peaceful victims. However, within her first couple of weeks teaching on the reservation, she was dismayed by the lack of recycling at her school. In Jane’s mind, loving and worshipping the earth meant recycling. Through this and other experiences, over the course of her semester teaching on the reservation, Jane’s romantic view of indigenous life diminished — she could not split off her experiences to the binary of “victim” so instead focused on shortcomings. She felt no contempt toward her students, but it was difficult for her to see them and their families as having normal human flaws — she struggled to appreciate the nuance of their lives. In a way, Jane’s initial expectation had dehumanized them and made them one-dimensional.

Jane’s criticism of the school for not protecting the environment could be framed as blaming the victim — through a critical race theory lens, there are racial power dynamics to be uncovered that explain the lack of recycling. But a more complete interpretation is that Jane had only been taught to have a split view of indigenous people — they were only earth-loving. So when she had experiences that challenged this perception, she likely felt disoriented and found it difficult to integrate the lack of recycling into a nuanced and complex whole understanding. She was also unprepared to contemplate other explanations for the problem, such as a lack of access to recycling services due to the remote location of the school.

From a child development perspective, teaching through the lens of critical race theory, which elevates splitting to an ideal, interferes with the normal development of mature views of other people. Human beings are not one dimensional, black and white caricatures, despite the fact that’s what critical race theory asserts. Groups are diverse, and individuals within groups possess a complex array of good and bad qualities. K-12 educators should reconsider the impact of this well-intentioned theory and its unintended consequences, and focus on encouraging students to see their fellow humans in a more nuanced way.

Scholar of the politics of education and publisher of EduThirdSpace, a newsletter and podcast.

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