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Facing down censorship to teach the truth

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January 23, 2023

Facing Down Censorship to Teach the Truth

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By Virginia Myers

Sometimes the history books just get it wrong — or provide a limited, one-sided viewpoint.

University of South Florida education law professor and racial equity expert Dana Thompson Dorsey sees the evidence. In the past year, Dr. Thompson Dorsey has reviewed several social studies and United States history textbooks with minimal historical text related to enslavement in the United States.

One middle school social studies text, in particular, included an illustration of George Washington standing around talking and laughing with some of his slaves, who appear to be drinking lemonade because “President Washington loved them, and they loved him.” The same picture depicted a young slave girl happily braiding a white girl’s hair as she sat on a haystack. What is missing here?

Many of Thompson Dorsey’s graduate students recognize the inaccuracy in such texts, but most do not know the extent of slavery’s cruelty and violence, the families torn apart, the lack of agency. Many of them learned from books just like the above-referenced text when they were K-12 students, and in their pre-service higher education programs. In one recent master’s level school law course, Thompson Dorsey discovered that none of her students had heard of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project. These are all teachers, some who have taught for decades, who are now studying to become school administrators.

Only one person in her class even knew what happened in 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived on North American shores.

Making A Difference

That is why Thompson Dorsey joined a group of educators, including several other United Faculty of Florida/AFT members, to file a lawsuit against House Bill 7, an edict that would only make matters worse. The law, also known as the Stop WOKE Act, is a prime example of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s and his administration’s effort to censor what is taught in public schools and universities by restricting the way educators can talk about race and gender. Funding could be threatened should schools persist in teaching the banned concepts.

The lawsuit, which was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, succeeded in blocking HB 7 from applying in higher education contexts, though it still applies in K-12 settings. Nevertheless DeSantis recently redoubled his efforts to squelch free speech on campus, requesting that colleges and universities provide data on diversity, equity and inclusion training programs or anything related to critical race theory.

Meanwhile HB 7 has already damaged higher education in Florida, where faculty positions are going unfilled and some faculty are leaving the state. And it still muzzles teachers in public schools.

The Threat to Teaching Truth

To say that Florida feels like a hostile environment for teaching the history of racism in this country is an understatement. Thompson Dorsey, a faculty member in the USF College of Education who teaches critical race studies among other classes, has not gotten any pushback on her course content yet — but she knows she could easily become a target for conservative lawmakers determined to silence anything remotely related to race, gender nonconformity, or anything else that might make them uncomfortable.

“That doesn’t stop me,” says Thompson Dorsey.

Often class content in her school law course is driven by the many questions she fields about HB 7. Students also want to know about HB 1557, the “Don’t Say Gay Act.” They ask for explanations free of “legalese.” They want to know what they can and cannotdo and say in their K-12 classrooms.

She knows she could easily become a target for conservative lawmakers determined to silence anything remotely related to race, gender nonconformity, or anything else that might make them uncomfortable.

The answer is not always clear, but this much is certain: These policies have already had an impact. Aside from academics leaving the state, grade school and high school teachers have been forced to remove classroom signs that assure students theirs is a “safe space” for LGBTQ+ people. They’ve purged books from the classroom shelves, in case they are deemed offensive. Some courses have been abandoned.

But in Thompson Dorsey’s classrooms, discussions remain open. Conversations about race and gender are sometimes the first opportunity graduate students have had to explore concepts more frequently avoided. Thompson Dorsey encourages lively conversations, considering all sides of an issue. “I’ve never shut down people’s conversations and viewpoints, even if I completely disagree with them,” she says. Thompson Dorsey hopes her students will follow her lead in their own K-12 classrooms allowing those students to critically examine and openly discuss issues regarding race, gender and other complex concepts as they are learning content required in Florida’s social studies, history and reading/English curricula.

In her critical race studies course, Thompson Dorsey continues to teach articles by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality,” the concept that people may associate with multiple identities simultaneously (e.g., race, gender, nationality, class, religion), although some identities may be more dominant than others for different people. Those intersections may mean individuals have very different lived experiences in society. Thompson Dorsey also teaches the work of Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins and her explorations of identity and power. And she covers Joe Feagin’s The White Racial Frame, drawing attention to how everything from accented language to video games, environmental policy to stereotyping defines everyday experiences and actions.

Although it bothers Thompson Dorsey that she may be at risk of breaking the law if HB-7 is enforced in the future and if she does not change her instruction, she also has other concerns. Thompson Dorsey is genuinely worried that if her students do not learn about and discuss some of these uncomfortable societal issues and situations related to race and gender, then she is failing her students and the K-12 students they teach. Thus, none of them will have a complete understanding of the United States’ legal, political and racial history, and their impact on current laws, policies and practices in schools and communities.

Teaching at Every Level

Even as she continues to teach about racism and history at the graduate level, Thompson Dorsey is concerned about what is happening in Florida’s K-12 classrooms. “I have young kids in school, too,” she says. In addition to teaching her own children about their ancestry and African American history, she visited her daughter’s third grade classroom in November during Hillsborough County’s Great American Teach-In, when community members are invited to present information and lessons about their careers, hobbies, or other areas of expertise.

“Since I’m a lawyer who’s also an education professor, I talked to them about school law issues,” says Thompson Dorsey, who focused the lesson on young people’s potential influence in the U.S. She described six-year-old Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to integrate the all-white elementary school in her New Orleans neighborhood in 1960. She talked about Mary Beth and John Tinker, teenagers who wore black armbands to their Iowa school to protest the Vietnam war in 1965; when the school suspended them and other protesting students, they filed the lawsuit that eventually won protection for students’ rights to freedom of expression at school. And she described a more recent case in North Carolina, where girls sued over the right to wear pants — not just dresses — to school.

Everybody’s kids have the right to this knowledge.

“I was sharing this with them to empower them,” says Thompson Dorsey, who encouraged the students to use their voices to speak up in the face of injustice. Then she led them through a debate of their own, and the students (and their teachers) were so engaged the lesson ran way over time.

“Everybody’s kids have the right to this knowledge,” says Thompson Dorsey. Will threats to academic freedom keep her from sharing it with them? Absolutely not. Teaching the whole truth and learning about different perspectives is “how we grow as individuals,” she says. “HB 7 has not changed the way I teach.”

Republished with permission from AFT Voices.

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