In the Winter edition of Independent Education, the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa’s (ISASA) magazine, the executive director of ISASA Mr Lebogang Montjane defends the organisation’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, saying it has been ‘mischaracterised’ in the public domain.
‘According to these voices,’ Mr Montjane writes, ‘ISASA’s advocacy to have schools execute their duty of care for all their charges, amounts to ISASA espousing critical race theory within its member schools.’
As an example of one such voice, he refers to two articles that I wrote for the Daily Friend (here and here) in which I argued that the core ideas of the academic framework called critical race theory (CRT) underpinned ISASA’s transformation initiatives and that it was encouraging its member schools to endorse these ideas in administrative and teaching practices.
Ideas about social justice
The ideas about social justice contained in ISASA’s Guide to Effective School Transformation and Diversity Management, I explained, are in line with the core assumptions associated with critical race theory. Whether it goes by this name or any other, it is the influence of the ideas that is definitive.
They are a rejection of equality of opportunity in favour of equity (equal outcomes); collectivism and identity politics at the expense of individualism; the privileging of ‘lived experience’ over the dispassionate attempt to establish objective truth; the belief that racism is ordinary not aberrational and exists today in structures and systems rather than in discreet acts; and that only members of racially ‘powerful’ groups can be racist.
Furthermore, he writes that ‘… those who claim that schools are teaching critical race theory do so for ideological reasons and on intellectually spurious grounds’.
According to Mr Montjane ‘Although critical race theory makes for a wonderful catchphrase, it is not advanced in basic education schools. Rather, it is a theoretical movement within legal scholarship in the US’.
Mr Montjane did not engage with any of the points I raised in the two articles yet nonetheless urged his member schools not for fall the ‘intellectual sophistry’ espoused by voices like mine.
Mr Montjane is so obviously wrong that his claims should raise some eyebrows at the very least.
Although CRT began as a theoretical movement within legal scholarship in the US, it has for decades been a thriving area of research within education departments throughout the US, UK, and South Africa.
Why would Mr Montjane claim otherwise, and do so publicly? A quick google search demonstrates that CRT, as applied to education generally, and pedagogy specifically, is a thriving area of research within schools of education.
This is a fact that the original CRT scholars readily and proudly accept.
Richard Delgado, one of the original critical race theorists, states in his book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, (co-authored with Jean Stefancic), a standard university-level primer on the topic:
‘Although CRT [critical race theory] began as a movement in law, it has rapidly spread beyond that discipline. Today, many scholars in the field of education consider themselves critical race theorists who use CRT’s ideas to understand issues of school discipline and hierarchy, tracking, affirmative action, high stakes testing, controversies over curriculum and history, bilingual and multicultural education, and alternative and charter schools.’
During the ‘Critical Race Theory at 20 Conference’ held at the University of Iowa College of Law in 2009, Delgado said that ‘We (critical race theorists) didn’t set out to colonise, but found a natural affinity in education’. He went on to say:
‘Seeing critical race theory take off in education has been a source of great satisfaction for the two of us (referring to Jean Stefancic). Critical race theory is in some ways livelier in education right now than it is in law, where it is a mature movement that has settled down by comparison.’
Another CRT founder, and one mentioned by Mr Montjane, is legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw who coined the term ‘critical race theory’. Crenshaw helped develop this ‘messaging guide’ published by the African American Policy Forum of which she is the director.
The guide asks the question: ‘Is Critical Race Theory currently being taught in K-12 schools?’, to which the answer provided reads:
‘Critical race theory originated in law schools, but over time, professional educators and activists in a host of settings–K-12 teachers, DEI advocates, racial justice and democracy activists, among others–applied CRT to help recognize and eliminate systemic racism.’
Modules centred on critical theories and their applicability to curriculum, school management, social justice, and research methodology, are staple offerings in many South African university education departments.
The Stellenbosch University School of Education provides a post-graduate module on ‘Citizenship, Social Inclusion and Difference in Higher Education’ where ‘Students will cover a range of … Theoretical approaches based on social justice (recognition, distribution and representation; capabilities approach) and critical theory (including critical race theory)’.
Students completing a Bachelor of Education Honours degree specialising in curriculum at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) will complete a compulsory module in ‘Education Theory’ which includes ‘Theories in sociology such as Functionalism, Interactions, Critical Theory and Postmodernism’.
Students at UJ wishing to complete an Honours in ‘Education Leadership and Management’ which will ‘enable students to develop intellectual, theoretical and disciplinary knowledge of and insight into theories, concepts and practices in education leadership and management’ will be expected to complete a compulsory module on ‘current theories of educational leadership and management’. One such theory explicitly mentioned is ‘Critical Race Theory’.
