Dr Jen Neitzel discusses Critical Race Theory and the past, present, and possible future of media discussions around racism in America.

Understanding Critical Race Theory and Anti-Racism


To understand some of what Critical Race Theory means, as a concept and in practice, we are joined again by Dr Jen Neitzel, Executive Director at the Educational Equity Institute, to discuss the past, present, and possible future of media presentations of race and racism in America.

Listen to her previous interview here.

Image credit: Lightspring/Shutterstock



The following transcript is automatically generated.


00:00:10 Will 

Hello, I’m Will. Welcome to ResearchPod. 


It is hard to imagine that, during workshops at Harvard Law School back in 1984,  Kimberley Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, Derrick Bell, and others were planning that, 40 years down the line, their work on framing modern American issues in the context of recent American history would prove controversial to the point of paralysing, for media coverage, school boards, and political commentators. 


But that is world in which Critical Race Theory now finds itself. 


To recover some of what Critical Race Theory means as a term, and means in educational practice,  we are joined again by Dr Jennifer Neitzel, Executive Director at the Educational Equity Institute, to discuss the past, present, and possible future of media discussions around race and racism in America.

00:01:06 Will 

The timeliness of your work, I think, cannot be understated. The last time we spoke it was a period of significant political activity which preceded another period of very intense political activity in January. And how have you been? How was the last nine months since we spoke? 


00:01:24 Jen Neitzel 

Yeah, oh gosh. Yeah, I forgot we haven’t talked since the insurrection in January, which is just insanity. 


00:01:32 Jen Neitzel 

I think the last time I spoke with you I was recovering from COVID. And then we kind of had a normal summer until August 1. And now we’re right back where we were, I feel like, when we first talked, I think in November 2020 or something like that. So yeah, but good busy, very, very busy. We have a new book, in the process of writing right now, it’s going to be like a handbook in equity. We are really, really busy doing trainings, but we’re also doing consultation work with different organisations, but it has shifted since November 2020 just in terms of the pushback. Before the election in 2020, it was kind of like we were just kind of trucking along. 


00:02:23 Jen Neitzel 

And we were able to really challenge people and there was no pushback. But now, like it’s become incredibly politicised, talking about racism. And then gosh, we got all these laws and bills in place – 26 states in our country have either laws or bills or some kind of other legal action preventing teaching anything about racism or equity in schools, which is very frustrating. We’re doing a lot of work in rural areas where it’s like when you go into the rural areas, that’s when you’re really pushing back against overt racism. So when we go in there, we really have to say like, we’re not coming in to like label anybody a racist.


00:03:11 Jen Neitzel 

We’re not here to call anybody out. We’re not here to ‘gotcha’ anybody. We’re just here to tell the truth. We’ve had good success with that, and you know, here in North Carolina where I live, we just have a bill. It’s not law yet, and so we’re like as long as it’s a bill, we’re just going to keep talking about it and if people don’t want to work with us, that’s fine. And even if they, the Republicans, passed it in the state legislature, our governor would veto it because that’s just who our governor is right now. 


00:03:46 Will 

It is inextricably linked that, against the background of a global pandemic, a departing Republican government, and a Black Lives Matter movement that has been the longest protest movement in America, the phrase critical race theory has been nigh on inescapable from American media, even the stuff that has washed up on our fair English shores. And before we really get into it, can you tell me what Critical Race Theory is. 


00:04:19 Jen Neitzel 

Critical Race Theory is a framework that was developed in the late 1970s, early 1980s by Kimberly Crenshaw and some others, and really, it has its roots in law. It’s just a framework and ideology that says that racism exists in the United States. And it can be found, it’s endemic within our systems. When you hear these politicians talk about critical race theory, they don’t know what it is, right? First of all, they’ve just jumped on it and then you know they’ve really framed this narrative about Critical Race Theory. It’s a graduate level class like nobody is teaching kids critical race theory. We’re just not doing that. 


00:05:14 Jen Neitzel 

What has happened though, is that these states, like I was looking at these laws and bills the other day because we’re working with a federally funded organisation, early childhood organisation that provides technical assistance to states. So the preschool programmes are getting restricted on not being able to say anything about diversity, equity, inclusion. And when I was having this conversation with this agency that we’re working with I was like, well, these laws are K12, but some of our preschool programmes are housed within the Department of Public Instruction, so therefore they are encompassed within those laws. 


