In high school, years ago, I was the debate captain. Even at 30-odd years old, those experiences have been embedded in how I speak, think, reflect, and engage. Debate required precision and skill, but it also required high emotional intelligence. You had a judge that was assessing the content of your contentions and paralleling that with your peer. You had to look ahead, be crisp, clear, and engage in the issues professionally.

Sana Shaikh

Of course, even in those interactions, your race, gender, and perceived socio-economic status played a role in the judge’s perceptions. Doesn’t it always? Even so, there was an emphasis on civil discourse: you had to talk about the topic, not the person. By keeping calm, focusing on the definitions, and using evidence, you would win. By being emotive, aggressive, and polarizing, you would lose.

By any definitional framework, the way we as a community of educators, parents, and people have been engaging with each other the past year and half, we are losing.

Connecticut, a place that once provided a haven for Black slaves to freedom vis a via the Underground Railroad, has now shown its colors to not be blue, but purple – a bruising encountered from unhealthy civil discourse. Instead of choosing to engage with one another in a productive manner, conversations have devolved into name-calling, generalizations, general divisiveness, and the worst: passive-aggressive neutrality.

Perhaps most unsettling is that as we engage and grapple with difficult and complex issues of racial identity, systemic racism, historical injustice, and power dynamics, we have forgotten how to be human. Instead of seeking and creating productive and healthy discourse, our conversation — amidst education leaders, community members, and each other – has devolved into personal attacks and victimhood.

As a mother of two young children who are not white, it’s challenging to constantly observe and absorb systemic inequities within our state. These inequities are pronounced and have been magnified by COVID and historical policies of segregation, oppression, and gentrification. The reality is that we can’t hide from history and history has not been kind to Black and brown people in this country. This pain and fatigue can be overwhelming, but what’s more bewildering is the manner in which we, as a community, have chosen to engage with these issues.

Ultimately, our children are watching, and we are not acting like winners. Instead, we are choosing to be the worst students: we are not doing our homework, listening to our teammates, or committing ourselves to doing our best. We are, however, choosing to generalize, conflating definitions and terminology, presuming the worst of others, and letting our fear bar us from productively engaging with each other.

This past year and half have been exhausting in the truest sense of the word. It’s been a perfect storm in so many ways, as many of us have coped with our own mortality and the mortality not only of our loved ones, but the values that we hold so dear. In our most painful and darkest moments, we can come out even stronger. And that strength is not anchored in being cruel to thy neighbor, but rather a commitment to vulnerability and connection; a commitment to meaningful and productive civil discourse.

Critical race theory is an academic and theoretical framework; a tool meant to examine our legal, economic, social, and academic institutions. Critical race theory is not an ideology, a pedagogy, or a blame against white Americans for our country’s past ills. Critical race theory is an opportunity for us to contextualize and understand the manner in which power, privilege, and race intersects to create the institutions in which we reside and operate in.

We can not let fear impact the way that we engage with each other on topics that we do not agree on. That is not productive for us, not productive for our children, and antithetical to progress here in our state.

Thinking back, my debate coach, Mrs. Prichard, always used to say to me, looking at me with her expressive blue eyes, “If you learn how to win debate, you can win anything.” Poignant words to live by. I am not sure how good of a job we are doing to win this debate. But maybe in the next round we can do better.

Sana Shaikh, Ph.D., lives in Avon.