White Darkness and CRT
Often I meet people who tell me that speaking out against White Supremacy is not necessary. That the problems that it causes in our society will just go away. Because racism is not real. And because we are good people. Why would we support a system that is not in the interest of all of us? Notably, the same people who say this, also often believe that classism is okay. They believe the social hierarchy that classism offers us allows our society to be better because of the wealth it can accrue and the way it allows us to station our nation to reign supreme over the rest of the world. From these ideas, we get the simple chant: USA, USA, USA. And while this chant speaks to the nationalism that America desires for itself, for me and many who look or feel like me this is a series of lies perpetrated for those who desire power over others can continue to exert power over others. Allow me to illuminate.
First, we have to name and define the structure that says we should ignore White Supremacy. For our purposes here, let us call it White Darkness. Because darkness is the concept that means our vision is obfuscated. That we cannot see things as they really are. But, human nature says that we believe that we see things as they really are. But such knowledge does not come from a desire, but action to study the world, or rather worlds around us. And not in the pockets that we call family and friends. That leads to echo chambers that tell us how we see the world is right. And requires no more effort than to joke with our besties about how much better we are than someone else. A joke that often brings harm, because it belies the idea that we believe that we are better than someone else.
White Darkness requires for its survival that we take no action to explore it. No action to know what good or harm it brings into the worlds it would inhabit. To clearly observe the world we need to be able to utilize different lenses or paradigms of experience to look at our own lives and that of others. If the only one we have to use is the knowledge of our own paradigm we will miss the objective truths others live in, and may fear the other paradigms as being world destroyers, as opposed to another means of seeking knowledge about ourselves and the worlds around us.
In other words, White Darkness clouds our ability to perceive the worlds of other ethnicities, nationalities, societies, religions, and classes. It immunizes our hearts against the harm we may perpetrate against other people and prioritizes its own protection against any who would make it an uncomfortable position to be in. And if you endanger White Darkness, it absolutely has no issues with dismissing your humanity and declaring you as inhuman, worthy of execution. We see White Darkness functioning incredibly well today during the debates on whether or not Critical Race Theory (or CRT) should be taught in public schools.
Allow me to speak clearly on what CRT is first before we examine how White Darkness is attacking it. According to Lewis R. Gordon in the year 1999, “Critical Race Theory is strongly associated with Critical Legal Studies–an approach to American jurisprudence advanced by a group of progressive, often liberal and sometimes Marxist jurists in the 1980s and the present decade.” So keep in mind, Critical Race Theory is associated with Critical Legal Studies. In other words, it is more than a social idea. It is a legal term utilized by jurists, those who are experts on the law, with progressive, liberal, and even Marxist ideologies. That is not all though, according to Gordon “The critical treatment of the concept of race and especially the impact of racism in the modern world has pre-dated the Critical Legal Studies approach well more than a century.” You may be wondering at this point, what is meant by the term “critical.” In the same publication, Gordon defines the critical aspect as a critique of the theory itself. He is not the first person to do the work of critiquing how America treated people of color. Consider Fredrick Douglass and WEB Du Bois when you think of Critical Race Theory. Think of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. when you think of Critical Race Theory. Think of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, and Audre Lorde when you think of Critical Race Theory. Because all of those people fought for (or fight for) the liberation and freedom of all Americans. And much of their work came because of Critical Race Theory. So deeper than law, what is Critical Race Theory?
Here I will utilize the words of others who have written on this subject more thoughtfully than myself, The American Bar Association: “CRT is not a diversity and inclusion “training” but a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship. (Kimberlé) Crenshaw—who coined the term “CRT”—notes that CRT is not a noun, but a verb. It cannot be confined to a static and narrow definition but is considered to be an evolving and malleable practice. It critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers. CRT also recognizes that race intersects with other identities, including sexuality, gender identity, and others. CRT recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation” (George).
Here this idea blows up. Because now CRT is not simply a legal term, but it now functions the way it did in the lives of all those American liberators I spoke of previously: a practice. CRT is not about the liberation of Black Americans alone. It includes Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, Polynesian Americans, Indian Americans, Indigenous Americans, and people of all other ethnicities and nationalities. See by adopting a practice of making certain that each of these ethnicities of people have a voice in how our society should be run, how businesses should treat them, and what education we have about them on the public level–the world changes. Because it is no longer a world and becomes the intersection of diverse worlds. And the question we must answer then, is how do we build a nation that is inclusive of all those worlds? But that is another essay.
