The 2020–21 US academic school year has been marked by many changes. The prominence of the so-called anti-racism movement—not to be confused with simple opposition to racism—is one of the most salient. The website Black Lives Matter at School offers resources “to challenge racism and oppression and providing [sic] students with the vocabulary and tools needed to take action” and proposed the first week of February as a “week of action.” Fairfax County public schools in Virginia celebrated “Racial Truth and Reconciliation Week” by hiring anti-racist scholar Ibram X. Kendi to talk to school leaders and teachers and assigning his book, How to Be an Anti-Racist as required reading. San Diego Unified School District overhauled its grading system as part of an effort to redress historic racism and change the racial imbalance in grades. The new system will emphasize mastery of content, not a yearly average, “which board members say penalizes students who get a slow start, or who struggle at points throughout the year.” These are just a few examples.
Anti-racist initiatives aim to combat racism, but they do this by focusing heavily on group identity over individuality, group hierarchies over pluralism and lived experience over other ways of acquiring knowledge. Group identity becomes the basis for labelling children and placing them into a hierarchy, with the goal of affirming group status. Instead of empowering young people to see their common humanity, anti-racism restricts them to their physical identity.
Anti-racism’s focus on racial, ethnic and gender identity is born out of intersectionality. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term to emphasize that “individuals have individual identities that intersect in ways that impact how they are viewed, understood, and treated.” While Crenshaw did not intend to create new hierarchies or confine people to labels, the way the framework is currently applied has expanded beyond its original conceptualization. As Irshad Manji writes in Don’t Label Me, the identity labels attached to one’s physical characteristics—not one’s intellect or potential—now determine one’s options.
Chloé Valdary has cited a scene from the movie The Great Debaters to illustrate how restrictive tying identity to the body can be. In the movie, Professor Melvin Tolson, played by Denzel Washington, relates how slaveowner Willie Lynch controlled his slaves by keeping them “physically strong but psychologically weak and dependent.” For Valdary, by focusing on the physical body and the labels attached to the body, the intersectional movement “gave away the mind.”
In his book A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment, Erec Smith terms this approach the “primacy of identity.” According to Smith, the movement gives the recognition and expression of identity precedence over other considerations, such as reason and evidence. It elevates selective lived experiences—those of marginalized groups, not individuals—over critical thought and advances essentialist notions of group identity, ignoring intragroup differences.
Manji, Valdary and Smith all argue, then, that humans should not be reduced to their physical bodies, since this limits individual potential, stifles intellectual exploration and suppresses the ability to talk across differences—all of which are hallmarks of education. Instead, they propose approaches to anti-racism that embrace the whole individual, encourage connection across differences and elicit critical thinking. Valdary advocates Theory of Enchantment, Manji advocates moral courage and Smith advocates an empowerment approach as alternatives to anti-racist initiatives that focus on identity.
Theory of Enchantment
Valdary distinguishes between cruel and compassionate anti-racist initiatives. The former promote division and discord, lead to more—not less—racial stereotyping and treat interactions as zero-sum power plays. Valdary’s Theory of Enchantment encourages human connection instead: “We’re trying to become enchanted by one another, to be full of wonder when we encounter one another, and this is really the step, the key to learning how to love ourselves and to love one another in the process.” She describes the three key principles: “Treat people like human beings, not like political abstractions; if you want to criticize, criticize to uplift and empower, never to tear down, never to destroy; and try to root everything you do in love and compassion.” To develop these principles in a classroom, students must learn about the human condition, realize that we are all mortal, imperfect and vulnerable; understand the source of their judgments and learn to practice empathy and compassion towards their fellow humans, regardless of identity labels. Only then will students be equipped to incorporate these principles into their lives.
Manji shows teachers how to teach and model moral courage, which “equips you to become socially constructive, mentally focused, and emotionally aware.” First, kids must learn the neuroscience behind what Manji calls the egobrain. The egobrain alerts one to danger, but can’t distinguish between mortal danger and mere discomfort. Instead of suppressing anything that causes them discomfort, young people should be encouraged to learn to figure out why they feel the way they do. Kids should also be encouraged to recognize that humans have both flaws and virtues. When discussing historical icons, teachers should point out their accomplishments and failings. Finally, Manji argues that students need to be coached in moral courage, as they might be in a sport. They need to practice acknowledging that they won’t be right all the time and they should be exposed to perspectives that differ from their own.
Smith takes all this a step further: he proposes specific ways for teachers to encourage fair-minded critical thinking and teach young people to empathize with diverse viewpoints, commit to truth over self-interest, use rigorous standards of evidence to draw conclusions and avoid relying solely on feelings to make decisions. Smith argues that, although anti-racism claims to empower marginalized minority groups by silencing traditionally hegemonic voices, “allowing traditionally marginalized groups to forego intellectual accountability and well-reasoned responses to inquiry simply by virtue of being marginalized groups is not only an act of disempowerment; it is really infantilization.” Instead, Smith proposes a framework that combines empowerment theory and emotional intelligence. He considers lived experiences and individuality as first steps to empowerment, but does not see the recognition of one’s identity by others as the primary goal.
Smith argues that empowerment is a process as well as an outcome, and the process has three sequential components: intrapersonal, interactional and behavioral. He asserts that, to be empowered, young people must be emotionally intelligent. They must exercise self-awareness, social awareness, self-management and relationship management. Implemented together, the empowerment framework and the practices of emotional intelligence allow teachers to foster the critical thinking skills that will enable students to participate in discourse and inquiry without simply acting upon the impulses of the egobrain or invoking lived experience or group identity.
While embracing a group identity can make young people feel secure and comforted, strictly aligning oneself with a racial, ethnic or cultural identity label can also limit one to an assigned station in life and constrain one’s ability to recognize our common humanity. The Theory of Enchantment, moral courage and the empowerment framework all encourage both compassion and individuality—the principle that, by being one’s self, one can enrich one’s society. When young people understand the human condition and embrace their individuality, they feel empowered to interact within and outside their communities in ways that enact positive change. They would then have a better understanding of their relationships with others and of how they can contribute to our pluralistic society.
Fascinating how the quote “the identity labels attached to one’s physical characteristics—not one’s intellect or potential—now determine one’s options” wafts one back to the ideological origins of identity politics. Those labels could just as well apply to tracts handed out by agitprop brigades during Stalin’s Terror and extolling that well-kicked-underdog group identity, the oppressed proletariat; or to the equally oppressed and martyred, unsung Blonde Beast hero of the Herrenvolk group identity glaring out of Nazi eugenics propaganda posters on the streets of WW2 Berlin. The more things change, the more they stay the same.