US Educational Authorities Must Resist ‘Anti-Woke’ Censorship
As academics, artists, advocates, policy-makers and concerned persons from different parts of the world, we emphatically oppose the attacks being waged on educational curricula in the United States and elsewhere against intersectionality, critical race theory, Black feminism, queer theory and other frameworks that address structural inequality. We join the thousands of signatories who have opposed censoring critical content in public and higher education. We also agree with the 30 Black LGBTQ organizations that have denounced the “relentless attacks that have led to book banning, curriculum censorship, politically motivated purges of educators, and an exodus of skilled teachers”.
Here we write as concerned individuals in professions ranging from education and research to policymaking, clinical care, and advocacy who have benefited from and continue to use intersectionality and a family of related concepts in our work. In this letter, we express our concerns about the coordinated and dangerous disinformation campaigns that seek to discredit and censor vital tools such as intersectionality and Black feminism. This strategy has surfaced in conjunction with the recent debacle concerning college-level curriculum for high school students in the United States, but has appeared elsewhere as well.
Since the summer of 2020, an emboldened and well-resourced faction in the United States, and increasingly around the globe, has declared war on hard-fought advances in civil and human rights, social justice and democratic participation. This faction, which includes multiple state legislators and governors, has attacked the democratization of the teaching of US history, attempting to censor concepts that sprang to life out of decades of struggle against racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism and related forms of domination.
Promoters of this racially extremist agenda have banded together with others across the political spectrum to wage a war against their own invented grievance that they have labeled as “woke-ism”. They have attacked librarians, surveilled and harassed teachers, canceled classes, banned books and weaponized the law to forbid ideas, frameworks and viewpoints in the nation’s schools, colleges and workplaces. Their campaign has not only targeted and demonized antiracist work, but they broadened their attacks to discredit frameworks that Black women and queer people have produced in order to explain, describe and transform the conditions of their lives.
The consequences of the assault on these ideas are painfully evident in the rollout of the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies (“AP AAS”) curriculum, a college-level course available for high school students in all 50 states. The College Board’s interest in launching the AP AAS curriculum – a proposal that had languished for over a decade – was “reinvigorated” by the multi-generational, multi-racial, and transnational movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd. This “racial reckoning” in the summer of 2020 increased the demand for ways of understanding and defeating systemic racism. It also ignited a powerful backlash against the very idea that racial injustice and its intersections with other forms of inequality delimit the opportunities of African descendants and other racially marginalized people. Yet the College Board, a billion-dollar American non-profit that serves a gatekeeping role in higher education, remained silent when this conservative backlash collided with their stated objectives in launching the course. This silence continued even after the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, denounced an early draft of the course as having “no educational value” because it included material pertaining to structural racism, intersectionality and Black queer studies.
When the College Board finally made public its long-awaited African American Studies course on 1 February, students were left with a watered-down curriculum that expunged key lessons, scholarship and course goals from previous drafts of the course. Contemporary issues such as structural racism, Black Lives Matter, reparations and prison abolition – issues that resurfaced during 2020’s reckoning with anti-Black racism and increased student demand for African American studies – were reduced or eliminated. Lessons and course goals pertaining to intersectionality, Black queer studies and Black feminism had been removed entirely or downgraded to untested optional material, subject to state and local censors. Contrary to the College Board’s denial that politics played any role in the course revisions, Dr Jason Manoharan from the College Board disclosed that he deleted intersectionality – identified as one of four core concepts in the AP AAS curriculum by Black studies scholars – because the term had been “compromised by disingenuous voices”, and was thus no longer “effective” having been “drained of its meaning and filled up with political rhetoric”.
In response we ask: drained of meaning for whom? And by what authority does a single individual or institution decide that a term used by people all over the world in their work and day-to-day lives was so valueless as to be legitimately excluded from any classroom, much less one on African American studies? If all terms can be censored from a college-level curriculum simply because they have been politically contested, then the College Board ought not include “liberalism”, “populism”, “freedom”, “culture” or even “democracy” in their curricula. When we acquiesce to eliminating words because opponents have tried to redefine or misconstrue their meaning, we allow power politics – rather than the pursuit of knowledge – to dictate the content of our courses.
