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Industry Perspectives: The Only Thing the Stop-Woke Act Will Stop Is Critical Thinking
By Ivania Delgado, PsyD, MS, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 23 No. 1 P. 28

House Bill 7 (HB 7), an amendment to a current Florida nondiscrimination statute, took effect in Florida on July 1, 2022. It’s described in a press release by the office of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as intended “to give businesses, employees, children, and families tools to stand up against discrimination and woke indoctrination.” On November 17, 2022, an order was issued by a federal judge to block the law from enforcement in higher education settings in Florida. Nonetheless, Gov. DeSantis has continued his efforts to ban diversity-related programs and content. This has resulted in ongoing reports of changes to course offerings and DEI efforts across the state.

The bill includes provisions it claims will prevent discriminatory instruction in the workplace and in public schools. It defines individual freedoms based on the fundamental truth that all individuals are equal before the law and have inalienable rights. This legislation is the first of its kind in the nation to take on both corporate wokeness and critical race theory in schools in one act.”

The bill uses terms such as “indoctrination” to convey to the public that it was created in the best interest of the students. However, anyone who teaches and who has read HB 7 knows it’s actually about censorship and erasure.

HB 7 highlights eight concepts that instructors should adhere to, and it is this educator’s perspective that the bill itself is a misrepresentation of what actually happens in classrooms.

During roughly 15 years’ experience as both a student and a professor of undergraduate and graduate students, I’ve observed that educational objectives and assessments across most, if not all, classes include the nurturing and building of critical thinking skills. Some would argue that it is why we seek to educate ourselves to begin with. We want to learn, improve, or enhance our thinking abilities, which are crucial to our performance in a particular discipline and profession and in our personal lives.

For years, I’ve asked class after class to ask critical questions, assess, review evidence, and analyze information. Learning requires psychological flexibility that permits us to integrate data from multiple sources. Critical thinking also asks us to engage in self-reflection and emotional regulation. I recognize that it’s difficult to describe in a brief opinion piece how what’s being stopped in our classes is not what’s written in HB 7. The bill’s impact is the opposite of freedom. It controls our freedom to question, limiting how we can build knowledge from multiple epistemological sources, and censors conversations that can lead to the deepening of our understanding when we contextualize urgent social issues such as racism, heterosexism, ableism, equality, and equity.

It’s important to critically analyze some of the language in HB 7 to determine where the misrepresentations of what happens in the classroom are located. The bill states that instruction that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” student or employee to believe any of the following concepts is considered discrimination.

Let’s review a couple of the concepts that, according to HB 7, may not be expressed.

That “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
To form categories is human. We fill every category we develop—music, tools, animals, furniture, cars, you name it—with information and feelings. Where does it get complicated? The categories that we create, what we fill them with, and how we label them are informed by culture. As such, social categories can easily be part of how bias is developed. All of us, including me, hold stereotypes, attitudes, and prejudices. The ideas embedded in stereotypes are culturally generated and culturally specific. Acting on a biased belief is a process that may be unconscious, effortless, and unintentional. It can happen in milliseconds. This is how social conditioning works, and asking students, in any discipline, to engage in critical thinking and self-awareness about our assumptions and learned associations is an integral part of being a learner. In my discipline, this isn’t about saying any person is inherently racist; it’s about studying human behavior and mental processes and the freedom to explore all aspects of it. According to Jennifer L. Eberhardt, PhD, in her 2020 book Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, “Categorization: universal function of the brain that allows us to organize and manage the overload of stimuli that constantly bombard us … it can also impede our efforts to embrace and understand people who are deemed not like us.”

That “an individual’s moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.”
In the classroom, we ask critical questions and form hypotheses regarding individual and social issues. Part of what we do is examine all the factors that play a role in what we, as a class, are attempting to observe and understand. Seeking deep understanding cannot be achieved if we do not have the freedom to explore the power relations that are at play in these issues. Suppose we are asked to limit our exploration and understanding of oppression, privilege, and the historical and present roles these have in our social conditions. That will then limit our abilities to use logic, reason, imagination, and creativity to engage in problem-solving our present issues. Again, saying that someone benefits from a system of oppression because of how they present in this world is about empowering that same person to use their power to transform our society so that it is just and inclusive of all its members. Recognizing that your social position plays a role in what is achievable is powerful; it means you can choose to act in the best interest and freedom of the collective.

That “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.”
Just like the previous two points and many other points in HB 7, these are simply not accurate representations of what’s being taught. HB 7 was designed to create divisions in our society. Ultimately, divide-and-conquer strategies benefit only a few, and the rest of us wake up with fewer freedoms and more fear. We are sentipensante (sensing/thinking) beings. We think and we feel, and we seldom do anything where our cognitions and feelings aren’t playing a role; as such, learning about trauma-filled events in our history will always bring about a sense of discomfort for many people. This is a natural reaction when individuals are exposed to stories of human suffering. This is not about an individual today being responsible for historical events. How can that even be possible? You were born into these systems, just as I was. Critical thinking unveils all these truths and encourages the examination of patterns and reproductions of ideology and structural realities. The freedom to explore leads to the freedom of creating a more just society. The guilt, shame, and blame game benefits no one and has no place in an educational setting. Educators who ground their pedagogy and teaching practices in truth-telling, social justice, and anti-oppression know that the goal is for students to leave the classroom empowered. The study of systems and institutions and the development of a poverty-aware paradigm acknowledges how we are reproducing the social conditions that perpetuate oppression. Individuals today are not responsible for what their ancestors did. However, we can all be held accountable today to do the self-awareness work it takes to understand systems of oppression, power dynamics, roots of social injustice, and our roles in replicating these systems.

As an educator, I’m invested in teaching and strengthening critical thinking skills that can be used to engage in conflicts, effectively repair ruptures, collaborate to build community, and reduce and eliminate human suffering. I plan to continue teaching as I always have. HB 7 is clearly not promoting freedom; it’s promoting silencing, censorship, and a world of hurt for people already affected by multiple levels of oppression. Critical thinking invites context and nuance into the classroom. It invites complexity and can be messy or overwhelming, but it’s truthful and transparent. Critical thinking skills are needed to simultaneously disrupt and build a new way of living for us all, and HB 7 is not the way to get there.

Educators, there is strength in numbers. Consider joining your union, decide together how you will support each other during difficult times. Also, consider joining collective efforts in the community, such as protests, and above all, keep on teaching and truth telling.

— Ivania Delgado, PsyD, MS, MSW, resides in Miami Dade County, Florida, and has been in higher education for 15 years. She has a background in social work and clinical psychology and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses.