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Teaching Critical Race Theory to Hawaii Students


Some schools are trying to talk about racism through critical race theory. People usually think of racism as something that comes from an individual's bias and prejudice, but critical race theory argues that the structural and institutional features of racism have more impact.

In the past few months, conservative lawmakers have advanced or passed bills that ban educators from teaching certain concepts, including critical race theory.

Kendall Thomas, a professor at Columbia Law School, explains why he thinks it’s important to teach critical race theory to children. He says, "Much of what we teach students in K-12 schools is basic civic literacy, so that we can all be part of the American community."

"The debate right now that wants to center on the story of 1776, the moment of the American Revolution, which is a very important moment, really resists the diversity and stories that we need to be telling and the inclusion of all the diverse stories that make America who and what we are. So my basic view is that it would be irresponsible and we would be perpetuating civic illiteracy if we taught our students just about 1776. You can’t have 1776 without 1619 when the first slaves were brought to the shores of Virginia; without 1893 and the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom," Thomas explains.

Democratic Hawaiʻi State Representative Amy Perruso taught middle school and high school before entering politics. She says it’s important to have uncomfortable discussions in the classroom. She states, "If we want to have a robust democracy, we have to be honest about our society and to challenge inequity where we see it."

"To say that it creates racial division is to elide the actual underlying division and conflicts. It’s to really minimize them or silence them and I think that’s a form of violence. And if that is what is true about our society, then we should examine it, and challenge it, and make it better," says Perruso.

Those who oppose teaching critical race theory to K through 12th graders say that the method is divisive, and targets white people for criticism. Critics call for a more positive approach to talking about racism in schools.

Republican Hawaiʻi State Representative Val Okimoto was also a teacher before running for office. She says, "I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have difficult conversations within our school systems about the history of our country and our state. We absolutely should."

"But in my opinion to build a more perfect union, I think we should promote diversity and conversations on race in a much more positive light. We see it here every day in Hawaiʻi. Myself included are multiethnic. We learn about other people’s cultures by immersing ourselves in it. I think it’s important to continue to teach by celebrating our differences rather than using them against each other," says Okimoto.

Some Hawaiʻi teachers use critical race theory as part of their curriculum, but there are no policies or laws in place to teach or ban critical race theory in Hawaiʻi.

Zoe Dym was a news producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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