‘Woke’ Is Not a Nasty Word

Cutting education about racism just perpetuates it

Dan Bryant
Dan Bryant at First Christian ChurchPhoto by Trask Bedortha

It wasn’t particularly surprising when Gov. Ron DeSantis made critical race theory (CRT) enemy No. 1 in the culture wars. That is precisely the kind of reaction that CRT predicts as part of the systemic racism of our institutions. To be clear, it is fair to debate whether CRT is a valid theory that accurately depicts the history of racism in our society, just as one might debate whether quantum theory accurately depicts what we know about physics. That is what education is for. Most in this country do not support Marxism, yet we do not ban the teaching of Karl Marx. 

So, I have to ask, why fear the teaching of CRT?

In her response to Pres. Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, citing CRT, claimed that “Our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race.” Hello. Teaching the truth about racism in our history is not teaching hate. To the contrary, the failure to teach that truth is to be silent on what the Rev. Jim Wallis calls America’s “original sin” and only perpetuates systemic injustice. 

Most theories that challenge the status quo create controversy, so the pushback is not surprising. I was surprised, however, when this particular cultural war expanded to include DEI programs (diversity, equity and inclusion). DeSantis has proposed not only to ban CRT from all public schools in Florida, he is now going after DEI programs. This politicization of DEI is both alarming and disturbing. Racism does not care if you are Republican or Democrat. Ignoring it will not make it go away. Pretending that we can all just be “colorblind” and treat everyone the same does not correct the enormous imbalance from centuries of systemic racism. DEI programs are absolutely essential to begin the healing of racism’s scourge on society.

Two examples from my own personal story show why we need DEI programs, especially in schools. I grew up in Albany, just 45 miles north of Eugene. I thought I had a good education. What did I learn about Native Americans in Oregon? For all I knew, they all lived on the Warm Springs Reservation. That there remained a significant Native American community in the Willamette Valley was never mentioned.

Worse, the big event of the Oregon Trail involving Native Americans that I was taught concerned the massacre of the Whitmans in 1847. No mention was made of the mistreatment of the local people by those missionaries. Nor did I learn that three of those eventually executed for the massacre were not even involved in it. How richer and more accurate would my education have been had we had the DEI programs that now exist and might have introduced me to more accurate portrayals of the original inhabitants of this valley and their descendants still among us?

The second story is particularly embarrassing to me now. My sophomore year in high school was spent with 1,900 fellow students in a building intended for 1,200. We were all relieved the following year when Albany opened its second high school in the south part of town. The school board asked for the opinions of the students for naming the school.

I still remember the impassioned plea of our chosen representative who said whatever name you chose, just do not name it “South Albany.” Our preference was to name it after Neil Armstrong. What did the school board choose? You guessed it, South Albany. “But you can choose your mascot and school colors,” they said. How nice. What did we choose? The Rebels. Our colors? Red and gray. Our band uniforms included a Confederate flag on the top of our hats. 

It is not that we intended to promote the racism of the Confederacy, it was that we were pissed with the school board and this was our means of rebellion. Did any of the adults of that town, including our parents, say to us, that is not an appropriate mascot? Nope. Can you imagine how it looked to any people of color when our band marched on Veterans Day proudly down the streets of Albany in our Confederate uniforms? South Albany remained the Rebels for 45 years before the mascot was finally changed to the Red Hawks in 2018. It takes a long time to undo the effects of racism, even if unintentional.

Racism can only begin to be healed when we, the white majority, are honest with our history and work for diversity, equity and inclusion for all. 

Dan Bryant is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a resident of Eugene since 1991. The opinions of this column are his own and do not represent any organization with which he is affiliated.

Comments are closed.