Students sound off on Texas lawmakers' efforts to limit how race is taught in schools

Ella Malena Feldman
Austin American-Statesman

It was while scrolling through TikTok that 17-year-old Nelly Rebollar learned Republican lawmakers were attempting to limit the ways she and her peers are taught about race and racism in their classrooms.

Rebollar is a rising senior at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, an all-girls public college preparatory school in Austin. During the recent legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 3979, making Texas one of seven Republican-led states that have recently enactedlegislation that limits how race can be taught in schools, andGov. Greg Abbott has vowed to increase efforts to banish critical race theory from Texas.

The TikToks Rebollar watched that explained, criticized and ridiculed the bill made her laugh, but they also filled her with fear, she said.

"This bill is a backstep," Rebollar said. "My reaction is really negative, almost frightened, at the fact that we're supposed to live in this modern era but everything seems to be backwards."

Rebollar is one of six public school students whom the Statesman interviewed after putting out a call on social media asking young people how they feel about HB 3979 and how race and racism are currently taught in their classrooms.

An attack on critical race theory

HB 3979 has been dubbed Texas' "critical race theory bill," though the legislation doesn’t actually mention the theory by name. Abbott has praised the bill as "a strong move to abolish critical race theory in Texas,” though he said “more must be done.”

Critical race theory is an academic framework for examining racism that has been taught at the college and university level for more than 40 years, but it has recently been taken up by Republicans as a catch-all phrase that describes what they see as divisive approaches to discussing racism in schools. 

Last week the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank, tweeted and then deleted a list of buzzwords it said would help parents identify whether critical race theory was being taught in their children’s classrooms. The list included terms such as "equity, diversity and inclusion," "anti-racism" and "Black lives matter" — and it terrified Georgia Ramirez, a rising junior at Glenn High School in Leander.

"It's just so worrying because the words on there were like, ‘colonialism,’ ‘social justice’ — issues that we just have to talk about in order to get a better understanding of our world," Ramirez said.

Ramirez, 15, had never heard of critical race theory before it started making headlines this year.

The term was also new for both Frida Renovato, a 12-year-old student at the James Bonham Academy in the San Antonio school district, and their mom — Anita Cisneros, who has been an educator for 17 years and teaches fifth-graders at Bonham, which enrolls students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

"I don't teach critical race theory," Cisneros said. "I’ve never used that word before in my conversations."

More:How critical race theory has come to drive debate, confrontations in Texas

Critical race theory is not taught at the K-12 levels in Texas. Public schools in the state are guided by a set of curriculum standards called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, that outline what students must learn in their classes. Critical race theory is not included in those standards, the most recent iteration of which was adopted in 2010 and streamlined in 2018.

Though critical race theory is not currently taught at the K-12 levels in Texas, the GOP-led Legislature is working to limit how race and racism are taught in the classroom.

That doesn’t mean students aren’t learning about race and racism — these topics are part of social studies curricula across Texas and are further explored in electives offered at some schools. The State Board of Education approved a Mexican American and ethnic studies elective in 2018 and an African American studies elective in 2020.

Renovato, who will be a seventh-grader at Bonham this fall, took a Mexican American studies class last year.

"It's a class where we learn not just about Mexican American studies, but we've learned about Asian Americans and African Americans … which I like," Renovato said. "That's like my safe place. I think that’s my favorite class because it's where I can talk freely."

Wanting more, not fewer, lessons about race

At the Richards school in Austin, Rebollar also took an ethnic studies class, in which she learned about the histories of marginalized communities such as queer people and Native Americans. But Rebollar said that approach posed a stark contrast to her required history classes.

"A lot of what we are taught, I think it's very one-sided or biased," Rebollar said. "It's very much like the white man — oh, yay, the white man! … When we do learn about other countries, we just learn how they struggled and how they suffered because these people came here. When I think it should also be important to show and celebrate everything that they've overcome and everything that they do."

Natasha Newton, a 15-year-old at Dripping Springs High School, said she also has found that her history classes primarily focus on white people and are taught "through the lens of the colonizers a lot more than those of where they colonized." 

Natasha Newton, a 15-year-old student at Dripping Springs High School, said race and racism "should be explored more rather than be redacted upon" in Texas classrooms.

That's why HB 3979 concerns her, Newton said. "I feel like (race and racism) should be explored more rather than be redacted upon." 

A provision in the legislation prohibits teachers from requiring course content that leads students to feel"discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex." 

Norah Barry, a rising senior at Glenn, said students don’t have a say in being uncomfortable and experiencing anguish over issues — namely, racism — firsthand.

"These are things that a lot of people of color, we learn as kids," said Barry, 17. "We're on the playground, and we're like, 'Why are these kids hating on me?' Or like, you're at the grocery store, and you're wondering why your mom's getting yelled at for absolutely no reason."

