'A dog whistle and a lie': Black parents on the critical race theory debate

'A dog whistle and a lie': Black parents on the critical race theory debate
·8 min read

During Virginia's governor's race this year, Rakelle Mullenix read and watched countless news stories about the fervor among parents over the teaching of critical race theory and about racism in local schools. "I was addicted to the coverage," says the 46-year-old mother of two from Annandale, Va.

And there was so much of it, from the commercial featuring a mother saying that her son was brought to tears when he had to read a book (it's not named in the ad, but she's referencing "Beloved," Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about formerly enslaved people), to footage of angry parents besieging Loudoun County School Board meetings over the theory's alleged inclusion in curriculum, to debate on whether children are too young to learn about racism or discuss race at all.

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Mullenix read and watched it all. But she says that in the media discussion of how Black parents and their stories fit into what children learn about American history, she didn't see actual Black parents, like herself.

"It seems as though Black and Brown voices were ignored, and the voices were centered on White parents and their concerns," Mullenix says. "I'm constantly hearing, 'Oh, no, suburban women, suburban moms and their vote.' And when I look around me and see these suburban moms and housewives, a lot of them look like me. But when I hear the conversations on the news, it doesn't sound like they're talking about me."

Excluding the opinions of families like Mullenix's, who bear the effects of racial history and bias in a different way than most of those they saw interviewed, omits half the story, she and others say. Many feel left out of the conversation that is, essentially, about them and their children.

So how do they feel about the supposed teaching of CRT? The banning of books about slavery and race? The conversations about when and how to discuss race and slavery?

"They say, 'Our children are too young to hear about racism.' Who is 'our' children?" says Caron LeNoir, 48, a mother of three with an eighth-grader in Charlottesville public schools. "I don't remember a day of my life when I wasn't taught about racism, or learning about it through just existing. Our children, meaning Black children, have had to be taught different ways to stay safe to maneuver through the world."

One of the things that LeNoir and other parents interviewed for this story are frustrated by is a sometimes deliberate misunderstanding of CRT, the study of how racism is a systemic part of the societal framework. It is mostly taught in graduate and law school.

"I had never heard of it because we don't teach it in K-12," says Woodbridge, Va., high school teacher and mother Tracey Hairston, 51. "I know for sure that in Virginia it isn't taught."

That critics could have looked up the curriculum their kids are taught on the state's Department of Education site before protesting at school board meetings and giving impassioned interviews, but didn't, is proof that "there was a fake fire that was set, a political ploy," she says. "They're crying wolf about something that's not there. Why is there protection needed against something that doesn't exist?"

"It's a disinformation campaign," offers Hairston's husband, Brian, 48. "The first step is to make people distrust the government and real information. That allows the disinformation to seep in, to move toward a more authoritarian regime, and incur the angry White voter base."

Indeed, exit polls in the Virginia gubernatorial race, which Republican Glenn Youngkin won while championing the anti-CRT movement, show that CRT was a part of voters' decision to choose Youngkin over Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

Parents like Bhronda Pinder, 45, of Arlington say that CRT is now being used as a catchall description of any mention of race or racism, as "a dog whistle and a lie. This is deliberate and they've made a deliberate choice to do so."

If what is being taught in schools isn't CRT, what do parents think about what their kids are actually learning in the classroom? Pinder says she was impressed with the way her daughter, now 17, was introduced to the subject of race as part of American history. "She certainly got a better understanding of it than I did. They covered Egyptian history, and didn't get the idea that the Egyptians were White, or that Blacks were all victims," says Pinder, who grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and was taught, for instance, "that the Civil War was just about states' rights and not at all about slavery."

Like other parents, she says that much of their knowledge of Black history and race came from outside of the classroom. "Coming from a segregated era, [my parents'] understanding of Black history was better than mine," Pinder says. "My mother was a Freedom Rider, and there was a lot of history within the community and at home."

She was one of many parents who felt that just mentioning the presence of African Americans wasn't enough without a nuanced take on that history. "Black people are not fully acknowledged in the founding of this country," LeNoir says.

For Kamise Simms, when that history is acknowledged and who is doing it are equally important. The mother of two has concerns about the age at which race and racial history are introduced that, at least on the surface, sound similar to those of some White parents. Simms wants to be the one to control how those lessons are taught, and worries that schools address them too early and without consulting parents. When her sons, now 6 and 9, attended a Montessori school, they came home with a book on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a lot of questions.

"They started asking me, 'What's slavery? What's light-skinned or dark-skinned?' I lost it," said Simms, 45, who with her husband, Jia, 52, is now raising her sons in a home-school collective that follows the Socratic method. They are "in the bubble" of Bowie, Md., where they are surrounded by lots of middle-class and upper-middle-class Black families like themselves.

"I have no choice but to talk to them about race, but not yet. With the 9-year-old, that day is coming. But my children are still very much children. Give them context. Show where there is a contribution. Talk about African history, about the kings and queens," she says. "I want them to understand: 'You are human. Your existence is not victimhood. Before you can even understand that whole history, I want you to understand your people's place in the world.'"

Laura Thomas of Fairfax knows that as the White mother of biracial children whose father is Black, her daughters, 9 and 10, have learned about racism both in and out of class. "These are the conversations we have in our home every day. Kids are already forming all of these stereotypes and biases. My daughter has been bullied about her hair. This was in first grade. So my fifth-grader just came home super-excited to talk about stereotypes. That's great, but in my mind, I thought, 'Why was this not addressed five years ago?' I feel this should be taught at a younger age. Kids are forming identities at a much younger age than fifth grade."

She and Mullenix, who are friends, say they've addressed concerns with their kids' schools about, say, a lack of focus on Black History Month. "They sent some very PC emails like, 'Every day is a day that celebrates diversity.' It's very 'check the box,'" Thomas says.

"That was an opportunity missed by school," Mullenix says, agreeing. The concern, then, is whether the parents of the non-Black classmates of their children are filling in those gaps at home, and with what. After all, the parents interviewed for this story said the biases that they and their kids have encountered were learned somewhere. Tracey Hairston remembers a White fifth-grade classmate watching her choose a hot dog in the lunch line and asking, "'Why didn't you pick the chicken? You're supposed to like chicken. All Black people like chicken.' He was asking so innocently. I was like, 'How many Black people do you know?' They learned that at home."

Although the subject of racism and culture is complicated and no approach is one size fits all, all of the parents interviewed agree that race is woven not only into American history but also into the American present, and that parents and the schools their children attend do those children no favors by ignoring it.

"I think there is a constructive way to teach kids about race that is appropriate. I think it should be done," Brian Hairston says. "Kids are curious. It's not that they aren't aware of these things. The only way to improve society is to learn about each other. If we push that under the rug, that's never gonna happen."

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Leslie Gray Streeter is a journalist and author of the memoir "Black Widow."

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