Sightlines by Mercy A. Quaye

If you’re like me — and at least some of you are — you’re growing increasingly impatient with the politically motivated narrative being spun about critical race theory.
Despite mounting evidence that it’s not being taught in Connecticut schools on a primary or secondary level, we’ve seen vitriolic objections to honestly reckoning with our nation’s history.

Emboldened by the last two fact-shifting presidential elections seasons, folks who feel left out of the country’s future have redirected their attention toward clouding the reality of its history.

So let’s dive into what’s at stake if we let fear of talking about race and racism stop us from teaching our students about it.

Starting with a simple example: October 15 was the final tax deadline for those who requested an extension, which was great for me because I filed on the 12th. When the hustle to file comes around every year, I think back to never learning about taxes and wonder what I’ll do with all the Shakespeare and geometry I got instead.

Herein lies the problem with arguments opposed to culturally conscious curricula.

Without learning about that part of our history, we’d be doing our students a disservice, forcing them to function as adults in society without a full understanding of how that society came to be. That critical understanding of race – how to interact with it, discuss it, and navigate it – is, I think, a 21st-century skill set.

But the debate over what discussing race will do to our kids is dominating enough headlines and board of education meetings that it might be hard to see what’s really at stake. Around the state, we’re complicating the question when the answer is pretty simple: Teaching our kids about this nation’s complex history with race will equip them with the tools needed to understand and act with empathy in our ever-diversifying America. At its core, that is what critical race theory demands of us, to critically examine how racism has shaped nearly everything from taxes to education and determine how we can repair and move forward.

We’ve covered what some teachers are bringing to their classrooms amid the racially charged conversations about race-conscious education. But school leaders throughout the state have been bringing a critical eye to how we teach and engage with race for years prior to ‘critical race theory’ becoming a household phrase. Two districts, the ones flanking our state’s capital, have that in common.

Lorna Thomas-Farquharson, Vice Chair of West Hartford’s Board of Education, says schools should be focused on how we prepare young people for life in our country and that shouldn’t be political.

“Our awareness of the need to be conscious of our curriculum far pre-dates the current timeframe,” she said during an early morning call and between school drop-offs. “Recognizing the public outrage because of events that took place last year … there was a united front and outcry to address systemic racism and address our curriculum. But West Hartford Public Schools were already doing that.”

Asked plainly what curricula were being taught and whether the political rhetoric of today aligns with what she’s seeing in her district, Thomas-Farquharson said her district is simply dedicated to providing an equitable education.

“If people really understood what that meant, maybe their reactions wouldn’t be as strong,” she said. “We’re teaching and striving to expand our teaching of curricula that recognizes all individuals and their contribution to society and to our country at large.”

On the other side of I-84, East Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Nathan Quesnel is encouraging education leaders to avoid distractions and focus on what matters most: successfully preparing students for life ahead.

“The work is about having unrelenting high standards for our kids,” he said. “For East Hartford, our goal is that as we teach students, our teachers become culturally responsive educators who recognize the unbelievable tapestry of culture, gender, sexuality and belief systems in our school district and that we respond to the kids sitting in the room.”

Quesnel talks about this issue in simple, digestible terms. He offers “let’s not let race get in the way” as a reason why we should be teaching from a racially conscious lens. You do that, he said, by understanding how systems have created barriers for people of color and working toward minimizing those barriers in education.

“A lot of this conversation results in a fruitless ideological debate,” he said. “When it comes down to what we want teachers to do in the classroom, we want them to understand our students. We want our students to feel like their voices matter in the room. We want them to see the importance of these concepts that we’re talking about and work towards becoming active, participatory and successful citizens in life. And that’s what our curriculum is designed to do.”

East Hartford and West Hartford are two very different places but dedicated to similar things. West Hartford’s student population is predominately white and Asian, totaling about 60% according to the most recent State Department of Education data. East Hartford’s student population is predominately Black and Latinx, accounting for about 80% of the study body overall. The teaching population in both districts stands at about 90% white.

Thomas-Farquharson said this is, in part, why it’s imperative to equip students with socially advantageous skills like racial understanding.

“Many people say our young people are the leaders for tomorrow,” she said, “so we have to invest and prepare them today. To prepare them with limited information and a limited scope of the past, we are not helping them to be informed going into the future. And the reality is, when they leave the town and safety of West Hartford, the real world may not have a sense of supporting them in all areas. So we don’t want them to have that reality check too late in life.”

Dan Barrett, legal director for the ACLU of Connecticut, has weighed in on these issues and recently commented on Guilford Public Schools’ responsibility to students’ wellbeing. He grew up in a town similar to West Hartford, and in his town, he said, you could go your entire life without interacting with people of color in any meaningful way.

“People of color don’t have that option,” he said.

Race proliferates nearly every facet of professional life, and to ignore it will rob our students of the ability to adequately prepare for life beyond the walls of their town and “generate another 400 years of silence,” as Barrett put it.

Regardless of the professions young adults decide to pursue, having the skill set to critically examine how our society has been shaped by the systems of race and racism and understanding where they stand in that system will better prepare our students to participate in the full spectrum of American life.

The problem is we’re not thinking about it as a skill set. Instead, we’re engaged in a pointless — not to mention spurious — debate about a body of academic legal scholarship that isn’t actually being taught in our schools.

Barrett said that the fear associated with teaching racially responsive curricula in schools is the result of deep discomfort with challenging whether the promises of this country have ever been realized.

“If you want to think about the things we were cheated of,” he said, “think about the stuff you missed out on in high school. I don’t understand half of my country because they decided not to teach me about it. You’re not getting the full picture. If you want to be annoyed at something, be annoyed at that.”

I carry that annoyance daily – mostly when I’m swatting curious hands away from my hair or consulting organizations through a racial crisis that could have been avoided. But most recently, like how I struggle to file my taxes annually, I’m growing intolerant of these efforts to tamper with our collective memory — efforts that will result in young people navigating a nation they never truly learned about.

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Mercy A. QuayeCommunity Editorial Board Editor / Columnist

Mercy A. Quaye writes a monthly column called Sightlines for CT Mirror and is the editor of CT Mirror's Community Editorial Board. In 2015 she founded and continues to lead The Narrative Project, a mission-driven communications consulting group providing communications support to non-profit organizations throughout the state. Born and raised in New Haven, Mercy has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a master’s degree in Public Relations, Social Media and Applied Communications, both from Quinnipiac University. Her work experience includes roles as a columnist for Hearst Connecticut, Adjunct Professor of Digital Journalism at Southern Connecticut State University, radio show host, and communications specialist for advocacy, community, and educational organizations.