Diversity Resistance in Education – Event Recap

shadows of people of different races, religions, etc.
Source: Yahoo Images

In recent news, the subject of discussing racism and race within schools has become a controversial topic. On Wednesday, November 10th, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed Dr. Michelle Allen, UAB Diversity Education Director. Dr. Allen has a research background in Critical Theory, Queer Studies, and Narrative Inquiry. The seminar was moderated by Dr. Courtney Andrews, Researcher at the Institute for Human Rights (IHR) and Adjunct Professor of Anthropology. Throughout the discussion, Dr. Allen provided an overview of critical theory, discussed the place of the theory, and discussed race within secondary education.

Origins of Critical Race Theory

Dr. Allen began the conversation by defining critical theory and its use as a lens. Dr. Allen asserts critical race theory is based within legal studies. Critical Race Theory began in the legal academy in the 1970s and grew from the 1980s to the 1990s. Critical race theorists suggest that since race is embedded within our society, it is based within the laws that regulate the society. The purpose of the theory is to challenge neutrality and rationality in the judicial sphere. Thus, based upon this definition of the theory, racism is presented as systemic, and Dr. Allen emphasizes how each racial group can treat critical race theory as a “launching pad” for understanding their marginalization within society.

The Tenants of Critical Race Theory

From there, critical race theory was defined by five tenants: “race is a social construct, racism is a normal feature of society, lived experiences as scholarship, racism is codified in laws, and centering intersectionality.” Dr. Allen elaborates that race is not defined through biological means but rather through society creating meaning behind race as a construct. Furthermore, due to race being a social construct, it is a systematic issue that is produced from society and creates inequalities involving those minority groups. From these inequalities, Dr. Allen emphasizes how the lived experience of a person, as they experience racism, can serve as a possibility model to greater comprehend the lived experience of that entire minority group. Furthermore, how these individuals experience the world with all their intersecting identities from gender to sexuality to race.

Intersectionality

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” which is the idea of “colluding identities coming together to paint a picture or create a unique lived experience,” as Dr. Allen defines. She further expands upon the significance of intersecting identities or a “colluding web of oppression” with an interesting case of General Motors. In the 1960s, the company had a policy that the people most recently hired would be laid off in situations of economic hardship. The policy was established to support layoffs during the 1970s. The most recently hired group consisted of black women, thus they were the most fired group. Five of these women filed a lawsuit against General Motors for discrimination, but the issue began with determining which identity the discrimination was based on. The lawyers could not prove that there was discrimination based on both being women and being black. Due to the isolation of gender and race, General Motors was able to prove the lack of discriminating due to hiring black people and women in general. Ultimately, this case displays the necessity of shifting the conversation to be inclusive and critical of the merging of various identities especially when we exist in an emerging global society.

Resistance to Critical Race Theory

Despite the applicability of critical race theory, the question that is often raised regarding the theory is if it should be taught within secondary schools. One participant went further and asked Dr. Allen “why is there resistance towards the theory being taught within schools?” Dr. Andrews suggested that white people often face difficulty in recognizing their own power and the shift in power once they realize their privilege in society. They remain complacent in attempting to understand racism systematically because, on an individual level, they feel they are not racist or discriminatory. Dr. Allen added on that within America, white people often have the luxury to view themselves as individuals compared to other minority groups who must identify with their racial group. Thus, white people do not feel that critical race theory is necessary to be absolved from a group-based identity.

The conversation shifted to address another question raised of whether people resist critical race theory due to ignorance or lack of understanding. Dr. Allen answers there is a culture of anti-intellectualism in which the general population prefers a non-expert over a more qualified person, even in areas of government. When Dr. Allen teaches her diversity courses, people often question the terms she presents, such as “cisgender,” and do not understand or recognize the importance of academia and scholarship in developing these new ideas or terms. Another participant argued that there is not a lack of understanding critical race theory, but that people simply do not want to engage in the conversation. They might not want their children to be taught that white people as a group have historically oppressed people of color. There is a misconception in America that discussing racism will create more racism, but people fail to comprehend that racism is implicitly taught by people around them saying or doing terrible things, so teaching that it exists and why it is wrong is important to prevent it from becoming a belief and practice in our children. In other countries where traumatic events of bigotry occurred like in Germany with Holocaust or South Africa with Apartheid, the events are explicitly taught and discussed to effectively address the ramifications of such tragic events. In the U.S., people often take the discussion of racism personally and do not recognize that it is a societal and systemic issue.

