Op/Ed

Ways of seeing: We must all learn our *real* history

Unless you have been living under a complete media blackout for the last six weeks, you’ve probably heard of Critical Race Theory and the latest efforts to keep it out of U.S. K-12.

But do you know what Critical Race Theory is? I wanted to make sure I had the correct definition, so I turned to good old Wikipedia. There, CRT is defined as “an academic movement of civil rights scholars and activists in the United States who seek to critically examine the law as it intersects with issues of race and to challenge mainstream liberal approaches to racial justice.”

In other words, CRT examines the way white supremacy and racial inequality is baked into the legal systems of our supposed democracy. Why do I call it a “supposed democracy?” Because in the United States today we simply do not enjoy equal human rights. When Black and Indigenous people are more than three times as likely to be killed during an encounter with police as white people, we have to admit that when it comes to equal rights under the law we are essentially living in two different countries.

It might seem like Addison County is a great distance from the streets of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered by police last year. But the battle about whether to teach school children about Real American History, and the way this history shows up in our current events, laws and policies, has definitely come to Vermont.

Just a couple weeks ago, opponents of racial equity policies in their school district gathered in Essex to hear their newly elected school board member speak. This new school board member opposes teaching kids about racism in the United States, stating that our public schools should be “free of ideologies and theories.”

Meanwhile, literally across the street in Essex, another meeting was taking place. A panel of six Essex high school students spoke to community members about their experiences with racism, apathy, and ignorance at their school. I am struck by the image of these two gatherings, in two separate buildings, in the same town, on the same evening. It’s hard to imagine a more polarized community.

We all want the same things, don’t we? We want to send our kids to a good school. We want healthcare when we are sick. We want to be able to pay our bills and have some savings for a rainy day. But in the United States, none of that is guaranteed. Working people scramble to make ends meet and saving anything is next to impossible. Why can’t we have nice things?

James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” How do we help ourselves and our neighbors understand that a tiny sliver of our population, the wealthiest Americans, are benefitting from this battle that pits neighbor against neighbor? Because when we are fighting each other over things like school mascots, school equity policies, and whether to teach anti-racism, we are not standing in solidarity with one another to demand our human rights of healthcare, affordable housing, and clean air and water.

Encouraging white people to be afraid of Critical Race Theory is the latest well-funded propaganda campaign of the remaining Koch brother, the Heritage Foundation, and numerous other pro-corporate initiatives. The people pitting neighbor against neighbor in Essex, Vt., and cities and towns across the country, are the richest of the rich.

As Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says, these are the “nesting-doll yacht rich.” These are the people that are so rich they don’t even know how many houses they own. Taxing the richest people in this country could easily provide every American access to housing, healthcare, and education.

But we are never going to be able to work together to demand our human rights if we aren’t willing to learn real history. We must be willing to see that some of us are treated as more human than others, and that is not to be tolerated. I want to live in a community where ALL OF US can thrive, Black people, Brown people, and White people. Let us face the truth of our history, so we can build this beautiful new world.

Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works. Joanna lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys cuddling her cat, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: joanna@ottercreekyoga.com

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