In recent years, critical race theory has become an increasingly crazed talking point, as right-wing pundits spew paranoia about American schools’ anti-racist curriculums. The latest example: a Virginia mother who’s apparently enraged that her biracial 13-year-old son is suddenly able to identify the racism he experiences out in the world. Apropos of nothing, Melissa Riley, a white and Native American woman whose son has a Black father, appeared on Fox News on Monday to talk about an anti-racism curriculum and policy that her son’s middle school introduced in 2019. Riley was under the impression the her son had never encountered racism before this. “He has not experienced racism here,” she said, “until they implemented this racist curriculum.” (In the same breath, she noted that her son “looks Hawaiian.”)
Now that her son is equipped with the tools to identify racism, Riley is dismayed to find that he identifies as a Black man and understands that he may struggle with systemic racism more than his white classmates. Apparently unwilling to consider that her son may have a different lived experience than her, she insists that everything he sees as discrimination is just “things that don’t go his way.” (She also claims he calls her racist when she asks him to clean the house, which sounds like it could have something to do with the fact that he’s a 13-year-old boy.)
Riley is not alone. She and her son were one of the five families listed as plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the school district by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal firm that’s also suing the same school on behalf of a former assistant principal who says she was harassed for criticizing the district’s anti-racism training. Riley’s suit, which was filed in December, alleges that Henley’s policy violates Virginians’ constitutional right to free speech and equal protection and reinforces racial biases by telling kids they exist.
The ADF’s case was dismissed last month by a circuit-court judge who found no evidence that Henley Middle School’s new guidelines are “racist or divisive in any way that’s meaningful” and suggested that perhaps, “during education, certain people are made to feel uncomfortable about history and their place in it.” But this is far from the end: One of the many ultra-conservative pieces of legislation that Florida governor Ron DeSantis has endorsed in the past year is HB7, also known as the “stop woke” bill, which bans schools from teaching children about any kind of social bias. It rests on the same twisted logic as the ADF’s suit: that talking to kids about discrimination is, actually, its own form of discrimination. Like most schools rolling out anti-racist lessons, Henley’s school board says that CRT — a framework for studying the intersection of race, law, and society that’s largely taught in college and law school — is not even part of its new curriculum, which largely consists of painting murals about equality and identifying white privilege.