Why does critical race theory make people so uncomfortable?

by Patrina Duhaney

Civ­il rights march on Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Film neg­a­tive by pho­tog­ra­ph­er War­ren K. Lef­fler, 1963. From the U.S. News & World Report Col­lec­tion. Library of Con­gress Prints & Pho­tographs Divi­sion. Pho­to­graph shows a pro­ces­sion of African Amer­i­cans car­ry­ing signs for equal rights, inte­grat­ed schools, decent hous­ing, and an end to bias. FOTO Library of Con­gress / Pub­lic Domain


As the war on crit¬≠i¬≠cal race the¬≠o¬≠ry (CRT) ramps up across the Unit¬≠ed States, it has become one of the most politi¬≠cized schools of thought, spark¬≠ing debate in both pri¬≠vate and pub¬≠lic spheres. While debates sur¬≠round¬≠ing CRT are not new, it has gained increased atten¬≠tion fol¬≠low¬≠ing George Floyd‚Äôs mur¬≠der and the Black Lives Mat¬≠ter Move¬≠ment.

Pro¬≠po¬≠nents of CRT argue that it is an ana¬≠lyt¬≠i¬≠cal tool for unearthing and inter¬≠ro¬≠gat¬≠ing the per¬≠va¬≠sive¬≠ness of sys¬≠temic racism and the myr¬≠i¬≠ad of ways it is embed¬≠ded in soci¬≠ety, insti¬≠tu¬≠tion¬≠al poli¬≠cies, process¬≠es and practices.

But crit¬≠ics of CRT assert that it is divi¬≠sive anti-Amer¬≠i¬≠can dis¬≠course that vil¬≠lainizes white peo¬≠ple and indoc¬≠tri¬≠nates young minds.

Par¬≠ents and politi¬≠cians express ongo¬≠ing out¬≠rage and denounce the use of CRT in ele¬≠men¬≠tary and sec¬≠ondary school cur¬≠ric¬≠u¬≠la. Sim¬≠i¬≠lar¬≠ly, as col¬≠leges and uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ties com¬≠mem¬≠o¬≠rat¬≠ed Black His¬≠to¬≠ry Month in Feb¬≠ru¬≠ary, some par¬≠ents con¬≠tend that Black His¬≠to¬≠ry Month pro¬≠grams and events reflect CRT prin¬≠ci¬≠ples.

The rage among white nation¬≠als and extrem¬≠ists has tran¬≠spired into incit¬≠ing vio¬≠lence and issu¬≠ing bomb threats at approx¬≠i¬≠mate¬≠ly 16 his¬≠tor¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly Black universities.

Giv¬≠en the moral pan¬≠ic that has erupt¬≠ed, some argue that much of the back¬≠lash sur¬≠round¬≠ing CRT is polit¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly man¬≠u¬≠fac¬≠tured or engi¬≠neered. Crit¬≠i¬≠cisms about CRT large¬≠ly stem from indi¬≠vid¬≠u¬≠als who mis¬≠un¬≠der¬≠stand and mis¬≠con¬≠strue CRT‚Äôs key tenets.

Accord¬≠ing to his¬≠to¬≠ri¬≠an and co-edi¬≠tor of Crit¬≠i¬≠cal Race Stud¬≠ies Across Dis¬≠ci¬≠plinesJonathan Chism:

‚ÄúMany that are con¬≠demn¬≠ing crit¬≠i¬≠cal race the¬≠o¬≠ry haven‚Äôt read it or stud¬≠ied it intense¬≠ly. This is large¬≠ly pred¬≠i¬≠cat¬≠ed on fear: the fear of los¬≠ing pow¬≠er and influ¬≠ence and priv¬≠i¬≠lege. The larg¬≠er issue that this is all stem¬≠ming from is a desire to deny the truth about Amer¬≠i¬≠ca, about racism.‚ÄĚ

Defining CRT

Crit¬≠i¬≠cal race the¬≠o¬≠ry emerged in the mid-1970s as a response and oppo¬≠si¬≠tion to colour-blind dis¬≠cours¬≠es that failed to con¬≠sid¬≠er how race and racial inequal¬≠i¬≠ty are deeply root¬≠ed in the legal sys¬≠tem. Kim¬≠ber¬≠l√© Cren¬≠shaw, Der¬≠rick Bell, Richard Del¬≠ga¬≠do, Mari Mat¬≠su¬≠da, Patri¬≠cia Williams, along with many oth¬≠er racial¬≠ized schol¬≠ars and activists, played a piv¬≠otal role in advanc¬≠ing CRT as a social and intel¬≠lec¬≠tu¬≠al movement.

