Though critical race theory is not a part of Forsyth County Schools curriculum, some parents are getting ahead of the national controversy by advocating for a comprehensive, truth-driven education for their children.

Over the past several months critical race theory has become a talking point amongst conservatives who are weaponizing the concept for political gain. In Greensboro, a vocal group of conservatives who misunderstood the term have threatened the superintendent and protested outside school board meetings. This happened although Greensboro schools have never taught critical race theory and have no plans to implement it.

The concept of critical race theory dates back to the 1970s. It was conceived within legal and academic circles as a way to challenge traditional approaches to racial justice. The basic tenet of critical race theory is that racism results from complex, subtle and systemic dynamics.

And just like most legal theories, critical race theory is not taught in elementary, middle or high school.

But as it was in Greensboro, parents around the country are protesting a curriculum that does not exist. In Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, parents like Natasha Smith, who is Black and whose son is going into 6th grade at Wiley Middle School, worry about what that means.

“They don’t want to find out what it means, that critical race theory has never been taught to small children,” said Smith. “We had a horrible thing happen last summer with George Floyd and the country shifted, and people started talking about race in a different way. The conversations were starting to take hold. And it scared people.

“Enter critical race theory as the perfect bad guy,” she continued. “People are against it because it sounds like something that will make them feel bad, but they don’t know what it is.”

Smith worries about what her son is hearing during this debate about critical race theory, and how he is being treated as a Black student.

“I have the opportunity to move back to the [Washington] DC area and it’s on the table,” she said. “I’m weighing it. Do I want to move when COVID might be getting worse and get stuck in a new place and not be able to make a community? Or do I stay here where I have support, but what’s going on in our school system?”

Chief communications officer for the school district Brent Campbell told TCB that the district is not teaching critical race theory.

“There of course have been parents asking questions and we’re answering those on a one-to-one basis,” said Campbell. Campbell did not give details on the questions the school board is fielding. Campbell also stated that the school district supports “the learning and professional development of our team to understand inequities and we’ve worked to help them understand that for a long time now.”

‘We have to supplement their education’

One WSFCS school employee and parent, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions at her job, said that she works a lot with teachers about race. She said the teachers often fight back against her when she talks about equity in the classroom and incorporating more accurate history into the curriculum.

She says she does discuss race theory with these teachers to help them understand the needs of all students, and that she has seen a lot of eye rolls while discussing the concept. She says it is hard to get through to the teachers regarding this topic.

As a parent, she already sees how her young daughter struggles because of local attitudes about race. She and her daughter are both Black.

“I don’t feel like we’ve done enough,” said the mother. “Our students of color are still being left behind. It’s not equitable at all. My daughter had a teacher in Kindergarten this fall, and she was rude to the students of color. We had parents who didn’t speak English and the teacher would just fuss at them.”

This coming year, her daughter is afraid to go to school because she is worried about being treated differently due to the color of her skin.

“She doesn’t understand why people look at her differently,” she said. “It makes me cry. A 6-year-old shouldn’t have to deal with this.”

Local organizations are doing what they can to educate the community about what critical race theory actually is and make sure teachers are not constrained in teaching U.S. history. Action4Equity is one of those organizations.

Action4Equity started as Action4Ashley, an advocacy group for Ashley Elementary School, which is predominantly Black, when school officials would not take care of a mold situation in school buildings. 

Now, the organization is sharing petitions and advocating for racial equity in schools.

“Lots of people don’t want to recognize that white people’s lives can be hard, but being white hasn’t made these things even harder to overcome,” said Katie Sonnen-Lee, who is on the board of Action4Equity. “They don’t want to recognize that it could be harder for someone else.”

Sonnen-Lee’s children are entering first and fourth grade. As an advocate for teaching racial equity and accurate history in schools, she is frustrated that her children are not getting the education she believes they deserve.

“It feels like we have to supplement their education,” she said. “Race has never been taught in schools very well and we’re going to continue to create adults that don’t understand racial wealth gaps and why race is so predictive of life outcomes. If we’re not going to look at those systems, it’s not going to change.”

The statewide debate

The North Carolina Senate is currently debating HB 324 that would ban critical race theory from being taught in Kindergarten through 12th grade. No Guilford or Forsyth County representatives sponsored this bill. As of mid July, 26 other states have considered similar bills.

As HB 324 stands after passing through the House, it would prohibit teachers from helping students understand systemic racism. Like many other critical race theory bills that have been introduced lately, the wording of the bill is vague.

“That the belief that the United States is a meritocracy is an inherently racist or sexist belief, or that the United States was created by members of a particular 6race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex,” the bill notes.

Education Week, an online news resource about K-12 education notes that bills such as this one are “so vaguely written that it’s unclear what they will affirmatively cover” and that they “could have a chilling effect on teachers who might self-censor their own lessons out of concern for parent or administrator complaints.”

“The whole idea is questioning whether or not we’re living up to our ideals so we can further the democratic experiment and make it better,” said Sarah Green, who has rising 6th and 8th graders at Wiley Middle School. “All of it is a dogwhistle. There is obviously extreme frustration by parts of the population that seem to be susceptible to misinformation. It’s all part of this misinformation campaign.”

Green, who is white, spent time in college and graduate school as a competitive policy debater talking about critical race theory. She emphasized that students in Kindergarten through 12th grade are unlikely to learn about it in the classroom.

“If you’re not studying the law, it’s unlikely you’ll encounter critical race theory,” she said. “Extremists have appropriated this phrase and tried to apply it to any conversation about race in our schools.”

In speaking about the topic with her rising 8th grader, Green said he was confused as to why conservatives are so opposed to the idea of teaching race in schools.

“He said, ‘Well that should be taught,’” said Green. “We don’t give our kids enough credit. They can think for themselves. They are taught to critically think. That’s the core foundation of the curriculum that we use in the United States and in North Carolina.”

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