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The debate of whether to teach critical race theory in America is a heated one. The pot has been simmering, and in Orange County water has begun to boil over, as seen in the recent OC Board of Education open forum. The biggest fear is that critical race theory sows division. I, however, can’t help but feel that something is missing from the conversation. That missing piece being empowerment.

I’m the friend you turn to every so often looking for book suggestions and lately, I’ve been working on overdrive. In wake of the BLM protests, black authors have been topping the sales charts internationally, and the desire for people to educate themselves has increased. In pointing people toward Black literature, I have begun to hear the same questions repeated, “Why didn’t I know about this earlier? Why wasn’t I taught this in school?”

The question of when and how to talk about race with children is a subject of much debate in America. Google suggestions and you will find articles from PBS to National Geographic. For people of color, however, race is interwoven into their daily lives. The privilege of when to talk about race, therefore lands mostly on white people and our eurocentric education system. According to an NBC survey, 30% of Americans believe racism exists, but is not a major problem in the country.

We do not openly discuss race in Orange County. Although racism is inherently prevalent, our diverse community masks the racial tensions that exist. Orange County is a microcosm of the United States. So much so that it is a perfect testing ground for companies, musicians, and even politics. If you succeed here, you will most likely succeed throughout the country. That is because Orange County mirrors the country’s racial demographics with a few disparities, 44% white, 34% Hispanic, 18% Asian, only 2% African-American, as well as a number of Pacific Islanders and Indigenous Peoples. While underneath the surface, residents may acknowledge this diversity, it is not something we are known for. Travel outside of California, and tell someone you are from Orange County, their associations will include TV shows, big beach houses, plastic surgery, and whiteness.

I grew up in the Laurelhurst neighborhood off of Raitt St. and Warner Ave. in Santa Ana. A culturally rich, family community, filled with fiestas, Sunday volleyball, mariachis, and deep rooted Catholic traditions. If I were to be honest however, I didn’t think of it that way growing up. It took me traveling and educating myself to realize how lucky I was.

My great grandmother, Juanita, passed away in 2012 at the age of 105. She was indigenous to Michoacan and found herself a job working at the Blue Goose Packing House in Fullerton, CA. Three generations later, my mother married my white father and out I came blonde hair and all. Until college, I did not have the language to describe the worldview my identity afforded me. Going to school, I would get defensive hearing the many racist comments about Mexicans from parents of my peers. I learned to quickly silence myself and felt ashamed. I realized quickly that people would say things around me that they would otherwise not if they had the knowledge that I was Mexican. The experiences I held as a white-passing Latina navigating mostly white spaces, shifted my perspective. No one ever really talked to me about what it meant to be bi-racial.

So as an adult, who is now being asked to recommend culturally diverse books, I began to reflect on the stories that most affected my own journey. I immediately thought of Nella Larsen’s 1929 book “Passing” and Chinese-American, Maxine Hong Kingston’s, short stories. I smiled remembering the first time I read James Baldwin. Yet, while these authors contributed greatly to American society, they are not household names, and I was not introduced to any of them until college.

The funny thing about taking my first critical race theory course in college is that while in class, I gave little thought to my white heritage. So focused was I on the accomplishments of the Chicano movement, or the Harlem Renaissance, that I more often than not left the class inspired and motivated to follow my dreams. While learning the history of what my community went through, I found myself with the language to describe my experience for the first time in my life. Then came the reflection, not of anger, but of love. Of love for the knowledge I received, the stories that I wished I knew as a child, and the strength I was given by those that came before me. I left class ready to educate. I wanted to sing from the hilltops and write of the beauty of this country, to speak on the injustices of our past, and rewrite the wrongs by changing the future.

In a word, my critical race theory courses empowered me. They taught me empathy, self reflection, and awareness. They taught me of my privilege, of gratitude, and courage. Division was only reflected in the way America othered minorities, but the focus was always on the resiliency and accomplishments of American people of color. While I will never understand the fear of learning critical race theory, I hope to illustrate that there are people of every color to be inspired from, and everyone deserves the chance to learn about them.

Americans view diversity in complex ways. We tout diversity training and boast of diverse schools, while also segregating ourselves within communities. For a long time I took the diversity of Orange County for granted. It took me leaving to realize that not every place in America is so culturally rich as our little bubble. My hope is that one day even ethnic courses will be obsolete, and instead the robust diversity of Orange County, of California, and of America, will be wholly represented and integrated into every school subject. From history to Science, what we teach will look more like the reality of our world.

Credit: Meesh Deyden

Jennifer Casares-Schultz is a fine artist who resides in Orange, CA. She graduated from the University of Redlands with a degree in Integrative Studies.

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