This man wants Utah and other states to adopt a “pro-human” approach to teaching ethnic studies
A Q&A with Bion Bartning, founder of Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism
With several states, including Utah, adding ethnic studies courses as part of K-12 public school curriculum, a debate has sprung up around the content of these courses — what should be included, and what approach should school districts take?
Bion Bartning, founder and CEO of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, or FAIR, says he’s trying to forge a new path — one where we learn about each other in a way that celebrates our individual and cultural differences, while also recognizing how much we have in common.
Bartning, who is also the co-founder of Eos Products, found himself in the middle of a controversy in 2021 after he pulled his children out of an exclusive New York City private school, and then went public by speaking to The New York Times and writing an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal detailing his concerns about how schools teach sensitive topics around racism.
After surveying the curriculum landscape, Bartning said he felt he had no choice but to start a new organization that would take a different approach to the issue. He recruited thinkers and journalists like Bari Weiss, John McWhorter, Glenn Loury and, most recently, Jonathan Haidt, to sit on FAIR’s board of advisors.
Members of FAIR’s team recently visited Utah to talk to lawmakers about the state’s new requirement that schools teach ethnic studies. Bartning said he thinks Utah is the right place to pilot FAIR’s ethnic studies curriculum, in part because of the enthusiasm of local FAIR leaders, and also because of the responsiveness of state leaders.
“Utah has an opportunity to really set an example for the rest of the country on how to do ethnic studies right,” he said. “There seems to be a willingness on the part of everybody — the elected officials, the people within the educational establishment, parents, community activists — to try to offer ethnic studies in a way that is going to bring people together and teach history in a way that’s honest and accurate and truly inclusive.”
Bartning recently sat down for an online interview with Deseret News to explain why he started FAIR, and what FAIR curriculum looks like. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: Tell me a little bit about why you started FAIR. Why did you feel like you needed to start a new organization?
Bion Bartning: My two kids were enrolled in a private school in New York City, and it was a school we were very happy with. It was the only school we applied to for my daughter when she was in pre-K because we felt that it had a warm and welcoming community. What really appealed to us is that (the school) promised a character-based education, developing character strengths like gratitude and optimism and grit. And that’s what I want for my kids.
By June of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and the rioting across the country, we understood that the school, like many institutions, was going to try to do something to address these broader social issues. But we also felt that the school should focus on bringing the kids back to campus safely in September. But in June we started getting memo after memo from the school that was not addressing COVID-19, it was addressing a new approach that the school was going to take to educating our children, a commitment to making the school an antiracist institution.
Antiracism on its face is something that really appeals to me. I’m from a mixed-race background myself. My father is Mexican and my mother is Ashkenazi Jewish. I abhor racism. But I was curious — what does it mean to be an antiracist institution?
There was a memo that recommended summer reading. Among the recommendations were “White Fragility” and “How to Be an Antiracist.” I wasn’t familiar with these books, so I did a little bit of background research, and they seemed like books that didn’t really resonate with me in my approach to antiracism. What was most troubling was the emphasis on teaching our children to acknowledge racial differences as opposed to color blindness.
I’m a firm believer in seeing other people as part of one human race, and that’s what I’ve always taught my children. I have a different skin color than my children, because I inherited my father’s skin color and my kids inherited their mother’s skin color. And so, by not just suggesting this is one way to see the world, but to say it is essential that families really embrace this worldview of seeing people through the lens of skin color was troubling for me.
And I think that started me on a search for understanding. Let’s see if there’s something else out there that would actually serve a useful purpose and help children to understand that race is not real and that we are all connected. I realized pretty quickly if I wanted to do something about this, I needed to seriously consider starting an organization. And that is the genesis of FAIR.
DN: Did your kids end up staying at their school?
BB: No. We pulled them out of school and they spent part of that school year at Amagansett Public School on Long Island. We found a place where our kids could be kids.
In March of 2021, when I launched FAIR, I also published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled “Dividing by Race Comes to Grade School.” That was the first article, to my knowledge, that anyone had published where they actually named a school. People don’t talk about it. There’s a fear of getting blacklisted. But I felt it was really important to share the story of what happened and, more importantly, to share a positive view of where we can take this. I don’t think that the attention on these issues, on the issue of race and racism, is a bad thing. I think that something really positive can come out of this, and I think it can really move us forward as a people. But the way that many of our institutions have gone about it is doing the exact opposite. It is actually creating more racism and creating more division instead of taking this opportunity to really move us forward and unify us as a nation.