Learning about social theories, critical or otherwise, is a worthwhile academic endeavour. I’m merely pointing out that if Mr Montjane is correct in saying that CRT is just a ‘theoretical movement within legal scholarship in the US’, he would not only be contradicting the founders of CRT, but a lot of education departments would have some explaining to do, especially those offering modules on CRT to prepare students for a career in educational leadership and management.
Mr Montjane’s article says that he studied CRT at university. He has also worked in education for a long time. I’m somewhat skeptical of his supposed ignorance of CRT’s role in education.
Whether or not CRT as a named theory is being taught at schools is a moot point. The assumptions underlying CRT are routinely being presented as an incontrovertible ‘truth’ to children and teachers by diversity consultants, using a benign-sounding vehicle called ‘racial literacy’. Several of these consultants have been endorsed by ISASA and invited to sell their wares to school leaders at ISASA forums.
For instance, on 14 October 2021, Asanda Ngoasheng, the principal diversity consultant involved in the recent ‘struggle session’ at Fish Hoek High School, was invited by ISASA to promote her company’s (Asanda Ngoasheng & Associates) work to school principals. Judging by reports of Ms Ngoasheng’s comments in the Fish Hoek diversity workshop, she takes the assumptions of CRT as a given (see here and here).
Sometimes, recognition of the role that CRT plays is rather direct. Mr Montjane himself was the moderator of a panel discussion at the 2020 Southern African Heads of Schools (SAHISA) conference. SAHISA is a division of ISASA. One of the panellists was Lovelyn Nwadeyi, founder and director of the social justice consultancy, L&N Advisors.
Mr Montjane asked on behalf of a participant: ‘To what extent does critical race theory provide a lens, a helpful lens for this moment?’
He was referring to the pupil-led racial reckoning that took place mainly on school playgrounds and Instagram in the wake of the death of George Floyd in May 2020.
Ms Nwadeyi said that she thought critical race theory could be helpful and is helpful, provided we are nuanced about applying it in a South African context. She explained that ‘critical race theory is a field of work that started out as a focus on the intersections of law and race’ and that it ‘branched out’ to help make sense of what race looks like in society, how it operates, and how it ‘intersect[s] with other aspects of identity’.
Mr Montjane did not appear surprised to hear an endorsement of the use of CRT in providing a lens through which to view social justice in South African schools, despite his apparent belief that CRT is merely a ‘theoretical movement within legal scholarship in the US’, and not something being used by schools to ‘assist them in fostering more inclusive institutional cultures or curricula’.
Mr Montjane appears to hold Ms Nwadeyi in high regard. When introducing her he praised her for being ‘really successful and a great intervenor in our member schools in which questions of diversity, inclusion and representation [are concerned]’.
Ms Nwadeyi has been a prolific intervenor in ISASA member schools. According to her website, she has facilitated workshops or spoken at schools including St John’s College, Epworth School for Girls, St Stithians College, St Stithians Girl’s College, Rustenburg Girl’s High School, St Cyprians, Roedean School, Herschel Girl’s School, Bishop’s College, Bishop’s Prep, St Mary’s School, Cornwall Hill College, Eunice High School, and Holy Rosary, and many more besides.
If Mr Montjane is familiar with Ms Nwadeyi’s work, as he claims, he knows that Ms Nwadeyi’s social justice interventions in his member schools are entirely based upon teaching people to be ‘racially literate’ – a skill which depends upon accepting the basic assumptions of critical race theory.
(It would be somewhat ironic if it turned out that Mr Montjane was unaware of this, seeing as ISASA’s transformation guide recommends a school hire a diversity consultant to assist with ‘personal transformation’ and that it is ‘very important to get to know the training professional’s philosophical underpinnings on transformation and diversity’.)
‘Racial literacy’ is about giving people (particularly white people) the tools to, as Ms Nwadeyi told a virtual room of parents from Herschel Girl’s School, ‘read social relationships as though they were reading a text’.
‘Racial literacy is active in nature,’ she continued. ‘It is a process of unlearning, relearning, taking particular steps in order to really shift things.’
Racial literacy, she says, will provide a means to ‘[interrogate] our racialised identities so that we can understand what race is, why it is and how it is used to reproduce inequality and oppression’.
Thus whites are socialised to view the world through the lens of whiteness – beliefs in individualism and colour blindness, capitalism, equality theory, merit-based appointments, objectivity, and so on. Critical race theorists consider these to be tools used by whites to further the oppression of ‘non-white’ people.
