Hawaiʻi’s public education must include honest lessons of racism and oppression, past and present
Manufactured attacks on critical race theory aim to dismantle ongoing efforts to provide an equitable education for all keiki
From HSTA, October 8, 2021
As we approach Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Discoverers’ Day in Hawaiʻi, which are annually observed on the second Monday of October, the Hawaiʻi State Teachers Association reasserts that every child deserves a full and honest education, no matter our color, background, or where we live. As educators, we provide our students with the tools, information, and support they need to become strong, independent thinkers who are able to critically examine the world they live in, and understand past and present so they can build a better future.
Unfortunately, opponents across the country are weaponizing misconceptions of race and taking aim at public education to incite fear and fortify the long-standing barriers we are working to dismantle. We must seize the moral high ground and focus on the true issue at hand: the need for a quality education that helps our keiki (children) understand who they are and what they are all capable of.
HSTA supports honesty in education and antiracist work
HSTA is committed to promoting human and civil rights to support and nurture diversity in our multifaceted community. Education is essential to this mission. Our members are passionate about creating schools and communities that are safe, inclusive, and welcoming to all keiki, and that requires exposing and breaking the racial and social injustices that shackle our students. We cannot afford to support outdated, ignorant lessons that shield the realities of our history to justify and perpetuate oppression and white supremacy.
The National Education Association (NEA) Center for Social Justice defines white supremacy as “a form of racism centered upon the belief that white people are superior to people of other racial backgrounds and that whites should politically, economically, and socially dominate non-whites. While often associated with violence perpetrated by the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) and other white supremacist groups, it also describes a political ideology and systemic oppression that perpetuates and maintains the social, political, historical and/or industrial white domination.”
Our children are more than capable of learning that events in our past continue to affect our present and future, and that our imperfect history shaped an imperfect country with deeply embedded inequities and biases. The overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani and the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, for example, triggered widespread suppression of Native Hawaiian identity and culture to facilitate assimilation into white American culture. This assimilation permanently pushed Native Hawaiians into a lower class and generations later, many continue to face poverty, illiteracy, disproportionate rates of incarceration, and other barriers to achievement. We must openly acknowledge and understand these flaws to work toward positive change.
This line of thinking prompted the HSTA Board of Directors to support on Aug. 14, 2021, a new business item introduced jointly by HSTA’s Human and Civil Rights (HCR) and Government Relations (GR) committees, related to the restoration of indigenous place names as follows: “The Hawaiʻi State Teachers Association shall advocate for the restoration of indigenous place names, focusing efforts on all public schools named after American colonizers.” While not named after a colonizer, the recent decision to change the name of Central Middle School to Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani MIddle School is a step in the right direction.
HSTA’s HCR Committee also works to engage fellow educators and the broader community in deeper discussions and actions related to race and equity. The committee has issued statements, facilitated listening sessions and workshops, and offered resources to support our Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Asian, and Black communities. The committee also established an HSTA CARES (Culture, Advocacy, Respect, Equity, Support) team, which is currently developing critical professional development and training around implicit bias.
“Addressing the systemic racism that exists in our educational system is dependent on educators who are willing to recognize and set aside their own personal biases when teaching our students,” said Jodi Kunimitsu, a math teacher at Maui High School and state chair of the HSTA HCR Committee. “We need to be willing to learn as much from our students, their culture, history, and stories as we expect them to learn from us.”
More work and opportunities to engage members and the broader community are being planned for the coming school year, so please stay tuned for updates in HSTA’s weekly Member Matters email newsletter, website, and social media channels.
Teaching and learning through a racial justice lens is critical to the success of our keiki
Educators understand the need for students to analyze and evaluate what they see in the world and what’s taught in the classroom. Subjects like slavery, colonization, and immigration, and their foundational roles in institutional and systemic racism need to be framed in age-appropriate ways so students can process and develop their own opinions about the world and themselves.
A lack of understanding and framing can have devastating consequences on students. In a recent NEA seminar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, co-founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum and founder and executive director of the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, used the Federal Housing Administration as a prime example. Established in 1934, the agency subsidized the construction of subdivisions that only white families could purchase while “redlining,” or refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods.
“You look around and you see relatively few Black businesses. You see relatively little intergenerational wealth. You see relatively anemically funded institutions. If you don’t know these historical moments, what will you infer the justification, the reason for that would be?” Crenshaw said. “And for the most part, if you don’t know the story and if you are a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or person of color) student, you will eventually infer that there is something wrong with your group. And if there’s something wrong with their group, it’s only a step away from thinking, I wonder if there’s something wrong with me?”
