Skip to main content

Critical Race Theory Opens Up New Opportunities for Student Learning

Amid the heated national controversy about CRT in schools, some Black educators are openly using the framework to help students better understand history and contextualize current events.

Contrary to popular progressive belief, some Black and Brown educators are explicitly and unapologetically using CRT in their classrooms to deepen students’ historical knowledge and help them build skills to make sense of the world around them.,PHOTO BY FG TRADE/GETTY IMAGES

Most American students graduate high school without ever learning a complete and unvarnished account of their nation’s history. Systemic racism within the educational system, the historical erasure of Black and Brown narratives, and the manipulation of curriculum standards and textbook content have long undermined even the best efforts to teach the full truth about the history and the persistent legacy of genocide and enslavement in the United States. Recent Conservative efforts to redefine and weaponize the educational approach to history dubbed “critical race theory” has made this job even harder. 

There was a time when CRT referred only to a relatively obscure legal framework for analyzing structural and institutional racism, pioneered by scholars such as Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado. Then, in 2020, journalist Christopher Rufo strategically expanded the definition to include anything that disrupts whitewashed interpretations of American history and current events—and to intentionally ignite partisan debate and mobilize conservative activism around education policy and curriculum content. 

When Conservatives fomented national furor over alleged widespread CRT indoctrination taking place in K-12 schools, many progressives dismissively insisted that the decades-old legal framework was taught only in higher education institutions—completely missing the opportunity to reclaim the narrative and publicly endorse more culturally responsive education at all levels.

“We can’t just uplift and say, ‘We need to be neutral, don’t teach CRT,’” says Cierra Kaler-Jones, a social justice educator and director of storytelling at the Communities for Just Schools Fund. “Actually, we should be moving in a more radical [direction], saying that there are ways to teach critical race theory in schools.”

Contrary to popular progressive belief, some Black and Brown educators are explicitly and unapologetically using CRT in their classrooms to deepen students’ historical knowledge and help them build skills to make sense of the world around them.

High school history and social studies teacher Jania Hoover regularly fields questions about topical issues, like police brutality, in her classroom. Students are “smart and mature enough to handle the truth,” she wrote in an op-ed for Vox. “A well-meaning parent should want their children to understand CRT, American exceptionalism, as well as other frameworks they can use to understand American society.”

There are many ways to incorporate CRT into lessons. For example, in a recent lesson, Hoover not only covered the New Deal policies that successfully ended the Great Depression, but she also explained how they included racist lending practices to create segregated communities.

“I showed them maps that detailed areas where the FHA guaranteed loans in the city where we live,” says Hoover, who teaches at a predominantly White private school in Texas. “I then showed them current maps showing housing patterns based on race and income levels.”

The lesson did not, as Conservatives might have you believe, make White students feel bad, make Black students feel powerless, and make them all hate America. 

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

“Both Black and White students were blown away at the very real implications of that information. The White students didn’t feel guilty, and the Black students didn’t feel helpless,” says Hoover. “Everyone felt powerful, because they knew information that helped them understand patterns they see on a daily basis.” 

Teaching the most shameful aspects of our nation’s history through a critical race lens also opens opportunities to showcase Black and Brown resistance to the White supremacist structures and systems that the legal theory was originally established to critique. 

“It’s important to focus on agency, resilience, and joy, and not just violence and oppression,” says Hoover. She offers the following example: “We don’t do a good enough job of telling [students] the many ways enslaved people did resist. They worked slow, feigned sickness, they ran away for short times, they broke tools, they learned to read and write, grew vegetables to feed their families, maximized skills to generate income away from the enslavers. Slavery was much more complex than the abbreviated storyline included in many state standards.”

Unfortunately, most teachers are not equipped with the lived experiences or nuanced resources they need to explore such complexities in history education. Common Core standards, adopted by most states after 2010, have been criticized for their lack of representation (and for simply not working). Some school curricula even call for teaching enslavement through re-enactment, just one example of “curriculum violence” that traumatizes minority students, wrote Stephanie P. Jones, who founded Mapping Racial Trauma in Schools

Even in minority-majority New York City, more than 80% of schoolbooks used in English Language Arts were written by White authors, according to a study by the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice. And course materials intended to improve minority representation almost exclusively focus on the struggles, rather than the deep history and heritage of Black and Brown communities, says Natasha Capers, parent organizer and director of the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice. 

