Note: It’s been a while! Depending on which way you slice it, I’ve either been extra kind on your inboxes and social media feeds or I’ve merely been a lazy and negligent newsletter proprietor. Or, more likely, you and I are both getting better at grace and kindness with ourselves and one another. Regardless, I’ve been quieter than normal but life has been great. I’ve been busy with a Barnraisers cohort that just finished up as well as another dream-come-true but also slightly terrifying new project that I can’t talk about quite yet (there will be news to share on that front… and soon!). I’ve also been deliberately slowing down my work pace— my wife and I have discovered this new thing called “not spending all your time working after the kids go to bed.” It’s great! There’s playoff basketball on at night! And Netflix reality shows where twenty-somethings sit alone in apartments and dictate emphatic text messages to an omniscient television screen! And high-concept mystery shows where the detectives are sad and have Mid-Atlantic accents! But today… a newsletter!
There is a very good Desmond Tutu story that if you were raised in progressive Christian circles in the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s, you’ve likely already heard (both Tutu himself and Jim Wallis used to tell it a fair bit). It uses religious language, but if that’s not your speed the broader point still holds up. As the story goes, Tutu was preaching to anti-apartheid activists at the Cathedral of St. George’s in Cape Town when, suddenly, the ruthless South African Security Police broke into the building. They circled the walls, doing the full-on tough guy intimidation thing and (understandably) laying a thick blanket of tension over the crowd. Without missing a beat, Tutu addressed the cops and soldiers directly, saying “You are powerful, very powerful, but I serve a God who cannot be mocked! And since you have already lost, I invite you today to join the winning side!”
The congregation erupted, first in cheers, then in dance. They danced out of the cathedral and into the streets where they came head-to-head with an even larger crowd of security forces. The cops, not expecting to be met with a joyfully defiant street party, retreated.
It was a good day for irresistible movement-building.
Oh goodness, I’ve wanted to avoid writing about the current Critical Race Theory dust-up. Bad faith, manufactured controversies are like forest fires, and I was loath to give this one any more oxygen than it deserves. In my ideal world, I’d let this all drift by with as little notice as possible— I’d send some supportive messages to friends who work in school districts about how they’re handling an influx of new FOIA requests (“Yes, hello… I’m a taxpayer and I’d like access to any and all emails about why the district has asked fourth-graders to pray two times a day to an Ibram X. Kendi shrine.”) but otherwise just carry on with life.
The problem is, that’s not exactly how these things work, not in America, not in 2021. When the fire in question is being fed by the twin flame-throwers of steady-state white resentment and a vast, well-funded right-wing philanthropic/media apparatus, there is no burning out, sadly.
And so, the great anti-CRT Children’s Crusade has raged on. This, in turn, has required some sort of a response from those of us who aspire for an America that wrestles with hard truths rather than one that cocoons its white population in reassuring lies. And that response hasn’t been wrong! We have connected the dots, unearthing the Machiavelian philanthropists and opportunistic libertarian puppeteers behind the whole affair. We have drawn throughlines from the current crop of school-board disruptors to mid-century images of Arkansans spitting at teenagers and Bostonians stabbing Black lawyers with flagpoles. We have deployed our finest front-facing-camera Internet comics. Most of all, though, we have smugly pushed up our professorial glasses and critiqued the other side’s terminology. “CRT,” we proclaim, hoping that the force of our correctness alone will cause our enemies to cower under the weight of their own injudiciousness, “isn’t actually being taught in schools! It is a branch of critical legal studies that emerged in the 1970s as scholars such as Derrick Bell, Mari Matsuda and….”
Again, we’re right, but it doesn’t matter. If reactionary political movements designed to protect whiteness were committed to factual accuracy, we wouldn’t be in this mess. White supremacy isn’t challenged when you point out that it’s a lie. The whole point of it is that it’s a lie! The monkey’s paw bargain of whiteness is that we’re delivered riches and power and dominance but we must figure out what to do with the (usually subconscious) psychic guilt that comes from knowing deep down that it’s all unearned blood money. That’s why we lie to ourselves! We need every single inch of untruth to keep that crushing weight at bay!
And so, the “movement” to stop CRT will continue, unabated by our smart-and-correct-but-missing-the-point attempts to critique it. If history is our guide, it will build and crest not because the side of justice and righteousness will prevail but because we’ll eventually all be distracted by a shinier new culture war totem (“next up on Tucker… AOC and the Squad want to pass radical new Trans-Mandatory legislation… are you prepared to have the government assign your children new pronouns against their will?”). In the meantime, it will continue to gain steam because reactionary political movements are very good at the kind of things that those of us who love justice often struggle with mightily: They channel the emotions of their followers into collective action. The grifters and opportunists and media personalities have correctly identified that a large swath of (disproportionally but not universally white) Americans spent a year being spooked by Black Lives Matter protests and Trump’s defeat and have been desperately seeking a new rallying cry, a new war to give them meaning. “Go be an absolute pest to your local school board” is a pretty elegant way to channel that angst. “Join this organization of like-minded frightened people that has just now conveniently popped up” is then, in turn, a neatly effective way to harness that initial foot-in-the-door energy and keep the momentum going.
