Critical Race Theory

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What is race?

Race refers to not only one’s identity but also social practices that intersect class, gender, and other markers of difference. Race denotes how people present themselves, what accent they carry, how they understand their heritage, and the type of resources they have access to. Race is a kind of social action in a specific time and place. Race may be enunciated in multiple, sometimes conflicting ways, within particular contexts and countries. 

In some cases, deadly eruptions of racism make it imperative that we maintain and develop a critical focus upon the implicit ways in which issues of race inform and inflect human interaction.

Race has not always been applied to human beings. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word race comes from the twelfth-century French word haraz, which refers to horse breeding: namely “an enclosure in which horses and mares are kept for breeding.” The word race therefore is associated with breeds of horses. In premodern periods, race sometimes alluded to broad differences between human communities, such as women as a group. Some of the ways in which we now think about racism and the word “race” are relatively new.

What does the word race mean? In English, race was initially used to indicate a whole range of human differences that include gender and class. In premodern times, the word race designated differentiated communities rather than specifically only people of different skin colors or heritage, such as “the bounteous race/Of woman kind” in Edmund Spencer’s epic poem Faeirie Queene. As such, men and women might be said to be the first races.

As the word evolved, however, race came to denote not only broad categories of human difference but also ethnicity and national origin. By the seventeenth century, race began to describe complexion and even physiology, though, at that time, skin tones were not given fixed negative or positive connotations.

In this chapter we will examine what has come to be known as critical race theory, a systemic way to analyze explicit and implicit discourses about race, racialized subjects, race as a category, and racism in all forms. Racism is not always about something a person says out loud or does. Racism could involve non-action or things that are taken for granted (made implicit).

Case Study: What Is Critical Race Theory?

Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term critical race theory (CRT) in 1989. Critical Race Theory — 

  • holds that race is a product of social thought
  • emphasizes that racism is embedded within systems and social institutions, like the legal system
  • rejects claims of meritocracy or “colorblindness”; it argues that the systemic nature of racism is responsible for reproducing racial inequality
  • embraces people’s lived experiences, including those preserved through storytelling

Crenshaw made clear that CRT should be thought of as a verb rather than merely a noun. On NPR, she drew our attention to the necessity of racial literacy. Critical race theory asks: “How do we read the world? How do we understand the relationship to its history?” 

In contemporary American culture, race has multiple and contradictory meanings. On the one hand, race commonly refers to heritable traits of skin color and hair type. On the other hand, race is associated with culturally inflected mannerisms, such as what one eats, how one speaks, and how one carries themselves.

There are three features of racial discourse. First, race often brings to mind people who are not white, while whiteness remains unmarked and serves as a benchmark category—as if whiteness is not a race.

Secondly, there is an alignment of a race-based social group with innate or inner qualities rather than class.

Thirdly, through these nuances you may also begin to realize that the intense focus on black and white sometimes obscures other groups within the United States, such that Hispanics, Latinos, Chicanos, and Native Americans often fall under the rubric of ethnicity rather than “race.”

Ultimately, race as a concept is profoundly constituted by language and by narratives. While individuals manifest various qualities and markers of identity, these differences will only emerge once they are noted. For example, whiteness is often deemed not remarkable or notable. It seems natural and ideologically transparent. In contrast, people of color are often singled out for better or for worse.

I would assert here that the concept of race is connected to the vocabulary we use which itself creates social differences. Race, on some level, is word made flesh. Language gives substance to a concept. The key takeaway here is that race is a social construct that is more about power relations than biological difference.

Race is a red herring, a signifier that accumulates meaning by a chain of deferral to other categories of difference such as gender, class, education. The possibilities of social mobility and immigration complicate a society’s racial landscape.

In summary, in this chapter, we have learned that –

  • Before modern times, the word race referred to a wide range of differences including gender, class, animal breeds, and lineage.
  • In contemporary American discourses, race is associated with heritable traits and culturally inflected mannerisms, but race tends to be associated with only people of color and not White people.
  • The concept of race is profoundly constituted by language. Racial differences will only emerge once they are noted and narrated.

