OSSBA Staff Attorney
I’ve written before about my experiences as a father of black children. As a white male, I’m certainly not qualified to truly speak to the experiences of marginalized communities. But my experiences, as removed as they may be, might help illuminate others who, like myself, have not directly experienced discrimination and oppression. Being a witness to the experiences of my children, and my non-white and non-male friends, is exactly why I believe House Bill 1775 is harmful to our students and ultimately our state.
Regardless of the authors’ intent, the language of the bill doesn’t prohibit anything that’s actually being taught in Oklahoma schools. The bill prohibits Oklahoma school districts from teaching certain race and sex-related “concepts,” such as that one race or sex is superior to another; that people, because of their race or sex, are inherently racist or sexist, or bear responsibility for past discriminatory actions; or that people should feel “discomfort,” “guilt,” or “anguish” because of their race or sex.
School districts are teaching none of this. Lesson plans are not based on any of these “concepts.” So, you may be asking, “What’s the problem?” The problem is this: the language is clearly an attempt to chill classroom discussions of systemic racism and sexism. It’s an attempt to confuse teachers just enough that they’ll forego tough discussions about the uglier parts of our state and national history.
When we adopted our children, we were exposed to a world we thought died in the 1950s. Suddenly, our family was looked at differently by some people we’d always known. Some social invites ceased. Not all of them, but some.
Then, it became more direct. When my children, who experienced terrible trauma, displayed trauma-related behaviors, we were told more than once: “That’s what happens when you adopt black children. That’s how they are.”
Additional HB 1775 Resources
We’ve been told “that behavior is ‘bred’ into them,” as if they were livestock. Our children’s friends have said things like, “my mom calls you (insert racial slur).” Sometimes the racist comments are more subtle, such as “wow, your daughter speaks well.” Let’s be honest. If you’re white, you’ve heard language like this before, but it takes on a new significance when it’s directed at your children.
Those instances hurt and severely damaged relationships, but they were more than isolated instances of ignorance. These beliefs are small revelations that betray deeper societal and institutional philosophies.
For example, the first law passed in Oklahoma’s history enacted Jim Crow laws in railcars and street cars throughout the state. The first law passed.
Other discriminatory laws and practices deepened the oppression. Schools were segregated based on race, communities forced black residents to live in the most undesirable parts of town (and sometimes, such as in the Tulsa Race Massacre, destroyed those communities based on nothing more than an unproven allegation), and the insidious practice of categorizing majority black areas as high risk for lenders (otherwise known as “redlining”) made it largely impossible for black residents to obtain affordable mortgages. Unfortunately, our state’s history is not unique. It has been repeated over and over again.
This downward pressure resulted in many children, like ours, being born into debilitating poverty. Our children languished in DHS custody for far too long. They went to more schools than we can count – or didn’t go at all. When they did go, some teachers immediately stereotyped them or didn’t expect much from them.
Since white culture has been inundated with stories that imply black equals trouble, our children are one “suspicious” situation away from arrest and a criminal record. In comparison to their white peers, they are roughly four times more likely to be suspended and over three times more likely to be arrested at school. As adults, regardless of their educational achievements, they’ll be more likely to be unemployed than white people. Our son is six times more likely to end up in jail just because of the color of his skin.
That brings me to HB 1775. Clearly, the bill authors value the thought of a meritocratic society, but this philosophy rests on the proposition that a person’s place in life is based on individual effort and ability. We cannot be a true meritocracy unless everyone has the same opportunity to succeed or not succeed based on what they do, not on arbitrary categories like sex and race.
We won’t have equal opportunities until a light is shed on the discriminatory underpinnings of these institutional obstacles. We won’t be a true democracy until the wrongs are righted and the obstacles removed. We cannot shed that light, or right these wrongs, until these issues are acknowledged, discussed and studied. There is no better place to begin that process than in Oklahoma’s schools, so that our children can leave this state (and country) better than they found it.
I believe that not just my children’s future, but the survival of our republic, depends on open, robust discussion of our country’s peaks and valleys. Not to create guilt or place blame, but to understand, empathize and create change. If HB 1775 or other legislation suppresses these conversations, people will continue to suffer, and our country will continue to suffer. This conversation must continue. I hope you’ll join me in pushing back against this obstacle to democracy and keep the conversations alive.
A note to our members: OSSBA is committed to listening, learning and leading. Through our “Voices” feature, we will share stories and perspectives from our members and others on relevant topics. — OSSBA Executive Director Shawn Hime