00:06:02 Jen Neitzel 

It’s just mind-blowing to me, what is happening, and like some of these laws are, you can’t talk about racism, you can’t talk about sexism. You can’t make white children feel bad or uncomfortable. You can’t say that that racism exists within our nation’s institutions. And it’s all just white supremacy in action. Because the census data for the United States was released this week, and it’s pretty darn clear that white people are going to be in the minority really, really soon, and that’s very scary to people who have been traditionally in power and understand that their ideology is not going to sit well with these growing groups of colour within our country and then our youth. 


00:06:54 Jen Neitzel 

You know our youth are more progressive. They are more knowledgeable about current topics right now because of Tiktok and YouTube and social media. They’re getting the information anyway. It’s important to me, especially when I have two teenagers and understanding that we have a responsibility to help these kids really critically think about different sources of information because they are getting false information as well, but it’s elping them contextualise everything so that they can understand exactly what is the nuanced truth of our history and what’s going on in the world. We have a responsibility in our schools to provide an opportunity for our children to talk about these things. 


00:07:44 Will 

This is a connection that I’ve only just made talking with you now. It’s abstinence, it’s educational abstinence. 


00:07:51 Jen Neitzel 



00:07:52 Will 

Instead of teaching kids who are going to have sex, how to have safe sex and how to enjoy having sex, there is no education given about sexual health. Instead of teaching people who are going to grow up in a world in which race exists and racist and inequal systems exist, just shutting down that information, and then it’s the same people doing the same thing. 


00:08:19 Will 

How do we connect from 40 years of academic work to a modern moral panic. 


00:08:28 Jen Neitzel 

You know I always like to put current date issues within the context of our history, and so that’s a lot of what we teach in our trainings, particularly our historical and racial trauma training. Nicole Hannah Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for her publication that was published by the New York Times called the 1619 Project, and I think they’re actually in the process of making it into a documentary. And there’s also a podcast called the 1619 podcast, and that’s very informative as well. So, e think about slavery. Being in the 17- and 1800s, which it was. When we think about the first Africans that arrived in the United States in 1619, they were actually indentured servants. 


00:09:17 Jen Neitzel 

And then on the other hand, you had the wealthy elite who were coming from your country, and they were bringing the Scottish and the Irish as indentured servants because they were coming over to the United States to flee plague and poverty and overcrowding and torture and. What happened in the United States and the colonies is that you have black and white indentured servants living together, working together, marrying… It was very peaceful time at the beginning, but they also lived in the same horrible conditions. Then they rebelled together, these black and white indentured servants together. They had more power, and they were going to be able to overwhelm the elites because they knew they had to divide and conquer. 


00:10:01 Jen Neitzel 

They tried religion. They tried language, they tried all sorts of stuff, but then they decided – OK, skin colour. And that’s when they created race. And race didn’t exist in the United States until after what was called this Bacons rebellion. That’s when chattel slavery started. That’s when we had really modern day slavery and so then what also happened is that they with the white indentured servants they started giving them little parcels of land. They gave them, you know, quasi leadership positions on plantations as overseers. They constructed whiteness as well during this time, it’s actually written into some southern state constitutions, and Virginia was the first to write whiteness into their state constitution. They gave them what W EB Dubois refers to as the wage of whiteness: that we’re going to give you this little scrap of land, we’re going to give you a little leadership position, but we’re going to still pay you menial wages, but at least you’re not that. At least you’re not an animal, at least you’re white. 


00:11:10 Jen Neitzel 

And so these indentured servants would work off their servitude and become free. They absorbed into that notion of whiteness. Martin Luther King used to talk about this too – the wealthy elites. What we’re talking about is the wealthy elites right now. They give scraps to lower income white people to keep them under control. And so when I look at the United States right now, I see the wealthy elites who are creating these messages about critical race theory and feeding into these conspiracy theories and all that kind of stuff because they know they need those lower income white people to keep them elected. And it’s not just lower income white people, yhey’re like they’re living in our midst. Like when I went to this Board of Education meeting and these Moms for Liberty people showed up. They’re also, you know, affluent suburban moms coming and they but they bought into this notion of whiteness, even though if you ask them, they would say that they’re not racist, and so it’s this social construction of race. This control of the narrative that has allowed all of these conspiracy theories and critical race theory nonsense to flourish in our country. 


