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Understanding the Debate Around Critical Race Theory

18/08/21
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NSW

Over the past year, the debate around whether or not Critical Race Theory should be taught in schools has dominated education news in the United States. That same debate has now emerged in Australia, since the Senate voted in support of a motion calling on the Federal Government to reject Critical Race Theory from the Australian Curriculum. This Senate motion was ostensibly a response to proposed changes in the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures are taught to school students.

 

Given the current public debate on this issue, it is important for schools to understand what Critical Race Theory is and what prompted the Senate motion “rejecting” it from the curriculum. The debate around Critical Race Theory also provides an opportunity for schools to reflect on how they teach their students about race and racial inequality, and how those teachings support the development of positive cultures within schools in relation to equity and diversity and seek to limit the risks of discrimination occurring within schools.

 

What is Critical Race Theory?

Critical Race Theory is an academic theory and framework that emerged in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. The theory was originally developed by legal scholars, including Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, to highlight the lack of progress in relation to racial equality, despite civil rights advances in the 1960s. These scholars emphasised that racial disparities and discrimination endured in the United States because of the systemic and institutional nature of racism. In this way, Critical Race Theory directs people to think about the structural elements of our society (such as laws and policies) that maintain and perpetuate racism.

Interpretations of Critical Race Theory are diverse, as it is a growing body of scholarship with many varied contributors. However, there are some key principles that underpin Critical Race Theory, including the following:

  • Racism is not just an issue of individual biases and prejudices, but rather is embedded in our social practices, laws, policies and institutions.
  • Racism is normal, not aberrational – it is the common, ordinary experience of most people of colour.
  • Race is not biological, but is instead socially constructed and reinforced by institutions of power.
  • Calling out instances of racism, no matter how small, is a key strategy in exposing it and defeating it.
  • Stories of lived experience from people of colour are a valid and powerful tool for challenging systemic and institutional racism.
  • ‘Race’ is not the only important part of a person’s identity. Gender, sexuality, disability and class, for example, are also important aspects of identity that may contribute to experiences of oppression.

There are diverse and polarised views as to the usefulness and accuracy of Critical Race Theory. Opponents of Critical Race Theory sometimes claim that the theory creates division and discord between people. For example, they claim that Critical Race Theory is intended to make people with privileged identities, such as those who are white, “hate themselves” or feel shame and guilt for their whiteness. However, Critical Race Theorists argue that the framework can actually bring people together by highlighting the causes of deep racial rifts that already divide our societies and by providing an opportunity for reflection on how we can overcome injustice.


Why is Critical Race Theory Being Discussed in the Australian Senate?

In June 2020, the federal and state education ministers commissioned a review of the content of the curriculum for Foundation to Year 10. At the end of April 2021, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) released a draft of the revised Australian Curriculum. ACARA proposed numerous changes to the current curriculum, including a new approach to teaching mathematics in a way that prioritises problem-solving and the introduction of digital literacy education earlier in the curriculum.

ACARA also proposed changes to the way that school students learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures. Specifically, ACARA proposed that students learn about how the colonisation of Australia by the British was experienced by “First Nations Australians as an invasion  that denied their occupation of, and connection to, Country/Place". This change was suggested on the basis that the current curriculum is “outdated” and does not reflect First Nations peoples’ call for “truth-telling”.

These proposed changes were misinterpreted by some individuals and media outlets as an indication that Critical Race Theory was being introduced into the national curriculum. It was in this context that Senator Pauline Hanson moved a motion in the Australian Senate to “reject” Critical Race Theory from the curriculum, which successfully passed on 21 June 2021.

Despite what the Senate motion suggests, Critical Race Theory is not taught in schools currently, nor does it feature in the draft curriculum. In the current public discourse, there is often an erroneous conflation of (a) Critical Race Theory and (b) teaching about race in a critical way. As was pointed out by Leticia Anderson and Kathomi Gatwiri, “every time race is mentioned in an educational context, it does not mean that Critical Race Theory is being applied”.

Teaching students about racial disparities and inequality may overlap with the general principles of Critical Race Theory, without being directly influenced by the theoretical framework. For example, learning how First Nations peoples experienced colonisation involves expanding knowledge and understanding about our history. It is not necessarily influenced by, or directly related to, Critical Race Theory.

It is also important to understand that the Senate is not responsible for creating the Australian Curriculum. The Australian Curriculum is developed by ACARA, a national independent statutory body. New content cannot be added or removed from the curriculum by an individual organisation or institution, including the Senate. The current curriculum took many years and extensive consultation to develop. The proposed draft curriculum was similarly the outcome of extensive consultation with relevant stakeholders and educational experts.

The actual effect that the Senate motion will have is unclear. At this point, it appears to be a predominantly symbolic gesture. ACARA will provide the final revisions of the curriculum to education ministers for their consideration and endorsement before the end of 2021. To follow the progress of the review, schools can check the ACARA website for regular updates.

 

What Does All This Mean for Schools?

Critical Race Theory is a complicated and nuanced academic theory that is generally not suitable for direct delivery in the K-12 curriculum. Teachers would be unlikely to refer to it or require students to read the work of scholars who have written about Critical Race Theory.

However, racial inequality more broadly is an appropriate and important topic for school students to learn about. The history and present realities of racism in Australia should be understood by school students. It is particularly relevant for students to be learning about these issues at a time when one in three Australian school students is reportedly experiencing racial discrimination from their peers. Given that racism continues to be experienced and perpetrated by young Australians at these high rates, it is crucial that this topic is being discussed in educational contexts in age-appropriate ways.

It is also important for students to specifically develop an understanding of the perspectives and experiences of First Nations peoples. The legacy of colonisation continues to affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in material and damaging ways. This is clear from the disadvantage and discrimination that many First Nations peoples still experience in relation to, for example, education, health and employment.

 

Supporting Diversity and Mitigating the Risks of Racism and Discrimination

Teaching students about racial inequality should support the pastoral care that schools seek to provide to their students and the duty of care that schools owe to their students and their staff. Ensuring that students within a school’s cohort are schooled in the understanding of the impact of racism on their peers and seeking to build empathy and understanding should help to protect students, staff and the school community from potential incidents of racism or discrimination that may negatively impact the health and wellbeing of individuals and that have the potential to cause reputational damage for schools. Teaching and education that lessens these risks is valuable.

Education among all Australians about the perspectives and experiences of First Nations peoples is, and will continue to be, crucial to reducing the discrimination and disadvantage that they experience. Schools have the opportunity to provide this education to young Australians and to thereby contribute to the promotion of equality and justice for First Nations peoples.

 

Conclusion

The debate around Critical Race Theory is likely to persist in Australia and in other countries around the world. However, as has been emphasised in this article, Critical Race Theory is not currently included in the Australian Curriculum, nor has ACARA indicated that there are plans to include it in the revised curriculum.

Nonetheless, the issues that Critical Race Theory raises around racism and racial inequality are important ones. An increasing proportion of Australian children have diverse backgrounds and are likely to have already experienced discrimination in their own lives. Schools have a central role to play in educating the upcoming generation of Australians about the history and current realities of racial inequality in our country. Educating young people about these issues will likely be a crucial part of dismantling racism in Australia.

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About the Author

Lucinda Hughes

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