As educators and students like me head back to school this year with anxiety about our safety weighing heavily upon us, disinformation about COVID isn’t the only battle for truth on our minds. Faced with a stream of curated lies coming from Facebook, politicians, and pundits, creators have taken to TikTok to wage a battle for teaching the truth about the role of race and racism in our country.
Before COVID swept the globe, right wing politicians launched an aggressive campaign to label any teaching of the truth about race in our country as “critical race theory” and to demonize it with misinformation and ceaseless political attacks in the media and national discourse. Using sweeping generalizations and fearmongering, right wing politicians in several states have recently barred “critical race theory” from being taught in public schools and are trying to pass similar bans across the nation.
To fight back, local activists have organized town halls, parent-led meetings, and community events to ensure that curricula acknowledge that race is socially constructed, that racism exists in our legal and social structures, and that the voices and experiences of Black and brown folks are uplifted rather than marginalized. Additionally, educators, activists, and others are reaching millions directly to dispel myths and insist on the truth through social media platforms like TikTok. As a student of narrative and public discourse, I’ve found that TikTok creators are worth watching when it comes to leading the way on how to fight back effectively. In fact, many seem to be echoing some of the advice from The Opportunity Agenda’s recent messaging memo, “Talking About the Attacks on Critical Race Theory.” Here are a few examples:
Messaging Tip #3 Into Practice: @antisocialstudies tells an affirmative story about what teaching the truth about race really looks like
TikTok creator and AP world and U.S. history teacher, @antisocialstudies (Emily), uses her platform on social media to dispel myths about what her classroom promotes as a teacher of the truth about race and racism. In this TikTok, Emily uses satire to shift the narrative away from problematic myths about “critical race theory” by giving examples of meaningful conversations she has with her students. In the video, she flips the script to tell an affirmative story about what truth telling about race looks like in her classroom while also empowering her students to think critically about the myths they do encounter.
In subsequent videos, Emily also emphasizes current laws that are being passed or considered that will limit “critical race theory” in our school systems in order to force students to only learn lies based on white supremacy. As an educator in Texas, she cites specific terms in House Bill 3979 and how much it will hinder her ability to teach history in a truthful manner. In this TikTok, she creates a mock script of how she will have to talk about Juneteenth. While her monologue is humorous, the real focus should be on the highlighted parts of the bill that accompany her words. For example, she calls attention to how the bill requires educators to describe U.S. chattel slavery as a “deviation from...authentic founding principles of the United States…”; further, that chattel slavery had no racial basis.
Messaging Tip #3 Into Practice: @jordan.ri on the importance of telling our full history
18-year-old Jordan Rice (@jordan.ri) has shined a light on the hypocrisy of making Juneteenth a national holiday this year while voter suppression laws and bans on “critical race theory” run rampant through our country. Rice also uses her skit to comment on how Juneteenth’s federal holiday status is a smokescreen for corporations to hide behind. As opposed to using their financial privilege to fund meaningful programs in the communities in which they exist or advocate for truth telling about race, corporations have focused on “freedom sales” and other consumerist ploys to exploit the holiday.
Messaging Tip #6 Into Practice: Pivot to Legitimate Solutions
So, what now? As referenced above, our recent messaging memo -- “Talking About The Attacks on Critical Race Theory” -- is a great place to start. When someone is uninformed about what’s happening with these attacks on “critical race theory,” you can:
- Acknowledge that most people do not know the origin of critical race theory and briefly explain its academic roots dating back to the 1980s.
- Lead your conversation with shared values such as honesty and inclusivity.
- Help them understand that for us to progress as a nation, acknowledging the entirety of our past is essential to healing and creating an inclusive world for everyone to enjoy.
You can read all six of the messaging tips in the memo.
I also acknowledge the burden that falls on my community to defend our history, rights, and humanity. This is where allyship becomes ever important. It is not Black Americans’ job to educate and inform everyone. Rather, it is all our responsibility to uplift each other’s stories and engage one another in meaningful conversation that will serve as a catalyst for change.
Stopping the attacks on “critical race theory” are only one pathway to racial unity and equity. For many Black Americans, myself included, stopping these attacks is even bigger than any one piece of legislation. It is about embedding the truth about race and racism into K-12 and college curricula to end generations of lies rooted in white supremacy. It is about better preparing the next generation to protect one another, practice acceptance, and use our survival through a troubled history to shape a brighter future.
Abrielle De Veaux is a rising junior, majoring in psychology and minoring in African American Studies, at Northeastern University. She has previously worked with the Early Caribbean Digital Archive at Northeastern as an undergraduate research assistant. Currently, she is a research assistant with the Intersectionality Team of Applied Psychology under Dr. Tracy Robinson-Wood, a Northeastern Pathway student, and the Vice President of the Northeastern Black Student Association. As a student and activist, she has hosted various protests, events, and fundraisers advocating for Black lives and interned at The Opportunity Agenda in summer 2020 and summer 2021. She hopes to use her career in psychology to make mental health resources more accessible to the Black community and study the effects of racial trauma.