Why is teaching inclusive histories important? How can we uproot misinformation in the classroom? For the first iteration of Reframing the Conversation for the 2021-2022 academic year, our panelists tackled Critical Race Theory and the misinformation surrounding CRT.
Mary Ann Villarreal: Well, good afternoon, everyone. We’re going to get started. We have a short amount of time and a jam-packed hour of incredible conversation ahead of us. My name is Mary Ann Villarreal. I’m the Vice President for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. And it’s my privilege today to welcome you on behalf of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, our partners at the Hinckley Institute for Politics and the College of Education and the College of Humanities to the first monthly installment for this academic year of Reframing the Conversation. We’re thrilled to see you here today.
I will re-announce the pizza will arrive eventually, and I understand there are about 35 plus people joining us virtually. So to our friends joining us virtually, welcome. This is our first hybrid event. It certainly will not be our last, but forgive any technology errors that I trip over along the way.
Before we begin our discussion today, I’d like to first pause so that we might acknowledge that this land, which is named for the Ute Tribe, is the traditional and ancestral homeland of the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Ute Tribes. The University of Utah recognizes and respects the enduring relationship that exists between many Indigenous peoples and their traditional homelands. We respect the sovereign relationship between tribes, states, and the federal government, and we affirm the University of Utah’s commitment to a partnership with Native Nations and Urban Indian communities through research, education, and community outreach activities.
This is the first time that I’ve read this publicly since we put this together with the committee on October of 2020. What I’d like to say is that, know that it’s not just a statement. There are many people here in this room who are doing work, not only to acknowledge what that statement means, but to grow programming and education around it. And I invite you all to join us to think about how we may both root and concrete that work that we have ahead of us.
So, Reframing the Conversation, we bring together experts from across campus and the community to spark important conversations around racism, othering, and safety. And it is here where we adjust contemporary subjects affecting today’s campus and communities at large. And today is no exception. Our team grappled with the title of today. We argued over how it is that we would frame the discussion about the onslaught of the misinformation about Critical Race Theory, what it is, what it is isn’t, who it affects, how it affects, how we teach it, how we learn it.
I was reminded of the article “Nuestra America: “Latino History as US History” in the December, 2006, issue of the “Journal of American History,” written by prominent historian and my mentor, Vicki Ruiz, “Nuestra America” disrupted conventional narratives by examining what happens to US history when we tell it as a story of US imperialism, complicating constructions of empire and citizenship. I was drawn to work with Vicki as a graduate student because her scholarship unearthed both the agency that Mexican American women leveraged in their home, work, and communities and the systemic inequities that textbooks glossed over, especially as they cast these resilient women as passive consumers of the American dream.
Vicki, like many Latino scholars, followed on the heels of those scholars from the 1970s and 1980s who sought to disrupt all of those conventions of how we frame race and power in the United States. It is in this space and the ongoing spaces that I hope that we will continue these discussions to understand, to share, to learn what it is that we have as a responsibility as the University for Utah.
I’d like to now introduce Dean Nancy Songer from the College of Education, who will also introduce today’s moderator and provide foundational context for today’s panel discussion. I want to thank both Dean Culver and Dean Songer for being willing to partner in this space. Our friends from Transform, who are always in partnerships, and for anybody from other colleges, we always want to be representative of the scholarship that your faculty bring to the University of Utah. Thank you.
Dean Songer, to the introduction.
Nancy Songer: Good afternoon. I’m honored to be a part of this dialogue today. And in thinking about our topic, I asked myself a few questions. First, why are we having this conversation here? It’s important because we are in the business of education and education includes all of these ideas, teaching, guidance, enlightenment, edification, development, improvement, coaching, and learning. We are the recipients, the instigators, and the shapers of education for ourselves and others.
A second question I asked is, why is this conversation focused on inclusive histories? While I do not know all of your reasons or all of our reasons for this topic, I know that even as we are partially shaped by our and other’s histories, we are not limited by them. Histories are not static. They are evolving. As Mohandas Gandhi said, “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” I look forward to our conversation.
With that, I’d like to introduce Dean Stuart Culver. Stuart Culver has been the Dean of the College of Humanities since 2018. And he’s a member of the U faculty since 1993. In that time, he has served in numerous roles, including Chair of the Department of English and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. His scholarly and teaching focus have been on 19th and 20th century American literature and culture, photography, film, and theories of popular culture.
Stuart Culver: Thank you. And thank you, Mary Ann, for making this all possible. I think this is an important moment for this conversation, and thank all of you for joining us both live and virtually.
I have a few housekeeping details. I see the pizza has arrived and you’re free to get that. That’s part of the housekeeping. We will provide some time after our conversation for questions from the audience. If you’re in person, there’s a microphone up front that we ask you to speak from rather than from your seat. And if you’re live streaming the event, send your, add your questions on the box in the EDI livestream webpage. And we’ll make sure that those get asked and answered.
It’s my pleasure to serve as a moderator on this panel of very accomplished people that I want to kind of introduce to you first. I want to begin, immediately to my left is Dr. Kathleen Spencer Christy. Dr. Christy earned a number of degrees from this university, including a doctorate where her dissertation focused on developing equity mindsets as a process for successful teaching of all students. She’s served as a teacher, a principal, and an administrator in both in Los Angeles and in Utah, and has developed a real expertise in multicultural education, which I hope she’ll be sharing with us. I know she’ll be sharing with us.