Hawaiʻi’s public education system also suffered in the hands of white supremacy. In 1840, King Kamehameha III established a national compulsory education system that was operated and taught in the Hawaiian language. As Hawaiʻi’s Blueprint for Public Education explains, schools were completely integrated, served all races and genders, and included support for multilingualism. The kingdom’s literacy rate exceeded that of the United States, with a large percentage literate in Hawaiian and at least one other language.
After the overthrow and annexation of the Hawaiian kingdom, the U.S. government banned the Hawaiian language from education, setting English proficiency as the new standard to promote American patriotism and values. Meanwhile, Hawaiʻi’s population was becoming increasingly diverse due to an influx of immigrant plantation workers, primarily from Asia and Portugal.
In the 1920s, English standard schools were established, which required students to pass a written language test to be admitted. This created a two-tiered school system that favored and promoted students of predominantly white families who did not want their children “held back” by non-English-speaking students from Native Hawaiian and immigrant families.
A 1947 study of English standard schools concluded that: “There can be no question but that English standard schools and sections are regarded by some persons as a means of maintaining social and economic stratification and discrimination. Ability to speak good English has become associated with status, at least to the extent that use of ‘pidgin’ sets one off as not ‘belonging’ to the middle class groups.”
The English standard school system was dismantled in the 1960s, but by then, the ideas of Western-oriented assimilation as a key to success and lack of English proficiency as a source of discrimination were firmly rooted.
As educators, we must understand how history can lead to institutional disadvantages that harm students’ perspectives and work to rectify them.
“‘He lei poina ‘ole ke keiki.’ Our children are an unforgettable lei,” said Hope McKeen, a kumu ‘ike Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian studies teacher) at Keonepoko Elementary School in Puna on Hawaiʻi Island and state chair of HSTA’s GR Committee. “We must teach our kamaliʻi (children) the truth of what happened to our people so that they may grow up to understand and protect our island home. Our aliʻi (monarchs) left legacies for us so that we could have an example of what Hawaiʻi is. Hawaiʻi is not just a commodity; it is our kulāiwi (homeland), our aloha, and the essence of who we are.”
In 1978, the Hawaiʻi State Constitution was amended to include Article X, Section 4, which mandated that the state promote “the study of Hawaiian culture, history and language” by providing a Hawaiian education program and using community expertise “as a suitable and essential means in furtherance of Hawaiian education.”
Since the establishment of the Hawaiian studies program in 1980 and the Hawaiian language immersion program in 1986, the Hawaiʻi State Department of Education (HIDOE) describes “a major effort to incorporate more elements of Hawaiian knowledge (culture, history and language) into the state curriculum systematically and sequentially throughout the content areas and grade levels of our public schools.”
Despite the resurgence, struggles remain. Well into the 2021–22 school year, for example, the department scrambled to assemble a distance learning program for Hawaiian language immersion students, due in part to a lack of qualified instructors. Many families with COVID-19 concerns were not pleased with the alternatives: in-person Hawaiian language instruction, English-language distance learning, or homeschool.
This failure comes despite a 2019 ruling by the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court which said all reasonable measures needed to be taken to provide a Hawaiian language immersion program to students, even those in remote areas, like the island of Lānaʻi. The island’s only school, Lānaʻi High and Elementary, established its first Hawaiian language immersion classroom this year, seven years after a parent sued the HIDOE for failing to provide a program there.
Opponents are manufacturing propaganda in a desperate attempt to maintain the status quo
Many people can recognize an overt racist act committed against an individual. It’s harder to understand how the roots of systemic and institutional racism can lead to present-day scenarios and statistics. Critical race theory was developed in the late 1980s as an academic framework to explore and trace these connections.
As one of its originators, Crenshaw explained critical race theory as “a scholarly legal inquiry that asks what are the ways in which some of the decisions of the past continue to live in our institutions? What are the ways that the decisions, for example, to spend $120 billion creating largely white suburbs continue to shape the life chances of people who were locked out because of wealth disparities that that decision 50, 60, 70 years ago cost? That creates the current patterns of school segregation? That creates the current patterns of racialized policing? We were asking how it is that those decisions from the past are embedded when they are not confronted and directly dismantled.”
Critical race theory is addressed at the graduate or doctorate level and is not part of a K–12 curriculum. White conservatives appropriated the term to build fear and toxicity around a false narrative in order to maintain power and dominance.
According to an Education Week analysis as of Aug. 26, “27 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. … Twelve states have enacted these bans, either through legislation or other avenues.”
Crenshaw said critical race theory “sounds mysterious. It sounds academic. It’s something people don’t know. So it was easy pickings for those who are not friends of public education, not friends of teachers unions, not friends of racial justice to take this framework, and then pack into it everything that we’ve been doing in all of our educational institutions to try to educate this generation to that history.”
