By Anna Young

As a student at a large public high school in New York City, one may question why I would choose to write an essay promoting Ethnic Studies curricula to a local paper in Tennessee. My parents met in tenth grade at Chattanooga Christian School, and although I consider New York my home, I have spent a large portion of my childhood and adolescence with my family in Tennessee, largely impacting the person I am today. This year, I have had the privilege of taking Ethnic Studies as my twelfth-grade history course, and it has opened my eyes to many fundamental injustices in the world, specifically regarding how racism is embedded in many of the systems and institutions that make up the United States. However, thousands of other students in my own state, let alone in the state I call my second home, don’t get this opportunity, and are therefore missing out on both learning about culture as well as how to combat inequity.

It is undeniable that America has become a place of severe political tension, and thus it’s not surprising that this hyperpartisanship has seeped its way into academic institutions. A study done in November recorded 69% of principals as describing the political conflict in their schools as substantial, and as a result of this, school staff are suffering. Tennessee principal, Nancy Peters, shared that she “has seen ‘a lot of faculty stress’ associated with the ‘awful ugly’ emails parents send to teachers related to culturally divisive issues.” Another former principal from Tennessee, Hilda Christie, stated that there is a “level of intolerance and refusal to understand the other side that [she hadn’t] seen before the pandemic,” and more specifically that “there’s been mass hysteria about the CRT.”

Critical Race Theory seems to have America outraged, with many arguing that its presence in schools is a form of indoctrination, that it shames students for their ancestors’ behavior, or that it creates more disunity in a place that is already so divided. It’s understandable for parents to want their children to feel supported and uplifted within their education, but a proper Ethnic Studies course actually does just that. While Critical Race Theory itself is a complex legal examination, its framework is highly applicable to historical lessons, and can be used in many productive ways in grade school. As a white student, not only am I incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to study the United States through the lens of CRT, but I wish I was given these circumstances way sooner. I have never been made to feel guilty for my race, and instead have been welcomed into an empowering community in which I have learned rich history and tools for changing the world around me.

When studying the history of Ethnic Studies in Tennessee, I first came across a law from November of 2021, made to regulate the way issues of race and privilege could be discussed in classrooms. This included prohibiting teachers from suggesting that America is fundamentally racist, or that certain students have inherent privileges that others don’t. Tactics like financial penalties and threats of dismissal were also introduced for school districts or individual teachers who violated these rules in classrooms. Pieces of legislation like this one suppress proper education and make students feel uncomfortable talking about issues that impact almost every facet of their lives. As a black student from Knoxville rightfully asked, “How can I expect a professor to talk about the racism that affects me today if they can’t even teach about the racism that got us in this situation yesterday?”

However, in April of this year, a bill was passed with bipartisan support that requires fifth through eighth graders in Tennessee to take some form of Black studies and multicultural curricula. This guarantee gives us an exciting chance to fix the lack of education and understanding of other cultures in America. It also targets the problem of political divide and its impact on community, especially because Ethnic Studies not only boosts students’ education of the foundations of their country and the history of their peers, but it also provides tremendous societal benefits. A recent Stanford study on a new curriculum in the San Francisco Unified School District found that taking Ethnic Studies in ninth grade had, “remarkably prolonged and strong positive impact on students, increasing their overall engagement in school, probability of graduating and likelihood of enrolling in college.” It makes sense that giving students a space to listen to one another’s perspectives and experiences while also expressing their own can make them more inclined to attend and participate in school. We should use this evidence to foster more communities like these in all of the academic environments across the country.

That being said, this bill doesn’t go into effect until 2025, and in order for it to mean something, we must work together to decide how this program should be run. Representative Yusuf Hakeem, from Chattanooga, stated that this curriculum will teach that, “there is value and worth that African Americans have made to this country, to this state and to the world,” and will focus on Tennessee black history. In addition to this, it is important that students also get the foundational knowledge of ethnic studies and the true meaning of a CRT lens. Teachers must be trained to handle sensitive conversations and foster discussions that are peaceful and productive. The setting of an Ethnic studies class should feel different from students’ other courses; they should be engaging in lessons that focus on their needs and that build community among one another. As residents of Tennessee, you should get involved with local school boards and government to help set these standards and design a program that will change the course of history, because at the end of the day, Critical Race Theory doesn’t have to divide the country. In fact, it might actually be the tool we need to bring us together.

Aldrich, Marta. “Tennessee nails down rules for disciplining teachers, withholding money from schools that teach banned concepts about racism.” Chalkbeat, November 19, 2021.

Allison, Natalie. “Tennessee bans public schools from teaching critical race theory amid national debate.” The Tennessean, May 5, 2021.

Clancy, Nicholas. “Commentary: Ignorance is bliss for those who can’t acknowledge roots of racism.” Tennessee Lookout, May 21, 2022.

Dreilinger, Danielle. “Ninth-grade ethnic studies helped students for years, Stanford researchers find.” Stanford, September 6, 2021.

Poindexter, Arianna. “Tennessee House passes bill requiring Black history be taught to 5th – 8th graders.” Action News 5, April 8, 2022.

Rogers, J. & Kahne, J. with Ishimoto, M., Kwako, A., Stern, S.C., Bingener, C., Raphael, L., Alkam, S., & Conde, Y. (2022). Educating for a Diverse Democracy: The Chilling Role of Political Conflict in Blue, Purple, and Red Communities. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access.