Let us now apply critical race theory to film analysis. In Spike Lee’s 2018 biopic BlacKkKlansman, African American police officer Ron Stallworth in Colorado infiltrates the local Ku Klux Klan (KKK) branch in the 1970s. He is aided by a Jewish colleague. In the following scene, Stallworth speaks to David Duke, founder of the KKK, on the phone. Stallworth is concealing his police identity and posing as a white man who expresses strong interest to join the KKK. Stallworth’s conversation with Duke about Blackness critiques linguistic racism. 

Critical Race Theory provides a valuable framework for analyzing the scene above. Their phone conversation highlights the performativity of race. Stallworth’s ability to “pass” as white over the phone challenges fixed notions of accents and racial identity. Duke becomes the butt of the joke here, which showcases the social construction of race.

You can also use CRT to examine several other relevant issues as well, such as how visual and audio cues contribute to codifying Blackness and white supremacy, coded language and micro-aggressions through subtle forms of racism, and construction of racial stereotypes (how Duke claims to know all about racial differences when it has been debunked). We might also think about the complex psychology of a Black officer infiltrating a racist organization.

Your Turn: Exercise # 1

Watch American Fiction (dir. Cord Jefferson, 2023) and use critical race theory to analyze one of the scenes. The comedy drama film is based on s based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure. The film won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2024.

Here is a featurette to give you an overview of American Fiction and its key themes.

To tackle anti-Black attitudes, frustrated novelist Monk writes a satirical parody of stereotypical Black books as a joke, only to be met with hypocrisy and racist under-handed praises. 

Hollywood even offers to make a movie of his novel. American Fiction is a poignant meta-cinematic tale about how racialized attitudes are both highly codified and invisible at the same time.

One of the highlights is the film’s ending which consists of three meta-cinematic alternate ending scenes as imagined by Monk who is working with a white producer, Wiley, to turn his novel into a feature film. Ironically, Wiley is also filming a blaxploitation film called Plantation Annihilation. He “loves” Black culture.

Why does Wiley ask Monk to change the ambiguous ending in the screenplay for the film-within-the-film? What assumptions does it reflect? Why does Wiley like Monk’s third alternate ending? Which version do you find more effective in tackling racism? If you were the director, how would you end the film, and why? Use critical race theory to analyze American Fiction‘s ending sequence, shown in the clip below.

Monk comes up with a tragic though satiric ending: he is at the podium with the award in hand, about to confess his fraud, when the cops burst in and shoot him dead, thinking that he’s a fugitive from justice, and that his trophy is a gun. Wiley says this is perfect. In what sense is this ending “perfect” for Wiley? How does the device of meta-cinema enhance or distract from the effort to demonstrate subtle racism at work in American Fiction?

Another scene to explore is this film’s uncomfortable opening scene. Monk, a college professor, writes the n-word on the white board. A white student storms out of the classroom in protest. Monk identifies as Black, but society does not give him the agency and power to define and own Blackness.

Book cover image of Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories
Book cover image of Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories

What is Monk teaching? Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Artificial N–” from her collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955). What is O’Connor’s story about? The title of O’Connor’s parable refers to statues popular in the Jim Crow-era Southern United States. The statue depicts grotesque minstrelsy characters. Toward the end, Mr. Head comments on one such statue, saying: “They ain’t got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one.” Reference to O’Connor’s story foreshadows key events in American Fiction. Monk provocatively titles his novel with the f-word to shock readers.

The film’s title, American Fiction, is also rich in its double entendre and word play. It could be interpreted as saying racial equality or even the concept of race is a fiction. It could refer to the film’s subject matter: the production and dissemination of American fiction as a genre. 