Ijeoma Oluo’s take on all this has gotten a fair bit of traction. It is an extremely good point, though I don’t know how many are truly heeding it yet.
You all, we should not be surprised (nor even dismayed) that this is happening. Social change is a ping pong match. There will always be reactionary backlash, even to largely symbolic stabs at progress. That backlash will always be well-funded. It will always be incredibly seductive because it will promise a deeply scared people the myth that nothing fundamentally has to change. We shouldn’t waste any time bemoaning the emergence of every new culture war Hydra head. The other side is doing their job. We merely need to do ours better.
As Oluo notes, doing our job better means we should be going to school board meetings (for those of us who are white, we should be thoughtful and ready to be accountable to Black, Brown and Indigenous-led education activists in our area, but that crucial step of checking in should not prevent our eventual willingness to show up in front of a mic). It also means that we should be going door to door and having house parties and forming Facebook groups to help others do the same. It means building something that sticks around, even after the cameras turn their attention elsewhere.
Yes, we should do all that. But, as we do so, we must remember that meeting the other side’s fear with our love and hope isn’t simply about what we do, but about how we do it. If the only message we have to deliver is that the other side is funded by grifters, we’re just lecturing, not movement-building. If our primary aim is to chalk up rhetorical victories, to prove to everybody who already agrees with us of the overwhelming rhetorical wrongness of our enemies, then we’re merely playing defense.
Do you know how great it feels to have people respect you enough to tell you the truth? Not situationally, short-term great (not always anyway) but great in that at-the-scale-of-your-life-and-the-moments-that-you-will-look-back-on-as-being-particularly-meaningful sense? Holy cow. Every single one of the most important relationships in my life has been with somebody who told me the truth. And in educational settings? That’s literally the single distinction between the teachers whom I’ve adored the most and least. I love Ms. Swerdlin, my fifth-grade teacher, because she respected eleven-year-olds enough to tell us point blank that the entire notion of gifted classes was nonsense and we should all be getting to do the same cool activities (We did, by the way! It was immensely rad! My non-gifted little brain couldn’t get enough!). I love Mr. Stergios, my high school social studies teacher, who asked us to look at the totality of U.S. history, not just the triumphant parts. I love Ms. Williams, my English teacher, who filled my white bread Montanan bookshelf with Richard Wright and Toni Morrison and pushed me to attempt to understand what they were saying.
What I’m saying here is that we don’t need to take to school board microphones with any sort of defensive response to the CRT haters. We, especially white parents, need to speak up with a loving but urgent request: Care about our children enough to be honest with them. Honor them with the hope that they can metastasize harder truths faster than we, their parents, have. Believe in their maturity enough that you trust them to live in a world that isn’t solely built for their comfort. Take the chance to be the kind of educators who they remember for a lifetime, not merely those who slid them through a childhood’s worth of school days with as little friction as possible.
We must make these requests with joy and hope and grace. We must acknowledge how hard it is to trust that white parents might actually be ready for this. We must avoid the temptation to puff up our chest at the white parents on the other side. This particular issue may have not rankled our defensive feathers in the way that it has theirs, but there are plenty of other outstanding requests for a better world that reveal our hypocrisy, so let’s stay humble and keep our movement hands outstretched. This is the moment for block parties in the school board parking lot. This is the moment for sharing very good food, for imagining how great a world it will be when no American children have to be lied to in order to serve the existing power structure.
This is the moment for an adrienne maree brown pep talk:
“Our goal should be to generate small pockets of movement so irresistably accountable that people who don’t even know what a movement is come running towards us, expecting that they will be welcomed, flawed and whole, by a community committed to growth.”
-adrienne maree brown, We Will Not Cancel Us
There will always be a great gravitational pull towards comforting lies rather than potentially confounding truths, particularly when there is power to be protected. And yet…
Our immensely weird, deeply fallible brains are hard-wired towards community care and love, not division and competition.
We all thirst for truth (and for truthful relationships), even when we act for all the world as if the opposite is true.
Somewhere, centuries ago, before many of our ancestors made the devil’s bargain to become white, we were all human.
Today, in spite of our worst efforts, we still are.
So, whether in our lifetime or a dozen still to come, it will become clear that the forces of power and division have already lost… we just can’t see it yet. And if that’s the case, the question for you, for your like-minded neighbors and for those angry folks on the other side is all the same.
Are you ready to join the winning side?
If you are part of (or working to form) an organizing effort for visionary, inspiring, truth-telling curricula in our schools and you need some advice or a helping hand, always feel free to reach out. I’m firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was interviewed on Solvers, a very excellent podcast hosted by Courtney Martin and Nguhi Mwaura. I think you’ll enjoy that interview, but please stick around for the whole series. Deeply rad conversations, every week! Also, Courtney, who interviewed me, recently wrote the best book I’ve ever read about whiteness (and parenting and schools and Oakland and so many things) and oh my goodness if you pre-order it, I guarantee you’ll love it (it’ll be out in August).
This week’s song: Was there any other option? Take it away, Jeannie C Riley