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People hold signs reading 'CRT is a soul virus' 'teach hope not fear' and 'stop hate, don't teach CRT'
People protest critical race theory outside the offices of the New Mexico Public Education Department in November 2021. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Why does critical race theory make people so uncomfortable?

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.

Read more: Critical race theory: 'Diversity' is not the solution, dismantling white supremacy is

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 Disciplines, Jonathan 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.

A critical race theory explainer.

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.

Read more: Black and Indigenous protesters are treated differently than the 'convoy’ because of Canada's ongoing racism

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 fragility, white 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.

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.

Keisha Smuk, a research assistant and bachelor of social work student from the University of Calgary, contributed to the production of this article.

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