How CRT fosters ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking on oppression

Throughout the U.S., K-12 schools are adopting new educational programs about race. These programs go by various names – Critical Race Theory (CRT), social justice, or antiracism – and though the theories and approaches can differ, they have much in common. They often include teaching students that society is divided between oppressors and oppressed, with identity characteristics, such as race and gender, assigned to each. While these programs can make students aware of some of the harms of racial hatred, they can also foster all-or-nothing thinking by placing individuals and groups into binary categories and ignoring nuance.
Consider the case of William Clark. William is a mixed-race recent graduate of Democracy Prep at the Agassi Campus, a public charter high school, in Nevada. In a required course, “Sociology of Change,” his teacher requested that students “label and identify” their gender, racial, and religious identities as part of a graded “independent reflection” exercise. The instructor designated Clark as white because of his light skin, green eyes, and blondish hair.
Then students were told to determine if any part of their identity had “privilege or oppression attached to it.” The lesson categorized certain racial and religious identities as inherently “oppressive,” singling out these identities in bold text, and instructed students who fell into these categories to accept the label “oppressor” even if they disagreed with the characterization of their heritage or beliefs.
William’s race, religion, and sex placed him in his teacher’s predetermined category as an “oppressor.” He felt that if he had submitted to the terms of this exercise, he would have been making public affirmations about his background and identity that he believed to be false and that violated his moral convictions. He faced a dilemma: he could participate in the exercise in violation of his conscience and be branded as an oppressor, or he could refrain from participation, suffer isolation from his classmates, and be maligned by the same labeling regardless. William decided not to participate, which resulted in a failing grade.
William’s mother, Gabrielle, filed a lawsuit against the school for violating his First Amendment rights by “compelling his speech involving intimate matters of race, gender, sexuality and religion.” The school settled and offered to expunge William’s failing grade and let him opt out of the course. This is a small win for William, as far as his academic prospects are concerned. But what about other students who have been subjected to similar class assignments?
Classroom exercises like this are striking in part because of how crudely they box students into categories of all-good vs. all-bad, oppressor vs. oppressed, on the basis of race. Similar activities are conducted in schools around the country. White students may be taught that they’re fragile, sinful, or ignorant, or that they need to feel shame, stay silent, or accept discrimination. Students of other racial/ethnic groups may be praised and encouraged to have strong, proud, and assertive identities. Instructors usually consider disagreement unacceptable. Racial and ethnic minorities have faced a long history of discrimination, but now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.
Not long ago, discussing entire races as all-good or all-bad would have been seen as the very definition of racism. Now, the anti-racism movement has claimed precisely this thinking for its own. How could so many people seemingly embrace this distorted and simplistic ideology?
One explanation may lie with a psychological process called “splitting.” Splitting is a term widely used in the mental health field, but little known outside it. Simply put, it’s a defense mechanism in which people frame ideas, individuals, or groups in all-or-nothing terms (e.g., all good vs. all bad or all powerful vs. powerless). The name splitting describes how intolerable thoughts and feelings are “split off” from awareness, leading to a partial view of the world. In order to see our opponents as pure evil, we have to split off the parts of them that are sympathetic; to see ourselves as purely righteous, we have to split off our shortcomings. In short, people split (frame others in all-or-nothing terms) to avoid ambiguity and complexity.
In the mental health field, splitting is linked with severe distortions of reality, emotional dysregulation, and psychopathology. Yet, it’s precisely this process of splitting that seems to dominate the logic of anti-racist pedagogies. Race relations are complex, and they can be upsetting, so it’s easy to see why so many people would split off the complexity and reach for easy-sounding solutions. But in the end, splitting can’t solve racial problems.
Race-based splitting involves severe distortions of reality: races aren’t actually all-good or all-bad. But racial splitting isn’t just harmful because it’s false; it’s also unhealthy for all racial groups. Most anti-racist-style pedagogies are quite new, and data about their long-term impact are lacking. But based on what we know about splitting, one would expect these pedagogical methods to cause lasting psychological harm. White students could be hurt by being forced into all-bad racial categories; minority students may be hurt by being told that they are trapped in inescapable oppression and that their problems are caused by another race. For all groups, it’s reasonable to expect that this type of pedagogy would cause interpersonal conflicts, emotional wounds, and broader social problems.
In the mental health field, splitting is often contrasted with dialectical thinking, which “involves the ability to take others’ perspectives and to accept uncertainty, ambiguity, and nuance.” Dialectical thinking requires that one tolerate ambiguity and see the pros and cons of differing perspectives. In contrast to splitting, dialectical thinking is considered a hallmark of mature, sophisticated, and clear-headed thought.
Ideally, education on race and gender would emphasize dialectical thinking and avoid simplistically boxing students into all-good or all-bad categories based on their physical characteristics. Celebrating some groups while attacking others works against widely shared societal values: love, justice, unity, social harmony, and psychological well-being. Our educational system must transition away from anti-racist pedagogies based on racial splitting and toward approaches that value nuance, open-mindedness, and dialectical thinking.
Andrew Hartz, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and a professor of clinical psychology at Long Island University in Brooklyn. Samantha Hedges, Ph.D., is a program manager at Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan collaborative committed to enhancing the quality of research and education by promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement.
via wnd

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