In his article, “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession,” The Atlantic staff writer Adam Harris explored how conservative politicians and pundits became fixated on the academic approach. He explained to NPR, “The issue is that they’re not actually talking about critical race theory. They are more broadly talking about the preservation of a sort of idealized America that is not necessarily painting a complete picture of what America is and what America can be.”
Opponents are more than happy to burn money and resources to weaponize false narratives that lure supporters to their cause. We cannot allow this type of censorship to take hold. We must stand together and fight back against laws and institutions that cripple our communities of color.
Know the rules and your rights as a Hawaiʻi public school educator
Hawaiʻi does not have legislation in place that bans race-related discussions. However, the Hawaiʻi Board of Education does have a policy related to controversial issues.
Policy 101-13: Controversial Issues
Student discussion of issues which generate opposing points of view shall be considered a normal part of the learning process in every area of the school program. The depth of the discussion shall be determined by the maturity of the students
Teachers shall refer students to resources reflecting multiple and diverse points of view. Discussions, including contributions made by the teacher or resource person, shall be maintained on an objective, factual basis. Stress shall be placed on learning how to make judgements based on facts.
The HIDOE says before engaging in any lesson or activity that may touch upon potentially controversial matters, teachers must discuss the potentially controversial matters with their principal to determine whether a letter concerning a potentially controversial topic should be sent out to parents or legal guardians.
HIDOE Regulation 2210.1 requires instructional staff or administration to notify parents or legal guardians of controversial issues discussed in the classroom or through other school activities. This notification may be done through a general letter about the lesson or activity utilizing the e-template at http://goo.gl/VzgQj5. The parents or legal guardians may also, of their own volition, write a letter to the school administrators or teacher to have their child excluded from a specific lesson or activity. If such a letter is received, the student must be provided with an alternative learning activity. The parent(s) or legal guardian(s) have an obligation to notify the school administrator or teacher before the lesson or activity.
Principals are asked to review the policy and guidelines relevant to BOE Policy 101-13 with each of their teachers and go over the procedures for handling controversial issues. The policy and regulation can be accessed by searching “101-13” or “2210.1” in the HIDOE intranet portal.
View the full memo on controversial topics. You can also refer to the NEA’s frequently asked questions for information on your rights and protections when teaching about racism, sexism, and historical prejudice.
We must work through our discomfort to move toward a better, more equitable future
Schools must make space for all cultures to contribute to shared experiences and perspectives, and grow cross-cultural learning and understanding to build stronger communities grounded in a sense of place.
“When institutional educational systems were first created, everyone came from the same community and had the same values and beliefs. That homogeneity no longer exists,” said Heidi Alvarez, an English teacher at Kapaʻa Middle School on Kauaʻi and HSTA HCR Committee member. Alvarez recently finished her masterʻs degree in education and curriculum studies in STEMS², which focuses on project-based and place-based learning in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the social sciences while incorporating students’ sense of self as local and global citizens.
“Our schools today have students who reflect different socio-economic statuses, cultures, and belief systems,” Alvarez said. “As educators, we must shift our approach to accommodate everyone in the classroom, value their contributions, and understand that while we come from different places, weʻre all here for the same reason: to ensure every student has access to a quality education, a strong community, and a good life.”
Crenshaw, an esteemed lawyer and civil rights advocate, said a key factor driving the effort to censor honesty in education “is a concern about what we think people feel when these conversations come up: a feeling of guilt, a feeling of, as the legislators tell us, moral depravity, being part of a group that has historically done these things. Well that is a projection of fragility that comes from not being able to look at this history in a dispassionate, matter-of-fact kind of way.
“It’s like you have a sore and you want to keep people away from it,” Crenshaw explained. “Let’s figure out how to clean out that wound, that wound to the entire body politic, and let’s figure out how to give people the tools for understanding how our nation has been structured and what the contemporary work has to be in order to address it.”
To heal these wounds, we must embrace conversations about race, no matter how uncomfortable they may be.
According to “Understanding the Attacks on Teaching: A Background Brief for Educators and Leaders,” “when education censors content that makes students feel uncomfortable rather than helping students to work through discomfort, it denies them the truth, withholds skills necessary for critical thinking, and may increase resistance to learning and change. Discomfort is not something to avoid: when students are supported in working with and through discomfort and resistance, they are more capable of learning.” This brief by Kevin Kumashiro was endorsed by more than 130 education, legal, and civil rights organizations and institutions, including the NEA.
HSTA President Osa Tui, Jr. said, “As a product of peoples who were both colonizers and colonized, I recognize that these are not easy nor simple discussions to have, but we do our students a disservice by whitewashing our history. They deserve age-appropriate, accurate lessons about our world and our reality so they are able to work toward a better future.”
Resources to further the conversation
Honest Hawaii History Lessons HSTA Won’t Teach: