Critical Race Theory and Teaching Philosophy

by Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.

Emeritus Professor of Sociology

“I Would Rather Know It Than be Threatened by It.”  Mwizenge S. Tembo, September 6, 2005

One afternoon during my forty years as a professor teaching in college, one of my very curious and enthusiastic students Christina showed up in my office during my office hours. She had questions for me. What did I think of the Egyptian Civilization, racism, my perspective on gender, sexism and the oppression of women in American society? What about homosexuality, religion, and what was my point of view on abortion? It was such a rare instance where a student has taken several classes with a professor, and they have come to feel so comfortable and trusting of them that they can ask any questions without fear. I loved our conversation just as every professor would.

Author Mwizenge S. Tembo, Emeritus Professor of Sociology.

I explained my understanding of the topics and mentioned the various scholars who have addressed the issues some of whom whose books were among the three thousand books that surrounded the walls of my office. One thing I told her is that she and other students in my classes would never know my opinion on some of the more controversial topics such as abortion. Because once I revealed my opinion, she and other students would never write freely or hold free open class discussions because they would be afraid to contradict my opinion. As a good professor, I never expressed my personal opinions in class as a matter of principle.

As our animated discussion went on back and forth, at the crescendo of expressing my deep and passionate interest in academic knowledge, I said spontaneously: “I would rather know it than be threatened by it!!” Christina and I paused for thirty seconds. I explained to her that my philosophy of knowledge during my entire life was embodied in what I had just said to her in the heat of the moment. Human beings including myself have always been afraid of what we do not know. Once you truly know it, whatever you are afraid of will not be a threat anymore. And that is why good education is truly liberating of the mind, body, and spirit. That day of our conversation was September 6, 2005 at the height of Katrina hurricane that devastated New Orleans.

That fear of the unknown appears to threaten many people in America today applies to the Critical Race Theory. The CRT goes back to the famous sociologist William DuBois in early 1900s and the very radical Franz Fanon. Academic scholars including one Aulette (2018) today explains CRT as the reality that racism has been around for centuries since the 1600s and that it is deeply embedded in all major institutions such as religion, marriage and the family, schools, colleges, universities, in employment and corporations, policing and the legal systems, segregated residential neighborhoods, banks, Hollywood movies, entertainment, and sports.  All of this means that racism will not easily be eradicated. The book: “The New Jim Crow” devoted itself to and is very convincing and provides ample evidence that racism will be very difficult to eradicate.

Another tenet of CRT is that racism is such a deep and normal part of society that to most white people and many people of color racism is invisible and normal. Racism is so normal in American society that it is akin to asking a fish that is swimming deep in the ocean: “How is the water?” That fish will probably respond with surprise: “What water?” Fish do not notice that they are swimming in water.

The reality and the history that racism is deeply embedded in American society ought not to be controversial or cause too much disagreement. Racism that has been around for centuries was also embedded in the rest of the Third World through European or Western colonialism and imperialism in Asia, South America, and Africa. This part of the discourse is what might cause some Americans resentment as the author might appear to be piling on America or to be needlessly anti-American. The critics would rather I accentuated American exceptionalism. To the contrary, this is not piling on or hating America. This should be part of the knowledge that all patriotic Americans should learn. We can sure learn about CRT and still love our country.

Teaching about CRT is causing anxiety both in K – 12 and perhaps in college among conservative pundits.  Some states, including Texas, have already tried to legislate against CRT in schools. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed into law a bill which is likely to create mandates which will dictate to teachers what they can and cannot teach about CRT. Creating mandates is the prerogative of the School District Boards. But telling teachers what they can or cannot say may not be the best approach. Teachers and creators of syllabi in K-12 schools including colleges are so experienced that they should be trusted to know how to teach delicate subjects to their students. It was Oprah Winfrey who once said that even though she was a powerful African-American TV broadcaster at the height of her career, she could not show Civil Rights Movement protests on her program every day. In the same way teaching CRT ought not to be so radical that students would not learn or enjoy learning the subject in the classroom.

 Just as I would not feed a hamburger to a one-month-old baby, teachers from kindergarten to college professors can be trusted to know how to teach delicate but unnecessarily controversial subject such as the Critical Race Theory.

Real Life Scare by Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D. Emeritus Professor of Sociology

My family and I in 1959 lived at Chasela Primary School in the Luangwa Valley among the Bisa people in the Eastern Province of Zambia in Southern Africa. I was five years old. My father was a teacher during British colonialism in the then Northern Rhodesia. We lived in a small 3 room redbrick house with grass roofing. At the time the Luangwa Valley had numerous wild animals roaming night and day like Africa had been probably for thousands of years. Lions, zebras, large herds of buffaloes, impalas, hyenas, monkeys, leopards, birds, and elephants were everywhere night and day and around our house. Humans and deadly encounters with wild animals were as common as traffic accidents are today in our time.

Lion basking the morning sun in the Luangwa Valley Game Park

One day, my dad went on a business trip to Fort Jameson (now Chipata) riding his bike through sixty miles or ninety-six Kms. of dangerous desolate wilderness in the Luangwa Valley. At that time there were few people and villages. My mother asked me to leave my bedroom and instead to sleep in my dad’s bed next to my mother’s since we were by ourselves that night. It was  1900 hrs. 7:00 pm and the yellow paraffin lamp was dimly burning and flickering on mom’s small bedside table. My mom had just finished giving a bath to my seven-month-old baby sister, Ester. Ester was whining and fussing with mom bugging her.

 “Mama nipeni baseline!!” She whined. 

My baby sister wanted the “baseline” bottle to apply the Vaseline on herself again. My mom was saying “No! will you please go to sleep!” When all of a sudden:

“Graaaaaaaaargh!!!!!!” One lion roared with the deepest bellow literally five feet or two meters outside our rickety wooden bedroom door and window.

“Graaaaaaaaaaargh!!!!” The second lion roared in response. Our whole small three room red brick house shook and vibrated.

My mother hastily blew out the kerosene lamp. My little sister tried to dive under mom to hide. I froze. Deep fear hit the pit of my little stomach. I was so scared I could not move to hide under the covers. My little heart may have stopped and I could not breath. The plates, dishes, pots, and pans rattled on the kitchen shelves as some loudly crashed to the bare cement floor in the kitchen. Some rats fell with a thud from the grass roof. The two lions continued to roar in tandem.

There was loud commotion in the nearby Chibande large village of five hundred as playing children screamed and fled in terror. Mothers desperately yelled calling their children by name to “please run home!!!.” Most kids ran into the nearest house for cover for that night as there was no time to run to their parents’ house.

When I opened my eyes in the morning, it was very quiet and it was almost 9:00 hours.  This was very unusual as we always woke up early in the morning at 6:00 hours.

First, my mother said a brief prayer thanking God for having saved our lives that night. She then gingerly opened our small wooden bedroom window and carefully peeked outside to make sure the lions were not waiting anywhere outside. That’s when we came out of the house. The bedroom door that led to the outside just left of where the lions had roared was a small thin wooden door.  The lion could have effortlessly just put its paw on the small door, and it would have been inside our bedroom. Later that day, my mom told me that a few seconds prior to the lion’s first roar a few feet from our bedroom door, she had heard strange sounds. “Pomp!!” “Pomp!!!” Pomp!!!” We found out later on that those were sounds of the lions wagging their tails hitting both sides of their stomachs as they quietly approached our house under the mango trees. When we looked at the footmarks, the pride had been about ten to fifteen lions. I often wonder what scares children today compared to those older times.