FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2019, file photo, Kimberle Crenshaw participates in the 'Reconstruction: America After Civil War' panel during the PBS presentation at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour at The Langham Huntington in Pasadena, Calif. Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, a social justice think tank based in New York City, was one of the early proponents of critical race theory. Initially, she says, it was “simply about telling a more complete story of who we are.” (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP, File)

The new Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of critical race theory — passed in May, now affecting thousands of state teachers and students — seems to be written by white men who have little understanding of race or education.

It is a law full of delusion, representing the lowest imagination of what a classroom could be, presupposing teachers as believe-this bullies and students as unthinking zombies and confusing thoughtful racial theory with propaganda.

Will there be tribunals? Inquisitors? Is this the new Scopes monkey? Do students testify against teachers?

Thankfully, the law is mostly bluster. Any teacher can hop around it, as it imagines so much that never happens in a classroom.

I have taught race and racism for years and have never used the term "critical race theory."

Teaching is about including, not outlawing. We don't use blanket statements. We don't tell our students what to believe.

We use questions.

Is talking about race easy or hard? Why?

What does it mean to be white? Or Black? Or brown?

What did you learn about race from your family? Your church? Your neighborhood?

How often are you conscious of race?

Your Black classmate says he's aware of being Black 100 times a day; how often are you aware you're white?

Why have you never considered your whiteness until now?

Where do you feel safe?

Where do you feel free?

The Bible says the sins of our ancestors are passed down through generations. Do you think white people today carry the sins of our ancestors?

Can racism end?

Questions keep the mind open and heart leaning in. Trust is cultivated. Honesty prized. Relationships formed.

Teaching race and racism also involves something else.

The body.

And tenderness.

To remember the body is to teach that race and racism are foremost physical experiences, that everyone in this country carries a racial story in his or her body. Everyone.

"The body is where we live. It's where we fear, hope, and react. It's where we constrict and relax. And what the body most cares about are safety and survival," writes Resmaa Menakem in "My Grandmother's Hands."

The body is our primary container for ways of knowing — emotions, thoughts, griefs, joys, desires. Can you locate anger in your body? Joy? Fear?

The Black body often experiences Hamilton County differently than the white body. So, too, the brown body. The LGBTQ body. The disabled body. The straight male body. The pregnant body. The hungry, tired, neglected body. On any given day, they can all walk into our classrooms.

We can greet them with tenderness.

Not soft silliness.


"By tenderness I mean an embodied way of being that allows us to listen deeply to each other, to consider perspectives that we might have thought way outside our own worldviews Tenderness makes room for emotion; offers a witness for experiences people have buried or left unspoken; welcomes silence, breath, and movement; and sees justice as key to our survival," writes Becky Thompson in "Teaching with Tenderness."

A Black student says his mother cried when she found out she was pregnant with him, her son. "She cried because she knew how hard my life would be," he said.

A white student raises his voice, angry, confused, says he feels blamed for what others in the past did.

A brown student feels profiled and threatened. People, she says, look at her like a terrorist.

A Black student yells, weeps, leaves class, furious, feeling his white classmates aren't listening, hearing, feeling, trying.

A white student begins to cry; his brother and sister — both adopted, both Black — are discriminated against in a way he never is.

Tenderness — Thompson calls it a "pedagogy of tenderness" — holds it all.

"Tenderness comes from being willing to hold in one's mind more complexity, paradox, and community," she writes. "Tenderness, a fleeting, illuminating reminder that we all belong to each other."

Teaching race and racism can be sacred, transformative. Challenging? Yes. Messy and painful? Without question.

What is the alternative?

Ignore it?

"That is probably why God made the most cherished things colorless: hope, love, faith, charity, unity, truth, justice, togetherness," said local activist, scholar and friend Eric Atkins. "Maybe if we strive for those virtues then we will reach that color-blind and post-racial society many blindly think we have assailed. Only then we will build up and plant atop fertile ground the Beloved Community."

All of this can happen in a classroom.

I ask one question to our state lawmakers.

What are you afraid of?

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at