Pollyanna Inc. ‘Race Talk Is Dividing Us!’ eSeminar: a case study
On November 27th, The New York Association of Independent Schools (NYAIS) held an eSeminar titled “Race Talk is Dividing Us! And Other Myths About Race and Racial Literacy Curriculum in K-12 Schools.”
The seminar was led by Jason Craige Harris, a consultant with the NYC-based Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion organization Pollyanna. Harris describes himself as a “longtime social justice educator…and spiritual guide” and “a leading voice for organizational healing and societal transformation.”
Harris kicked off the seminar with a brief meditative breathing exercise, acknowledging the stress that we are all feeling from living through multiple global pandemics: “of course of COVID-19, but certainly of racial and other kinds of injustices.” He encouraged all participants to commit themselves to striving for a future where we can all breathe easier, especially those from stigmatized groups.
One of the institutional missions of schools is to cultivate a sense of community and belonging. But Harris said that in order for schools to be successful in this endeavor, and indeed, if we as a society are to “move forward boldly and bravely in this 21st century, interconnected world,” we must talk about the “elephant in the room”—race.
Harris argued that in addition to the core skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, schools must also teach students to be “racially literate.” Pollyanna’s calling card is its K-12 “Racial Literacy” curriculum, which aims to give children the “knowledge, tools, and skills” they need to “shape a more racially just and equitable world.” Lessons in the curriculum include having kindergarten students mix paint palettes to match their skin color and teaching eighth graders that racism is a “primary institution” in the United States.
“Racial literacy” is not only about teaching children to identify and oppose racial discrimination. Harris clarified that it is also concerned with how the disparities between racial groups that exist today are (presumably always) due to racism. “Race is like a tracking device,” Harris said, that can tell us “how power is being allocated…along racial lines,” and, ultimately, explain why “in North America, race is a predominant category of social organization.”
Schools are not immune to America’s racialized culture. Harris cited several instances of white students engaging in racist abuse of their peers and teachers, then asked us to imagine what it would be like to be one of these children who feels like their identity is “wrapped up in white power, which might as well be read as white perfectionism, white supremacism.” But these racist white children are more common than many of us might think. “All of our white children,” Harris noted, “are being told that they are supreme, that they are powerful. Some buy into it more than others, but let’s be clear, all of them are being told that by the wider society.”
For example, Harris asked us to consider “all of the white children who are being told…that they have to be perfect. Do we not think that perfectionism…is not a legacy of white supremacism?” He then connected this contagion of perfectionism in affluent white communities to a rise in substance abuse among affluent white youths. “To be clear, we all suffer from racism and white supremacism,” Harris preached, “just in different ways.”
Harris spent the final section of the seminar addressing the “myth” that “Racial Literacy is just Critical Race Theory (CRT) in disguise. And Critical Race Theory is divisive and amounts to anti-white hatred.”
“Racial Literacy is actually not the same as Critical Race Theory,” Harris emphasized. “They are a little bit different.” He admits that Racial Literacy has been “influenced by ideas from Critical Race Theory.” But he assured us that this isn’t an issue because the ideas that Racial Literacy draws from CRT “are not bad ideas.” (He adds that “racism,” however, “is a bad idea.”)
So what exactly is Critical Race Theory? What ideas does it espouse? According to Harris, “the defining feature of the field of Critical Race Theory is [the belief] that the legacies of historical forms of discrimination are still with us and have not yet been fully eradicated.” This, it would seem, is a relatively uncontroversial theory.
Notably, Harris added that Critical Race Theory, like all academic theories, can and should be critiqued. He even provides a short list of factors—“gender, class, individual responsibility, merit, change over time”—that some people argue Critical Race Theory fails to emphasize enough.
At the beginning of his explanation of Critical Race Theory, Harris showed a textbook on his presentation slide, titled Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed The Movement. In this book’s introduction, the editors (all of whom are academics who helped found the CRT discipline) describe Critical Race Theory differently than Harris:
The aspect of [Critical Race Theory’s] work which most markedly distinguishes it from conventional liberal and conservative legal scholarship about race and inequality is a deep dissatisfaction with traditional civil rights discourse…With its explicit embrace of race-consciousness, Critical Race Theory aims to re-examine the terms by which race and racism have been negotiated in American consciousness, and to recover and revitalize the radical tradition of race-consciousness among African-Americans and other peoples of color—a tradition that was discarded when integration, assimilation, and the ideal of colorblindness became the official norms of racial enlightenment.
Harris concluded the eSeminar by quoting the great James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
“Friends, we have to face race courageously.”
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