SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — At the center of the debate around Critical Race Theory in South Dakota stands one University of South Dakota professor who seems to be the catalyst for the governor’s attempts at banning the theory from all levels of education in the state.

In an email sent on February 11, KELOLAND News asked the governor’s office for examples of where Critical Race Theory (CRT) was being taught in South Dakota Schools. Governor Kristi Noem’s communications director Ian Fury sent the following response:

“There have been examples of Critical Race Theory and its divisive concepts being promoted in South Dakota, though thankfully not to the same extent as other states. One such is Dyanis Popova, a professor at USD who teaches Foundations of Education (meaning she teaches our teachers). She has repeatedly and publicly promoted CRT.”

Ian Fury

Fury pointed to a podcast episode that Dr. Dyanis Conrad-Popova was a guest on in 2020. The podcast, Credit Hour, is a 43-minute discussion between the host and the professor about Critical Social Justice and implicit bias. The episode has been cited by Noem’s office on several occasions when asked about the examples of CRT being divisive in the classroom. But the podcast itself does not include a single mention of CRT in name or content.

“In my class, I never teach CRT, I don’t use that phrase at all, I don’t think I’ve ever used it at USD,” Dr. Popova told KELOLAND News on Monday.

Dr. Popova is an assistant professor of curriculum instruction at the University of South Dakota (USD). Popova does not teach CRT, but instead utilizes aspects of Critical Social Justice (CSJ) and implicit bias in her curriculum. Dr. Popova says that CSJ is an emerging theory building on other analytical theories based on the idea of, “Do we want to see a better world? Do we want a place where every kid, regardless of their background and experiences etcetera, can be valued, feel honored, safe, accepted?”

In Popova’s classroom, the professor says her curriculum focuses on preparing future educators to enter the classroom where they will deal with diverse students and their needs. Whether they’re discussing race, class, gender, or disability, Popova says she teaches her students critical thinking skills, learning how to disagree respectfully with one another, and challenge their own ideas to understand the ‘why’ behind why they believe what they do.

“I’m not standing there saying ‘you have to believe this,’ but as a teacher, I’m guiding through the process of thinking and coming to their own realizations,” Popova said.

Banning ‘divisive’ ideas

In the South Dakota legislature, there are two bills set to be heard before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday that deal with what the governor’s office is calling ‘divisive concepts.’ HB 1012 and HB 1337 seek to ban concepts that are ‘contrary’ to American values from being taught at any level, kindergarten through university.

Some of those concepts include teaching that one race is superior to another, that a person should feel discomfort or anguish due to their race, gender, class, or that a person is inherently responsible for actions committed by other members of similar identities. The words CRT and the definition of the theory do not appear anywhere in either of the bills. Dr. Popova pushes back on the governor’s assertion that CRT is a political ideology.

“It’s not, it’s not at all. It’s an analytic lens and it’s a tool that we use to look at what we have, look at our policies, look at our histories and analyze them from more than just the white settler perspective,” Popova said.

At CPAC last week, Gov. Noem told the audience that the ‘left’ is pushing the idea that America is racist and that it’s evil. “Conservatives know America is not the sum of our past mistakes,” Noem said.

But Dr. Popova says that the role race plays in America’s country cannot be ignored to cater to the comfort of some students. She disagrees with Noem’s assertion that CRT is teaching an inaccurate version of history.

“We’re actually making it accurate,” Popova said. “What we have currently is an inaccurate version of history that only shows us one lens and one point of view with one perspective.”

In the classroom, Popova says that some of her students arrive at college having never had a conversation with a person of color and find conversations around race to be challenging. With those conversations comes discomfort for some, but Popova says that growth is uncomfortable. She says that she is preparing her students to enter the classroom where not every student will look like them and may come from different backgrounds and experiences. In her role, Popova says that examining how a person’s implicit bias could affect the learning experience for their students.

Popova doesn’t want her students to leave her class echoing her beliefs or opinions, nor does she want them to change their beliefs.

“I’m not telling you that what you’ve grown up believing is wrong but I’m asking you to challenge your preconceived notions, challenge your perceptions and open your mind to other people’s ways of knowing and other people’s perspectives as well,” Popova said

Implicit bias and subconscious racism

Section 4 of both bills includes a definition of ‘divisive’ concepts as including the idea that an individual is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.” This refers to the implicit bias theory founded by two Harvard University researchers in the 1990s that examines beliefs that a person may hold, consciously or subconsciously, when it comes to things such as race, gender, and class.

Dr. Popova recognizes this theory as fact stating that everyone, including herself, has biases. Those biases, she adds, could have positive or negative connotations. For students who are working toward becoming educators, Popova says she is not attempting to change a student’s bias, but rather teach them how to recognize that personal bias and prevent it from entering the classroom.

“It helps us to get a bigger picture so that students can approach their classrooms with a focus on providing the best possible educational experience for all the kids in their classrooms, while keeping their personal biases out of the situation,” Popova said.

Earlier this year the South Dakota Education Association spoke out against the proposed bills saying that South Dakota teachers do not teach children to be divisive when it comes to race and skin color.

“To prepare children for that future, we need to teach them both the good and the bad of our history so we can avoid making the same mistakes. Educators want to provide every student an accurate and quality education, but we need the tools and resources to do that,” the SDEA said.

Proponents of the bills though worry that children will be taught to feel guilty or ashamed of their race. Dr. Popova says that the language of the bill co-opts the language of these critical theories in an effort to ban the ideas. For example, Popova points to Noem, and the bills, opinion that one group should not be taught that they are better than the other. Popova says that is what theories such as CRT are trying to prove. “Yes, that is exactly what we’re saying!”

But these bills would shut down conversation on difficult topics such as racism to preserve the feelings of some students, Popova adds.

“Bills like these prevent open discussion, they prevent understanding, they prevent learning, and they prevent us building a holistic community at the local, state or federal level where everyone can be respected and valued. Not just one group,” Popova said.