In discussing the role of critical race theory in schools, Dr. Allen emphasizes how the theory should not be solely taught as a lesson plan for the week, but rather be infused within the subject that is being taught. A participant who is a teacher raised a concern and asked Dr. Allen how to properly implement critical race theory into educational curriculum. Dr. Allen responded that it is important to acknowledge the history of certain forms of knowledge. For example, when discussing gynecological knowledge, it can be explained that this information was gained through the exploitation of black women through unethical scientific experimentation by people like Dr. Marion Sims and others. The point is not necessarily to teach critical race theory – a high level social theory – to high school students, but to teach them a true and accurate history of the systemic exploitation, discrimination, and marginalization of People of Color in American history as well as their contributions to our society. In this way, it is possible to de-center whiteness and white people as the dominant force driving our history and our future.

Thank you, Dr. Allen and Dr. Andrews and thank you everyone who participated in this eye-opening discussion.

Women’s Education in Afghanistan

When the Taliban captured Kabul in August, a bleak future dawned on girls and women across the country. Despite the Taliban’s promise to be supportive of women’s goals under Islamic law, the deadly crackdown on the progress of women’s rights has already begun.  

The Taliban regime, like the older one that ruled from 1990-2001, upon capturing the capital, shut down the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and replaced it with the Ministry for Protection of Virtue and Vice. Later, they announced that women cannot go out in public without a male relative or without being fully covered, and female workers have been instructed to stay home. Education, politics, sports, freedom of expression, and whatever else requires women venturing outside with a voice has been banned by the government, punished by beatings or floggings.  

Afghan Women in Veils
Afghan women in veils with the words “Taliban vow to respect women We can still see We can still watch We can still notice We will no longer accept.” Source: Flickr

Education and Occupations 

Girls’ education in Afghanistan took a lot of effort to achieve, but many obstacles, specifically financial security and accessibility, still stand in the way. Knowledge gives individuals mobility and power to decide their future for themselves — a source of pride that Afghan women have fought for. In Afghan villages and cities alike, many women and girls would work for low wages in poor conditions to finance their education, and now these efforts and opportunities have been ripped away.  

Pride is now fear. After the fall of the Afghan cities Kabul and Herat, the Taliban prohibited girls over 6th grade from attending school and segregated universities between genders. Boys were allowed back weeks ago, but no indication was given to girls — a silence that told them to stay home. The regime previously stated that education will resume under the laws of Islam. Even if girls can go back to school, they may not learn certain subjects such as engineering, vocational education, cooking, and government studies.  

Dreams of becoming pilots, surgeons, activists, and lawmakers have evaporated for Afghan girls, and women already educated under a democratically controlled Afghanistan are seeing their lives turn on their heads. A university student who was supposed to graduate with two degrees from the American University of Afghanistan and Kabul University frustratedly remarked that she must hide any IDs, diplomas, and all evidence that she received a higher education, throwing away decades of work for her career. If she does not do so, she risks the lives of herself and her entire family. 

A class for girls in a village school outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
A class for girls in a village school outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Source: Flickr

The Taliban is not their only issue, however. Many female political figures remaining in Afghanistan fear retaliation from men they jailed or sentenced. Despite the years of progress since the last Taliban occupation, women in powerful roles still made men in Afghanistan uncomfortable. The Taliban has not instituted strict restrictions on law and order  allowing incidents of physical and sexual violence against women to increase. 

Female Workers 

Women have taken to streets demanding their rights back as the Taliban prepares to deal with international questioning for their rise to power. Although once numerous after the fall of Kabul and Herat, protests are now few and far between. Organized protests were broken up by the Taliban’s gunshots, beatings, and killings in early September, effectively dampening the morale of activists. Now, the regime demands prior registration with a detailed account of the event and any slogans that are to be chanted, decreasing the right to assembly in the nation. 