People who read the world through this lens must be rehabilitated. They must ‘unlearn’ whiteness, and instead read the world using the vocabulary and worldview of CRT.
They must, according to Ms Nwadeyi, recognise ‘that racism is a contemporary rather than a historical problem’; understand ‘the cultural value of whiteness’, believe in the ‘constructedness’ and ‘socialisation of racial identity’; and accept the truth of intersectionality.
Once one accepts these ideas and others associated with CRT, one can begin to develop ‘language practices through which to discuss race, racism and anti-racism’ and gain the ‘ability to decode race and racism’.
I’m not against the idea of reading the world as though it were a text. In some sense we all do it, using whatever metanarratives we hold at any given moment. A Christian might read a person’s motives using biblical beliefs and vocabulary. An evolutionary biologist might read a social interaction through a lens of genetics and fitness.
I argue that when Ms Nwadeyi and others speak about ‘racial literacy’, what they mean is an ability to ‘decode’ racism using the vocabulary and framework provided by CRT. This is a very specific understanding of the world, and hardly an uncontentious one.
Ms Nwadeyi speaks openly about CRT and how it informs her work.
In a January 2019 essay published on her website called The Fault Lines of Reconciliation – Why South Africans URGENTLY Need to Develop Racial Literacy, Ms Nwadeyi suggests that ‘Teachers, nurses, doctors, immigration and police officers all need to have critical race theory at the very least as part of their basic training to fulfil their work duties’.
In a June 2020 webinar hosted by UCT’s Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Ms Nwadeyi blames the fact that ‘Racism is in the air we breathe’ on people not having been given the ‘tools, the knowledge, the information and also the spaces in which to process things like racial literacy, engaging in critical race theory, engaging in intersectionality and feminism’.
This should be unsurprising considering the thinkers she credits for having influenced her work.
‘Racial literacy forms part of a broader frame of learning called Critical Diversity Literacy’, Ms Nwadeyi told the 200 or so Herschel parents, before naming the people her work ‘borrows from’.
One such person is Dr Sonya Horsford, who, according to her ‘About’ page on the Columbia University website is interested in ‘how education leaders come to know race within equity, diversity, and inclusion discourses and how this knowledge informs and is informed by their leadership ideologies, epistemologies, and practices’. Dr Horsford has a particular interest in ‘critical race theory in education’.
Another is Prof. Melissa Steyn from the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies (WiCDS), a renowned scholar in the fields of Critical Whiteness Studies and critical race theory. Prof. Steyn was a speaker at ISASA’s 2022 conference on transformation and social justice. The title of her presentation was: ‘Demystifying Wokeness and School Capture – What is our duty of care for practitioners?’ Prof. Steyn is well-known for having developed Critical Diversity Studies (CDL).
In her 2021 book Differences at Work: Practising Critical Diversity Literacy, Prof. Steyn explains that ‘Critical diversity scholars tend to draw from Marxist and post-Marxist critiques of capitalism, from the critical theory perspectives of the Frankfurt School’. CDL practice includes insights from ‘feminist theory, critical race theory, critical disability theory, and queer theory’
Both of ISASA’s diversity and transformation workshop facilitators, Busisiwe Dlamini and Kirsten Klopper are involved in the ongoing rollout of Prof. Steyn’s CDL framework for social justice in institutions. They have facilitated ‘racial literacy’ workshops in a number of ISASA schools, including at St Stithians, when in July, August and September 2020, they facilitated ‘Diversity & Racial Literacy’ workshops for the prep and junior prep pupils, some of which spanned 2 days.
Ms Dlamini says in Differences at Work that during her workshops ‘We spend most of our time in the sessions just dealing with whiteness’.
There is no doubt that the ideological leanings of school diversity consultants have influenced school transformation initiatives.
One prominent example is St Stithian’s. On 20 June 2020 a meeting was held between ‘St Stithians College Key Stakeholders’ and Ms Nwadeyi. According to the ‘meeting notes’, the importance of holding workshops ‘about race, critical race theory, racial literacy etc.’ was discussed, as was the ‘need [for the workshops] to be made compulsory for the whole school’
The document also says that ‘Critical race theory needs to be incorporated into the education of Saints learners to ensure that the classroom is a space where learners of colour also feel protected and validated in their identities’.