Regarding the use of n-word in the film and in O’Connor’s story, it is very unsettling but intended by O’Connor and by the film’s screenwriter and director to shock audiences. O’Connor’s publisher, John Crowe Ransom, wished to change the title but she resisted and defended the title. According to W.F. Monroe, O’Connor “wants her stories to carry enough charge to shock us. She would rather engage us in an experiential process, especially if it is a moving or unsettling one.” The n-word is “so charged with emotional valences that its public utterance can isolate and
stigmatize its user; or, conversely, the word can unify a speaker
with a racially prejudiced community” (W.F. Monroe, “Flannery O’Connor’s Sacramental Icon The Artificial N–,” South Central Review 1.4 (1984): 64-81).

 

Your Turn: Exercise # 2

Let us now turn to Crazy Rich Asians (dir. Jon M. Chu, 2013) as a case study. The romantic comedy film is based on Kevin Kwan’s novel which aims to “introduce a contemporary Asia to a North American audience.” The film won the Screen Actors Guild, Critics’ Choice, and several other awards. The film depicts intra-group racism, among Asian peoples, and the tension between people of Asian descent living in the US and people who reside in Asia. It follows Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu) who accompanies her boyfriend Nick to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. Nick’s mother Eleanor Young (played by Michelle Yeoh) disapproves of Rachel’s humble background. 

Notably, the film examines notions of race through ideas of social class and wealth porn, a genre that “provides an indirect opportunity to explore how the super-rich are presented by the media in society and how super-rich individuals publicly account for extreme levels of wealth” (Carr, Goodman, Abell).

In the opening scene, shown below, a dejected Eleanor, drenched in rain with her family, walks into an upscale hotel in London, only to be rejected. Their reservation is not honored. Eleanor is in fact the film’s antagonist, as later scenes reveal, but here she is a victim of racism in the UK. Her appearance and Singaporean accent may have triggered the front desk staff’s reaction. Or: maybe the staff assume Eleanor could never afford to stay at their establishment. 

How does Eleanor Young seem to “solve” racism, even if temporarily? Describe explicit and implicit (unspoken) racist assumptions and attitudes in this scene. How is race intertwined with class issues? In what ways does Eleanor’s gender factor into the scene? Use critical race theory to analyze characterization and the scene’s symbolic weight in the film as well as its function as an allegory about race in America.

Next, read Constance Wu’s memoir. A Virginia native, Wu is known for her breakout role in the ABC television comedy Fresh Off the Boat (2015–2020). She plays Rachel in Crazy Rich Asians, a young New York University professor.

In a chapter entitled “Welcome to Jurassic Park” in her memoir, Making a Scene, Wu states that what is wrong about so-called stereotypes is not the images themselves but rather their negative association. Wu states that:

I’ve heard a lot of Asian actors say, “I refuse to play stereotypical roles.” … They say that “success” will be when our Asian-ness isn’t a part of the story. … I do not subscribe to this idea of success.

As a woman of color, Wu proposes some provocative ideas, such as her view that “the desire to shut down Asian stereotypes is a reaction to a Hollywood standard that was created by people who do not know us.” Her vision transcends Hollywood stereotypes, because, as she writes:

I got into acting to be creative, not reactive. … There are real people who genuinely embody stereotypical attributes–they’re our mothers and fathers … I don’t want to hide their voices or their stories.

What are some advantages and disadvantages of this line of anti-racist argument? Do you agree with Wu that “stereotypes are not harmful for their mere existence; they’re harmful for their reduction of a person or group”? 

To learn more about histories of race and critical race theory, read Alexa Alice Joubin and Martin Orkin’s book Race (Routledge, 2019). The book’s concluding chapter is available here

Further Reading

Some of these resources may only be accessible with George Washington University credentials.

Joubin, Alexa Alice and Martin Orkin, Race. London: Routledge, 2019.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé, “Ideas that make up critical race theory have been around long before it got its name,” NPR, 13 Sept. 2022. 

Wu, Constance. “Welcome to Jurassic Park.” Making a Scene, 2022.