So now, when you hear people saying Critical Race Theory shouldn’t be taught in schools, I hope that sounds different to you now. Attacks on CRT are destructive to the idea that there is more than one world we as human beings live in. It dismantles our ability to have empathy for each other and our ability to clearly understand what each other is struggling through. Worst of all, it perpetuates a lie. Because the theory has never been taught in public schools, but when people are seeking to outlaw it from classrooms they attack more than the theory. They attack the practices that humanize each of us one to another. This is why you hear of attacks on equity to attack CRT. This is why you hear of attacks on diversity to attack CRT. But more than that, understand that misunderstanding the core of CRT means a misunderstanding of why people have chosen to use it. Because we can speak of legalities or practice, but neither of them addresses Critical Race Theory in a way we can all agree on. To find the language that pulls all of these ideas together we have to look in the field of Social Work.
The above image is taken directly from the book The Foundations of Social Work Research. Above the image it explains the idea of what theories in Social Work are designed to do:
“Much like paradigms, theories provide a way of looking at the world and of understanding human interaction. Paradigms are grounded in big assumptions about the world—what is real, how do we create knowledge—whereas theories describe more specific phenomena. A common definition for theory in social work is ‘a systematic set of interrelated statements intended to explain some aspect of social life’” (Mauldin).
An easier way of explaining theories is to think of them as lenses. Attachment Theory is a lens by which we understand how children and parents bond. Family Systems Theory is a lens by which we understand how families function as systems. System theory is the lens by which we understand how the systems of society impact the family. And Critical Race Theory is the lens by which we understand how racism has functioned and does function in the lives of Americans.
Now understanding that this is a legal term, a practice, and a lens by which social workers (and I include teachers under the term social workers, because they do on a day to day basis incredible amounts of social work supporting, educating, and understanding students; to not include them would be wrong) asking educators on any level to disregard this practice would devastate them as speakers of truth. We would not be able to properly understand slavery, Jim Crow, or the internment camps of the Japanese in World War II, or the current detainment camps of undocumented citizens. This as an educator is terrifying to me.
Now we return to White Darkness. Recognize that many of the times you will see Critical Race Theory attacked in the news it is removed from speaking of it in terms of the law, a practice, or social work. Often there will be a discussion about how people do not know what it is, but that is dangerous. In fact, it will be often used as the reason why we have the social unrest in this nation that we do. An opponent of Critical Race Theory, Christopher Rufo was interviewed by Sp!ked and expressed many of these ideas. They ask him the question: “What are the most egregious examples of the content (speaking of courses that teach not CRT but ideas shared by diversity consultants) that you found?”
“First, these courses are teaching race essentialism. They teach employees that they can be reduced to a metaphysical essence of their skin colour, and that you can create a moral hierarchy based on that. Race essentialism was known as scientific racism 100 years ago – it was wrong then and it’s wrong now.
“The second thing is actual racial segregation. I have documented a number of agencies where they were segregating employees on the basis of race, even having separate rooms for training people of different races. Racial segregation is, unfortunately, part of American history. But we stopped it through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it’s really astonishing that it would be revived as a form of social justice. The dissonance in that is really remarkable.
“Third, it’s really a form of race-based harassment. There are many examples where white employees have been segregated and essentially forced to deconstruct their identity. They were forced in many cases to denounce themselves publicly – even in one case to write letters of apology for their white privilege, or their male privilege, or their heterosexual privilege.”
Each of these ideas presented are not CRT. Remember that CRT is a legal framework, a practice, and a lens by which to understand the world around you. The ideas of CRT are much bigger than the way Mr. Rufo has narrowed them. Allow us to explore how each of these ideas are not destructive, but rather instructive.
CRT does not teach race essentialism. To quote a current scholar often spoken of today in regards to Critical Race Theory, Ibram X. Kendi, “Race: A power construct of collected or merged difference that lives socially” (35). He will continue this definition by later stating that “race is a mirage, which doesn’t lessen its force. We are what we see ourselves as, whether what we see exists or not”(37). So when Mr. Rufo explains what Race Essentialism is, he is not wrong in saying that it is scientific racism; or that is wrong. But nobody practicing CRT considers race to be more than a societal construct. My race determines how people interact with me because I cannot expect others to not see my black skin and not make assumptions. And while those assumptions do not define who I am, I must be educated in how those assumptions can shape the world I live in; and Critical Race Theory does teach that. No human being should ever be reduced to their skin color alone. That is a racist idea, and not in line with what anyone correctly practicing CRT teaches.
