Wake school board talks about implicit bias and ‘white discomfort.’ But was it CRT?

A Critical Race Theory scholar urged the Wake County school board this week to push past concerns about “white discomfort” to change policies that she says are causing systemic harm to marginalized students.

Ronda Taylor Bullock, a self-described Critical Race scholar and executive director of the group “we are” (Working to Extend Anti-Racist Education), led a two-hour workshop Thursday on implicit bias for Wake school board members. She urged the board to have hard conversations about race and the negative impact she says that subconscious biases are having on students.

“When you haven’t been the target of discrimination, it’s hard to see, to feel, to empathize, to recognize that something’s got to change,” Bullock told board members. “If we want to have a healthier learning environment, a healthier system, something has to change.”

The board training session was scheduled by school board chair Lindsay Mahaffey. Wake has been working on how to put into practice an equity policy that was approved last November.

“We have an equity policy, and it is important as a board that we understand how that will work,” Mahaffey said in an interview Friday. “It models behavior for other folks that we’re doing the work and not just sitting there and expecting other people to put the equity policy into action.”

According to district records, the cost of Thursday’s session was $3,038.

Wake is North Carolina’s largest school district. It has nearly 160,000 students.

Wake County school board members hold an implicit bias workshop as part of a board mini-retreat on Nov. 16, 2023 in Cary. N.C. T. Keung Hui/
Wake County school board members hold an implicit bias workshop as part of a board mini-retreat on Nov. 16, 2023 in Cary. N.C. T. Keung Hui/

Wake says it’s not CRT training

The training included having board members list parts of their identity that they consider to be privileges or targets of discrimination. They also discussed an article that says teachers with subconscious bias punish Black students more than other groups.

The workshop took place amid a nationwide debate about equity and diversity training and whether Critical Race Theory is taught in schools. Critical Race Theory holds that racism has been a systemic part of the nation’s history that still influences society today.

In March, N.C. House Republicans passed what they called an anti-Critical Race Theory bill that would have put new limits on how race and sexism are taught in schools. House Bill 187, which died in the Senate, also would have required schools to provide advance public notice of contracting with diversity trainers.

“Wake County tax dollars are hard at work,” Senate leader Phil Berger’s press office posted Friday on X, formerly called Twitter. “We keep hearing that CRT isn’t in schools, yet this group hosts workshops for teachers about how to ‘apply a CRT & CRP framework’ in education.”

Last year, House Speaker Tim Moore had criticized Wake for allowing Millbrook High School to apply for a grant from Bullock’s Durham-based group.

But Mahaffey and Bullock said Thursday’s workshop was not about Critical Race Theory.

“This was not a training on Critical Race Theory,” Bullock said in an interview after the workshop ended. “This was a training on implicit biases. They’re very different.”

But Bullock said she does bring her framework as a Critical Race scholar to her work.

Land and Black Body Acknowledgment

Bullock opened the training session by holding a “Land Acknowledgment,” saying they can’t do the work without “acknowledging that we are living on stolen land.” She told the board that naming the Native Tribes that once cared for the land keeps them alive and in the present.

Ronda Taylor Bullock, executive director of the group we are, holds a “land acknowledgment” for Native Tribes at an implicit bias workshop for the Wake County school board on Nov. 16, 2023 in Cary, N.C. T. Keung Hui/
Ronda Taylor Bullock, executive director of the group we are, holds a “land acknowledgment” for Native Tribes at an implicit bias workshop for the Wake County school board on Nov. 16, 2023 in Cary, N.C. T. Keung Hui/

Bullock then did a “Black Body Acknowledgment” to “hold space for those we have lost due to forced enslavement, police brutality, trauma, disproportionate access to resources, health disparities, COVID-19 and many of the systemically racist structures that exist in America.”

After having the board members list their identities, Bullock asked them to consider how most Wake teachers are white while the majority of kids are students of color.

Bullock asked board members to consider what it would be like for Black students dealing with the fear of police brutality or of students worried about being deported due to their immigration status.

“One of the things that white supremacy does is it hardens our hearts and prevents us from empathizing with people from whom we are different,” Bullock said. “If you feel something, you’re less likely to harm. But if you don’t feel something for the human being, for the person, you can justify any harm.”

Bullock said school board members should consider how these fears might cause students to act out or miss class.

Overcoming ‘white people’s discomfort’

Like schools across the nation, Black students in Wake are more likely to be suspended than other groups. Bullock said board members need to avoid creating narratives that “preserve, by and large, white people’s comfort.”

“White people’s discomfort is not more significant than a Black child being harmed, than a Brown child being harmed, than a child in the LGBTQ community being harmed, than an immigrant child, than a child who speaks multiple languages where English might not be one of them,” Bullock said.

Students who are frequently written up for disciplinary issues may drop out of school and land in the criminal justice system, Bullock said.

“A Black woman’s child is more likely to live if she (the mother) graduates from high school,” Bullock said “This is not just about a bias and a school-to-prison pipeline. This is life and death, literally, because of a bias, because of a policy.”

As board members, Bullock said they can use their privileges to mitigate policies that contribute to harm for students.

Some board members don’t attend

The training session was attended by six of the nine board members. Mahaffey, the board chair, said the three missing members had scheduling conflicts.

Cheryl Caulfield and Wing Ng, the two Republicans on the officially non-partisan board, said Friday they would have attended the training session if they could have done so.

“I think my experience growing up as a poor minority in America could have provided another perspective,” Ng said in an interview.

Both Ng and Caulfield said they wished the board was spending more time talking about issues such as bullying, staff shortages and student learning loss.

“I really wish we weren’t separating children by the color of their skin,” Caulfield said in an interview. “We really have amazing teachers. I wish we would give them the resources they need.”

But Mahaffey said the training session will help board members better understand the lives and experiences of students and their families.

“It’s always good to hold up that mirror and reflect on your own experience and better understand the experiences of other people that you’re interacting with,” Mahaffey said.