Immediately to her left is our student participant, which is Camden Alexander, who is currently a sophomore and she’s majoring in criminology and sociology. Camden also writes opinion articles for the Daily Utah Chronicle under the name CJ Alexander, and then to her left is Dr. Edmund Fong, who is an Associate Professor in the Division of Ethnic Studies and in the Political Science Department. He is currently the Chair of Ethnic Studies and a scholar in the racial politics of the United States. He is the author of the book, “American Exceptionalism and the Remains of Race.”
And then finally to his left is Dr. William A. Smith who is a Professor of Education and the Department Chair of Education, Culture, and Society at the University of Utah. He’s won a lot of awards, but I want to call attention to the most recent. Maybe it’s not most recent, but the most recent I know about which is a very prestigious award in our university. That’s the Distinguished Professor Award for Scholarly Research. And that’s for this year, there are others there, and he’s been a student of what he calls Racial Battle Fatigue, which is something that we’ll be talking about.
I think, in the course of this conversation, I wanted to begin by noting that, as has been mentioned this summer, there’s a lot of discussion about Critical Race Theory. I guess it went back into the spring and fall of last year, but a number of discussions about having state resolutions against, or acts of state legislatures against teaching critical race studies, without any really, any clear knowledge of what exactly it was that they were banning.
I went back to the Utah resolution and note that, at least at the outset of it, it gives us, at the university and in our K-12 system, a directive. And it says this.
“Educating students in Utah’s public education system” on history, civil rights, racism,” and the negative impacts racism has had “throughout history is necessary” and should be done in a thoughtful, “historically accurate, and appropriate manner.”
Unfortunately, the resolution went on to misdescribe or provide some misinformation about what would be using the methodology of Critical Race Theory to do that. And so, we have this question before us is how, what is the appropriate way to address these issues? And we have a number of different perspectives.
I thought we could start first by asking Professor Fong, whose work has been about American exceptionalism, which we could call the sort of structuring myth of mainstream history teaching in the United States, the idea that that America is a nation founded, not on national or ethnic identity, but rather on universal unchanging ideas and the how this narrative may or may not accommodate inclusive histories has been a focus of study for him. So I thought I’d let him speak for a few minutes about that.
Edmund Fong: All right. Hopefully everyone can hear me.
So yeah, you know, the idea of American exceptionalism has been around since the origins of the republic, you know, some 250 years or so ago. And you know, the idea, as Dean Culver laid out is the basic sense that, you know, this country, its land, its people is exceptionally sort of predisposed to liberty and freedom, and that this was a kind of ideological sort of projection, creation, at the time of the revolution to sort of justify its rebellion against Great Britain. And of course, this was an idea that was often appropriated in terms of land, you know, and in terms of sort of the image, the representation of Native Americans that the colonists had at the time of the revolution.
But that idea has been around in various forms throughout our history, and it’s been something that reared up again last summer, somewhat, not quite the same as a whole debate on CRT, but, you know, in relation to it, and you may recall the debate around the “1619 Project” by The New York Times which tried to foreground slavery’s role in this, you know, the 400-year history, 400 anniversary of the first documented African slaves into the colonies in 1619. And then that became a flash point in the political controversy where the Trump Administration put together what they called the 1776 Project.
And, you know, at stake in that debate between the 1619 Project and 1776 Project was, again, this sort of classic debate around American exceptionalism. If we hold onto those, you know, feel-good sort of stories about American exceptionalism, that this is a country founded on freedom and liberty without any sort of qualification, then how do we deal with slavery? If we foreground slavery, then does that mean that all of those exceptional sort of ideals are a lie? Right? Hypocrisy.
You know, the irony of this situation is, and I teach a course, I’ll be teaching it later today on racial politics in the US is I use a piece by one of the foremost colonial historians, Edmund Morgan, which was published in 1972. And it was an address he gave as President of the Organization of American Historians. Remember, this is right after the Civil Rights era, 1972, where he talked about a whole new revisionism on slavery, taking it seriously in the history of this country. And he laid out two pitfalls, one to, you know, sort of foreground, the usual story of American exceptionalism, that one that minimizes the role of slavery or one that sort of takes seriously the role of slavery, but then sees all of those ideals as, you know, some sort of hypocritical lie. He tried to chart in that essay, in that address, a path forward that refuses either of those binary choices. Right? And the sad thing is the challenge that he laid out in 1972, we are seeing in the 1619, 1776 sort of debate from last summer that we are still stuck in that conversation about how do we include these sort of narratives in a more complex and inclusive understanding, right?
So, the point I want to draw is that, you know, inclusive history, I think the main thing, it’s not just about doing what’s ethically right, which is very important in its own right — including different voices, different perspectives on our history — but it’s also about generating accurate understanding of the past in this country, right? The fact of the matter is, at the very same time that Thomas Jefferson is espousing the rights of man, all men are created equal in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, he would never break from slavery. He would own over 600 slaves through the course of his lives, not freeing any of them until his death bed, and then only his slave children, if you will. That in itself is a testament about how we have failed to be inclusive in the stories we tell ourselves about our past because it’s only been in the past 20 years that the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs Monticello, has finally acknowledged the whole family tree descending from the children Thomas Jefferson had with his slave Sally Hemings, who happened to be the half sister of his deceased wife, Martha, right?
