For former U.S. Army Capt. Diane Birdwell, teaching world history has always been a personal journey into her family’s heritage.
The 60-year-old teacher often invokes her own family’s history when she teaches her 10th-grade students at a local Dallas public high school. In her maternal ancestry, she says she had family members who served in the Confederate Army. On her father’s side, her ancestors served as part of the Nazi German military.
“I don’t shy away from it because I accept the fact that it’s part of my family’s past,” Birdwell told ABC News. “I deal with the fact that there are relatives in my family history who did things I would not have done and I accept that. I can acknowledge what they did.”
Every school year, when Birdwell teaches her students about WWII, she shows them her uncle’s Ahnenpass book, which he was required to keep under Hitler’s rule as a record proving that he was not of Jewish heritage.
“When we’re talking about … the Nuremberg laws that Hitler put in place to separate Jews from German citizens that were Christian, you have a situation where you had to prove your ancestry,” she explained. “With this, you have these factual stamps and information on your family’s ancestry, and you had to carry these with you wherever you went.”
“I inherited this and I show it in class to make sure they understand that this all really happened. The Holocaust was real, and don’t think for a second it didn’t happen,” she added. “Hopefully, our country can move and improve when you personalize history and that’s what I’m trying to get them to do.”
Although these discussions are sometimes uncomfortable, the Dallas-based teacher said that talking about past injustices is necessary to prevent history from repeating itself.
However, she may soon have to change her candid teaching style if a GOP-led bill in Texas is voted into law. The current version of the state’s Senate Bill 3 would remove a mandate for educators to teach historic moments of slavery, as well as the Chicano movements, women’s suffrage and civil rights.
One of the most controversial pieces of the proposal would remove a requirement to teach students that the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy is morally wrong.
Critics of SB 3 say the bill attempts to legislate education policy to ban teaching anti-racism in K-12 schools. They say the educational efforts in these grades have been politicized and conflated as critical race theory, a higher education academic framework created over 40 years ago to explore how a history of racism and white supremacy may still be embedded in U.S. institutions, including the legal system.
“What legal scholars and their students did was they turned to the law, they turned to institutions, they turned to policies to understand how discrimination was perpetuated by these institutions, by these structures, by these policies, in order to make sense of continuing inequality,” Leah Wright Rigueur, an associate professor of American history at Brandeis University, told ABC News.
While Republican state lawmakers are working to pass prohibitions, critical race theory is not currently a part of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills requirements, which sets the requirements for the K-12 curriculums as mandated by the state Board of Education.
Texas is now one of 26 states that have proposed or passed laws restricting or banning classroom discussions on concepts relating to race and racism, which many Republican lawmakers say are divisive.
While many had come to accept critical race theory as a new way to understand the impacts of racism, former President Donald Trump helped spark debate over its legitimacy during his reelection campaign, and Republicans have lobbied against it ever since.
During a speech announcing his 1776 Commission in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 17, 2020, Trump said that “students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation.”
Trump went on to sign an executive order titled “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” which banned anti-racist, racial and sexual sensitivity trainings for federal employees. He also denounced the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project by New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, which focused on the lasting impact of slavery in the U.S.
President Joe Biden has since reversed the executive order, saying he will prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion within his administration.
Battle in the school board
School boards across the country are holding meetings to debate critical race theory, with some parents accusing teachers of having a political agenda in the classroom. Politicians, parents and students are all weighing in on the debate over what children should learn and who gets to make that decision.
The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is traditionally responsible for creating the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills — also known as TEKS — which is a basic curriculum for K-12 public education. Marisa Perez-Diaz has been a member of the SBOE since 2013, representing District 3, which includes the San Antonio region.
“This is the first time I’ve experienced this where the legislature is directly impacting the work that the State Board of Education is responsible for doing and dictating what needs to be taught and what needs to be included in schools. That’s never happened and that should never happen,” Perez-Diaz said.
This week, she facilitated a meeting with students and educators across Texas to discuss recent education bills proposed or passed in the state. Burbank High School teacher Luke Amphlett was one of the participants.
“It’s not accidental that this is happening at the moment of the largest multiracial uprising against police brutality in history,” he said. “This is happening in a moment where we’re seeing the demographics of Texas shifting and a majority of students of color now in Texas schools.”
Alejo Pena Soto, a recent graduate of Jefferson High School in the San Antonio Independent School District, says SB 3 is “just ignorant in the sense that it’s forgetting a lot of the history of where education comes from.”
That sentiment is one Perez-Diaz identifies with. She said she wants her four children to grow up knowing how their ancestors contributed to the fabric of this country.
“The work of understanding our histories is also very personal to me, because as a Latina, as a Mexican-American in Texas, I wasn’t exposed to my history,” she said. “All I had to learn was what was passed down in oral history from my family.”
Perez-Diaz is a fourth-generation Mexican American and the youngest person to be a member of the SBOE. She’s also the first in her family to graduate college and an alumnus of Texas’ public school education.
“I am proud to be a Texan. I’m not proud of the policy and the laws that come out of Texas,” she said.
Texas has one of the fastest growing populations in the U.S. and more than half of the state’s student population is Hispanic.
Perez-Diaz says critical race theory has become the new catchphrase for conversations about race and diversity not just inside the classrooms but outside them, too. She says much of the fear surrounding it is baseless.
“No, critical race theory is not being taught in K-12 education,” she said. “It is a higher education framework that is engaged typically at the graduate level.”
“There are foundational issues in U.S. history that are very much connected to racial inequity, segregation, redlining, [and] all of those issues are not critical race theory,” she added. “That’s history. That’s our country’s history.”