00:12:34 Jen Neitzel 

Which is really unfortunate, but that’s how I view like what’s going on in our country right now. It’s like when you look at the Republican Party are all pretty much men, and they’re all like there’s one black person in the Senate, right? And no black people in the Republican Party in in our House of Representatives. So when you look at that party, they are doing everything they can right now to keep white supremacy in place because they know they see the writing on the wall with our progressive youth and the increase,  you know this recent census data, they see the writing on the wall. So what they’re trying to do right now is to hold that power by creating all of this noise, which is what it is. 


00:13:20 Will 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t raise, if you know anything about white oppression of indigenous populations in America at the time, because you know they were there, they were being exterminated at around the same time. 


00:13:33 Jen Neitzel 

Right, and with that, it’s like I I wish people would see our complicated past as, you know, understanding more than because like with the indigenous peoples in the United States, that was so complicated because you had some tribes who were aligning themselves with the British to maintain some semblance of power and then you had other tribes that were fighting, and so there were all these alliances being made, but the the grand scheme and we talk about this in our historical racial trauma training, is that the grand scheme of things was to, it’s actually written into policies, United States policies the the end goal was extermination, and they use that term ‘extermination’. So it’s all grounded in that white supremacy.


I was wondering if we could just really get into how someone thinks that denying the existence of racism as a topic could possibly hold out against the overwhelming amount of evidence present in everyday life.


One of the things that we talk about in our trainings is white shame and white guilt, and we actually believe that we live in a country of white shame. That we are so ashamed of our past. Not our politicians, our politicians, that’s all about control of power. Like they know what they’re doing with this disinformation. Then when we look at shame when we feel shame, like we attack ourselves, like I’m I’m such a horrible white person. 


00:15:17 Jen Neitzel 

We attack others, like, ‘you’re a race baiter’. We withdraw where we don’t even want to talk about the topic. I think that’s a lot of what’s going on with this willful ignorance right now. Because I, I mean I tell you Will, I went to our local Board of Education meeting when these Moms for Liberty people came out to, you know, blast the board about implementing anti-bias instructional practices in the district. Such ignorance, such ignorance about what critical race theory is. Saying that they’re OK with their children learning a more accurate history. But when the term white supremacy is brought up by the people who were like proponents of it, right? ’cause I was there to speak on behalf of the anti-bias educational practices, and so we did use the words white supremacy. And it’s just like the eye rolling. Even the talk of white supremacy because people don’t know what white supremacy is. 


00:16:26 Jen Neitzel 

They they equate it with the KKK, you know, and those kinds of things. But what we’re referring to is the culture of white supremacy. And the culture of white supremacy is the promotion of of whiteness in our institutions, but they don’t understand that to talk about our true history, we’re going to have to talk about the social construction of whiteness and anti blackness in this country. And so they just don’t understand at all. And the other thing that they get on too is like ‘Let’s just teach virtue. Let’s just teach kindness and compassion and empathy’ because they want to focus on upholding nice white people, which is a barrier to the work, right? Because a lot of these people were, like, I’m not a racist. I’m nice to everybody. But then you don’t want to talk about, you know, the true history of our country and have our children understand that you’d rather teach them just to be nice, and they’re either knowingly, or unknowingly, upholding that culture of white supremacy by promoting this notion of niceness. 


00:17:36 Jen Neitzel 

You know, because it’s like this, this fear of what their children are going to be taught, and it’s like… I just want to be given a more nuanced understanding of our actual history in this country. And I said this in in our trainings too. It’s like you can hold your love of country in one hand and acknowledge its hypocrisy in the other hand, it’s possible to do that. Like, I do that on a daily basis. I don’t see anything more patriotic than ensuring that we live up to the words in our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence. I don’t see anything more patriotic than that. 


00:18:20 Will 

Have you ever heard the phrase DARVO? Deny, attack, reverse victim and offender. 

It’s a manipulation technique by abusers, by political figures as well, by anyone who’s seeking to escape any criticism, and it sounds very familiar with the idea that ‘I am not racist. I love everyone, you are attacking me’ and like these are old, manipulative techniques that are just coming out again and again and again. 


