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Guest opinion: Do the words critical race theory get in the way of equity, inclusion and diversity?

Critical race theory has dived both politicians and the public
Utah House Democrats’ seats sit empty after they walked out in protest of a Republican resolution encouraging a ban of critical race theory concepts in public education at the Capitol in Salt Lake City May 19, 2021. 
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

When it comes to discussions on race and equitable learning conditions in schools, we need better listening and clearly defined terminology.

When I listen to black and brown community members seeking change in our world and schools, I hear a certain amount of suffering still a part of their daily experience. Even though we’ve come a long way since slavery and Jim Crow, they fear if we don’t teach our children anti-racism then racism will persist.

They see anti-racism as different than denouncing racism. The first prevents it and the second condemns it after it happens. An understanding of past and present realities can help lead to abandoning actions and attitudes of prejudice.

When I listen to opponents of critical race theory, they feel students will be made to feel guilty for being born white and will have past atrocities put upon their heads. They abhor the belief that to currently be considered anti-racist one must believe America is an irredeemably racist country and that all institutions are systemically racist perpetuating a cycle of oppressor and oppressed.

It concerns them that if they support governmental systems, an assumption is made that they have a desire to maintain racial hierarchies. While fine with accurate facts being taught in history including slave ownership by prominent figures, they don’t want the focus of American history to become the country being founded on and for white supremacy and slavery as a design feature. They see this as unequivocally false and undermines their belief that America was designed, for the first time, so the governed (or some of the governed) had a say in the government.

They are saddened when people view them as racist. It hurts them. They believe they are eradicating racism by avoiding a focus on race. They fear their children will be labeled a racist simply because of skin color. The self determination to NOT be a racist will be stolen. It’s a huge weight for children to bear. Parents hearts are heavy as they contemplate it.

Trigger words

When people of color hear others say they are “colorblind,” it’s offensive. It tries to make everyone the same. While an effort to make things better, it refuses to acknowledge important cultural and historical aspects. It is a trigger word that might be avoided to show empathy for others.

When opponents of critical race theory hear “white privilege,” it is offensive. They feel it erases effort they have given to forward their lives leaving achievement only a result of skin color. It is a trigger word that might be avoided to show empathy for others.

Writing off large swaths of people as uninformed while we solely believe those who agree with us will leave us stuck in circuitous conversations promoting divisiveness and robbing us of paradigm shifts toward common ground.

Not a single board member in the Utah State Board of Education has advocated for critical race theory, a collegiate-level theory, to be taught in schools, yet we receive mountains of email on it. Most members believe in the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion. The real challenge is that language and terminology is constantly evolving. Thus, some are now skeptical of these concepts playing seminal roles in public education.

Identifying working definitions on which both sides can agree is crucial in mitigating misunderstanding. These should be the powerful ideas they have been for decades. They are not synonyms for critical race theory. For example, the dictionary definition of equity is “justice according to natural law or right, free from bias or favoritism.”

What is equity?

The Utah State Board of Education working definition of equity that passed unanimously is: “Acknowledging that all students are capable of learning, educational equity is the distribution of resources to provide equal opportunities based upon the needs of each individual student.”

It is not enough to say we shouldn’t teach critical race theory; we must define what we should do to address needs. Doing nothing is not an option. The education board should define crucial topics and adhere to its unanimously passed Resolution Denouncing Racism. We are bound by the 14th Amendment and will not discriminate but should work for all Utah students to be able to access learning opportunities, so all have a chance to “make it” in this great state.

Last Saturday I rowed at Utah Lake with the rowing team from our Utah School for the Deaf and Blind. We were one team although of different races, ethnicities, and abilities. My skill was “the least of these among them.” We were diverse, inclusive, and with lighted technology to assist deaf students on rowing cues and support for the inexperienced like me, the opportunity was equitable.

I wish our communities were more like this rowing team. Rather than everyone rowing in different directions sowing discord and even hatred, I wish we were one team.

The student rowing across from me was blind. He reminded me of a time I was on a campus interviewing applicants and heard beautiful piano music. I wandered through the corridor, poked my head into the room and saw a blind man playing. I stood entranced. When he finished, he turned in my general direction, smiled and said, “Hello.”

“How did you know I was here,” I asked.

He said he uses other senses to know where people are, play the piano, etc. I listened and learned. At the end of a lengthy conversation, he said words I will never forget.

“I would guess that I am a happier person than you.”

“Why?” I asked, a bit taken aback.

“Because you see people with your eyes, and I see them with my heart.”

I’ve been cultivating my heart vision since that day. We must carve a path forward clearly defining educational terms and seeing and listening to one another with our hearts. During this time of heightened sensitivity, it’s critical.

Cindy Davis is a mother, is an adjunct professor at Utah Valley University and serves as a vice chairperson on the Utah State Board of Education. Disclaimer: This is her opinion and does not necessarily reflect the official position of either organization.