Transcription of the episode “Authentic history: Too uncomfortable for white kids?”

Jon M: [00:00:15] Hi. I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: [00:00:16] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Betty Collins. Ms. Collins teaches eighth grade history in Tulsa County, Oklahoma. We’re going to talk about the controversy about teaching critical race theory. The phrase critical race theory, coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, contends that white supremacy and structural racism or systemic racism has existed throughout American history to the current day. Welcome Betty.

Betty C: [00:00:44] Good morning.

Jon M: [00:00:46] Tell us about your school and your district.

Betty C: [00:00:48] So I teach eighth grade U.S. History for Union Public Schools. We are part of Tulsa and also part of Broken Arrow. Our school is a majority minority district. So, you know, that means that we have more students of color, more Black and brown kids than white kids.

Amy H-L: [00:01:10] Oklahoma recently enacted a law known as HB 1775, designed to restrict teaching of critical race theory. What does the law provide?

Betty C: [00:01:22] So this law has several different pieces. One of the pieces says that you cannot teach anything that says that one race or gender is inherently superior to another. That’s great. I mean, nobody should be teaching that. Another part of the law says that you cannot teach anything that makes students uncomfortable. And that’s the part of the law that, as a history teacher, makes me uncomfortable because I know that the history of our country is uncomfortable and students are going to feel some discomfort when they’re learning the true history of what happened here in the U.S..

Jon M: [00:02:10] Why do you think the legislature passed and the governor signed the law?

Betty C: [00:02:16] I think that Oklahoma is an extremely conservative state and that we jumped on the “let’s ban CRT” bandwagon without really having any sort of understanding what critical race theory means and  whether or not it was being taught in K-12 schools, which is a resounding no. 

Amy H-L: [00:02:44] What are the misunderstandings of CRT? Why are conservatives so upset about it?

Betty C: [00:02:50] I think one of the misunderstandings is that it teaches that white people are racist. And that’s not true, and it’s definitely doesn’t hold to the underlying factors of critical race theory, which is that the structures of our system were purposefully built to uphold white cis males from the beginning, from 1776 forward. Even before that, from 1619, from the first landing of slaves in our country, the systems, the laws, have been created to uphold white cis males. And that’s what CRT examines. It’s a theory. It’s looking at why that happened. And I think, more importantly, it looks at what do we do moving forward to make sure that the future laws in our country uphold the values of every citizen and not just a select few.

Amy H-L: [00:03:59] How have educators and districts in Oklahoma reacted to the law? 

Betty C: [00:04:04] I think a lot of teachers are scared.  I think a lot of teachers have just recently, history teachers especially, have just recently started being comfortable with teaching a more well-rounded perspective of American history, one that doesn’t focus on white colonizers, one that focuses on the effects of colonizers on the Native people and on Black Americans who were brought here as slaves. And that’s just something that we’ve just started becoming comfortable, being  more outspoken, about. My fear is that this new law will now discourage teachers, and especially young teachers who are not tenured, who are not career status, to whitewash history, for lack of a better term. And frankly, that scares me, because the only way that we’re going to move forward is by recognizing the truth of the past. 

Jon M: [00:05:07] You mentioned when we were talking before that the situation for teachers may be very different in different districts within Oklahoma. How do you see that playing out, for example, in your district or in some of the smaller districts, what do you think is going to happen?

Betty C: [00:05:23] I teach in a very large district in a mostly urban area, um, urban, suburban area. And I feel like I have a lot of support from Union. So I don’t feel like personally I’m going to be as affected by this law.

However, I do feel there are smaller, especially in the more rural districts, areas that parents are going to have a lot of pushback and they’re going to have, the parents are going to be able to set the rules for what is and is not acceptable to be taught in the classroom. And that’s not their job. That’s the job of the state Department of Education. And I think as long as teachers are sticking to the standards, then they should be free to teach those standards in the way that they feel is the most effective.

Amy H-L: [00:06:11] You spoke about starting to teach about Native Americans and Blacks as intertwined, as crucial parts of American history that have been left out of the picture. Could you give us an example of what that would look like, say, viewed through the lens of critical race theory? 