CRT does not teach racial segregation. Like he said, segregating employees based on race is wrong. However, having employee workgroups based on race to speak to their employers about their experience is anything but racist. It offers them a chance to have a voice in situations that otherwise they may not. An example of this kind of inclusion can be seen in the Utah Black Artists Collective (UBLAC). Being Black is not a monolith, and many people (including many Black people I have known) do not fully understand that. For us to connect with both our individuality and our Blackness we need spaces where we can be unapologetically Black. When even one white person has entered Black space the way they use and see their voice, as being critical to the conversation, can eliminate Black voices from speaking. Keep in mind that the Civil Rights Bill of 1967 also decimated many Black communities. Integration only flowed one way: Black into White. So with it, we lost thousands of Black communities. And employers helping Black employees to find community again is incredibly empowering. Mr.Rufo may not see the benefits, because he does not live in the world of a Black American. But I do, and hearing stories like my own helps me to know that I am not alone. And for others like myself in UBLAC, it has been a liberating force in our lives. I understand Black joy now because of the relationships I have there, and that is a lesson more beautiful than words can express.
Last off, CRT does not teach race-based harassment. It teaches white folks that white is not an ethnicity. And yes, this does cause people to reconstruct their entire identity. Why, because if white is an ethnicity white folks can be found in The United States, Canada, Great Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Norway, Iceland, Russia, and Australia (this is not an all-inclusive list). However, all of those people listed have different customs, different traditions, and different beliefs. When white is how you identify, yeah you have deconstruction to do, because it literally is how you have taken on White Supremacy internally. Which may lead you to wonder, why is Black an ethnicity?
Black is an ethnicity because of three things: shared history, loss of heritage, and the search for identity. First Black folks have historical trauma they share because of slavery, Jim Crow, and even racism today. That leaves us in a place where we are struggling to find our own value in society because for more than 400 years we have not been seen as human societally. We still have to fight for that basic human right that the Declaration of Independence promised us and the Constitution failed to deliver on. Second, all those who are Black have lost the roots of their homeland because enslaved people were bought and sold with no records as to where they came from in Africa, and the idea was to keep enslaved people who spoke the same language away from each other. So we lost our oral histories as well. With DNA testing, I discovered I likely came from Nigeria. Still, that does not give me the same information of understanding my heritage that genealogy does. Last, I had to search to find my identity as being a Black man in America. What does that even mean when you are separated from the Black community? How do I express myself culturally when I am told what I think is Black excellence is called “Being the Whitest Black man” my friends know. (That is a direct quote. I have heard it way more than once.) Because excellence, as they define it, means my articulation is white. My intelligence is white. My love of human beings is white. And how can an ethnicity that is not even real describe who I am?
The ideas of Mr. Rufo are an example of White Darkness, because they distort what CRT is into something that does not exist. And ultimately they assume that people engaged in those efforts are reversing racism. When nothing could be further from the truth. Misrepresentation is the power of White Darkness, to leave us looking at a funhouse mirror thinking we see reality. It hurts every single human being alive. Making some think they are superior to others because of a mirage. Making some think they are superior to others because of misinformation. And making some think they superior to others because a societal construct says so. My humanity and yours should be not dictated by any of these lies.
I am joining the forefront of the fight to keep CRT in schools because removing the practices that CRT offers means we stop teaching truth. It means our comfort is more important than seeing other humans as human. Allowing White Darkness to steal from our children this tool to help us know each other better creates a world that silences more than it rejoices. It slaps the faces of those currently teaching who look different than their students and tells them, those differences in culture, life experience, treatment, and history do not matter. We must do better for our children.
My invitation to you, my fellow humans, is to learn about the differences and similarities we share with each other, celebrate the worlds beyond end that exist on this planet, and remember the path to illuminating the truth of the world we live in will always be found in research. For that purpose, you can see my links to the resources I used for this essay. May we all seek a world full of light, lit by the enlargement of our hearts to see, know, and love the variety of cultures and worlds we come from.
George, Janel. “A Lesson on Critical Race Theory.” American Bar Association, 12 January, 2021
Gordon, Lewis. “A Short History on the Critical in Critical Race Theory” Way Back Machine, https://web.archive.org/web/20030502193950/http://www.apa.udel.edu/apa/archive/newsletters/v98n2/lawblack/gordon.asp. Accessed June 22, 2021.
Kendi, Ibram. How to be an Anti-Racist. New York. One World. 2019.
Mauldin, Rebecca. “Foundations of Social Work Research” Mavs Open Press, Updated 20 January, 2021, https://uta.pressbooks.pub/foundationsofsocialworkresearch/chapter/2-2-paradigms-theories-and-how-they-shape-a-researchers-approach/. 22 June, 2021.
Sp!ked. “Critical race theory is the ideology of the bureaucracy.” Sp!ked, 13 November 2020, https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/11/13/critical-race-theory-is-the-ideology-of-the-bureaucracy/.
White Darkness and CRT