So, you know, history is filled with complex, vexing, sordid details, morally compromised, for sure. And I think, not only do we need to be inclusive about how we sort of grapple with those questions, but we also need to know that this is ultimately to arrive at a better, more informed, more accurate understanding of history. Right? So, I’ll stop there.
Stuart Culver: Thank you. I thought I’d ask Dr. Christy a little bit to talk about, because your work has been in the classroom and how to manage with students difficult conversations of this sort. Like, how do we talk about Jefferson? So, I thought I’d ask you if you had any remarks on that.
Kathleen Spencer Christy: Well, thank you for the question, and Dr. Fong, I want to piggyback on what you’re, you mentioned this accurate understanding. So, in the public schools, of course, we have teachers who’ve gone through this, the institution, right? And they’re teaching from textbooks that are inaccurate. Some of them have had some classes such as yours, where they may have learned something and they want to teach an accurate history. And so, they, in turn, introduce curriculum to their students that gets challenged sometimes. What we have to do within the system is to bolster, help these teachers with the courage to do what is necessary, to do what is right.
I mean, I think everyone sees and understands that being able to deal with inaccurate history is where we are right now. We go back to Texas, to what is it? South Park? The district were there, just three years ago, there were students who were calling the, and this an affluent, White district where the students were calling, the White students were calling a few African Americans who attend the school by the N word. I mean, it got viral. It went all over the country. And so, in order to address this issue, the African American community pressured the district and said, “You guys need to do some type of training.”
So, first of all, the teachers didn’t have that understanding. They weren’t aware of how do I deal with these difficult issues in our school? “What do I do?” So, those of us who work in the field and do this type of work, we offer training for teachers. And in that training, we have to address issues of White Supremacy, issues of White power structure. You have to deal with that in order to help teachers understand what’s going on here. Because if you don’t have that understanding, you can’t teach, you can’t teach what you don’t know. And so, starting there in this educational system is where many of us who do this type of work in the system, that’s what we have to do.
So, in Texas, they put together a plan. And this was a plan that was created by everybody in the school, including the school board. They came up with a plan. They had some professional development. During that professional development, I guess, issues of White power, White privilege, White supremacy came up and the White community went crazy. And this is where a lot of the rhetoric and the narrative you hear about: “you can’t teach, it’s going to cause our kids to feel guilty” or “you can’t teach anything that’s going to cause one race to feel superior over another” when that’s what we know the system already is, right? So, you can’t teach what is the reality.
And so, this is…how it got labeled, based on how you mentioned Ex-President Trump came up with this, his order, executive order about what you can’t teach. Somebody told him about CRT, which they didn’t know anything about it. So, he included that in his order, somebody told him about, you know, whatever. So, he writes it in his order, and now everybody is directed, “you can’t teach it, can’t talk about it, can’t teach it.” So, that’s where we are, as a system or in the public school system, and I’ve got equity workers that I’m coaching and mentoring, “no, you just have to have the courage to just do it.” And I mean, you can, not that you have to mask your language or you have to cover it over, but we still, we can’t stop doing what has to be done.
And so now, with the Utah proposal, they’ve come up with good language in the front. But at the end of the proposal, of the resolution, they tell us, and this state board did this too, that you can’t say certain things, or you can’t make kids feel guilty, or you can’t put one race over another. I mean, so that’s the dilemma that we are in, but we’re going to work our way around it. I mean, we just can’t, you know, so that’s where we are. I mean, reframing that conversation. Yeah, we’re going to reframe it. We’re going to do it, anyway.
Stuart Culver: Yeah. Just, I need to make this one observation. I think one of the ways in which the governor slipped up is by saying that, “Okay, we’re leaving the university alone. This is only for K through 12,” assuming a kind of false distinction between what goes on in the university and the kind of research that we’re doing and those teachers that you were talking about who are trying to kind of apply the knowledge that they get in the university to the classroom and building that bridge is something that’s become more difficult by that assumption.
Kathleen Spencer Christy: Yes, yes.
Stuart Culver: I think that that also the university is seen as a place of what they call academic freedom that is licensed to do research off in whatever eccentric way you want. But I think what we’re dealing with here is something called academic necessity. We’re not free to teach this or not. It has to be done.
Kathleen Spencer Christy: It has to be done.
Stuart Culver: And that’s the work that’s ahead of us. I’d like to turn now to Dr. William Smith and have him talk a little bit about the work he’s been doing on Racial Battle Fatigue, both as it affects the classroom, as a professor of education, and how we address that topic and include that topic in our story of the national history.
William A. Smith: Thank you for the question. And before I start, I’d also like to mention that I have a joint appointment in the School of Transformation and the Department of Ethnic Studies. So, I have a joint appointment at Education and Ethnic Studies.
I think Dr. Fong, Dr. Christy, have really set the table pretty clearly and pretty accurately. What happens when you are dealing with situations like this, you produce a climate, and that climate could be a climate of exclusion. And when you have a climate of exclusion, sometimes what happens within that climate is that those young people don’t feel like they have a sense of belonging. They don’t feel like they have a place where they can achieve, that people believe in them. So, even if you don’t do something intentionally, just your mannerisms or the kind of doctrine that you’re talking about can exclude them. What we do is wrong.