CRT is guid­ed by sev­er­al tenets, one of which is rec­og­niz­ing that race is a social­ly con­struct­ed phe­nom­e­non that has his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary sig­nif­i­cance. A CRT analy­sis acknowl­edges how the lega­cy of slav­ery, seg­re­ga­tion and the social con­struc­tion of a racial caste sys­tem den­i­grates racial­ized people.

It also acknowl¬≠edges that race is ingrained and nor¬≠mal¬≠ized in social struc¬≠tures and laws. CRT rejects dom¬≠i¬≠nant ide¬≠olo¬≠gies of objec¬≠tiv¬≠i¬≠ty, colour-blind¬≠ness and mer¬≠i¬≠toc¬≠ra¬≠cy. Issues around race and racism are cen¬≠tral to under¬≠stand¬≠ing pow¬≠er imbalances.

Rather than chal­lenge sys­temic racism, ide­olo­gies of objec­tiv­i­ty, colour-blind­ness and mer­i­toc­ra­cy blame racial­ized peo­ple, both indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly for their own oppression.

Cen¬≠ter¬≠ing the per¬≠spec¬≠tives and lived expe¬≠ri¬≠ences of Black and racial¬≠ized peo¬≠ple is often empha¬≠sized through sto¬≠ry¬≠telling, counter-sto¬≠ry¬≠telling and col¬≠lab¬≠o¬≠ra¬≠tion. CRT also exam¬≠ines the ways in which people‚Äôs inter¬≠sect¬≠ing and over¬≠lap¬≠ping iden¬≠ti¬≠ties of race, gen¬≠der, class and oth¬≠er axes of oppres¬≠sion con¬≠tribute to dif¬≠fer¬≠en¬≠tial expe¬≠ri¬≠ences. It is action-ori¬≠ent¬≠ed and is com¬≠mit¬≠ted to advanc¬≠ing a social jus¬≠tice agenda.

Relevance to Canada

Dis¬≠cus¬≠sions of CRT have large¬≠ly tak¬≠en place in the U.S. How¬≠ev¬≠er, the polit¬≠i¬≠cal polar¬≠iza¬≠tion of CRT has sig¬≠nif¬≠i¬≠cance in the Cana¬≠di¬≠an con¬≠text.

In con­trast to the U.S., Cana­da is often char­ac­ter­ized as wel­com­ing and accept­ing of peo­ple from racial­ly and eth­ni­cal­ly diverse back­grounds. There­fore, it could be argued that racism in Cana­da is not as per­va­sive as it is in the U.S. But Cana­da has a vio­lent colo­nial his­to­ry that has and con­tin­ues to den­i­grate and exploit Indige­nous, Black and racial­ized people.

The rise of the so-called ‚Äúfree¬≠dom con¬≠voy‚ÄĚ that has infil¬≠trat¬≠ed Cana¬≠di¬≠an soil rais¬≠es many ques¬≠tions of Canada‚Äôs implic¬≠it¬≠ness in these dis¬≠cus¬≠sions.

Although dis¬≠guised as oppo¬≠si¬≠tion to gov¬≠ern¬≠ment restric¬≠tions around COVID-19, the protests and block¬≠ades reflect white enti¬≠tle¬≠ment and the insid¬≠i¬≠ous effects of white suprema¬≠cy.

The bold dis¬≠play of swastikas, con¬≠fed¬≠er¬≠ate flags and oth¬≠er hate sym¬≠bols with min¬≠i¬≠mal reper¬≠cus¬≠sions, points to the stark con¬≠trast between white suprema¬≠cist tol¬≠er¬≠ance and the ways in which Black, Indige¬≠nous and racial¬≠ized peo¬≠ple are vio¬≠lent¬≠ly policed for mere¬≠ly exist¬≠ing in a so-called ‚Äúmul¬≠ti¬≠cul¬≠tur¬≠al soci¬≠ety.‚ÄĚ

Canada’s lack of account­abil­i­ty of the indoc­tri­nat­ed vio­lence of white rage empha­sizes the immi­nent veil of white suprema­cy dom­i­nat­ing Cana­di­an society.

