White teacher: Racism matters to our students. So, it must matter to us

After a verbal altercation while in line, upcoming 6th grader Alex Judge III, center, is comforted by his mother, Laura Judge, while they talk with Gregory Farino, left, and Carolyn Elliott-Farino before a Cobb County of Education board meeting begins.  Teachers, parents and local residents gather to voice their opinions on critical race theory and what Cobb County teaching and the reviews initiated by the school board Thursday, June 10, 2021.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Combined ShapeCaption
After a verbal altercation while in line, upcoming 6th grader Alex Judge III, center, is comforted by his mother, Laura Judge, while they talk with Gregory Farino, left, and Carolyn Elliott-Farino before a Cobb County of Education board meeting begins. Teachers, parents and local residents gather to voice their opinions on critical race theory and what Cobb County teaching and the reviews initiated by the school board Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Teacher Jay Wamsted says nothing explains backlash to critical race theory better than CRT itself

Jay Wamsted has spent the past 16 years teaching math in Atlanta at both the middle and high school level. His writing can be found at the Harvard Educational Review, the Bitter Southerner, Education Post, Edutopia, and Mathematics Teacher, among others. 

Wamsted is now working on a book about white teachers.  He speaks frequently on podcasts and other mediums, and is most proud of his 2017 TEDx talk, “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust.” You can find him here on Twitter.

By Jay Wamsted

I don’t teach critical race theory. I teach eighth grade math.

Long ago, however, I did make a study of critical race theory (henceforth referred to as “CRT”). I’ll be honest, though: if you had told me a decade ago, during my research for a dissertation in mathematics education, that this small corner of social science was going to end up at ground zero of educational argument in a post-Obama world? Well, I might have taken more notes.

As it is, I have done some necessary re-reading of the theoretical lens this summer. It has always been a part of my toolkit for understanding the inequality present in American schools, but these days its utility feels ever more pressing. As I have heard observed more than once, nothing explains the current backlash to CRT better than CRT itself.

As I said, though, I don’t teach CRT. I don’t even teach history or literature, subjects where race and racism might arise naturally. I teach a middle school mashup of algebra and geometry, getting students ready for the increasing rigor of high school mathematics. It is worth pointing out, though, that history and English teachers don’t really teach CRT, either.

Combined ShapeCaption
Jay Wamsted

Jay Wamsted

Combined ShapeCaption
Jay Wamsted

You have probably heard that CRT is a legal theory dating back to the 1970s, eventually appropriated into other fields but almost always as graduate study. Even then it was usually an elective. Very few teachers in America are “teaching CRT”—almost none of them below the level of a master’s degree.

This point is worth repeating: our nation’s children are not being indoctrinated with CRT. Before this summer, almost none of their teachers had even heard of such a thing.

That being said, I am a firm advocate for the belief that CRT should be used to galvanize a change in our nation’s schools. A few facts to bolster my argument. More than 80% of teachers are white, while less than 50% of students are similarly white. This means that roughly one out of every four teachers in America is a white person working in a room filled with students who are predominantly Black and brown.

I am one such teacher; last year I had more white children living in my house (four) than I did sitting in my classes (three). It seems likely that asking our young, white teachers to study the endemic nature of race and racism could prove only helpful as educators like me enter classrooms full of students who increasingly do not look like us. If our goal is to create better teachers, CRT can help.

Here are some different facts in favor of CRT. Nationwide, the size of the education market in 2018 was around $1.4 trillion; this in a year when Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was measured at just over $20 trillion. In other words, the field of education made up 7% of the American economy.

Think about that: so many white teachers, working with so many Black and brown students, in a system that makes up almost a tenth of our entire economy. Even a small amount of racism in such a massive system would be catastrophic for our nation’s children. If our goal is to protect students, CRT can help.

Many school districts have banned the teaching of CRT, so I’m not here to offer you advice on something that might get one of us fired. However, I am here to say that you don’t have to teach CRT to be a CRT-teacher. Meaning, I probably won’t say a word about CRT to anyone this year—but I will take the tenets of the theory and allow them to affect my practice. You could join me if you want, even if your district is one of those that frowns upon an explicit mention of CRT. The beginning of the school year offers educators ample opportunity for reinvention.

Briefly, let’s look at what CRT can do for us this year. As a guide I will follow Adrienne Dixson and Celia Rousseau’s seminal article from 2006, “And We are Still Not Saved: Critical Race Theory in Education Ten Years Later,” borrowing language they in turn adopt from the legal writers who formed the movement.

“Critical race theory recognizes that racism is endemic to American life.” If you are white, you might have a hard time with this tenet; I know at one point in the past I did. The solution is simple: just listen to the Black and brown people in your life. Listen to the crosstalk in your classroom in order to hear your students talking about the ways in which racism touches their lives. Practice that art everywhere you go. You can be a CRT-teacher just by opening your imagination to the very thought that racism affects those of us who aren’t white.

“Critical race theory expresses skepticism toward dominant legal claims of neutrality, objectivity, colorblindness and meritocracy.” Black children are suspended more often. They are less represented in honors classes and more represented in special education. CRT-teachers must open their minds to the thought that these are not defects of Black children; they are effects of our system. Can we try to change our practice to militate against them? Can we choose to see the echoes of racism where the meritocracy falsely claims neutrality?

“Critical race theorists … adopt a stance that presumes that racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage.” It is a fact that even controlling for income, white kids on average do better on standardized tests than do Black kids. There are two options here: either white kids are smarter, or Black kids are affected by a racism that permeates the entire system. Group advantage must have a cause—either nature or nurture. Racism is a terrible kind of nurture, one that we can push back against.

“Critical race theory insists on recognition of the experiential knowledge of people of color and our communities of origin in analyzing law and society.” It is foolish for white people to believe that we understand racism enough to close ourselves off to learning more about it. A CRT-teacher knows enough to ask Black and brown people about their stories. Then a CRT-teacher knows how to listen, without offering advice.

Critical race theory is interdisciplinary.” Race and racism matter in all classes, even math and the sciences, because every classroom is a collection of individual personalities. As long as racism affects American society, it will come into our classrooms with us and our students. A CRT-teacher knows that nobody gets a pass.

“Critical race theory works toward the end of eliminating racial oppression as part of the broader goal of ending all forms of oppression.” Do we want equality for all the students under our charge? I’m willing to bet that, with rare exceptions, the answer to this question is “yes” for almost all of us who have chosen education as vocation. A CRT-teacher understands that, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “no one is free until we are all free.”

I do not teach CRT. But I am a CRT-teacher. I am a white man, solving equations in a room full of Black and brown students. Race and racism matter to them; I will make it matter to me as well.

It is worth repeating that all of this can happen without my saying so much as a word.

The author of this piece is Jay Wamsted, a math teacher in Georgia working on a book about white teachers.