Let me first say, start with this: I know of no college of education teacher-ed program that has classes in CRT, that teaches students about CRT. Most pre-service teachers have to take one, maybe two, required diversity courses, and those aren’t CRT. If I were to give them a test on CRT, they would fail miserably. So, no teachers that I know of in the United States of America are teaching CRT. Okay? And it’s a confusion across the board, on the left and right, about what CRT is. But what is happening in these classrooms is students do not feel safe. The teachers make a mistake, and these are teachers who have a degree of sympathy or empathy, but the mistake that they’re making to all students, but particularly racially-minoritized, sexually-minoritized students, is that they teach to the mind, they teach to the head. And that’s not where you start. You have to teach to the body. When the body feels safe, it can learn. When the body does not feel safe, it feels threatened. It feels like that is a source of harassment.
So, when I enter into a room and a teacher or a professor says something, particularly about my group or a group that is very close to mine, that is seen as a attack. So, all forms of oppression, whether it’s gender, sexuality, class, race, ethnicity, and you can name it, ability, those things are a source of violence. The body codes an attack, like racism, as a violent act. So, imagine yourself as a young person in a classroom, feeling that you’re always under attack. How can you learn? How can you feel safe?
There was a nice study. I challenged their conclusion because they just didn’t have enough insight, I believe, in my opinion, to see what was really happening, but it’s about a classic study on who holds brilliance. And they’ve been doing these types of studies for about 30, 40, 50 years. And when you ask any group of people, “Who holds brilliance? Men or women?” Almost everybody will say, “Men hold brilliance. Women have brilliance, but men are more brilliant.” Irrespective of age group.
This group of researchers decided, we’re going to ask some young people and it’s been done on them before, but we’re going to ask young people, not just about men and women. So, these were Black students, White students, Asian students, and Latinx students, who holds brilliance between White men, White women, Black men, Black women? The results will be striking to you.
Who would you think was first? These young students — they were five and six-year-olds — coded brilliance as really, really smart.
What they said was, all of them, all those different groups, White men held the most brilliance.
Who was second? You’re all wrong.
All of the students said White women and Black women were tied. And they all agreed, including the Black boys in the classrooms, that Black men held the least amount of brilliance. So, what kind of atmosphere is it for that little Black boy to be in a classroom that, as he grows, he’s supposed to be a man, but everybody is watching what I say, watching what I do, to see if I will fulfill a stereotype. And then what type of racial microaggressions am I feeling because of what people think about me and my ability? You can’t learn as much as you want in an environment that is set up for you not to feel safe. So, we have to do a better job of responding to the environment and teach again a way that we can touch all students with the body first and then the mind will follow.
Stuart Culver: So Camden, you’re the person who’s actually taking these classes still. So, we’d like to hear a little bit from you.
Camden Alexander: Yeah, of course. Can y’all hear me? Okay, great. Okay. So, there’s like a million things running through my mind right now, but let’s see.
Just off of what everyone’s saying, like I’m up here with all these doctors and they’re amazing. They’re great. I really love everything they’re saying, but it’s like, it’s hard as a student. I don’t know.
When Dr. Fong was talking about American exceptionalism being taught and how our history books are inaccurate. Like, that’s my history that’s affected. I’m not represented well in the history textbooks. And I have to learn and grow up with that. And so do my brothers, who are people of color, so does my other family. We don’t have the same opportunities, but it’s just, it’s difficult because I don’t know. My mind is going everywhere right now, but it’s just hard because I, like at the end of the day, like in…sorry, I’m going to backtrack a little bit.
So, Dr. Smith was talking about how, at the end of the day, that like, as a person of color, I have to try with my appearance, I have to try with my mannerisms, I have to be, do things harder. And I have to try harder than my White counterparts. You know, I have to be more articulate. I have to do all these things. I have to accomplish so many things just to be seen as like an equal. And it’s like, it’s hard, because I don’t like growing up in this kind of world. It’s not fun having to try so much harder just to be seen on an equal playing field. And so, all the things I have to do just to be on that same field, it’s hard.
It’s hard that we don’t teach Critical Race Theory in school because I’ve grown up with racism my whole life. And I’ve seen signs of racism. I just didn’t know what the name was for it. Like, I grew up without learning about racism and it wasn’t until really like high school and college that I actually learned systemic racism. I actually learned the things that were pitted against me. And, you know, I see it in the housing market now, I’m searching for an apartment and I see it now. And it’s like, I go to the bank and I go with my mom because she’s White and my dad’s Black. I see it there. I see it when I have to go to school. I see it in the criminal justice system. I see it everywhere. And it’s just hard growing up with that.
And, you know, I don’t know, like, it’s not a fun world that I live in, but I mean, I’m trying to change it. I’m trying to help people learn, but there’s only so much I can do as a student. And I’m not an educator like these doctors are. I wish I was. I’m not though. And like, I don’t know how I can change it. I wish I did, but I don’t know. That’s how I feel.
Stuart Culver: Okay. Thank you. In listening to you, it occurs to me that, you know, one of the key issues with CRT is precisely being able to recognize racism in microaggressions, in the everyday activities, instead of in the spectacular lynching events. I could even remember our former president saying, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” And that seems to be where, what triggers, I think, a lot of the White reaction saying, “Oh, I’m not a racist,” because they don’t think of racism in those particular spaces and places. I don’t know. Do any of you have further comments on what Camden said?