Betty C: [00:06:35] Sure. So. The Trail of Tears, right? I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We are the seat of the Five Civilized Tribes. How did the Five Civilized Tribes get here? Well, let’s look at the Trail of Tears, right. I think there’s two ways that you can approach the Trail of Tears. You can approach it as a forced migration or as a voluntary relocation. So was the Trail of Tears voluntary? Was it forced? Well, I think if you go back and look at the laws, if you look at the Indian Removal Act, if you look at Andrew Jackson defying the Supreme Court, how can you argue the forced relocation of the five civilized tribes from Georgia and Alabama and their native homelands to Oklahoma. I don’t know how you could not say that that was not because the laws at the time were racist and they were designed to overrule the natives and to uphold the, the white citizens and the fact that was at the hand of the president at the time. I mean, I just don’t know how you could argue against that, right. I’m 35. I grew up in Tulsa. I grew up in this area. I was taught that the Trail of Tears was a voluntary migration, right. A voluntary relocation. And there’s no way that I want my students, my child, to be taught lies. We can’t go back in time. We can’t reverse the steps that we’ve taken. Oklahoma’s just recently taken a lot of steps to kind of re-introduce those effects on Native Americans into the standards. And the last thing that I want is for those new standards to be skipped over.

Jon M: [00:08:33] What does the law provide as punishment or penalties for teaching accurate history? 

Betty C: [00:08:43] Nothing. It’s an unfunded mandate. I mean, it just says don’t do it. It doesn’t say what will happen if you do. My thought is that it’s going to be up to each individual school board. I also think that there’s going to be parts of this law specifically, the part that says you can’t make students uncomfortable. I mean, there’s just no way to legislate discomfort. So I think that that will eventually probably be challenged. And maybe in later legislative sessions that’ll be corrected. Like I said, there’s some good things in this law, right, especially pertaining to K-12. And there are some things that pertain to higher education. I also don’t feel like that that’s the legislators’ department. I feel like that’s for the state Board of Education, but you know, that’s. I don’t know with a Republican supermajority, I think that they feel like they can just do whatever they want.

Jon M: [00:09:35] So you mentioned the state education standards, what’s the interaction between the law and the standards? What are the standards provide and what effect, if any, will the law have on that? 

Betty C: [00:09:46] The standards trump the law, from what I understand. So I don’t think that this law is going to have any effect on this current standards that we have. And that’s what I do. That’s why it was just so unnecessary, and posturing, in my opinion, because there aren’t K-12 teachers that are teaching that one race is inherently superior to another, and if they are, then those teachers need to be fired. I mean, and that’s just, that’s the long and short of it. And that should be up to the principal. That should be up to the school board. I mean, there’s steps to make sure that these things aren’t happening in schools, and passing a broad law that is putting the cart before the horse doesn’t–to me, it doesn’t make any sense.

Amy H-L: [00:10:30] What about the concept, I mean, when we’re talking about students being uncomfortable, you know if a student is Black or brown and there’s somehow, you know, their true history isn’t being told, or the history of their families, doesn’t that lead to discomfort?

Betty C: [00:10:50] It should. They should expect, you know, my students of color should expect to have their American history told and to be uplifted at the same weight as the white history. 

Jon M: [00:11:07] As a history teacher and as a teacher, how would you respond to a parent who comes to you and says that he or she doesn’t want their child to be uncomfortable with what they’re learning? What would you actually say in that conversation?

Betty C: [00:11:20] I think I would immediately refer back to the standard and just say, here’s the lesson. This is why I taught it the way that I did. And here’s the standard that I’m basing my lesson off of. I’ve also been teaching for 13 years and have dealt with my fair share of parents who are upset, some, for rightful reasons and some for, because of miscommunication.  I pride myself on my communication skills, so my first step would be to communicate with those parents. However, I also realize that some of our brand new first or second year teachers aren’t going to have that level of comfort. And my advice to them would be to go to your principal. And hopefully you have a principal that you are comfortable with, and if you don’t, I hope that you are a member of your teachers union, because that would be your next step, would be to go to your building rep or to your union representative. I know for one, my union, OEA, is putting together, the conversation has been started to put together, you know, some resources about house bill 1775, specifically. The state Department of Education has lots of resources on its website. So I think as long as a teacher is always referring back to those standards, I think that that’s what’s going to cover you, especially in light of the law. I do foresee this law being challenged in court at some point though.

Amy H-L: [00:12:40] This month marks the Centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre.When did you first learn about it? 

Betty C: [00:12:48] My sophomore or junior year of college. Born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I didn’t know anything about the Tulsa Race Massacre until about 20 years ago. And it’s just, it’s sickening.

Jon M: [00:13:05] You said that you weren’t politically engaged until relatively recently. When and why did you become politically active?

