Winter 2021

Whitewashing and Power: Conservatives (En)Forcing Erasures and Censorship

White conservatives would rather burn our history than admit their place in it. That's why we need "CRT" now more than ever.

by Kathy Nguyen

“Groups sometimes disintegrated when the speaking of diverse opinions led to contestation, confrontation, and out-and-out conflict. It was common for individual dissenting voices to be silenced by the collective demand for harmony. Those voices were at times punished by exclusion and ostracization. Before it became politically acceptable to discuss race and racism within feminist circles, I was one of those ‘undesirable’ dissenting voices.”
– bell hooks, “Censorship from Left and Right”

“I wanted to tell them that my own concept of American history had been unknowingly shaped just by reading those books, and that they had rooted in me a paradox of pride and resentment – a desire to be included in the American story and a knowledge of the limits of such inclusion. Like the Chinese workers who helped build the transcontinental railroad and yet were left out of pictures and edged out of history.”
Bich Minh Nguyen, Pioneer Girl

Charles W. Mills begins The Racial Contract with a poignant statement that continues to resonate in both the geopolitical and current social justice epoch: “White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today.”[1] White supremacy has unequivocally remained a moniker for racism and promises absolute domination and privileges over other racial and ethnic groups, all of which have been predicated from a past, present, and perhaps without a doubt, in the near or even distant future. For a country that attempts to move culturally and socially forward, even if minutely, we’ve come to witness how it only regresses back into repeated stagnation, politically, historically, and elliptically. As a power structure that both enforces marginalization and oppression yet ignores racism when convenient, white supremacy is the indoctrinated belief that white people are inherently the superior and dominant race, leading to a continual perpetuation and propagation of violent racist re/actions and behaviors. This dynamic, Mills explains, forms the racial contract that privileges one group while violently maligning other existing groups that do not fit or conform to the political and structural system established by the white construct.

American history has continually remained whitewashed, forcefully instilling this innate, singular credence that the white perspective is the dominant position. The unrelenting conservative denouncements of critical race theory and the 1619 Project are some blatant attempts of the Republican Party’s laborious campaign to completely eradicate these historical frameworks/theories from existing in any form of syllabi or classroom spaces. These multiple forms of systemic erasure, whether in academia or spaces outside of the classroom, are indicative white America’s desire to silence BIPOC voices; there’s also this political desire to maintain American exceptionalism. But even then, spaces for American exceptionalism are allotted to only the people who embrace an incomplete version of American history in which American place their version of America as the epicenter of all politics, narratives, and ideals. White conservatives treat anything that challenges or deviates from this racialized hierarchical structure, violently instituted through colonialism and xenophobia, as dangerous, undemocratic, unpatriotic, unconstitutional, and anti-American.

Since 2021, conservative parents and anti-CRT protestors have rallied and campaigned against schools teaching CRT, claiming that it is a racist theory. Literature that focuses on gender, race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexualities have also been challenged by conservatives most of whom believe that avoiding intellectual discomfort eclipses critical thinking. Photo by Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters File via NBC News.

Kali Holloway’s essay, “‘Critical Race Theory’ is White History,” deftly explains the conservative fallacy of anti-CRT, one that is rooted in “misinformation” and perpetuates a long record of unaccountability: that CRT is inherently anti-white and prompts white guilt. Holloway writes:

What’s become abundantly apparent in watching the CRT social panic unfold is how its adherents steadfastly believe and propagate the idea that a full accounting of history – one that includes long-ignored perspectives and experiences, and consequently, locates the contradictions between American delusions of exceptionalism and the country’s grievous reality of brutal exploitation – is somehow historically inauthentic or a kind of frivolous add-on to the textbook narratives of white benevolence and heroism.[2]

As with several theoretical and methodological frameworks that engage with social, cultural, political, and historical complexities and omissions that have otherwise remained marginalized into obscurity, CRT is not about white guilt; it’s about the constant centering and privileging of the white perspective while erasing BIPOC’s voices and experiences. People willfully forget that racism still exists; instead, they would rather believe that racism is an artifact of the past and that 2021 and onwards is a future where race and ethnicities become irrelevant. CRT challenges this denial.

For people who instinctively believe that CRT promotes cultural wars, racist theories (“Critical Racist Theory”), the nation’s dissention, political divisiveness, and white guilt: how are theories and critical works that advocate for a more inclusive, totality of voices and anti-racist discourses and pedagogies racist? How is banning CRT and excluding non-white/non-Western voices and perspectives not racist?

Selectively, parts of America do not want to contend and confront their own racist histories. In his essay, “The Mantra of White Supremacy, Ibram X. Kendi examines the deep-rooted hypocrisy surrounding how Americans often fail to recognize that hate groups that are founded on white supremacy. Kendi reflects: “History reproduces itself. But when people don’t know history – or are barred from learning it – how can they ever recognize its reproduction?”[3] Discourses surrounding the banning of CRT are also connected to America’s problematic history of censorship. Following the criticisms of CRT being anti-white and a threat to America’s democracy, the recent banning of any form of literature that conservatives deem as pejorative are being denigrated for their nuanced framing and threading of critical commentaries that address racism, the history of slavery, obscene and explicit language, and complex explorations of LGBTQIA+ issues.