Edmund Fong: Yes. I mean, you’re not alone. I mean, you know, I grew up in Oakland and some of my earliest memories, you know, my parents owned a grocery store in East Oakland, which is a predominantly African American neighborhood, generally lower socioeconomic status as well. And they owned a grocery store there. And some of my earliest memories were my parents sort of instructing me to sort of shadow some of the customers. I remember. I’m five or six years old at this time. And they’re asking me to kind of shadow, you know, kind of follow certain customers around to make sure that they weren’t stealing, right? So, I was already introduced to a systemic form of racism, right? Discriminatory behavior, before I was even aware of that. And I did not have the education in Oakland to give me the words or the concepts or the understanding to frame that. But, you know, I knew that there was something, I mean, race is so evident in Oakland. So, I knew that there was something. You know, there’s a disjoint between my lived reality and the reality that what I was learning in education. So, we certainly need a sort of…I wish I had CRT or some version of CRT growing up because then that would allow me to, you know, understand what was going on for me and my socialization in my family and in Oakland, in general.
Another example of that, I have one of the most powerful examples here is I once had a student who, you know, one of my classes early on, about 10 years ago, this was a White female student in one of my Ethnic Studies courses came to me and just unprovoked, she was telling me about in grade school, here in Utah, she had a project where they had to, I think this was for Black History Month, where they had to write a book report on some famous African American figure. She chose Martin Luther King Jr. Her teacher suggested that she wear blackface as a way to better embody or represent, you know, Martin Luther King Jr. So, she related this experience to me. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that was, that was shocking to me. And then this would have only been like, you know, when she was going to grade school, like just, you know, in the 2000s, right?
I think the need for education, you know, piggybacking what Dr. Smith said about making a, you know, a classroom that’s safe and inclusive. I mean, imagine if this student had, you know, worn blackface to deliver a report on Martin Luther King Jr., and there were other African American students or other people, you know, students of color in that classroom, how would they have felt, right? How would their body have felt unsafe or unwelcome? Right? So, I mean, I think these issues that Camden raises, you know, it’s still very much present. They’ve been there even when I was a kid.
Kathleen Spencer Christy: Yeah. My advice to Camden, too, is to keep studying. I think it’s all of our responsibility. We have to keep learning. We have to keep understanding. Our students deserve it. They need it. Our society, we’ve got, we just got to keep learning and understanding, you know, this American exceptionalism is a joke. It’s not a joke, but it is a joke. I mean, for many of our students, our communities, it isn’t a reality for us all. So, we’ve got to keep, we just got to keep at it and I just have to share this.
So, I have a granddaughter who started her first semester at Cal Berkeley. She’s lived in a bubble all her life, from California, lived in a bubble. She’s African American, and you know, grandma has been trying to help her understand what’s going on around her, but she’s…had it pretty easy. She’s taking a class called The 1619 Project. It’s an English class. I’m like, so, we have class every night after her class because we can talk about what she’s learning, and I’m just so excited. I mean, I just get palpitations when I’m like hearing her talk, because she’s has to learn this at her age. So my advice, Camden keep learning, keep learning, because we need you as a leader.
William A. Smith: And I would just like to add that, you are an educator. You know, telling your history is part of the educational process, so we are all informed. So it’s important to heed and hear the voices of everyone. And one of the things that Dr. Fong said was a keyword: socialize, right? We have, we all have had racial socialization and other forms of socialization, but for this talk, racial socialization.
I’m gonna use African Americans as an example. We have a history of passing down racial socialization to each generation, and there’s enough data out there that shows when we understand what it means to be Black in this society, but also what the dominant society will throw at you, you can become more successful. You put yourself at risk when you say, “I’m just human. I don’t see race. I’m like everybody else. And you’re a Black person.”
So, part of the thing around Racial Battle Fatigue, you have this bio-psycho-social reaction where you have these racial microaggressions out there. You could have a cognitive response, a physiological response, and an emotional behavioral response, all, one or more kinds of things from avoidance, to you lose your appetite, to headaches, to insomnia, right? I had several weeks of insomnia when George Floyd died. Right? And my family was just upset, right? And I had to deal with trying to make sure that my son and my daughter felt safe and my wife felt safe. And my bonus daughter, my daughter-in-law felt safe. That is a huge load to carry and to carry for all your life. And it never stops. So from kindergarten, really, from the cradle to the grave.
In my first year here at the University of Utah. We’re living in Salt Lake City. I was amazed by the mountains and the views. And I said, “You know what? I study stress. I’m from Chicago. I’m just gonna take it easy here. This is where I can survive and thrive.” Right? And I noticed that, like if you’re in Chicago, if the light turns green and you don’t move, you’re going to hear horns honk, you’ll hear people cursing and flipping the bird at you. Here, the light turns green and the person doesn’t move, nobody honks the horn. Right? Like what’s going on? So I’m like, “Well, I need to chill.”
But in that same semester, 1999 was my first year here. And everybody was stressed around one thing. What was that? Y2K, right? Planes are going to fall out of the sky, computer stuff, all that stuff. Black people weren’t stressed about Y2K. We were stressed about White supremacy. And in that first semester, I had two run-ins with the police. One, I was dropping off a colleague of mine, anti-racist feminist scholar, Audrey Thompson, who was ahead of me in grad school and came here before me. She took me out to have lunch to talk about my transition here to the university. I said, “let me drive you home.”
So, she lives up by the Capitol. I’m driving up the street to her house. And I noticed out of my rearview mirror that the police are following us, right? Audrey’s still talking. I’m watching the police. As a Black man, I put both hands on the steering wheel. All right? ‘Cause I know they have to see my hands. So, I pulled over to the curb where her house is. And that’s when I said, “Audrey, the police have been following us. They just got out of the car. The one on my side has his gun out. The one on your side has his hand on the gun.” She looked at that and all of a sudden she jumps out of the car like Wonder Woman, because she thought she could use her Whiteness to diffuse the situation. I thought I was going to catch a bullet in the head.