In 2019, the New York State Education Department adopted a Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework to improve equity in public education. “One of the key parts about [the framework] that has been informed from CRT is that we have to stop teaching history as if Black people only started to exist on the shores of South Carolina,” Capers says. “We don’t allow Africans and Black folks to have a prequel. We only have slavery. We don’t let Asian Americans have a prequel. They only have internment camps. We don’t let Latinx people have a prequel [prior to] Columbus.”

Counter-storytelling, a core component of CRT that centers the lived experiences through the lens of race, is a powerful tool that teachers can employ to layer that texture and complexity into conversations about Black history and culture.

“We’ve done activities where they’ve drawn pictures of themselves and said, ‘This is what I say about me, and this is what society says about me,’ so that they can actively critique the structures and the systems around them, while also developing a solid sense of self,” says Kaler-Jones. “We’ve also [used the lyrics from] India Arie’s I Am Not My Hair and Solange’s Don’t Touch My Hair … as a framework for writing our own counter-narrative song lyrics.”

Black and Brown teachers like Kaler-Jones have the advantage when it comes to adapting critical race theory into such rich classroom experiences due to their lived experiences with race. According to EducationWeek, 80% of public school teachers and 85% of private school teachers are White, and most learned “a very liberal, neutral way of talking about race” in their teacher prep programs, says Kaler-Jones. 

“There is … deep internal work that needs to be done in order to even be able to show up to have critical conversations about racism and oppression,” she continues. 

Trailblazing educators, like Kaler-Jones and Hoover, are normalizing the inclusion of CRT, the framework, and its key concepts in history and social studies classes. Some schools, like the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, already offer workshops and electives on CRT for high school students. 

Approaches like these dovetail with a robust—and largely overlooked—tradition of Black pedagogy that predates CRT and anti-racism scholarship, according to Harvard professor Jarvis R. Givens in The Atlantic.

“Black educators have always known that their students are living in an anti-Black world and, therefore, decided that their teaching must be set against the very order of that world,” wrote Givens, whose book Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching was published last year.

“They took a holistic approach to teaching—honoring Black life, with all its beauty and contradiction,” he explained, adding, “In my classrooms growing up, we had to study and enact anti-racism, certainly. But we also had to know that our worth and our offering to the world, and to ourselves, was much more than that.”

But educators who want to draw on CRT and Black pedagogy in their practice continue to face numerous obstacles, in addition to the overwhelming Whiteness of teachers and curricula. To date, 36 states have passed or are considering legislation banning CRT from classrooms, reports Chalkbeat. The notoriously vague language of enacted bills has created a chilling effect on teachers, who are unsure what they can say about race and what will get them fired. According to Colorlines, many Black teachers are leaving the profession entirely. 

Still, there is reason for cautious optimism about the future of CRT in classrooms. The American Civil Liberties Union has brought legal challenges against New Hampshire’s and Oklahoma’s Conservative-led anti-CRT bills and, more recently, against a Missouri school district’s ban on books reflecting POC and LGBTQ+ perspectives. 

Teachers like Kaler-Jones and Hoover are demonstrating the benefits that CRT-infused lessons bring to students and paving the way for other educators to adopt similar strategies in their classrooms. 

Also, “There are many reputable and useful organizations and groups dedicated to creating resources to help teachers teach about these topics,” says Hoover, citing the Zinn Education Project and Learning for Justice.

Many teachers are also publicly committing to teach the truth, bans be damned. Perhaps even more encouraging is how educators and young people themselves are creating Instagram and TikTok content to provide extracurricular education on CRT concepts, like intersectionality, systemic racism, and privilege. 

“My dream is for history classes where no one feels left out or undermined,” says Hoover. “Every student feels seen and valuable in the world.” 

RUTH TERRY is a Black and Puerto Rican American freelancer in Istanbul, Turkey who writes about culture, travel, and race.