DN: What do you think is a positive way for schools to teach about race and racism?
BB: It’s a couple of things. Daryl Davis is involved in FAIR, and one thing Daryl said when I explained all this to him is, I don’t really think that the term anti-racist is the right term because it’s not about a person or people, it’s about ideas. So, I think it’s about anti-racism, not anti-racist. I hadn’t really thought about that distinction before that conversation with Daryl, but it clicked for me because if you’re anti-racist, you’re saying, I’m against people, this group of people, and then you can label people. And so it creates the situation where you’re creating a conflict.
Daryl’s whole approach — where he’s successfully befriended and helped members of the actual Ku Klux Klan understand that their racist worldview is flawed and they’ve become friends of his and given him their robes — that is only possible because Daryl is anti-racism, not anti-racist.
DN: There are populations that have clearly experienced more racism than others in our country. How do we properly teach kids this reality?
BB: Well, I think there are different ways to do it. We’ve developed learning standards and we’re in the process of developing an ethnic studies curriculum that is based on what we call the pro-human approach. It’s a simple but powerful concept, and I think it’s the kryptonite to racism. This is the idea that every person is a unique individual with value, and we are united by our shared humanity. We are each genetically distinct, but we share 99.9% of our genes with every other person on this planet. So this concept of unique identity, shared humanity, is a deep sense of everything that we’re doing at FAIR and our belief is that this the way that you effectively counter racism.
In terms of understanding historical injustices, which I think is important, it’s helpful for us to reinforce why the pro-human approach is the right approach. I think that teaching it in a way where you’re not trying to assign blame or label people who are present in the room based on what happened in history and helping people understand that some of these things happened hundreds of years ago or, decades ago, when people have some distance and emotional distance from history, they can learn much more from it. It’s also important to be historically accurate as well.
I think ultimately what you want to do is you want to inspire curiosity and have these children really dig in to try and understand how these things happened and understand the global context. In (FAIR curriculum) there is an emphasis on original primary sources and on presenting multiple viewpoints and perspectives. Understanding history in context, using primary sources, understanding different perspectives, that’s a healthy way to learn about these topics. And not something where you’re trying to say to a group of kids in a room, you have this shade of skin, so therefore you’re going to see things this way and you have this shade of skin and you’re going to see things this way.
Privilege is real. I think that there are people who have advantages and people who have disadvantages. But I don’t think that saying that those advantages and disadvantages are based entirely on something like skin color is accurate or helpful because I think what you’re doing is you’re flattening a very complex topic into something that’s very simple. From my own experience, I think that the main source of privilege is money.
DN: It seems like FAIR is very interested in what’s going on in Utah. Obviously, we have the ethnic studies bill that passed here. But why Utah? Why do you think this would be a good place for you to pilot your ethnic studies curriculum?
BB: I have been so impressed with the people that we’ve worked with in Utah. We’ve had such a good experience and so much engagement. I think both with people who are involved with FAIR and the people that we’ve interacted with who aren’t involved with FAIR but are interested in these issues. Utah has an opportunity to really set an example for the rest of the country on how to do ethnic studies right. There seems to be a willingness on the part of everybody — the elected officials, the people within the educational establishment, parents, community activists — to really try to offer ethnic studies in a way that is going to bring people together and teach history in a way that’s honest and accurate and truly inclusive. I’m personally really excited about the opportunity in Utah.
I think that what’s unique about FAIR’s approach to ethnic studies is that rather than stopping at these broad racial classifications, the approach that we’re taking is to really help people understand that culture is very different from color, that you can’t make assumptions about somebody based on the color of their skin. I think there are many ethnic studies curriculums that are based on this very simplistic and outdated racial classification of people. But what we’re able to show is this incredible diversity — that there’s a huge difference between somebody who is from the Dominican Republic and somebody who is from Mexico and somebody who is from Argentina. And with frankly, within Argentina, there are dozens of distinct cultural identities. And ultimately, the main message that we would want to impart is every person has a unique perspective. We’re approaching ethnic studies as a really exciting opportunity to share the richness of the world with young students. And there’s no political agenda. It’s really just to open minds and open hearts and help people to understand the incredible richness and complexity of humanity, and also to understand how these different ethnic groups have contributed to the mosaic of this beautiful country. And again, I think Utah is the right place to pilot this because I think it’s something that’s consistent with the values that I’ve seen demonstrated and reflected in the people in Utah.