Lessons In Critical Race Theory From the Arts

It seems like almost every school-related matter that we read or hear about these days involves a debate on Critical Race Theory (CRT). Today’s pedagogical hot topic is not a new issue whatsoever; it has been around for 40 years, and is the result of several Civil Rights legal scholars scrutinizing implicit and explicit bias within the United States legal system and collective culture. However, the increasingly partisan sociopolitical environment has brought CRT into a new and more contentious light. With various individuals in the media, education and politics, adding their opinions, the actual concept and necessity for CRT has been muddled at best and misrepresented at worst.

Stephen Sawchuck, Education Week’s Associate Editor, has written a rather concise overview on the framework behind CRT and its push to be included in all K-12 curricula. He begins by hypothetically asking readers to pass judgement on whether CRT is intended to right the historical wrongs of 400 plus years of white supremacy and colonialism in America; or whether it could potentially instigate a race war that is intended to sow divide between Black and white citizens. These are quite literally the main arguments coming from liberal and conservative factions respectively.

Sawchuck argues that it is not that simple or neat, by explaining that “The events of the last decade have increased public awareness about things like housing segregation, the impacts of criminal justice policy in the 1990s, and the legacy of enslavement on Black Americans. But there is much less consensus on what the government’s role should be in righting these past wrongs. Add children and schooling into the mix and the debate becomes especially volatile” (Sawchuck, 2021).

CRT is not an attack on “whiteness” nor is it an anarchic attempt to overhaul the current American history curriculum. However, in a time when some state legislators have advocated for further erasure of Civil Rights narratives and LGBTQ and Indigenous identities via educational censorship, while leaving it up to the individual teacher or school to whether or not to present terrorists groups like the Klu Klux Klan as “morally wrong” (see: Burke and AP, 2021); it is blatantly obvious that we need a strong critique on white settler colonialism and its destructive living legacy.

As long as racism is ingrained in the mindset and experiences of the American population, a dialectic is needed to weed out its roots and progress toward an equal, equitable and justice driven society. This is precisely what CRT seeks to rectify.

So how does this concept fit within a pedagogical scope in a manner that benefits all students? Sawchuck (2021) sums up that “Critical race theory is not a synonym for culturally relevant teaching, which emerged in the 1990s. This teaching approach seeks to affirm students’ ethnic and racial backgrounds and is intellectually rigorous. But it’s related in that one of its aims is to help students identify and critique the causes of social inequality in their own lives.”

Education must provide a foundation for developing critical and ethical thinking. Incorporating CRT and social justice learning in the classroom is all about giving students the knowledge, resources and agency to understand systemic racial and cultural bias. Instead of feeling ashamed and guilty, students need to be empowered through candid conversations and tangible action that seeks to dismantle the negative systemic forces that permeate our contemporary world. Perhaps, professors David Stovall and Subini Annamma (2021) say it best, “We want all children to have the tools to recognize how racism and white supremacy are built into our systems. That should not make white kids feel bad, it should allow them, along with Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islander children, to feel empowered to change the system.”

In addition to classroom discourse and curricula, artistic engagement is another powerful means for understanding the collective culture and raising awareness about racial and social injustice.

For centuries, artists have grappled with historical and contemporary injustices, erasure and marginalization. Artemisia Gentileschi, Francisco Goya and Frida Kahlo are pertinent examples among the many historical artists who painted powerful symbols and gestures to expose their generation’s sociocultural bias and oppression. Of course, the biases that they reflected (critiques of gender bias and societal chauvinism in Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620-21) and Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940), and political corruption due to imperialism in Goya’s 1814 canvas, The Third of May/El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid) are still ongoing throughout our global civilization.

There are many strong instances within contemporary art with regards to the implementation of CRT. Below are just a few of the many examples of artwork that exposes bigoted structures and inspires communal transcendence of these oppressive forces.

Clarissa Sligh, Transforming Hate. © 2021 Clarissa Sligh.
Courtesy of the artist.