Farah Jasmine Griffin’s essay for The Washington Post is grounded with a revealing title: “Banning Toni Morrison’s Books Doesn’t Protect Kids. It Just Sanitizes Racism.” Griffin reflects on how Toni Morrison’ lyrical and seminal novels such as Beloved become a part of political topics such as the intersections between race, gender, sexualities, history, and their intrinsic connections concerning censorship; banning, in particular, further perpetuates a historical pattern of violence and erasure. Griffin aptly writes: “Censorship does not result in education, the pursuit of knowledge or intellectual growth” and that “Efforts to ban works like Beloved undermine democracy, even if they aren’t intended to.”[4] For Griffin, novels like Beloved “encourage” students to confront their own realities and worldviews by immersing themselves in stories that are considerably different than their own.

There’s a long history with book banning and its innate connection to intellectual freedom and the suppression of counternarratives. Since 2021, librarians are witnessing an aggressive call to challenge and ban certain books that are deemed too provocative for children. Librarians in Central Texas have conducted an intensive review of all children’s book in the library. This comes after State Rep. Matt Krause queried about 850 novels that were about race or sexuality. Photo via Pixnio.

Censorship and book burning belong to a history where intellectual pursuits and endeavors are suppressed for evoking differing ideas that do not perfectly align with a legislation’s ideals. Walker Caplan describes these recent banning of “certain histories from classrooms” as a form of “modern-day book burning.”[5] The ideology behind book banning and book burning are similar: violent re/actions that continue to suppress intellectual thought, particularly stories that include a non-white perspective. In 2019, a group of white students from Georgia Southern University burned copies of Jennine Capó Crucet’s book, Make Your Home Among Strangers, as an act of protest because they felt Crucet was racist for asking them to reflect on white privilege and whiteness. Some of the students, as Chris Quintana reported, “questioned why the author had been critical of white people.”[6]

In 2021, Kelly Jensen reports how Virginia Board Members wanted to burn “sexually explicit” books.[7] And just like critics who desire the banning and academic existence of CRT, conservative parents and educators demand their children to remain in a comfortable bubble that’s saturated with a familiar white perspective: one that precludes any experiences and voices that do not cater to the dominant voice and perspective, as if other experiences that do not symmetrically align with this restrictive worldview do not exist beyond the whiteness. White people establish their authority by writing about slavery, perpetrating violence against others, and justify their multiple wars and invasions against other countries in the pretext of remaining subjective and rigorous, but they disengage once a challenging perspective appears. Rather than critically and thoughtfully engaging with voices that subvert a singular narrative, conservatives calls attention to – and weaponize – race whenever differing stories challenge their sanitized, whitewashed perspectives. And yet somehow integrating BIPOC and LGTBQIA+ literary works and scholarship in syllabi to dismantle and challenge white supremacy are falsely equated to being racist and forcing diversity, and equity. Not only are BIPOC writers and scholars excoriated for being antiracist and inclusive, but they have also long remained on the sidelines, further forced into obscurity that leads to systemic erasures and censorship, which has become an overly familiar pattern of epistemic prioritization and privileging of the white canon while silencing or co-opting BIPOC experiences and positionalities.

There is no denying that our relationships with history are extraordinarily complex. But, banning literature that centers on colonial violence and the marginalization of BIPOC experiences further reifies the exclusionary nature of academic spaces, the majority of which secure the whitewashed version of culture and history. The canonization of literature is a byproduct of just how whitewashed stories and storytelling is. BIPOC students are expected to learn everything about white America and yet their burdens and fears are minimized as they are essentially being taught about how their existence and experiences do not matter nor belong in the white canon. All forms of literature and academic scholarship are meant to shatter realms of familiarity, comfort, normative worldviews informed by partial constructs, and culturally confined expectations and explore new terrains that have been shaped and informed by assuaging perspectives that were pushed to the margins in favor of a more familiar, indoctrinating narrative.

Angie Thomas’ award winning YA novel is one of the many novels that was on the list of “the most challenged books of 2020. Some of the many relevant issues that Thomas discusses include the intersections of race, class, police brutality, and violence, all of which are devastating realities that most conservatives refuse to acknowledge. Photo by Andrea Klepper / Collegian Media Group via Kansas State The Collegian.

Literary and academic censorships intersect with race, power, history, erasures, and privilege positionalities in the context of selective pedagogical and theoretical frameworks that further perpetuate a violent, alienating space for BIPOC literature and scholars. Engaging with CRT through literature also offers a critically divergent perspective from the canon. As an actionable theoretical framework of inquiry that centers on expansive worldviews, Kimberlé Crenshaw notes how it’s “more a verb than a noun” because “it is a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing and analyzing the ways that race is produced.”[8] Literature written by BIPOC frames CRT as an accessible antiracist framework that not only thoughtfully and thoroughly delineates the history of whitewashing as a form of an incomplete and revisionist racist history, but it also provides inclusive political and societal commentary that are integral in a deeper exploration on America’s history of erasing other voices and histories, all of which lead to a reorienting and moving beyond white racist paradigms. American literature is inextricably political. Even more importantly, BIPOC and LGTBQIA+ literatures are American literature, integrating political issues that are not only tangible in resonance for BIPOC citizens of America, but provide more textures in an otherwise deliberately fragmented history. This is not to say that novels by white writers haven’t been banned since Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has also been on the American Library Association’s List of the most challenged books of 2020.[9] In fact, Nora Krug notes how 2020 was the year – the beginning – of banning novels that focused on race, including Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give.[10] Stories that seamlessly yet critically and thoughtfully weave culturally and historically themes and societal/social issues are essential in understanding how BIPOC experiences are both personalized and politicized. These stories enhance literary and historical spaces while redefining the canon.

