The Washington Post published a story about a high school teacher, Mary Wood, who teaches Advanced Placement English Language and Composition, who was reported to authorities by her students for having her class read Ta-Nehis Coate’s Between The World And Me.
The Post reported that two of Wood’s students had reported her to the school board for teaching about race. At least two parents complained, and within days, school administrators ordered Wood to stop teaching the lesson. They placed a formal letter of reprimand in her file that instructed her to keep teaching “without discussing this issue with your students.”
When Mrs. Wood assigned the book by Coates, she followed the same strategy she has always used to engage her students – again Advanced Placement English and Language students, so these are supposed to be the smarter, more mature kids, right – give them difficult texts about hot-button issues, and teach them how to argue, which is an AP Language exam requirement. She demanded students consider novel perspectives, setting the essay question: “Explain Coates’ problem with America’s tradition of retelling history. Explain your support or disagreement with his position.” Giving students guidance to think critically about what they read without taking sides herself, and encouraging them to express their positions thoughtfully.
But two students who sat in the back of the class and didn’t engage with the other students reported her. One student wrote in an email to school board member Elizabeth Barnhardt four days after Wood assigned Between the World and Me. saying, “I understand in AP Language we are learning to develop an argument and have evidence to support it, yet this topic is too heavy to discuss, I actually felt ashamed to be Caucasian.” The other student wrote to the same school board member, “I feel, to an extent, betrayed by Mrs. Woods, I feel like she has built up this idea of expanding our mind through the introduction of controversial topics all year just to try to subtly indoctrinate our class.”
So the one student understood they’re supposed to learn how to handle difficult issues intellectually, but talking about racism was too heavy for them and made them feel ashamed. And the other one felt betrayed and indoctrinated by having to learn how to examine what a Black person says about racism intellectually. Instead of being the allegedly smart and advanced thinkers they’re supposed to be in an Advanced Placement class and realizing, “Oh, I’m having a difficult time with this because it’s something unfamiliar to me and maybe I need to deal with why I’m so uncomfortable with it,” both of these students wrote directly to a member of the school board, instead of presenting their discomfort with their teacher – which is the typical course of action. Both of these students wrote emails that contained language that sounds suspiciously like the political jargon Conservative politicians and activists have used to demonize any discussion of the history of racism or any oppression of non-white non-male people in any classroom – that teaching the truth of the history isn’t really being done, it’s really done to make white kids feel guilty, it’s really done to make white kids ashamed to be white, it’s really done to indoctrinate white kids into hating themselves and their history and their culture. And both of those students, I think, are full of shit.
Because you see, this wasn’t just two students who didn’t like the book. This wasn’t just two students who individually felt uncomfortable and separately wrote emails to the same school board member out of sheer blind coincidence. I don’t believe that for a second and neither should you.
This was a coordinated campaign by conservative, so-called Christian right-wing parents to use their children in their culture war against “wokeness”. You can’t tell me that isn’t what this really is and I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes out months from now that some right-wing political or even evangelical organization was behind what these two students did.
And if you think that Mary Wood is the latest victim in Ron DeSantis’ war on “woke” in Florida, you’d be wrong. This happened in South Carolina, where it is a violation for teachers to make students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race. The Washington Post article states that South Carolina is one of 18 states to restrict education on race since 2021, according to an Education Week tally. And at least half the country has passed laws that limit instruction on race, history, sex or gender identity, per a Washington Post analysis. The Post previously reported that at least 160 educators have lost their positions since the pandemic due to political debates. Among them was a Tennessee teacher terminated for telling White students that White privilege is a fact. A Texas principal who lost his job for allegedly promoting critical race theory. A Wisconsin teacher who was dismissed after criticizing her district’s decision to ban the song “Rainbowland,” which lauds inclusivity.
What these people on their anti-woke crusade haven’t done and do not want to do is to think about how Black people, Indigenous people, and every other group of non-European descended people feel about how our ancestors and we have been treated in this country. How we feel about the hypocrisies and contradictions in this country’s history that we’re told in classrooms and churches and from politicians and in the media that we’re supposed to just accept as something that sure it was bad, and awful, and bloody, and unjust, and inhumane, and racist, and sexist, and genocidal back then, but it’s all OK now and we’re not supposed to have any feelings or say anything about how nothing has been done to repair any of the deep and lasting damage done to our people that we still suffer today.
How do they think we feel being taught that we’re supposed to celebrate the signing of the US Constitution On Sept. 17, 1787, but knowing that nearly 40 percent of the Framers — including George Washington and James Madison — enslaved other human beings. Many were wealthy lawyers, others successful merchants. Not a single “famous and important” leader was a common farmer or worker. All were white; all were male, and maybe those facts about the so-called Founding Fathers influenced whether they really meant liberty and justice for all, so that’s why they ain’t our Founding Fathers.
And we know that liberty and justice and freedom weren’t extended to those enslaved people since the same government that was allegedly formed on those principles passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that people who had escaped from slavery be captured and returned to slavery by regular old citizens, on September 18, 1850, just 63 years after the signing of the Constitution. Do these white kids and their parents who coached them to claim that they feel ashamed or guilty to be white when faced with the actual history of this country and how it impacts us think about how we’ve felt having to listen to teachers and adults all over this country for decades upon decades tell us that our view of our relationship with this country is not one of freedom or liberty or justice based on this history is not only wrong but un-American and we’re ungrateful and hateful for even pointing it out?
Of course, they don’t think about how we have felt being lied to and told to shut up about this country’s history and the lasting legacy of ongoing racist terrorism. That’s the point – they don’t want to think about it. Because they won’t have to change anything they benefit from if they pretend like it’s not a problem in the first place.
So I think we need to stop believing that these people engaging in this “anti-woke” crusade are ignorant. They’re not. They’re consciously organizing to maintain their power. They don’t have to be intelligent to do that, but we need to recognize that they are craftily strategic in organizing their efforts from the governor’s offices right down to the classrooms, enlisting their children as footsoldiers in their crusade.
So what are we going to do in response?