Betty C: [00:13:13] I became definitely more outspoken surrounding the 2018 teacher walkout, which was part of the #RedforEd movement. Oklahoma had a very successful, let’s see, 12 day walkout, and we succeeded in securing millions of dollars of additional funding. It was the first time as an adult, I’d been to the state Capitol, it was the first time I’d been into the offices of my legislators, those people who actually represent me. I’m a loyal voter. I’ve always voted, voted in every election since the age of 18. You know, my, my mom had taught me well on that one. Like she, that’s her big thing is voting, and that’s something I’m passionate about too. But I didn’t realize like the impact of individuals who take time, especially personal time, to go to the Capitol and to form relationships with their legislators. And once I realized how easy it was, I was like, oh, well, I can do this, too. One of my very first news interviews was during that walkout and just a reporter from Channel 6, I think it was, just kind of snagged me in the hallway and was like, overheard me talking or something. And it just kind of this, I had a great relationship with the reporter, Megan Alison, she became a dear friend. She’s since moved to another state, but man, she was a great education reporter, great local education reporter, and did a great job of keeping local issues surrounding public education in the news. So I felt like I was like beholden to her a little bit to do the interviews that she asked me for, because if I asked her for something, she would do it. You know, hey, I want you to cover this topic or whatever, and she’d find time.

Amy H-L: [00:14:54] Do you think it’s the role of history teachers or specifically, civics teachers, government teachers, to encourage political engagement? 

Betty C: [00:15:07] Yeah, definitely. I think that every student should be civically engaged. And I think that there’s a local district that has a senior brunch or a senior breakfast, and they have a voter registration card at every single table during that brunch. I think that’s a brilliant idea. And I think that every district in the nation should do that. I think that’s, what’s going to change things is when more than 30% of the citizens vote, that’s the voting statistics. I learned a lot about those voting statistics and specifically about teacher voting statistics, which are no better than the general public. And that’s really frustrated me. I learned a lot of this surrounding the walkout and just kind of digging into statistics cause those numbers are interesting to me, even though I teach history and math is not my favorite subject, something I’m not terrible at, but not my favorite. Statistics really speak to me for some reason. So when I learned that 20 to 30% of Oklahoma teachers vote, we can do better than that. We can, you can’t be here saying like, this is what should be.done if that’s the percentage that vote, right. Think about how many more actually, or how many fewer, I guess, are actually active, who are writing their senators and their representatives. Mine know me by name, for sure.

Jon M: [00:16:24] You mentioned the walkout and #RedforEd. What was #RedforEd? How did it start?

Betty C: [00:16:29] So #RedforEd was the movement, in mostly conservative states around the country, in spring of 2018, to  secure more funding for public schools. I think it started with Arizona, they had an extremely successful walkout. West Virginia, I believe had another successful walk-out. Oklahoma. And then the movement has been kind of ongoing to just bring awareness to the issues that are coming up in public schools, lack of funding for counselors, for example, that would be one issue that #RedforEd or this kind of this movement for being more politically active. Teaching teachers has [inaudible].

Jon M: [00:17:13] I saw it in one of your interviews that I was reading about t here was an article that said that in some districts, the only thing that the state finances in schools is desks and textbooks. Is that still accurate? 

Betty C: [00:17:28] Yeah, I would say that’s extremely accurate. The funding level, and it’s 2021, we are still below the 2008 funding level, right. So we’re being funded that much less than what we were funded in 2008 with, I mean, I would venture to say tens of thousands of additional students.

Amy H-L: [00:17:53] So it’s not just per student. It’s overall funding, right?

Betty C: [00:17:58] Oh yeah. And our per pupil funding also is the lowest in the region. 

And I want to say we’re about third in the country, lowest in per pupil funding. So that’s definitely not a good thing. And  it’s up to each individual district to be very fiscally conservative and to be very fiscally aware of where their finances are coming from. It’s extremely important for districts in Oklahoma to pass their bond issues. That’s another big thing because those extras, those, that technology, buildings, those kinds of things are now funded through bond issues, through bond dollars. Right? So if you can convince your local taxpayers to pay more, which historically in this region it’s actually keeps taxes the same, because we’re just renewing bonds year after year.

But there’s districts that, especially rural areas, where they can’t pass a bond issue. So they are literally beholden to the state funding formula, which pays salaries and that’s about it.