Texas State Rep. Steve Toth believes that history is important for students to learn, but he says the methods for teaching it should remain traditional.
“I think it’s very simple: you teach [that] the past is the past,” he said. “I was taught in school about the Civil War. I was taught about slavery. I was taught about Jim Crow. But I wasn’t blamed for it. Slavery was a sin of our past. Jim Crow is a sin of our past.”
Toth and other Republican lawmakers are pushing to ban critical race theory in K-12 public and charter schools, and threatening to take funding away if teachers are caught teaching it. He is the author of Texas House Bill 3979, one of the first of Texas’ bills that aimed to stop critical race theory from being used in classrooms. It was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in June and will take effect in September.
“We have had dozens and dozens of teachers [who] called saying that they do not want to teach critical race theory in Texas classrooms, and this is [a] response to that,” he said.
One of the controversial pieces of Toth’s bill requires teachers to abstain from conversations that might lead to someone feeling “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”
“If you want to say that the United States is still a systemic racist nation, that’s a lie. If you want to say that there is racism in our land, that’s the truth. Absolutely true,” Toth said.
Another section of his bill prohibits teachers from feeling compelled to discuss current events with students, saying that if it comes up, they must explore the news from “diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”
“I honestly don’t know how we responsibly teach social studies or civics education without engaging in conversations about current events,” Perez-Diaz said. “Our students, our scholars across the country, leave the classroom and experience the world as it is, right. So then, how do we come into the classroom and we expect them to ignore all of that noise outside when they have a lot of questions?”
For students, American history is personal.
For students like 14-year-old Chris Johnson of Aledo, Texas, our nation’s racist past is still a reality that haunts his daily life. Earlier this year, Chris and a fellow Black student were targeted by classmates who set up a “slave auction” on Snapchat.
That virtual post was initially called “n—– auction,” he said, adding that his classmates pretended to sell them: one for $100 and the other for $1.
Chris’ mom, Mioshi Johnson, said she reported the incident to the school administrators immediately. The school disciplined the students involved and outlined multiple steps to address the problem in the community. But she said they called the incident “cyber bullying,” not “racism.”
“It made it so that people didn’t know what really happened. So there was no conversation about how egregious it was,” Johnson said. “There was no conversation about the direct racism that it was.”
Susan K. Bohn, Ed.D., the superintendent of Aledo Independent School District, said in a statement to parents, “I am deeply sorry that a few of our students engaged in racial harassment of two of our students of color. … It was totally unacceptable to all of us, and it should not have happened.”
Chris shared his painful story at a local school board meeting on April 19.
“I spoke up to stand up for myself and every other kid in Aledo to just show them that’s not OK and we shouldn’t be treated different,” he said.
“They weren’t listening to what people were saying, so they needed to hear firsthand from the people that were affected by it,” he said. “If the government, politicians and even the school board would just listen to us, they would understand that we have every right to be a part of the solution.”
Chris says he wants his school district to take action and to make sure an incident like the one he went through never happens again.
“We’re not just going to sit back. … We need to actually see them take initiative and change,” he said.
Both he and his mother agree that having honest dialogues about racism is crucial to becoming anti-racist.
“The division comes from not knowing, not being aware, not having someone to tell you or teach you,” she said. “When you take that away, you have instances of teenage boys saying slave trade, slave auction, slave farm because no one has taught them.”
Johnson said she believes that incorporating ideas of critical race theory into a curriculum gives students a fuller picture of their history.
“I don’t see critical race theory as being something terrible. I don’t see it being a blame game — ‘shame-you’ — type of theory. I believe that it’s telling the whole entire story; parts of the story that people aren’t learning anymore [and] will probably never hear about if people aren’t teaching it.” she said. “When you know the whole story from the history to the present, it kind of brings it full circle to you.”
Athena Tseng, a 15-year-old high school junior in Frisco, Texas is a member of Diversify Your Narrative, an organization that works to incorporate the voices of Black, indigenous and other people of color into classroom curriculums. She was born in Arizona but her family is originally from Taiwan.
“I barely ever see history about my heritage, or anything in my classes, even in the books we read,” Tseng said. “To have diverse representation in our history and literature classes, or just overall, really helps with even just people of color being more comfortable in their skin.”
“I think if you’re not exposed to … other cultures … then I don’t think people are going to go out of their way to do that and learn and grow,” she added.
As state lawmakers, parents and school board officials battle over how to teach American history, Birdwell says that opponents of critical race theory should consider how prohibitions in history education could impact students’ critical thinking development.
“These opponents of critical race theory or diversity education, what they’re saying is they don’t trust their children,” Birdwell said. “I think they really fear that their kids might pick up that their ancestors did some bad things. They might pick up that there is still a legacy in this country of racism and that we need to do something about it.”
On Aug. 3, Rep. James White, the only Black Republican State House member, submitted a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asking him to review the constitutionality of critical race theory education and anti-racism teaching.
Regardless of whether the latest bill, Texas SB 3, passes, Paxton’s opinion could set a precedent for future legislation that could potentially impact diversity, equity and inclusivity training efforts in education as well as in other public agencies.
In the meantime, Birdwell says she will continue to follow her lesson plans as usual. She says history needs to come with context: facts alone are not enough.
“If you have to confront that racism of the past, then white citizens are going to have to confront that their families were alive when it happened,” she said. “That doesn’t make [them] themselves bad people. It just means: accept that in the past, some of our stuff is not pleasant to learn or talk about.”