Critical Race Theory Isn’t What You Think It Is

Lots of people are discussing the growing influence of “Critical Race Theory” into schools and society as a whole. But what does that even mean? A decade ago, Critical Race Theory had a well established meaning. It was a rather niche field of academic study focused in the law spearheaded by (among others) Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw. It was something you studied in law school, but it was (and probably still is) a fringe legal theory. As I understand it, this part isn’t controversial.

So a common response to, say, a parent concerned about “CRT in schools” is to say, “Actually, Critical Race Theory isn’t appropriate for school children, it’s taught in law school, so there’s nothing to worry about.” Which would be fine, if that’s what Critical Race Theory still meant.

If you listen to how it actually turns up in conversation (or more likely in the media, or in Twitter rants), what most people believe Critical Race Theory is simply the technical term for Woke and you throw it into a sentence the same way you say utilize instead of use to sound slightly smarter (at least to some people.) And language evolves constantly and we’re used to having the same word mean different things in different social contexts. Consider “How are you going to pay for that today?” at Starbucks and “You’ll pay for that!” from someone whose mother you have just shot. That seems to be a not insignificant piece of the issue people take with whatever this Woke thing is. There is a tendency, or maybe even an insistence on assuming that words are absolute in a magical sort of way and that intended meaning doesn’t matter.

And it’s very hard to have a conversation with someone without making at least a minimal effort to understand where they’re coming from. So when a parent feels that there is something being taught in schools that makes them uncomfortable and they’re concerned for the welfare of their child, from their point of view, the concern is real regardless of whether or not they have decided to label it “Critical Race Theory”. Even if you have have already concluded that the reason they are uncomfortable is because radical anti-racism represents progress and this person would be better off to get with the times, you don’t come across as genuinely engaging with their concerns. At that point, you are painting yourself as the kind of annoying pedant who feels comfortable saying, “Actually, it’s to whom.”

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