Female journalists, teachers, activists, and especially judges are also being targeted by the oppressive regime. It is common practice for the Taliban to break into homes of instrumental feminist voices and threaten their families, and the United States’ promise to protect Afghan women activists from the Taliban has fallen flat.  

Former Afghan legislator Fawzia Koofi fled Afghanistan to Qatar after she was placed under house arrest and guarded day and night by the Taliban. Parliament members Shagufa Noorzai and Homa Ahmadi escaped to Athens, Greece, along with 177 other high profile female lawyers and judges with help from the Melissa Network and Human Rights 360. Even though activists like Koofiand Noorzai are far from their home country, they have already started networking to protect the rights of women and girls from where they are. 

In late August, 15 members of the inspiring 20-member Afghan Dreamers fled Afghanistan, with 10 arriving safely in Mexico City, Mexico, and 5 in Doha, Qatar. This all-girls robotics team made waves after winning multiple international robotics competitions in the United States and becoming a luminescent symbol of the potential of girls in science, mathematics, and engineering. These girls left with the hope of continuing their education and competing in robotics tournaments. Some girls voluntarily stayed behind to help education efforts in Afghanistan. They all hope that their achievements and stories will empower girls in their home country to fight for their education and convince the regime to adapt to a new generation of women. 

Private Afghan universities require girls to wear an abaya and niqab.
Private Afghan universities require girls to wear an abaya and niqab. Source: Flickr

Education as a Human Right 

The Taliban violated many articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 26 proclaims that basic and fundamental education should be free, compulsory, and equally accessible. Education is stated as the driving force to foster respect for human rights and personal freedoms all over the world which is crucial for women to rise from societal restrictions. 

The head of the Afghan Women’s Network, Mahbouba Seraj, emphasizes that Afghanistan is not the same country that the Taliban left. Women will not sit and stand by while they try to take away their rights. Over 6 million women have established their presence in traditionally male-dominated fields such as media, medicine, law, and government. She believes that the gender equality movement in Afghanistan will prevail over the Taliban’s resistance.  

Earlier in October, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to approve a rapporteur on the grounds of Afghanistan to investigate and report civil and human rights violations. The European Union’s ambassador to the UN cited particular concern for the restrictive actions of the Taliban against women and girls. In addition to the UN, the public can offer donations to other international human rights organizations that are also working on the safety of female Afghanistan officials and girls seeking to continue their education such as Amnesty International, CARE, and Women for Afghan Women.

The Lasting Impact of COVID-19 on Education

School sign reading "school closed, stay home, stay safe."
School closed, stay home. Source: Travis Wise. Creative Commons.

When the pandemic began in the United States almost a year ago, I was working two jobs. As COVID-19 spread swiftly and mercilessly through my community, I found myself unable to continue working at either of those positions. However, as the summer months progressed, a new job market presented itself to me: parents with kids who could not return to in person schooling. Since the school year started, I have worked as a nanny/teacher for a family with two children in elementary school and two parents who work full time. The first semester of school in a time of COVID has come and gone, revealing the many challenges alongside benefits of hybrid or online school. In the United States and in many countries across the world, children are guaranteed an education. How has this guarantee shifted when this education no longer includes in person teaching or the added benefits of childcare, school provided food, and educational resources?

With the onset of the pandemic in the United States in the middle of March 2020, schools have had to adapt their teaching and learning strategies as well as develop ways to provide access to services like hot food, laptops and other e-learning technology, and internet to students who might have relied on schools for those resources. These adjustments needed to happen in what felt like a split second. One minute we were preparing for spring break, the next we were preparing to teach and learn in completely new ways for what would end up being almost a year. Curriculums needed to be shifted and new materials created almost overnight. Many of these changes were placed on the shoulders of teachers, a group of workers who are arguably already underpaid for the work they do in non-COVID times. The sudden shift of teaching methods caused problems for teachers working tirelessly to ensure their students continue learning and engaging in virtual classroom activities. Some teachers reported that the main difficulties revolved around keeping students engaged while they are in their home environments and learning through Zoom, Google classroom, or some other similar program. They also reported the difficulties of ensuring students are reaching learning goals as teachers are unable to view the work as students are working on it.

 

A teacher in an empty classroom teaching online school
Teacher teaching online school. Source: Phil Roeder. Creative Commons.