Amy H-L: [00:19:00] So going back to your own political evolution as an activist, how did the murder of George Floyd change your understanding of history and current events?

Betty C: [00:19:12] It shocked me. The murder of George Floyd shocked me. I have always been a staunch supporter of the police. That hasn’t changed, but my viewpoint of the laws and the systemic belief system that is perpetuated throughout not just police, but all systems in America, was a huge awakening for me. Huge. I grew up extremely privileged. I still am extremely privileged. And I was pretty naive also. And I didn’t realize that that I was going to have a different interaction with the police than somebody who was Black or brown. That thought never crossed my mind. It just didn’t. And once I really realized the American experience for some of my Black and brown kids is not the same American experience as my white kids, like, wow. And that’s just going to make me a better teacher. And it has made me a better teacher. I mean, I hate the events that happened last spring and summer, but it definitely has made me a better teacher. And a more aware teacher, you know, more aware of the words that come out of my mouth and how those words are impactful for students. I have made an extremely conscious effort when I’m talking about slavery in the United States to say, enslaved people, not refer to them as slaves, right. And it just kind of puts a different…They’re people who happened to be enslaved. They weren’t lesser than those people who weren’t enslaved, that was their station in life at that point, right. And I think it’s very important to focus on the fact that enslaved people were people who had families, who were ripped apart from their families. And the reason that America has the wealth that she has today is because of our history of enslavement in this country.

And if you don’t realize that, how can you be empathetic? You know, how can you be empathetic with people, other people, other Americans, if you don’t realize that that’s where we came from?And so that’s, I think that’s, what’s really changed is just really having a much more aware understanding of the different experiences of people of color in the United States.

Jon M: [00:21:51] You’re active in your teachers union. What do you expect both the Oklahoma Education Association and your local teachers union to do right now in terms of responding to HB 1775? 

Betty C: [00:22:03] I don’t know if there’s a lot that locally we’re going to do other than definitely give support to teachers who run into problems. I’m very hopeful that our district will nip that in the bud and, and just come out for our teachers. The Oklahoma Education Association is putting together a toolkit on the website. I think that that’s where it’s going to be. I’m assuming that’s going to have different resources. I know our state superintendent was against 1775. And so I think there’ll be  some guidance from the state hopefully coming out. And I just want teachers to know, like there are other teachers out there who feel the same way that you do. And I encourage, you know, there’s lots of groups on Facebook to join and just build an army of allies and make sure to have some good resources and just to be able to always justify the reason that you’re teaching what you’re teaching is because it’s in the standard.

Jon M: [00:23:00] You were talking about the Trail of Tears and Oklahoma, the home of the Five Civilized Tribes. And of course we know that the Supreme Court recently ruled that much of Oklahoma is in fact Native American land. So how do Oklahoma schools teach now about the history of Native Americans in Oklahoma? 

Betty C: [00:23:23] So recently, I would say within the last four to five years, our state standards were updated, our history standards were updated, and a lot more focus was put on the impact of colonization on Native Americans. So I don’t think that the McGirt decision is going to change really anything in schools. I think that’s more of  a public opinion issue, which I just have to, you know, again, it’s one of those things we just need to be aware of as an educator and know like your Native students may have some feelings about it. And I bring in a lot of current events into my history classroom. I think that’s one way to keep it relevant, right. So that would be something that I would discuss like, Hey, what does that, how did we get to that decision? Why was that decision made? How did Oklahoma get to be Oklahoma? And those are the kinds of authentic discussions with students that, that are great teaching moments, without it being like we’re going to have a lesson today on the McGirt decision because that wouldn’t be part of my curriculum, right. That McGirt decision would not be. So I just have to be right, have to be, be careful with it. At this point, the newer standards support accurate teaching about Oklahoma Native Americans. Yeah. Definitely much more accurate than they were five or six years ago.

I’ve been  doing this 13 years, so I kind of get lost on, on dates and years, but it’s been definitely within 10 years and I want to say, our standards changed about four years ago. They didn’t change as far as like what we were teaching just a lot more was included a lot more about Native Americans and a lot more about women and a lot more about Hispanics and a lot more about Blacks. So it was, it was a good one. I feel very comfortable what our state department did there. And that was a coalition of teachers. That’s something I think our state department does a great job on is involving teachers in those decision-making planning meetings. 

Amy H-L: [00:25:23] Thank you so much, Betty Collins of the Union School District in Tulsa County.

Betty C: [00:25:29] Thank you guys. It was great.

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