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Critical Race Theory Seeks To Tell ‘A More Accurate Story,’ Supporters Say

Webster University’s Yin Lam Lee-Johnson (at left) and Vincent Flewellen discussed what critical race theory is, why it’s important — and what to make of the controversy surrounding it.
Inocencio Boc
Webster University
Webster University’s Yin Lam Lee-Johnson (at left) and Vincent Flewellen discussed critical race theory.

Two decades ago, long before GOP leaders and some parents became outraged at the thought of critical race theory influencing school curriculums, Vincent Flewellen made a point of having his students grapple with historical perspectives seldom at the center of their textbooks.

At the time, Flewellen taught sixth grade social studies at MICDS, one of the most affluent private schools in St. Louis County. Flewellen pushed for changes to the courses he was assigned, including Medieval studies, shortly after being hired.

“I don’t see myself in that,” Flewellen recalls telling the head of MICDS, who heard him out and charged him with rewriting the course.

In the end, Flewellen shifted the course from a Medieval focus to world history, with particular attention to South Africa and apartheid. And he found support for his approach.

Now the chief diversity officer for Wester University, Flewellen has followed the recent drama in the Rockwood School District with interest and chagrin, as well as the broader ideological battle being waged around critical race theory. Missouri legislators have discussed banning both critical race theory and any curriculum that identifies people or entities as “privileged” or “oppressed” in schools.

“Conversations around race we have not successfully had in this country. And I think it’s interesting that white legislators at this point are trying to [limit] conversations of race,” he told St. Louis on the Air on Tuesday. “That once again centers whiteness in the discussion [as legislators exercise] their privilege, their power, to curtail those conversations.”

At a time when opinions about critical race theory and inclusive pedagogy are loud and manifold, Flewellen joined host Sarah Fenske for a closer look at what critical race theory is — and what to make of the debate surrounding it.

Webster University’s Yin Lam Lee-Johnson, an associate professor in the School of Education, also joined the discussion. She teaches critical race theory to current and future educators in a doctoral course, as well as a social justice course.

She compared critical race theory to “putting on your virtual reality glasses.”

“It helps you see the unseen,” she explained. “Some of the examples would be: When you walk into a space, do you feel you own the space, and do you feel that’s the space you belong? Do you speak and act without any fear? Do you feel like you have a lot of sharedness, whether it’s cultural practices, the way you talk, the way you act, the way you dress up?

“Do you feel like you share that space with other people without having to have fear or constantly second guessing yourself? And so those are the things that when we become normalized into those social practices, that sometimes we don’t see those things anymore.”

Critical Race Theory, Explained
Listen as Yin Lam Lee-Johnson and Vincent Flewellen discuss the value of inclusive pedagogies and address misconceptions about critical race theory.

Lee-Johnson traced critical race theory’s academic origins to the 1970s and ’80s. She also addressed what she described as misconceptions about critical race theory.

“Critical race theory does not dehumanize the white people; it does not demonize the white people,” Lee-Johnson said. “It does not say that every white person is racist. And it is not unAmerican.”

Rather, she argued, it gives more people, and particularly marginalized people, seats at the table.

Flewellen agreed.

“It allows for us to have our story be present,” he said. “I think in the past stories have excluded those voices, and what critical race theory actually does is it opens up the door for a counternarrative, for a different story to be present and for those voices to be heard and seen.”

He acknowledged that critical race theory has become particularly controversial as it relates to the teaching of American history. He doesn’t find that surprising.

“We are really at this crux here right now in terms of American identity and what does it mean to be American,” Flewellen said. “And an American is multifaceted. But our American history has for so long been centered on whiteness … on telling the story of America from the perspective of white.

“It has not included the stories of our indigenous Native Americans. It has not included the rightful story of the enslaved Africans here. It has not included the story of women and their struggle, and particularly Black women. … We are wanting to tell a more accurate story of American history.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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