She said, “Officers, what’s the problem?” And they said, “Ma’am, are you all right?”
“Officers, what’s the problem?”
“Ma’am, are you all right?”
They said it four times.
And then she said, “I’m Dr. Audrey Thompson. That’s Dr. William Smith. We’re colleagues. He was dropping me off at home.” And they said, “Sorry, he parked a little far from the curb.”
And I was only 10 inches away. That is the day-to-day experience for so many racialized, minoritized people. And we can’t escape the way we look. And so, other people have a response to just our presence. Research shows that for Black men, height doesn’t give them the bonus that it does for White men. Education doesn’t have the same investment payoff for Black men, right? The more education we get, the more income we get, our morbidity and mortality rates are heightened. I could live better and survive longer on the west side of Chicago than in a predominately White neighborhood.
Stuart Culver: I see we have some questions. Is that right?
Question Moderator: Yes. We have several online questions. But I’ll just ask two right now. The one I’m on, they were asking, “what is CRT? And could you explain what it stands for?” And then the second question is, “those who write history are a huge component of how we can tell inclusive histories. Unfortunately, educational books, and really all books, are overwhelmingly written by White authors. How can we include other sectors such as publishing in the battle for inclusive histories?”
Stuart Culver: Okay. I’ll begin by saying CRT is, of course, Critical Race Theory. And I think that was Dr. Smith pointed out that it’s not taught in very many places in its pure form. It’s, it was, it began as a form of legal scholarship to study the judicial system, but does someone else want to take up the question of writing authorship?
[Laughs] I guess in panels like this, we’re trying to give voices and find other authors and I think that’s the important thing to do. I mean, I suppose one question is, that needs to be raised is, how many different voices we need to be able to tell the story of the national history as opposed to the kind of monologue, I guess you’d say, that we’ve been having for many, many decades? Anyone in the audience care to ask a question? Just line up at the mic.
Audience Member: I have, like, a bunch of questions. So, I’m just going to pick one, but if we have time. [Laughs]
So, Activist Angela Davis and other civil rights activists are proponents of being what’s called actively anti-racist. Do you believe that proposing teaching students to be actively anti-racist would meet the same fate as CRT? Especially since people like Christopher Rufo have cast such a wide net on any CRT trigger words, especially racism, social justice, things like that? Or do you think that the specific framing of being anti-racist would lessen the public or political fight against it?
Stuart Culver: Okay. Does someone want to take that?
Edmund Fong: Sure. I’ll say a little something about that.
I mean, I think anyone who’s been following the whole CRT, you know, moral panic knows that it’s not really about CRT. I mean, CRT is a pretty obscure body of thought. I mean, within our scholarly circles it’s fairly well known, right? It’s a foundation for lots of work on systemic racism, right, in this country. But you know, the sort of panic around CRT is not about CRT. It is exactly, I think, what you were saying in your question, which is a kind of broader attempt to sort of chill and push back really hard-hitting grappling with the ongoing existence of systemic racism in this country, right? And I think we see that in how some of these bills will name CRT, but then the rest of the bill has nothing to do with CRT, right? Or they don’t even define CRT, right? And so, I think that’s the kind of ultimate goal behind these efforts is to kind of really sort of see how far efforts can go in chilling conversations that take seriously racism, that treat it as a systemic issue, and through the guise of saying we’re needing to, you know, sort of not make certain students or certain individuals feel guilty, right?
So, I’m not sure if that answered…
Audience Member: Yeah. And then I just have one more question. It’s actually specifically for you, so I kind of feel bad that you answered that question. Do you think that American exceptionalism, especially American pride that’s so prevalent and often toxic along with the considerable lack of empathy is why the US, as a country, isn’t willing to acknowledge or offer an apology for the harms done against Brown, Black, and Indigenous people? Or in another way, why do you think the US is unable or unwilling to take the reconciliation strategies that, for example, Germany has taken? And do you believe that CRT is the first step in national reconciliation?
That’s a broad question.
And I’ll sit down now, ’cause that’s my last question.
Edmund Fong: I mean, just briefly, it’s a complicated issue, the set of issues, I think, you raise.
I think, you know, a broader theme of all the panelists, what we’ve been saying is that we don’t know how to really think about and come together, with all of our differences, to talk about some of these unsavory aspects of our history in a way that charts a path forward. And too many people, because they’ve been socialized to see things in these really sort of, you know, stark purified ways think that to acknowledge racism means that there’s nothing of value, say, in our country’s history, right? And we just don’t have the means to have those conversations, to reach a more complex understanding that will chart a path forward, where, if we want to hold on or feel proud about American exceptionalism, if you want to use that term, that has to be in the future. That has to be achieved. That has to be something that we build in the here and now into the future through efforts like Camden to ask questions, through my own efforts as a kid to try to understand my own circumstances, through really empathy in how our fellow citizens and individuals that reside in our neighborhoods with us, are all part of the community that we would like to achieve, you know, down the road, right?
And so, I think that’s the fundamental thing there is that we lack the means to really sort of develop those ways to educate ourselves about our past that will chart and free us towards the future, right? And so one of the things that, you know, Barack Obama was always saying when he was trying to navigate this sort of football around American exceptionalism was to say, “you know, we have to realize that in the future, it’s not something that’s given to us. It never was, but it’s something that we have to sort of make meaningful for us in the most inclusive way possible.”
Stuart Culver: I think that’s a good point too, about with CRT, the real fear are a set of anxieties about the effects of this kind of study, that kind of confuses a recognition of White privilege, of occupying a position of privilege, and needing to think that through, with just being blamed, just being made to navigate that tension, I think is something that’s important going forward. I think we can do one more question. Please.
Audience Member: Fabulous. Thank you. And I just want to thank you all for being here. Fabulous conversation today.
So, my question is in regards to avoiding a whitewashing of Critical Race Theory. In the past, we’ve seen that, you know, history and teaching have almost been overtaken by, you know, White folks and trying to rewrite history into that happy-go-lucky American exceptionalist way. For instance, you know, I grew up in Florida, they showed “Song of the South,” when I was in third grade. I was taught that George Washington’s slaves were happy and that they lived a high quality of life. And that Thomas Jefferson also took very good care of his slaves and that they were privileged to work for him. And I understand that, obviously, none of these things were true, and the same with my father who grew up in Georgia. He learned that Civil War was the war of Northern aggression, you know, a very whitewashed history that was trying to set a narrative. How can we avoid CRT if it, you know, is taught in schools, how can we avoid the whitewashing of CRT? Unfortunately, you know, in history, we’ve seen that it’s often kind of inevitable for that to happen. How can we avoid that?
Stuart Culver: Do you want to go ahead?
Kathleen Spencer Christy: I don’t believe you can.
So, CRT actually has about 10 tenets, generally, right? And as an educator, I have used a few of those tenets in my work. One is acknowledging the impact that racism has on our institutions, right, institutional schools. CRT was useful for me to help analyze. When we started looking at the data, we started looking at suspension rates. We started looking at achievement rates for kids of color, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and all kids of color that aren’t comparable to their White counterparts. When you look at the data like that, I use the lens of CRT because then it informs me that, okay, there’s something going on here that’s not normal. This isn’t natural. This should not be. I can’t say that all these kids of color, there’s something wrong with them. So, it helps to analyze the system. That was a value of CRT. And so, you can’t whitewash that data. You can’t whitewash the history that we’re trying to teach. So, we have to use a lens that helps us to understand it. And I think that’s a value of CRT.
Another value that I found is the counter-story. For inclusion, you want to hear the stories of all the community, all the parties, all the marginalized communities, so you want to hear the counter-story. And that’s where I think our history piece comes in. So, what’s the counter-story to the Black Wall Street? That I was never taught about until just recently or to the Trail of Tears. What’s the counter-story here? And I think that’s where we can use CRT in that way.
Audience Member: Thank you.
Stuart Culver: I think we’ve only paid rent up to 1 o’clock, right? So I better hand it over to Nancy.
Question Moderator: I just wanna apologize to the folks online. We couldn’t get to all the questions, but thanks for submitting them.
Nancy Songer: So, I hope you will help me thank our distinguished panelists for a very interesting conversation. And I think in closing, I would like to end with what Camden raised with, to us, which is, “It’s hard growing up in this world, and there’s only so much we individually can do.”
“But collectively,” Dr. Christy said, “we need to keep striving. We need to keep understanding. We need to keep learning.”
So, go forth and do that in the world. Thank you.
What is CRT? And could you explain what it stands for?
Stuart Culver: I’ll begin by saying CRT is Critical Race Theory. And I think that was Dr. Smith who pointed out that it’s not taught in very many places in its pure form. It’s, it was, it began as a form of legal scholarship to study the judicial system.
Those who write history are a huge component of how we can tell inclusive histories. Unfortunately, educational books, and really all books, are overwhelmingly written by White authors. How can we include other sectors such as publishing in the battle for inclusive histories?
Stuart Culver: I guess in panels like this, we’re trying to give voices and find other authors, and I think that’s the important thing to do. I mean, I suppose one question that needs to be raised is, how many different voices do we need to be able to tell the story of the national history as opposed to the kind of monologue, I guess you’d say, that we’ve been having for many, many decades?
Activist Angela Davis and other Civil Rights activists are proponents of being what’s called actively anti-racist. Do you believe that proposing teaching students to be actively anti-racist would meet the same fate as CRT, or do you think that the specific framing of being anti-racist would lessen the public or political fight against it?
Edmund Fong: I think anyone who’s been following the whole CRT, you know, moral panic knows that it’s not really about CRT. I mean, CRT is a pretty obscure body of thought. Within our scholarly circles it’s fairly well known, right? It’s a foundation for lots of work on systemic racism in this country. But you know, the sort of panic around CRT is not about CRT. It is exactly, I think, what you were saying in your question, which is a kind of broader attempt to sort of chill and push back really hard-hitting grappling with the ongoing existence of systemic racism in this country. And I think we see that in how some of these bills will name CRT, but then the rest of the bill has nothing to do with CRT, right? Or they don’t even define CRT, right? And so, I think that’s the kind of ultimate goal behind these efforts is to kind of really sort of see how far efforts can go in chilling conversations that take seriously racism, that treat it as a systemic issue, and through the guise of saying we’re needing to sort of not make certain students or certain individuals feel guilty.
Do you believe that CRT is the first step in national reconciliation?
