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 crit­i­cal race the­o­ry (CRT) ramps up across the Unit­ed States, it has become one of the most politi­cized schools of thought, spark­ing debate in both pri­vate and pub­lic spheres. While debates sur­round­ing CRT are not new, it has gained increased atten­tion fol­low­ing George Floyd’s mur­der and the Black Lives Mat­ter Move­ment.

Pro­po­nents of CRT argue that it is an ana­lyt­i­cal tool for unearthing and inter­ro­gat­ing the per­va­sive­ness of sys­temic racism and the myr­i­ad of ways it is embed­ded in soci­ety, insti­tu­tion­al poli­cies, process­es and practices.

But crit­ics of CRT assert that it is divi­sive anti-Amer­i­can dis­course that vil­lainizes white peo­ple and indoc­tri­nates young minds.

Par­ents and politi­cians express ongo­ing out­rage and denounce the use of CRT in ele­men­tary and sec­ondary school cur­ric­u­la. Sim­i­lar­ly, as col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties com­mem­o­rat­ed Black His­to­ry Month in Feb­ru­ary, some par­ents con­tend that Black His­to­ry Month pro­grams and events reflect CRT prin­ci­ples.

The rage among white nation­als and extrem­ists has tran­spired into incit­ing vio­lence and issu­ing bomb threats at approx­i­mate­ly 16 his­tor­i­cal­ly Black universities.

Giv­en the moral pan­ic that has erupt­ed, some argue that much of the back­lash sur­round­ing CRT is polit­i­cal­ly man­u­fac­tured or engi­neered. Crit­i­cisms about CRT large­ly stem from indi­vid­u­als who mis­un­der­stand and mis­con­strue CRT’s key tenets.

Accord­ing to his­to­ri­an and co-edi­tor of Crit­i­cal Race Stud­ies Across Dis­ci­plinesJonathan Chism:

“Many that are con­demn­ing crit­i­cal race the­o­ry haven’t read it or stud­ied it intense­ly. This is large­ly pred­i­cat­ed on fear: the fear of los­ing pow­er and influ­ence and priv­i­lege. The larg­er issue that this is all stem­ming from is a desire to deny the truth about Amer­i­ca, about racism.”

Defining CRT

Crit­i­cal race the­o­ry emerged in the mid-1970s as a response and oppo­si­tion to colour-blind dis­cours­es that failed to con­sid­er how race and racial inequal­i­ty are deeply root­ed in the legal sys­tem. Kim­ber­lé Cren­shaw, Der­rick Bell, Richard Del­ga­do, Mari Mat­su­da, Patri­cia Williams, along with many oth­er racial­ized schol­ars and activists, played a piv­otal role in advanc­ing CRT as a social and intel­lec­tu­al 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 acknowl­edges that race is ingrained and nor­mal­ized in social struc­tures and laws. CRT rejects dom­i­nant ide­olo­gies of objec­tiv­i­ty, colour-blind­ness and mer­i­toc­ra­cy. Issues around race and racism are cen­tral to under­stand­ing pow­er imbalances.

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

Cen­ter­ing the per­spec­tives and lived expe­ri­ences of Black and racial­ized peo­ple is often empha­sized through sto­ry­telling, counter-sto­ry­telling and col­lab­o­ra­tion. CRT also exam­ines the ways in which people’s inter­sect­ing and over­lap­ping iden­ti­ties of race, gen­der, class and oth­er axes of oppres­sion con­tribute to dif­fer­en­tial expe­ri­ences. It is action-ori­ent­ed and is com­mit­ted to advanc­ing a social jus­tice agenda.

Relevance to Canada

Dis­cus­sions of CRT have large­ly tak­en place in the U.S. How­ev­er, the polit­i­cal polar­iza­tion of CRT has sig­nif­i­cance in the Cana­di­an con­text.

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 “free­dom con­voy” that has infil­trat­ed Cana­di­an soil rais­es many ques­tions of Canada’s implic­it­ness in these dis­cus­sions.

Although dis­guised as oppo­si­tion to gov­ern­ment restric­tions around COVID-19, the protests and block­ades reflect white enti­tle­ment and the insid­i­ous effects of white suprema­cy.

The bold dis­play of swastikas, con­fed­er­ate flags and oth­er hate sym­bols with min­i­mal reper­cus­sions, points to the stark con­trast between white suprema­cist tol­er­ance and the ways in which Black, Indige­nous and racial­ized peo­ple are vio­lent­ly policed for mere­ly exist­ing in a so-called “mul­ti­cul­tur­al soci­ety.”

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.

Euro­cen­tric ide­olo­gies posi­tion white peo­ple as the dom­i­nant race, estab­lish­ing white suprema­cy as a uni­ver­sal reflec­tion of human­i­ty. Con­se­quent­ly, any­thing that chal­lenges the dom­i­nant white norm caus­es dis­com­fort and resis­tance.

Some white peo­ple may be defen­sive or resis­tant to these types of con­ver­sa­tions, as they trig­ger a range of emo­tions or reac­tions from shame, dis­com­fort, anx­i­ety, dis­be­lief, fear, anger, con­fu­sion, remorse or grief. Accord­ing to British jour­nal­ist Reni Eddo-Lodge, white peo­ple “nev­er had to think about what it means, in pow­er terms, to be white, so any time they’re vague­ly remind­ed of this fact, they inter­pret it as an affront.”

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.

Schol­ars use var­i­ous terms like white fragili­tywhite rage and white lash to con­cep­tu­al­ize and artic­u­late how white peo­ple impose, main­tain and recre­ate white­ness, racist ide­olo­gies and white supremacy.

Accord­ing to crit­i­cal race schol­ar Sean Wal­ton, by inter­ro­gat­ing racism and white suprema­cy, CRT “empha­sizes the preva­lence and insid­i­ous­ness of racism,” high­light­ing how “over­whelm­ing­ly detri­men­tal” it is to racial­ized peo­ple and the myr­i­ad of ways in which it oper­ates to main­tain the racist sta­tus quo.

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

Read: The Gen­e­sis of The Act­ing White Epithet

Erro­neous claims about the pur­pose and foun­da­tion­al tenets of CRT strate­gi­cal­ly deflect atten­tion from dom­i­nant ide­olo­gies that uphold and rein­force the sta­tus 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 arti­cle is repub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. Read the orig­i­nal arti­cle.