Educators Lead the Way to Interdisciplinary Critical Race Theory

I just attended the 10th Annual Critical Race Studies in Education Conference (CRSEA): #ResistanceMatters: Disrupting State-Sanctioned Racialized Violence Through Education Research, Theory, and Practice. It was only a few months ago that I found out there was an organization and conference devoted to applying Critical Race Theory to an educational setting (with an emphasis on K-12). I’m so grateful to have discovered this amazing conference and organization. I’ve been studying CRT for more than 15 years; I completed an English PhD dissertation on CRT and contemporary literature and have been exploring interdisciplinary CRT work ever since. Having just presented my work at Yale’s CRT conference in April, it was great to see another CRT conference doing exciting work, this time outside of CRT’s original legal origin. (If you missed my blog on the importance of CRT, please check it out here.)

More disciplines need to follow CRSEA and apply CRT to their respective fields. This conference has clearly grown over the last ten years, and it needs to keep growing. Educators (K-12 and higher ed alike) need to become more familiar with CRT and engage with its call to identify the systemic nature of racism and take action. If everyone in a given school system did that, it would be much harder for that school to participate in the school-to-prison pipeline. I hope the introductory manual I’m currently writing, which focuses on race and systemic racism, with tools for action, could be helpful in Teacher Ed programs as well as serve as professional development for current educators who want to develop their approach to understanding racism.

Here, I would like to share some highlights from this conference and reflect on how this work continues to push me as a white educator.

One of the primary questions that kept coming up in presentations was: Who is meant to be in college and grad school and who isn’t? As a white person raised in middle-class suburban NJ by white parents who went to college and grad school, I was meant to attend college and grad school. Not only was I meant to be in the classroom, but I was also meant to be in front of the classroom. The school is a site of state-sanctioned racialized violence (physical and symbolic). If my presence at the front of the classroom affirms white supremacy, what can I do in that space to challenge white supremacy? How can I make the space liberating for my students not meant to be there? These are the kinds of questions I need to think about every day in order to be less complicit in white supremacy.

This conference organized three plenaries to center the importance of activism: Student Activism, Faculty and Scholar Activism, and Engaged Community Activism. The students were an absolute inspiration. As a faculty member, I kept thinking that we need to figure out how to support student activists more effectively, across the country. These students spoke of faculty who challenged their activism, didn’t provide support, and otherwise served as obstacles to justice. We need to address that. Then, faculty who are scholar activists (which include many if not all of the faculty at this conference) spoke passionately about the challenges they face in balancing their scholarship and activism and the very difficult challenges of the tenure and promotion process. Again, more obstacles to justice that senior faculty have at least some control and power over, so that’s another area we need to work on. And finally, grad students and faculty spoke about community activism. Throughout all of these plenaries, the people doing the most activism were still questioning whether that was enough.

During the conference, there were some recurring questions that we need to spend more time considering:

  • How can we end the school-to-prison pipeline?
  • What does resistance look like?
  • How can we create a “brave” classroom space?
  • How can we bend the arc of history toward justice?

Finally, from the plenaries and concurrent sessions, I thought these specific aspects of systemic racism were especially noteworthy since they don’t often get attention:

  • “White innocence” perpetuating white supremacy (Richard Orozco)
  • White savior complex manifesting itself in volunteer tourism (Molly Gallegos)
  • Pressure on women of color faculty to produce “affective labor” (Bianca Williams)
  • Historical amnesia of claiming white fragility as civil rights issue (Cheryl Matias)
  • “System working to correct itself” (Cristina Mislan)
  • “We protest and are complicit at the same time” (Zeus Leonardo)

I also want to call attention to the following organizers and presenters for their valuable contributions: Daniella Cook, Frank Tuitt, Tom Romero, Katherine Rainey, Erica Van Steenis, Julia Daniel, Esther Ohito, Jamie Utt, Keffrelyn Brown, Michael Barnes, Romana Beltran, Lisa Calderon, Jasmine Haywood, Ruth López, Subini Annamma, Meredith McCoy, Justin Coles, Monica Ridgeway, Theodora Regina Berry, Marvin Lynn, David Stovall, Christine Zuni Cruz, and Gerardo López. Finally, as a panelist remarked at the end of the conference, if you haven’t read the “red book,” otherwise known as Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, then start there. I’m honored that I had the opportunity to see Derrick Bell speak at the University of Delaware about 15 years ago, and he is one of those key founders. His counter-narratives of science fiction and legal analysis helped me understand the interdisciplinary potential of CRT, and I will always be thankful for that.

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