Clarissa Sligh

Clarissa Sligh addresses systemic racism throughout the school system in her 2004 artist’s book, It Wasn’t Little Rock. The theme and content of the book is autobiographical. It is an experiential account of how Sligh, who was raised in Virginia, attended the state’s segregated schools. In 1956, at the age of fifteen, she was a plaintiff in a school desegregation case (Clarissa Thompson et. al. vs. Arlington County School Board). Experiencing the fight for desegregation and overarching racial and social justice has informed her multidisciplinary art practice. She has also poignantly written about her educational background and the effects that segregation has had on her family in an essay titled “The Plaintiff Speaks.”

Rather than just document instances of white supremacy, Sligh utilizes her art, which includes photography and installation, as a form of participatory social empowerment. Her collaborative projects give diverse voices the agency to collectively reflect upon bias and turn hateful rhetoric into transformative symbols for social justice and peace. A prime example is Transforming Hate, a mixed media project that combines historic and modern sources of racial and social injustice with contemporary narratives sourced from within heterogeneous communities, in order to gain insight into the roots of systemic bias and oppression. Participants in the project are encouraged to dismantle hateful ideology by creating origami cranes using, and thereby subverting, paper literature from white nationalist sources. The cranes are symbolic for turning hate into love.

Steve Locke, Three Deliberate Grays For Freddie (A Memorial for Freddie Gray), 2018, latex paint in sandblasted jars.
L to R: Freddie Gray #1 (Street Corner), Freddie Gray #2 (Arrest), Freddie Gray #3 (Hospital).
Edition of 2 with 1 exhibition copy. © Steve Locke. Courtesy of the artist.

Steve Locke

As an artist and educator, Steve Locke’s artwork is apt for engaging us in critical thinking around the issues of race and identity. Locke’s astute artistic fusion of past and present forms of social and cultural bigotry, show us that “the sins of the American past are alive and well and beg to be addressed.”

Locke not only illuminates how teaching about the past and current history of violence and racism can at once honor memory and uphold trauma; but how we as individuals and as a society, are complicit in the othering, violence and displacement that is intrinsic within systemic racist structures. Rather than admonish us for standing by passively, Locke implores us to use our good judgement, exhibit empathy and work towards overcoming whatever implicit or explicit bias we bring to a particular life experience. Like an educator employing instructional scaffolding, Locke utilizes his art as a way to guide us through these challenging and reflective confrontations.

One of Locke’s projects with strong pedagogical and communal ties is Three Deliberate Grays (A Memorial for Freddie Gray) (2018-2019). The project has taken on many iterations including being reproduced on billboards.

To create the work, Locke referenced and fused contemporary art concepts and critical race theory. The title is derived from painter Brice Marden’s Three Deliberate Grays for Jasper Johns (1970), an abstraction made by juxtaposing flat monochrome colors in a hard edge minimalist style. Locke has interpreted the persona of Freddie Gray, a Black man murdered by the police, through color theory, in order to provide a contemplative and emotional response to the objectification of the endemic violence against Black male bodies.

Locke writes that “A citizen was turned into an object before our eyes and no one was held accountable for his pain, his suffering, or his loss. This public destruction calls for a public response for mourning, healing and remembrance. The work translates Mr. Gray-his life, his assault and his hospitalization-into color. The “Freddie Gray” is the color of the work and the man himself.”

Locke describes his process for making the “Freddie Gray” color:

“To create the work, I have taken three images of Mr. Gray that were ubiquitous during the events described above.

A family photo
A still from his arrest
An image of Mr. Gray in hospital on life support

Using digital tools. I created monochromes by averaging the color in the pixels of each of the images. The resulting colors are a monochrome translation of the life, suffering and death of Mr. Gray and form a timeline (street corner, arrest, hospital) of the events. I have used these colors to create paints. In the language of painting, “gray” is used to name any color that is the result of mixing primary colors. In this sense, the painter’s idea of gray is chromatic and not simply a mixture of black and white.”

By breaking down the imagery of Freddie Gray into a color scheme, Locke is addressing how American history and popular culture deals with Black identity by abstracting and obfuscating an individual life into an impersonal and disingenuous discourse on racism. More often than not, Black men are presented in stereotypical and unbalanced manner in the media, which perpetuates racist ideologies across the collective culture. In Gray’s case, many media outlets “negative, inaccurate and racially-biased narrative about the situation on the ground that ignored the socioeconomic issues that caused it” (Rankin, 2016).