Subsequently Rector of St Stithians College, Mrs Celeste Gilardi, published a ‘Communication to Alumni and the broader community’ (a document that is no longer on from the school website). She writes that staff have ‘mandatory development and training sessions at the commencement of each term and then on a weekly basis’. She explains that ‘Work has to move beyond the lived experience and sharing of stories towards a deeper academic level linked to knowledge structures and critical theory’. St Stithians is an ISASA school.
Social justice curriculum
The letter also speaks of the planned launch of a ‘social justice curriculum’ and that the ‘intention is to underpin this curriculum with critical race theory’.
According to a comprehensive ‘Diversity & Transformation Plan of Activities’ contained in the letter, two meetings were scheduled for September and October 2020 involving ISASA and the head of transformation at the school. The meetings were titled ‘Curriculum for social justice with focus on diversity and racial literacy’.
Neither ISASA nor St Stithians were able/willing to tell me whether the meeting took place.
Although it is rare to see a school explicitly mention CRT, it is certainly the case that CRT is being taught through racial literacy workshops and incorporated into social justice curricula in many ISASA schools.
So not only is Mr Montjane wrong about CRT not being used to foster social cohesion in schools, but given his proximity to social justice practitioners, including ISASA’s own, who are clearly doing so, he must know it is being used.
When I presented the above evidence to Mr Montjane in a meeting a few months ago, his answer was: ‘That’s not real critical race theory’.
It appears that ‘real’ CRT for Mr Montjane, is that which is taught in law departments in the US to root out systemic racism in legal texts. Yet what is being taught in law schools is not what critics mean when they express concern about CRT being taught in our schools. Surely Mr Montjane is aware of this. Nobody, at least nobody I am aware of, thinks that school children are reading papers produced by Derrick Bell and Patricia Williams.
Mr Montjane is playing word-games. He appears determined to shift the focus away from ISASA and its member schools on questions of CRT and transformation. Besides flat-out denial, he has also employed a tactic commonly used by ideologues – in author Andrew Doyle’s words, ‘to assume that any challenge to their belief-system is symptomatic of an evil nature’.
In his Independent Education piece, Mr Montjane attempts to equate voices like mine with the Trumpian Right which he says are campaigning to ban ‘any teaching of inclusion’. He may be justified in condemning the overreach coming from certain quarters of the Right, but claiming that anybody who criticises ISASA’s transformations initiatives must, by extension, agree with Trump and the far right is lazy – an argument leaders of ISASA schools should see through.
Mr Montjane describes voices like mine as being intent on distortion and are offended by ISASA ‘cultivating culturally competent children who respect the dignity of themselves and others’.
Mr Montjane considers my reservations about ISASA’s views on transformation as betraying a willingness to see children remain culturally incompetent and prefer them not to respect the dignity of others. This is a bad-faith argument for which he offers no proof.
In a follow-up article in Independent Education, he says that some of those who claim that ISASA is peddling CRT are now ‘attacking some school leaders who are working to ensure that our schools are places of inclusion and nurture for all children in their charge’. Mr Montjane’s argument is that those critics of how school leaders are handling transformation must be nostalgic for the good old days when schools were racially segregated, sexist, misogynistic and homophobic. Again, he provides no evidence for his claims.
Why is Mr Montjane so determined to shift the focus away from ISASA and its member schools where questions of the use of CRT for transformation are concerned?
I believe he agrees with the assumptions of CRT but realises that CRT is a highly ideological and contentious way of approaching a sensitive issue like social justice. In recent years, CRT has gained brand recognition – and not always in a positive sense – in a manner few other ideological ideas have. It is risky, therefore, to admit to using and endorsing ideas associated with CRT even when ISASA is clearly doing so. It’s better just to call CRT ‘inclusion’, ‘cultural competence’, ‘duty of care’, ‘racial literacy’ or ‘social justice’.
Eventually, school leaders and parents will realise that promises of competitive prowess, the nurturing of individual achievement, robust debate, and the fair and equal treatment of each learner cannot be reconciled with a social outlook that rejects these ideas.
However, if you think imbibing these ideas means you are on the right side of history, it seems pragmatic to just tell your member schools that any criticism levelled at ISASA and member schools must be coming from dishonest voices that long for the good old days where the only black people on campus were in the kitchen or weeding the garden.
Mr Montjane ends his article by saying that in the face of criticism ‘ISASA must, more than ever, remain steadfast to the constitutional principles on which our democracy is founded’. I agree wholeheartedly and I would urge him to start with affirming the Constitutional principles of non-racialism and freedom of expression.
However, this seems optimistic given that ISASA’s official position as stated in its transformation guidebook is that ‘Quality schools do not subscribe to the “colour blindness” approach’.
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