Contrary to “anti-woke” propaganda and the College Board’s conclusion, intersectionality is a vibrant and organic conceptualization of historical and social dynamics. In its most basic form, intersectionality is a prism that uncovers how structures of subordination often interact, exacerbating the problem-solving challenges faced by those who are multiply marginalized. It has been used and adapted by countless people across the planet to analyze and address many facets of human experience.
Far from being “drained of value”, intersectional frames have been indispensable in the work many of us have done to uncover unwritten histories, to analyze overlooked social problems and to address current human rights failures. We are just a fraction of the artists, advocates, academics, leaders and lay people who have incorporated and adapted intersectional ways of seeing social dynamics in our work and in our lives. Among us are Black women fighting against state violence and horrifying rates of maternal and infant mortality in the United States; Indigenous communities and peace activists from around the world fighting to end environmental destruction; Dalit women fighting caste violence in India; laborers resisting the gendered dimensions of globalization in South Africa; people of color with disabilities fighting against ableism and racism; migrants, refugees and displaced peoples around the world resisting sexual assaults and harassment at borders and refugee camps; and queer youth of color protesting the censorship of LGBTQ+ and antiracist books.
Today’s students use intersectionality quite broadly but often draw their references from limited online sources. This should not be their only resource. Their demands to better understand its contours are all the more reason to include a guided study of it in the AP African American studies curriculum.
In light of the multiple ways that intersectionality continues to matter across multiple boundaries, its foundations in Black women’s experiences, and the demands of today’s students to understand its contours, we find the College Board’s “politicized” decision to remove it from the African American studies curriculum to be disgraceful and dangerous.
Students of Black history know all too well that the suppression of knowledge and the delegitimizing of Black intellectuals are tried-and-true tools of racial retrenchment and oppression. Punishing literacy, criminalizing “divisive concepts”, and discrediting those who are regarded as dangerous have all been tools of racial domination in the United States and elsewhere. Compliance with today’s “anti-woke” imperatives is likewise grounded in retrenchment – in recovering a mythic past in which the subservient role of women and the rigidity of race, gender and sexuality is established and secured. Intersectionality, Black feminism and Black queer studies have been indispensable in resisting the marginalization of women, the reimposition of heteronormative ideals and the rigidifying of gender roles. While it is thus not surprising that they have been marked for distortion by anti-equity factions, it is disappointing that any educational institution would acquiesce to that distortion.
Unless we fight back and hold accountable those who capitulate to these extremist wars on anti-racist and democratic education, our capacity to sustain and nurture critical knowledge will be diminished. While today, the site of censorship is Black studies, tomorrow it will be another, and another, and another. It will continue to expand until public education is so compromised that it becomes all but impossible to teach critical thinking.
There is too much at stake for us to fail.
The arc of history bends backwards if we allow our conceptual assets to be stripped away. Every time we relinquish valuable insights from those who have come before, we pass on to future generations the burden of reimagining and rebuilding livable futures without the tools that have been fashioned to do that work.
We cannot expect anyone – students or ourselves – to understand problems we are no longer permitted to name or to prepare for a future we cannot imagine. The fight for our ideas, our language and our history is critical to the fight for our lives. Thus, we demand that the College Board restore critical concepts, scholarship and frameworks to the African American studies course, and to resist pending demands from other states to bend to their “anti-woke” orthodoxy.
More broadly, we call on responsible leaders at the College Board, in public education, and beyond to lend their considerable resources to support educators and students whose freedom to teach and to learn is compromised by state-sponsored repression and threats to their very wellbeing. In this pivotal moment in which illiberal censorship is cresting around the world, where the freedoms to think, to create, to teach and to learn are at stake, it is a betrayal of democratic values for any responsible leaders to actively participate, to stand by or to capitulate to such destruction. Because we know that attacks on knowledge are fueling threats to freedom, and that repression in one place fuels its spread elsewhere, we call for global resistance to all efforts to destroy the vital tools that help us to imagine and create more equitable and inclusive futures for us all.
A growing number of activists, intellectuals, academics, and others have signed this open letter hosted by the Action Network
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