Unpacking the discomfort of CRT

CRT has become the sub­ject of con­tention and heav­i­ly con­demned because of its bold and unapolo­getic approach to dis­rupt­ing pow­er imbal­ances and sys­tems of oppres­sion. While CRT moves beyond indi­vid­ual or inter­per­son­al acts of racism, much of the debate around it focus­es on the ways in which CRT inter­ro­gates race, racism, dom­i­nant ide­olo­gies and impli­cates white people.

Euro¬≠cen¬≠tric ide¬≠olo¬≠gies posi¬≠tion white peo¬≠ple as the dom¬≠i¬≠nant race, estab¬≠lish¬≠ing white suprema¬≠cy as a uni¬≠ver¬≠sal reflec¬≠tion of human¬≠i¬≠ty. Con¬≠se¬≠quent¬≠ly, any¬≠thing that chal¬≠lenges the dom¬≠i¬≠nant white norm caus¬≠es dis¬≠com¬≠fort and resis¬≠tance.

Some white peo¬≠ple may be defen¬≠sive or resis¬≠tant to these types of con¬≠ver¬≠sa¬≠tions, as they trig¬≠ger a range of emo¬≠tions or reac¬≠tions from shame, dis¬≠com¬≠fort, anx¬≠i¬≠ety, dis¬≠be¬≠lief, fear, anger, con¬≠fu¬≠sion, remorse or grief. Accord¬≠ing to British jour¬≠nal¬≠ist Reni Eddo-Lodge, white peo¬≠ple ‚Äúnev¬≠er had to think about what it means, in pow¬≠er terms, to be white, so any time they‚Äôre vague¬≠ly remind¬≠ed of this fact, they inter¬≠pret it as an affront.‚ÄĚ

The pow­er and priv­i­lege white peo­ple hold has shield­ed many from hav­ing to grap­ple with the pos­si­bil­i­ty that they could be con­tribut­ing to the prob­lem. In response to per­ceived indig­ni­ties, some cling to the myth of reverse racism, while oth­ers resort to retal­i­a­tion or violence.

Schol¬≠ars use var¬≠i¬≠ous terms like white fragili¬≠tywhite rage and white lash to con¬≠cep¬≠tu¬≠al¬≠ize and artic¬≠u¬≠late how white peo¬≠ple impose, main¬≠tain and recre¬≠ate white¬≠ness, racist ide¬≠olo¬≠gies and white supremacy.

Accord¬≠ing to crit¬≠i¬≠cal race schol¬≠ar Sean Wal¬≠ton, by inter¬≠ro¬≠gat¬≠ing racism and white suprema¬≠cy, CRT ‚Äúempha¬≠sizes the preva¬≠lence and insid¬≠i¬≠ous¬≠ness of racism,‚ÄĚ high¬≠light¬≠ing how ‚Äúover¬≠whelm¬≠ing¬≠ly detri¬≠men¬≠tal‚ÄĚ it is to racial¬≠ized peo¬≠ple and the myr¬≠i¬≠ad of ways in which it oper¬≠ates to main¬≠tain the racist sta¬≠tus quo.

A CRT frame­work de-cen­tres white­ness and offers a lens through which to under­stand the pros­per­i­ty of insti­tu­tion­al­ized and sys­temic racism.

Read: The Gen¬≠e¬≠sis of The Act¬≠ing White Epithet

Erro¬≠neous claims about the pur¬≠pose and foun¬≠da¬≠tion¬≠al tenets of CRT strate¬≠gi¬≠cal¬≠ly deflect atten¬≠tion from dom¬≠i¬≠nant ide¬≠olo¬≠gies that uphold and rein¬≠force the sta¬≠tus quo.

Rather than con­demn, mis­rep­re­sent and mis­con­strue CRT’s key prin­ci­ples, oppo­nents of CRT should make a con­cert­ed effort to increase their knowl­edge of its the­o­ret­i­cal under­pin­nings and under­take deep and com­plex analy­sis of racial and struc­tur­al disparities.

A vital step in achiev­ing the kind of action and change that CRT pro­pos­es is for each of us to be inten­tion­al and stead­fast in our con­vic­tions to dis­man­tle racist and oppres­sive pow­er struc­tures that thwart progress towards a just and equi­table society.

Pat­ri­na Duhaney, Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor, Social Work, Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­gary.
Keisha Smuk, a research assis­tant and bach­e­lor of social work stu­dent from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­gary, con­tributed to the pro­duc­tion of this arti­cle.
This arti¬≠cle is repub¬≠lished from The Con¬≠ver¬≠sa¬≠tion under a Cre¬≠ative Com¬≠mons license. Read the orig¬≠i¬≠nal arti¬≠cle.