Locke’s painting symbolizes the gray area of American culture that deals with how we address inherent racial inequality and its violent consequences. The colors and simple form are emotionally calming, providing for moments of reflection to help us heal from traumatic moments. It is a memorial that enables communities to experience and contemplate catharsis and justice, as well as a call for all of us to recognize our prejudices and take action to honor the humanity in all individuals.

Installation view of Ej Hill’s Lesson #2, (2019) in the exhibition Feedback at Jack Shainman Gallery, The School, Kinderhook, NY.
© Ej Hill. Photo courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery.

Ej Hill

Hill re-purposes educational materials and core pedagogical principles, to present visual lessons that dismantle hegemonic cultural and intellectual systems. His work has been described as a form of “radical inclusion” because of its principles that all educational systems and institutions should be welcoming and pedagogically scaffolded for all students to be dynamic and liberated learners. This philosophy is a rebuttal of segregated and homogeneous educational hierarchies that disproportionately hinders Black youth (see: Darling-Hammond, 2001).

Chalkboard sculpture, Lesson #2 is part of an ongoing series that Hill calls “lessons.” The multimedia work of art is a rejection of the pedagogical, philosophical and political status quo, which has lifelong implications for Black students. The neon text “Twice As Good Is Too Much,” claps back at an old proverb that in America, Black individuals need to “work twice as hard (as white folks) to get half as much.” The point being that Black students deserve the same opportunities and equitable resources as their white peers. Equitable learning environments must ensure that students of all backgrounds are being critically inspired to develop sustainable and revitalizing ways of empowering themselves while working collaboratively with peers who are outside of their homogeneous environments.

I have previously written several about other artists whose work connects with themes of racial and social justice (see: Artfully Dismantling Systemic Racism; Made in America and Artful Dissent and Empowerment Education). All of these artists are excellent sources of inspiration for the art classroom. As art educators, we need to present relevant references from the history of art (preferably voices outside of the Eurocentric canon, see: What does an equitable art education look like?, Remixing the Canon and Shifting the Paradigm: Indigenous American Art and Multicultural Art Education) as well as learning segments that are cognizant and relatable to our diverse student bodies.


The National Art Education Association (NAEA) published an article specifically centered around the implementation of CRT in the art education curriculum.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Annamma, Subini and Stovall, David. “Using critical race theory to understand the backlash against it.” The Hechinger Report, 29 July 2021. https://hechingerreport.org/opinion-using-critical-race-theory-to-understand-the-backlash-against-it/

Burke, Minnyvonne. “Texas Senate passes bill that removes requirement to teach Ku Klux Klan as ‘morally wrong'” NBC News, 21 July 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/texas-senate-passes-bill-removes-requirement-teach-ku-klux-klan-n1274610

Linda, Darling-Hammond. “Inequality in Teaching and Schooling: How Opportunity Is Rationed to Students of Color in America.” The Right Thing to Do, The Smart Thing to Do: Enhancing Diversity in the Health Professions – Summary of the Symposium on Diversity in Health Professions in Honor of Herbert W. Nickens, M.D., edited by Smedley, Brian D. et al., National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2001. pp. 208 – 232. https://www.nap.edu/read/10186/chapter/9

Rankin, Kenrya. “A Year After Freddie Gray’s Death, A Look at Media’s Coverage of the Baltimore Uprising.” Colorlines, 19 April 2016. https://www.colorlines.com/articles/year-after-freddie-grays-death-look-medias-coverage-baltimore-uprising

Sawchuck, Stephen. “What is Critical Race Theory and Why Is It Under Attack?” EducationWeek, 18 May 2021. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/what-is-critical-race-theory-and-why-is-it-under-attack/2021/05

Sligh, Clarissa. “The Plaintiff Speaks.” Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography, edited by Deborah Willis, The New Press, New York, NY, 1994. pp. 88-102.


1 Comment

  1. I’ve never studied this subject but I do remember some failed experiment in schools trying to do “social engineering”. For instance, “just say no.” That didn’t work. The opioid crisis got worse. There are a lot of other examples but it’s not my field of expertise. Interesting, though.


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