‘I wanted to teach differently than I had been taught’: How some Texas educators practice anti-racist teaching

Texas Politics

Alejandra Lopez, a San Antonio teacher, works with her colleagues to use critical race theory to inform their teaching (Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune)

AUSTIN (Texas Tribune/KXAN) — As a child in her San Antonio fourth grade classroom, Alejandra Lopez learned about the Battle of Alamo the way most Texas students do: The Anglo fighters were valiant heroes against the Mexican enemy, led by Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh no, I have the same last name as the bad guy, as the villain in this story,’” she said. “That is really messed up, to carry that as a fourth grader.”

When her father tried to tell her the story from the Mexican perspective — that the white settlers were colonizers — she said she didn’t trust him.

“I put the trust in my teachers,” she said.

Years later, arriving as an undergraduate at Stanford University, she took an introductory course in Chicano/Chicana studies. She said she learned that white settlers wanted independence from Mexico largely to preserve slavery, which Mexico had outlawed, and she quickly realized that the history she had learned in K-12 had been “severely lacking.”

“It was written from a perspective that is not the perspective of my people — that is meant to indoctrinate me, a working class woman of color, into an American narrative of exceptionalism,” she said. “As a young brown child, I was being meant to experience history through the lens of the colonizer.”

That “absolutely atrocious” feeling eventually helped lead her to become a teacher back in her hometown.

“I wanted to teach differently than I had been taught,” said Lopez, who, along with other colleagues founded PODER, the social justice caucus of the San Antonio teachers’ union.

‘Critical race theory’

How Texas students learn about race and history has become an incendiary topic in recent months. In a state where more than half of public school students are Hispanic and 27% are white, many conservative state lawmakers have raised alarm about the idea of lessons that seek to reframe history lessons.

Conservative lawmakers have repeatedly claimed that “critical race theory” is being used to teach children that they are racist and that the U.S. is an irredeemably racist country.

But there’s little to no evidence that the academic framework — CRT is not a standard, teachable class program — is officially being taught in public schools. According to the Washington Post, CRT dates back to 1970s law practices and aimed to address injustice in how the legal system has historically treated people of color. In reality, students are unlikely to encounter CRT outside of law school.

These lawmakers already passed one measure, House Bill 3979, purportedly to combat the theory, though the bill never mentions it by name nor does anything to ban directly teaching its concepts, such as racial formation and intersectionality.

Meanwhile, Gov. Greg Abbott has called for more legislation, declaring that he wants to “abolish” critical race theory in Texas classrooms and adding the issue to the agenda for two consecutive special sessions of the Texas Legislature. One such bill that calls for students to be taught “a commitment to the United States and its form of government” has already passed the Senate and will be heard in a House committee hearing Tuesday.

HB 3979 says teachers must present both sides of ideology when teaching about race-related current events. Additionally, mentions of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, a nationally lauded long-form journalism project, will be banned. The project, which began in 2019, explores the origins and timeline of Black slavery in America. HB 3979’s laws are set to begin Sept. 1.

But as these debates rage on, some teachers across disciplines are pressing on with approaches to teaching that are influenced by forms of critical theory — such as CRT. These approaches look very different from how Republicans characterize it, they say.

Far from trying to incur guilt in white students or establish racial superiority, they say, anti-racist teaching efforts are about affirming and empowering all students, in light of their race, class and all aspects of identity, to be critical thinkers and agents of their own learning — and to make sense of themselves, their communities and their society in complex ways.

‘Opposite of indoctrination’

Teachers are doing this work amid an ongoing backlash against efforts to discuss and address racism in America, as lawmakers and parents raise alarm around what they call critical race theory.

State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, said that much of the new “critical race theory” law, which he authored, was motivated by concerns he heard from parents who feel their kids are being “indoctrinated.”

“We’ve heard, ‘You should feel guilty for what [white people have] done,’” he said. “We have heard, ‘You’re people of privilege, and you should feel guilty for that privilege.’

During the regular legislative session, Toth cited “Not My Idea,” a children’s book examining how power and privilege affect white people, as the main example of critical race theory in Texas classrooms, claiming it was being recommended in Highland Park schools — though the district said it was not being used.

Meanwhile, the issue has become a talking point in districts and school board elections across the state as some parents say the theory sows racial division and indoctrinates students into a far-left ideology.

“The majority of teachers want to get back to teaching kids how to read and write at an early age, and as they progress through the process, how to be critical thinkers, to think for themselves — not to indoctrinate these children,” Toth said. “Critical race theory does not teach a child how to think critically.”

Teachers and experts say that no one is teaching critical race theory in classrooms, nor are they teaching Republicans’ characterizations of it.

Angela Valenzuela, an education policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, called the idea that teachers are blaming their white students for systemic racism a “false, exaggerated claim.”

Amphlett said that these teachers aren’t trying to force students to reject the dominant account of historical events, but instead are teaching them to critically weigh multiple perspectives and understand the complex, political, subjective ways that knowledge is created and understood. They teach them to be engaged in that process as critical thinkers in what he called the “opposite of indoctrination,” he said.

“[We] will caution students not to accept the counternarrative on face value just because it’s different from the dominant narrative, but to develop complex syntheses of these different approaches to perspectives on history,” he said.

Keffrelyn Brown, a teacher-educator and professor of cultural studies in education at UT-Austin, said this tenet of critical race theory is essential to anti-racist teaching — that “knowledge has never been neutral.”

“Because of the way that power has operated, there have been Eurocentric standards that have defined what counts as what we know,” she said.

Critical pedagogy in all disciplines

Brown, the UT-Austin professor, said that kind of approach can be used in all subjects.

For example, in arts education, she helps teachers think about questions like, “Who are the musicians and the visual artists that get identified as important for all students to learn about? What are the approaches that are left out, or that are not valued in the same way?

And Lopez, the San Antonio teacher, said the approach applies to all aspects of students’ identity and learning, not just race.

“When you talk about culturally relevant pedagogy or anti-racist education, people think that it’s just about race — they don’t recognize that systems of oppression affect people in an intersectional way,” Lopez said. “Race is central and very important, but it is not the only way that dominant ideology perpetuates itself in our education system.”

For example, she noted that class is also an important factor.

“If I’m only showing them books about people who have an upper middle-class background, then my students who come from a working-class background are still not going to see themselves reflected,” she said.

Portions of this article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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