00:18:50 Jen Neitzel 

I love that so much you know. And I was watching this documentary on the FBI surveillance of Doctor King. It’s just history repeating itself. There’s a lot of talk about like, ‘We just want to get back to normal’. Well, what’s normal in this country? Because you know when we think about taking children away from their parents. That’s what we’ve done, we’ve been about violence. We are going to keep repeating all of this until we confront slavery, Jim Crow, and the American genocide. 


00:19:32 Jen Neitzel 

It’s so frustrating and so overwhelming to think of the enormity of the issues and I fully understand that I am nowhere going to see the end of this. I’m just, in the work that we do, we’re just planting seeds that we hope will bloom after we are gone. Because I mean, it took a – I mean, there were eleven generations of slavery. And then you add on decades of Jim Crow. 


00:20:01 Jen Neitzel 

There’s no way we’re going to be able to solve those problems in a generation. It’s probably going to take 11 generations to fix what we’ve done in the United States, but we have to… If we don’t confront it now, which I think, now is just like the time to do it, we’re just going to have to confront it again. Because it’s, history just continues to repeat itself, because when they were put that surveillance in of Doctor King, it was because he was the most dangerous, quote unquote negro in the country. 


00:20:33 Jen Neitzel 

They felt that he was a threat to white supremacy. They didn’t say that, but that’s what he was. He was a threat to white supremacy and he was murdered not only because of his threat to white supremacy, but at the end of his life he was more focused on bringing poor black people and poor white people together. There’s nothing more threatening than that, and when you take that again, going back to Bacon’s rebellion of they had to divide and conquer poor black and white people to maintain that power. And you had King bringing those two groups together. Of course he was threatening and that’s why they killed him. Because, you know, his threat to upending white supremacy in our country. 


00:21:19 Will 

Now you spoke about generational attitudes and generational long views there. How can someone in our generation make anti-racism, a real and tangible pursuit. How can someone in the next generation down the line engage critically with race and do better. 


00:21:47 Jen Neitzel 

I think about with my own children, right? Having conversations with them, I think that what we need to do within our schools for these this generation is, you know, we need to commit to anti-racism and that means we’re working with a group in a high school. The principal wants us to come work with the students on talking about race and racism. I see that those opportunities need to be had with our kids because this generation of teenagers is living through a massive pandemic. And you know my boys have an outlet to talk about those things, but I would say the vast majority of teenagers… 


00:22:33 Jen Neitzel 

They need a place to process what they’re experiencing, and our schools need to be a place for that. And that means transforming the entire educational system. Because we are so hyper focused on academics that we are missing out on the social emotional health of our children. And part of that social emotional health is giving them a place to process what they’re learning on social media. Giving them critical thinking skills. OK, let’s sit down and this is the topic. You need to research it and find a variety of sources so that you can construct an opinion based on good sources instead of information from far right or far left. 


00:23:21 Jen Neitzel 

It’s incredibly important that we just restructure the entire educational system, and that’s going to take time. But, what we’re focused on is what before any of this can happen within our educational system, there needs to be a paradigm shift of the current generation, right, of us, you and me. Pushing that paradigm shift. OK, so a) like here are let’s get on the same page about terms because people use terms incorrectly all the time, right? They mish-mashed diversity, equity, inclusion. They don’t have a firm understanding the four levels of racism. They don’t understand the difference between racism and prejudice. And those kinds of things that’s incredibly important. But then it’s also important to understand how whiteness and anti blackness show up in our educational system. 


00:24:11 Jen Neitzel 

Before we can change any practices. And so that’s committing to anti racism and we always push people OK, you’re going to go through this training with us, but you need to continue your learning and unlearning of everything you’ve learned through your socialisation. And that’s not a check the box activity. So that’s why we always say anti racism is not it’s not a destination, it’s a journey. When you commit to anti racism, you’re committing to it. You’re committing to self reflection about how you show up, how you’ve been complicit, ’cause we’ve all been complicit. I’ve been complicit, right? And just educating ourselves, listening to podcasts, and reading books and watching documentaries and all of those kinds of things are going to help us, our generation, commit to anti racism in a way that then can move to alter practices in our educational system so we’re not so hyper focused on academics which are important, but we’re also focused on developing critical thinking skills with our kids by helping them process current issues within our society because they need space for that, it’s too complicated and messy right now. They need, they need help with that. 


