Update: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. Friday, July 7, 2023, to include a response from Ryan Walters.

Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters was met with a crowd of protestors at a speaking engagement at the Norman Public Library on Thursday. In one tense exchange, an audience member confronted Walters about his definition of critical race theory and asked how students should learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre without feeling shame. After backlash on social media, Walters issued a statement on Friday denouncing the Tulsa Race Massacre and blaming the media for distorting his words.

“The media is twisting two separate answers. They misrepresented my statements about the Tulsa Race Massacre in an attempt to create a fake controversy. Let me be crystal clear that history should be accurately taught:  1. The Tulsa Race Massacre is a terrible mark on our history. The events on that day were racist, evil, and it is inexcusable. Individuals are responsible for their actions and should be held accountable.  2.  Kids should never be made to feel bad or told they are inferior based on the color of their skin,” Walters said.

Here is an audio recording and transcript of Walter’s conversation with an audience member.

Question from audience member: So the Tulsa Race Massacre was followed by 100 years of silence. The reason it was followed by 100 years of silence was the shame. It was a shameful event. When I learned about it — and not in public schools — I felt bad. I felt angry. I felt all these emotions. Two years ago, when I learned about the concentration camp that happened the day after, I was even more angry, I was even more ashamed that white Tulsans committed genocide against black Tulsans. What I don’t understand is how that does not fall under your definition of CRT.

Schools Superintendent Ryan Walters fields questions during a Cleveland County Republican Party meeting on Thursday, July 6, 2023, at the Norman Public Library. BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier

Ryan Walters: Thank you for the question. Now, I want to be clear when we wrote — and we’ve got some of the legislators here — appreciate Representative (Sherrie) Conley that helped develop HB 1775, which is, in essence, the critical race theory bill, one of the things that we did, essentially at the beginning, as we wrote in the very beginning, all Oklahoma standards have to be taught. This is not an end-around to say, we’re not going to teach the Tulsa Race Massacre. That is absolutely, certainly not the intention, it was verbatim in the bill to say all of these standards have to be taught.

I believe our kids have to have all of our history. That’s the good, the bad and the ugly. Folks, I believe this is absolutely the greatest country in the history of the world. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. That doesn’t mean there weren’t mistakes. And that doesn’t mean that we didn’t live up to our principles. The only way our kids have the ability to learn from history and make this country continue to be the best country is to understand those times we fell short, a very clear, very direct understanding of those events.

I will always support that our kids should know that about the Tulsa Race Massacre. They absolutely should there are standards around it. I’m continuing to work to develop even more robust curriculum around these events, and I don’t want to hide any part of history. It all needs to be right there, very plain, very direct so that we can learn from it. So I think it’s very important.

Audience member: Follow up?

Ryan Walters: Yes. Yes, sir. Thank you.

Audience member: How does the Tulsa Race Massacre not fall under your definition of CRT?

Ryan Walters: Okay, thank you. I’m sorry, I didn’t address that part. I would never tell a kid that because of your race, because of your color of your skin, or your gender or anything like that, you are less of a person or in or are inherently racist. That doesn’t mean you don’t judge the actions of individuals. Oh, you can, absolutely, historically, you should. This was right. This was wrong. They did this for this reason. But to say it was inherent in that because of their skin is where I say that is critical race theory, you’re saying that race defines a person. I reject that. So I would say you be judgmental of the issue, of the action, of the content of the character of the individual. Absolutely. But let’s not tie it to the skin color instead of the skin color determine it.

Audience member: How does the Tulsa Race Massacre not fall under your definition of CRT? 

Ryan Walters: I answered it. That’s my answer. Again, I felt like…. (inaudible) 

Audience member: The Tulsa Race Massacre was a race massacre. How does it not fall under CRT?

Ryan Walters: I have answered your question. I appreciate you. Very respectfully, keep questions….

Audience member: What about race? How does that not fall (inaudible).

Walters then moved on to answering another audience member’s question.