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  • Vanessa Bartlett

White discomfort is on full display lately - and the consequences won’t be pretty

White parents have made enough of a fuss to cause many school districts to start banning books and lesson content that could make children or their families uncomfortable. This new aversion to education speaks volumes about white willingness to disengage from issues that they would rather not address.

(Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Florida’s state legislature recently passed the Individual Freedom Bill, also known as the “Stop Woke Act”. The goal of this bill is to assuage the concerns of students and parents who are made “uncomfortable” by the teaching of race-related issues, and to potentially punish educators who continue to teach their students the truth.

If the bill is signed by Gov. Ron Desantis, it would open the door for employers and educators in Florida to be subject to legal action if they teach lessons dealing with gender and race that could make individuals feel “discomfort”.

DeSantis said this bill would be a tool for those who wish to fight back against “woke indoctrination”. This bill comes on the heels of parents across the country going to their school boards and demanding that they stop teaching students about the history of racism in the US.

Issues of racism have been on the minds of Americans for a long time. This current wave of civil rights energy has been oriented towards focusing on structural elements of American society that continue to disenfranchise Black and brown Americans, and the education system is no exception.

The fact that there are Black authors like Toni Morrison and Ta-Nehisi Coates being taught to students today is something that should be celebrated. Without reading books from Black perspectives, students in majority-white classrooms may never be able to begin to understand issues like the ones we talk about today, like police violence against Black communities, barriers between BIPOC communities and economic mobility, and more.

However, now that white parents have started complaining about the supposed impact of teaching students to have an honest understanding of the racism that permeates through all levels of American society, we can expect more bills like the “Stop Woke Act” to further inhibit our ability to have important conversations about these issues.

Criminalizing teaching about racism will not make the issue go away - in fact, it will make things worse.

The FBI’s annual report of hate crime statistics shows that in 2020, hate crimes surged across the US. An overall rise of 45% was reported in hate crimes specifically against Black people. Over 60% of targets of hate crimes were targeted because of their racial or ethnic backgrounds.

If more students are prevented from accessing materials that will help them to understand the challenges faced by BIPOC members of their communities, they may well be more susceptible to hateful rhetoric surrounding minority groups in the US.

The fact that so many students will be affected by white parents who raise concerns about their children being exposed to narratives in which racism didn’t end with MLK Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech is extremely unfortunate. For a group which tends to call their opponents “snowflakes”, their actions to remove specific books and authors from the shelves of public schools signals their unwillingness to hear the other side of the story.

The fact is, white students are not being villainized for being white. White students learning about Black history is not to their detriment. It gives students an opportunity to engage with people and perspectives that they might not otherwise hear about in their day to day lives.

Reading the Great Gatsby might bring insights about the human psyche, but does it inspire the same conversations as books like Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (a Native American novelist)? In many cases, fiction can be a great way of engaging with the stories of marginalized groups in the US and elsewhere.

Personally, I have benefited immensely from being able to read diverse types of literature throughout my time in elementary through high school. Parents who try to shelter their children from that same experience will be severely limiting their childrens’ worldview, and their ability to connect with their classmates through these important texts.

In a world where diversity is becoming the norm, it will be hard to keep the truth about how we got here from the next generation forever. But it seems as though some parents are willing to try anything in order to continue living in a world where they don’t have to think about race.

Students themselves should not be discounted from this conversation. Across the country, students have been voicing their concerns about racism to school boards, holding walkouts, and demonstrating that they are not on board with banning content that deals with racism. Students have made it clear that they feel they have a right to learn about racism, even if some parents are vocally opposed to it.

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