Norah Barry, 17, is a rising senior at Glenn High School in the Leander school district. She said that students of color like herself don't have a choice when it comes to learning about racism.

That's why it's vital that all students comprehend how racism functions in the real world, she said. "It shouldn't be an issue for your 17-year-old child to learn about it in a structured classroom,” Barry said. "If I had to go through it my whole life, as a 5-year-old little kid, I'm pretty sure your almost grown adult child can learn about it in the classroom."

Another section of HB 3979 states that teachers may not be compelled to discuss any particular current event or social issue, and that if they choose to, they should "strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective."

More:What the backlash against critical race theory could mean for Texas social studies lessons

Zarqa Fatima said she finds this provision particularly troubling. The 16-year-old student at Austin’s Navarro Early College High School said discussing current events such as the Black Lives Matter movement in the classroom has enhanced her understanding of history.

Zarqa Fatima, a rising junior at Navarro Early College High School in the Austin school district, said discussing current events in the classroom has enhanced her understanding of history.

"Through the current events that are happening today, you can see the connections of why it came to be from the past," Fatima said. "And if school is a barrier for helping us learn about how the world works and how society works, then it's only going to be a barrier for us when we grow up or when we graduate. Because it'll just be harder to understand what's going on."

Rebollar said that beyond improving lessons, she's also found discussing current events to be an emotional necessity.

"You will not see a student see someone on the news get murdered, that maybe looks like them, that maybe it looks like someone they know, and just go into your classroom as if it was just another day," Rebollar said. "As a teacher, you're going to have to accept the fact that each student will carry those emotions into your classroom."

Disconnect between students and lawmakers

Fatima and Rebollar are both members of the Austin school district’s Student Equity Council, which beganin December 2020. The council is made up of students from various high schools seeking to make the district more equitable. As part of their mission, the students have interviewed people across Austin schools to identify areas for improvement.

A recurring theme in Fatima’s interviews with fellow students, she said, was that they felt administrators were frequently making decisions about their education without consulting them first — and she now feels as though the same thing happened with HB 3979.

"One of the main emotions that I feel right now is frustrated," Fatima said. "It’s not just frustration; it's the lack of understanding of students. Before (lawmakers) passed this bill, they didn't have student representatives. They didn't have input from students, which is why they were like, ‘Oh, we think it's fine,’ when it's really not."

Barry also saidlawmakers seem to be out of touch with what students actually need. "I just think it's crazy that people who haven't been in classrooms in about, you know, 20, 30 years, are making decisions on what we should be learning," she said.

Eighth graders in Corey Jones' social studies class at the KIPP Austin Vista campus in South Austin watch the inauguration of President Donald Trump in 2017 as part of their instruction. A new state law says public school teachers may not be compelled to discuss any particular current event or social issue.

Republican lawmakers don't understand that most young people aren't learning about anti-racism, white privilege and other concepts seen as critical race theory in the classroom, Barry said.

"The main place I hear about these issues, like the first time ever, is probably on social media," Barry said. "Once I see it, I'm like, hmm, this is interesting. I feel like I should know more about this. I look up articles, listen to podcasts. I listened to a lot of NPR."

Renovato, the San Antonio middle schooler, said that they often learn about current events through conversations with friends. During Pride Month, Florida’s ban on transgender women and girls playing in women’s sports, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law June 1, was a frequent topic of conversation, Renovato said. "We were all like, wow, that's just wrong, especially on this month."

Cisneros, Renovato's mother and a teacher at Bonham, said the lawmakers pushing for HB 3979 underestimated what conversations students are bringing into classrooms.

Lawmakers "think we are feeding these things to them, when they are underestimating our kids, our students, our youth," Cisneros said. "Our kids know a lot more than we think, and they're teaching us."

Ramirez and Rebollar both mentioned TikTok as a channel through which their friends share news and knowledge.

"Everyone thinks it’s just an app where people are silly and ridiculous all the time," Rebollar said, "but it's also a place where a lot of people get their news from, because you have all these young people updating and spreading the word on awareness."

The popular video sharing app is where Rebollar learned about HB 3979 in the first place. And though she was initially frightened at the news, her fear has subsided and has been replaced by another feeling: empowerment. 

"The fact that (lawmakers) went out of their way to write this bill … makes me feel so empowered in a sense, because that just goes to show that they know what's happening and they are aware that we are going to make a change, whether they like it or not," Rebollar said.

"There’s this phrase that goes like, ‘You only feel the need to control what you fear,’ and that's exactly what they're doing," she said. "They are afraid of what we can do because they know we can do a lot."

About this story

This story is the third in a three-part series taking a deeper look at critical race theory and how the political fallout is affecting Texas.

SundayHow critical race theory has come to drive debate, confrontations in Texas.

MondayWhat the backlash against critical race theory could mean for Texas social studies lessons.