Parents are also discovering problems with the abrupt change in schooling for their children. Some parents have reported noticing how hard it is for their kids to develop a relationship with their teachers, causing inattentiveness and problems with following instructions set by the teacher. The transition has been noticeably harder for parents of children with special needs or learning inhibitions. Without the resources that were provided by in-person schooling, it can be difficult for parents to help their students learn in a completely new environment. Students, especially in elementary school, have a hard time with the technology used for asynchronous learning, requiring parents and guardians to guide their students, sometimes every day. The pressure is added on parents who are now required to balance full- or part-time jobs with sometimes multiple children participating in online school. The students themselves have their own set of grievances with online and asynchronous learning. In the New York Times, students have reported a lack of excitement for school due to remote learning, wishing instead for one or two added days of in-person classes. Others have reported a drop in their grades where A students during in person classes find themselves C students with the online curriculum. The difficulty in distinguishing between homelife and school/work life causes problems with focusing, possibly contributing to these grade drops. However, many students report that Zoom and Google Classroom classes help them feel more productive and return a semblance of normalcy to the asynchronous style.

There is a general consensus that schools must reopen for in person classes, eventually. However, it is difficult to determine when that should be. Many parents and school system administrators have called for schools to reopen for at least part, if not all, of the spring 2021 semester. However, some teachers have protested vehemently against reopening in the past few weeks. Teachers unions have argued that at the very least schools need to prioritize vaccinating teachers and school staff, although this alone would not be enough to safely reopen schools in the unions’ eyes. The current COVID-19 vaccines being administered across the nation are helpful in keeping an individual from getting sick and dying, but it is still unknown as to whether they can prevent the individual from carrying the virus to those not vaccinated. Therefore, teachers could unknowingly carry COVID-19 pathogens home from school. Other precautions must be adopted. On Friday, February 12th, the CDC released an updated set of guidelines for returning kids to in person schooling. This guidance explicitly does not provide affirmation that schools should reopen, rather it reemphasizes the importance of measures like social distancing, masking, proper building ventilation, and contact tracing. The CDC also expresses how proper safety precautions can keep students and staff safe within schools, however they emphasize how dangerous a false sense of security could be in communities where COVID-19 transmission is relatively low.

Kids doing online school
Online School. Source: Mario A. P. Creative Commons.

A report found that with remote learning continuing into 2021, students will be seven months behind in several educational milestones. Within this report, BIPOC students will be even further behind and students from low income families will be behind by more than a year. The Brookings Institute report has called this phenomenon a “COVID slide,” where students in grades three through eight could be drastically behind on the progress they might have made in subjects like math or reading. 20 percent of students in the United States do not have access to the technology like laptops and reliable internet connection necessary for remote learning. A big push against remote learning is due to a concern regarding mental health problems for students. However, less of a focus is on how the pandemic might have exacerbated mental health problems that in-person schooling had been contributing to.

The added access parents have to their students’ education through remote and asynchronous learning has revealed problems within the educational system. Parents and students are learning that the system for education before the COVID-19 pandemic was not as beneficial as originally thought. Remote learning has exacerbated problems with in-person schooling. These problems include the reduced priorities of exercise, play, sleep, outdoor time, and even conversation between students. Many public schools have not evolved to reflect more modern research on education styles for years. The schedule, amount and types of homework, and learning skills prioritized (like memorization) have also not evolved.

Girl getting her temperature checked at school.
Temperature Check. Source: Dan Gaken. Creative Commons.

It is hard to determine the right course of action for many school systems. While the long and short term effects of the “COVID slide” should not be ignored, many students have really benefited from a non-traditional school setting and are making significant progress in achieving their learning goals. Some students are reporting feeling less stressed, less overwhelmed by assignments, and happier than they were during in-person schooling. More flexible schedules are allowing teenage students to prioritize sleep and many students have been able to escape bullying that had occurred in school. Other students are suffering mentally, physically, and academically from the changes in learning structures. It is clear that the American education system will need to evolve as the country recovers from the pandemic. COVID-19 has brought to light many problems with the current structure affecting parents, guardians, students, and teachers. It seems to have taken a drastic and unprecedented event like a worldwide pandemic to encourage change in the education sphere.