Edmund Fong: Too many people, because they’ve been socialized to see things in this really sort of stark purified way, think that to acknowledge racism means that there’s nothing of value, say, in our country’s history, right? And we just don’t have the means to have those conversations, to reach a more complex understanding that will chart a path forward. If we want to hold on or feel proud about American exceptionalism that has to be in the future. That has to be achieved. That has to be something that we build in the here and now into the future through empathy in how our fellow citizens and individuals that reside in our neighborhoods with us, are all part of the community that we would like to achieve down the road, right?
And so, I think that’s the fundamental thing there is that we lack the means to really sort of develop those ways to educate ourselves about our past that will chart and free us towards the future. And so one of the things that Barack Obama was always saying when he was trying to navigate this sort of football around American exceptionalism was to say, “you know, we have to realize that in the future, it’s not something that’s given to us. It never was, but it’s something that we have to sort of make meaningful for us in the most inclusive way possible.”
Stuart Culver: With CRT, the real fear is a set of anxieties about the effects of this kind of study. That kind of confuses a recognition of White privilege, of occupying a position of privilege and needing to think that through, with just being blamed, just being made to navigate that tension. I think is something that’s important going forward.
How can we avoid whitewashing CRT?
Kathleen Spencer Christy: I don’t believe you can. So, CRT actually has about 10 tenets, generally, right? And as an educator, I have used a few of those tenets in my work. One is acknowledging the impact that racism has on our institutions, right, institutional schools. CRT was useful for me to help analyze. When we started looking at the data, we started looking at suspension rates. We started looking at achievement rates for kids of color, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and all kids of color that aren’t comparable to their White counterparts. When you look at the data like that, I use the lens of CRT because then it informs me that, okay, there’s something going on here that’s not normal. This isn’t natural. This should not be. I can’t say that all these kids of color, there’s something wrong with them. So, it helps to analyze the system. That was a value of CRT. And so, you can’t whitewash that data. You can’t whitewash the history that we’re trying to teach. So, we have to use a lens that helps us to understand it. And I think that’s a value of CRT.
Another value that I found is the counter-story. For inclusion, you want to hear the stories of all the community, all the parties, all the marginalized communities, so you want to hear the counter-story. And that’s where I think our history piece comes in. So, what’s the counter-story to the Black Wall Street? That I was never taught about until just recently or to the Trail of Tears. What’s the counter-story here? And I think that’s where we can use CRT in that way.
Opinion Writer, The Daily Utah Chronicle
Camden Alexander (she/her) is currently a sophomore studying at the University of Utah, who writes opinion articles for the Daily Utah Chronicle under the name CJ Alexander. She is pursuing two bachelor’s degrees in Criminology and Sociology, with hopes of becoming a prosecutor one day. Camden is also a Supreme Court Justice for ASUU, as well as an advocate for racial equality and civil rights education.
Kathleen Spencer Christy, Ph.D.
Dr. Christy, a native Californian, attended the University of Utah where she earned her undergraduate, master’s, and doctorate degrees. Her dissertation focused on developing Equity Mindsets as a process for successful teaching all students. Engaging teachers in conversations about race was a framework used in her study. Having spent over 42 years in education as a teacher, principal, and central office administrator, Dr. Christy’s passion and interests have always been in addressing systemic inequities and meeting the needs of marginalized and students of color.
Kathleen has served on several commissions and boards throughout the years. She is actively involved in her church and community. She provides coaching, training, and consultation in equity and diversity and inclusion to schools, districts, and corporations. She serves as a leader and mentor in her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
Kathleen is the mother of three adult children, six grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.
Stuart Culver, Ph.D.
Dean, College of Humanities
Associate Professor, Department of English
Stuart K. Culver, Ph.D. has been the dean for the College of Humanities since 2018 and a member of the U faculty since 1993. In that time, he has served in numerous roles including chair of the Department of English and associate dean for academic affairs. His scholarly and teaching focus has been on 19th- and 20th-century American literature and culture, photography, film, and theories of popular culture.
Edmund Fong, Ph.D.
Associate Professor & Chair, Division of Ethnic Studies
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science
Edmund Fong (he/him) is an Associate Professor in the Division of Ethnic Studies and the Political Science Department as well as Chair of Ethnic Studies. He is a scholar of racial politics in the United States with a focus on the role of race in shaping American political culture and institutions across U.S. history. He is author of the book, “American Exceptionalism and the Remains of Race,” by Routledge Press and has published in journals and anthologies such as Political Research Quarterly, Politics, Groups and Identities, and the Oxford Handbook of Racial and Ethnic Politics in the U.S. He is currently working on a new book examining how we tell time through race in American politics.
Dr. William A. Smith
Professor & Chair, Department of Education, Culture, & Society
Professor, Division of Ethnic Studies
Dr. William A. Smith is a full professor and department chair of Education, Culture & Society at the University of Utah. He also holds a joint appointment in the Ethnic Studies Program (African American Studies division) as a full professor. In 2018, he received the College of Education’s Faculty Service Award for Outstanding Research & Scholarship. In 2020, Dr. Smith was awarded the Spencer Foundation’s Mentor Award and the University of Utah’s Distinguished Graduate & Postdoctoral Scholar Mentor Award. In 2021, Dr. Smith was once again awarded one of the University of Utah’s highest honors with the Distinguished Professor Award for Scholarly Research and the Black Faculty & Staff’s highest award, the James McCune Smith Award of Veneration.