00:25:26 Will 

And if there’s any useful resources that you might want to shout out at this point that someone who wants to go about that process of learning or unlearning can check in with that you’d recommend. 


00:25:38 Jen Neitzel 

Ibram X Kendi just published an edited book called Four Hundred Souls. He also wrote Stamped from the Beginning, which is a very very dense read and very long, but Four Hundred Souls is much more accessible because it’s an edited book and the chapters are really small. Basically it starts in 1619 and goes to present day and so it’s a really great book. I just think that’s a great resource for learning about our history. Robin D. Angelo just came out with a new book which I have right here called Nice Racism, so that’s a good one. We have a resource list that we give out to people who go through our trainings and I’m a big fan of podcasts just because they’re super accessible. I always reference my favourite one which is with Brené Brown and Austin Channing Brown. There’s Dax Shepard, Armchair Expert. He has an episode with Michael Eric Dyson, which is fantastic. Actually, On Being, which is like a spiritual podcast series, has several episodes with Isabel Walkerson, who wrote Cast and The Warmth of Other Suns. 


00:26:54 Jen Neitzel 

And then Resmaa Menakem, who wrote My Grandmother’s Hands, which is all about racial healing for both white and black people. He was on there so I think there are all sorts of different entry points for people like you don’t have to commit to reading a book, but I also think like watching movies and documentaries and those kinds of things. ’cause there’s so many that you can get on streaming services right now. I think it can be very accessible to commit to anti-racism. You don’t have to like commit to reading Stamped from the Beginning,, which is a great book, but it’s just a really, it’s like you’re you’re really committing yourself for it with that book, but you can also listen to it, but… So those are just some different resources that I think are really helpful for people to engage in this work. 


00:27:45 Jen Neitzel 

We’ve begun writing this book, and in chapter one we talk about it’s all related to current issues and barriers. And it’s very funny because I went back to my first book to look at the barriers that I put in there and they were like, lack of access to high quality early childhood education, and lack of pre-service education regarding racial equity and those kinds of things and the barriers in this one are like, nice white people, and bills and laws, and egos, and siloed efforts. And I think that what we’re really trying to push in this book that we’re writing, especially in the chapters that we’re writing, is we really need to reclaim control of the narrative. Like, we’re completely on the defensive right now with this nonsense. And so we need to reclaim the narrative about race and racism and what that looks like in education because we can’t continue to be on the defensive because they they’re just, their talking points are getting out there and they have very specific talking points. You know, parents should be in control of what they teach their children. OK, but like they’re perfectly fine with somebody else teaching their children how to read or do math. It’s the history they don’t want. 


00:29:08 Will 

The abstinence thing again. 


00:29:10 Jen Neitzel 

Right, right? 

And so that’s one of their talking points. The other one is indoctrination, but they don’t understand that their children are already being indoctrinated with social media. Like they’re already learning it and then they love to quote Martin Luther King, love to quote him. They take that one quote out of context, like I just need the colour of my character and not the colour of my skin quote… They take that out of context. They don’t see it within the broader context of that that speech that he gave at the march on Washington. Martin Luther King was less popular than Black Lives Matter when he lived. 


00:29:50 Jen Neitzel 

He was hated universally in this country, and so I’m always like, get his words out of your mouth. Like, they don’t even deserve to be in your mouth because you’re just weaponising them and you don’t understand the greater context of his writings and what he stood for. The other talking point is just the kindness, empathy, and compassion. And so we really need to take hold of this narrative and be really specific about what critical race theory is and isn’t. We need people who are courageous and see racial equity work as a moral obligation and are willing to walk into the flames with us because it is not easy work, it’s exhausting. And we need, we need to grow a movement of people who are committed no matter what, and that’s what we’re really trying to push right now is like… 


00:31:01 Jen Neitzel 

We need white complacency to end and we feel like the only way to do that is through this changing mindsets and helping people get engaged in anti-racist, self reflection so that they can feel more confident and be willing to walk into this critical race theory nonsense that’s happening in our country. No matter what happens. Like, we can’t stop because then they’ve won and we’re just committing to another generation lost. And we’re also committing to history repeating itself at some point, because it will if we don’t face it now. 

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