As librarians fight for their shelves to remain filled with books that subvert the canon with counternarratives, Bernardine Evaristo’s call for “canons, plural” is a sonorous reminder on how a “wider range of voices, cultures, perspectives can only enrich what already exists and will contribute to a more inclusive education system and a more egalitarian society.”[11] Both the political structure and action of whitewashing is a direct result of this need to continually reinstate white power. Banning books and the anti-CRT campaigns cement these ideologies further. Theorists such as Mills and Crenshaw offer us a better, more equitable just future; this is why conservatives fear them and their frameworks. Censoring marginalized voices and stories does not negate their existence, if anything, it proves how powerful and subversive their writing is, showing their enduring longevity. 

Kathy Nguyen is a writer and doctoral candidate in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies at Texas Woman’s University. Her dissertation, “HOMEDEPO[R]T: [Un]Documented Nostalgia and Memories in Vietnamese/American Diasporic Stories at the Center of [Re]Alienation,” examines the residual yet sonic postwar imprints of the Việt Nam War through the intimate, complex, complicated, and multifaceted perspectives of Vietnamese refugees. Broadly, she is interested in further exploring the precarious hierarchical structure of language and its connection to people living in an indefinite threshold that oscillates between translatable and untranslatable words. 


****Editor’s Note: We wish to clarify the terms used throughout our “Teaching ‘CRT’ in an Age of White Backlash.” Some of our essays engage actual Critical Race Theory, the legal term used by thinkers & jurists like Kimberlé W. Crenshaw and Derrick Bell to explain the racist ways that American laws are enforced and litigated. Our submissions also criticize white conservative attacks on “CRT”—the umbrella term they apply to any teaching critical of white supremacy. The distinction between these terms is important for two reasons. 1) As many have already noted, no one teaches Critical Race Theory in primary or secondary schools (although it would be fine if they did) because it is a legal theory. 2) It is important to explain clearly what white supremacists mean when they use the term “CRT” because it is important that Americans of all ages understand the ways that our racist history and culture contributed to the country we inherit. Thus, although we encourage contributors to use both terms as it relates to their work, we want to be clear that conservatives lie about what Critical Race Theory is both to prevent teaching about our country’s racist past/present and to undermine necessary critiques of our white supremacist legal system.****

Further Reading

[1] Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. Cornell University Press, 1997.

[2] Holloway, Kali. “‘Critical Race Theory’ is White History.” The Nation, 16 Nov. 2021, https://www.thenation.com/article/society/crt-race-history/.

[3] Kendi, Ibram X. “The Mantra of White Supremacy.” The Atlantic, 30 Nov. 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/11/white-supremacy-mantra-anti-racism/620832/.

[4] Griffin, Farah J. “Banning Toni Morrison’s Books Doesn’t Protect Kids. It Just Sanitizes Racism.” The Washington Post, 28 Oct. 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/10/28/beloved-toni-morrison-virginia/.

[5] Caplan, Walker. “Cool, Elected School District Officials Are Calling For Literal Book Burning Now.” Literary Hub, 11 Nov. 2021, https://lithub.com/cool-elected-school-district-officials-are-calling-for-literal-book-burning-now/.

[6] Quintana, Chris. “A Professor Spoke About Whiteness at Georgia Southern University. Students Burned Her Book.” USA Today, 10 Oct. 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/education/2019/10/10/race-latinx-author-georgia-southern-university-burning-book/3933292002/.

[7] Jensen, Kelly. “Students Petition For Library Books, School Board Members Want to Burn LGBTQ+ Titles, and More Censorship News.” Book Riot, 12 Nov. 2021, https://bookriot.com/censorship-news-november-12-2021/.

[8] Quoted in: Fortin, Jacey. “Critical Race Theory: A Brief History.” The New York Times, 08 Nov. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-critical-race-theory.html.

[9] “Top 10 Most Challenged Books Lists.” American Library Association, https://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10.

[10] Krug, Nora. “2020’s Most Challenged Books Include ‘The Hate U Give’ and Others About Race.” The Washington Post, 06 Apr. 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/2021-most-challenged-books/2021/04/06/34f89260-96ed-11eb-b28d-bfa7bb5cb2a5_story.html.

[11] Evaristo, Bernardine. “The Longform Patriarchs, and Their Accomplices.” The New Statesman, 01 Oct. 2020, https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2020/10/bernardine-evaristo-goldsmiths-lecture-longform-patriarchs.

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