I dissected a frog once. Not for fun, obviously. I, like most people, did it for an advanced biology class in high school.
I had recently declared myself a vegetarian, which mostly meant eating cheese pizza and french fries in the cafeteria. I loudly railed against the upcoming dissection. The assignment was traumatizing, I argued. It wasn’t fair to force me to participate in animal cruelty. I was told to cut open Kermit or take an F for the unit.
And at the risk of sounding like a sociopath, I had a great time dissecting that frog. Identifying its various organs and relating those biological mechanics to my own body actually deepened my resolutions for animal rights.
Good thing no one attempted to legislate away my discomfort, right?
That’s what several states, including North Carolina, are doing with Critical Race Theory. In May, the N.C. House passed House Bill 324, the rosily short titled Ensuring Dignity & Nondiscrimination in Schools. The bill is currently awaiting action in the N.C. Senate.
It never mentions Critical Race Theory by name, but it would prohibit the promotion of key Critical Race Theory tenets in public schools.
Those tenets include that any individual is inherently racist, that any individual bears responsibility for the past actions of their race, that any individual should feel anguish or guilt over their race, that America was founded by one race to oppress another race, and that America’s meritocracy is a racist concept.
Some liberals have attempted to downplay the radical nature of Critical Race Theory, labeling it as simply teaching history. That’s not totally fair. Critical Race Theory would be a dramatic shift in how schools currently handle racism.
And that wouldn’t be a bad thing. The Critical Race Theory debate highlights major shortcomings in North Carolina’s schools when it comes to race education.
This week I spent a thrilling evening reading through the Department of Public Instruction’s curricula for social studies and U.S. history. Students learn about the ins and outs of reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and shifting legal definitions of citizenship for Black people.
But little is codified past the 1960s. Chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement are presented as part of an immoral past, but they are not connected enough to the troubling present.
In contrast, Critical Race Theory seeks to center our shared American consciousness on vibrating subatomic strings of race and racism. Its core tenets include that all people have internalized racism, that racism is institutional and actively upholds white supremacy, that America is not a meritocracy but a system designed by white people to oppress non-white people, and that white people benefit from white privilege at the expense of non-white people.
Critical Race Theory would be a radical departure from the current North Carolina curriculum. It’s complicated, and uncomfortable.
But so is dissecting a frog.
Certain concepts of Critical Race Theory should be a welcome area of study for advanced high school students.
Last summer’s racial justice protests showed us that racism can no longer be a historical artifact for passive consumption. These conversations are active in our jobs, our media, and our college classrooms. We do North Carolina students a disservice when we send them into the world without the tools to engage in these discussions.
And make no doubt about it, students will learn about racism in school whether Critical Race Theory and its tenets are banned or not. They’ll learn it from hearing racial slurs on the back of the bus, or they’ll learn it from off-color jokes in the locker room. In 2019, an Ardrey Kell High School basketball player posted a racist comment on Snapchat about opponent West Charlotte. Could this situation have been different if this student had been given an opportunity to engage with race in the safety of the classroom, instead of the unforgiving, unforgetful terrain of social media?
Racism is messy. It’s disconcerting. Our opportunity here is to allow our students to cut it open, examine its functions, and understand for their own betterment. We should let them.
The frog needs to be dissected.
Dion Beary is a writer in Charlotte.