Alan Moore once said: “People shouldn’t be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” To what extent can we say that that statement is true in our world today?
Merriam-Webster defines the word ‘government’ as “the group of people who control and make decisions for a country, state, etc.” The use of the word ‘control’, defined as ‘to regulate’, entrusts governments the responsibility of ensuring the well-being of their citizens through handling foreign relations and maintaining economic stability among other things (National Geographic Society, 2020). With that said, how do we put our faith in a system that has the power to discriminate against us based on our race? Or at least, that’s what Critical Race Theory believes.
Numerous definitions and interpretations of Critical Race Theory (CRT) have come up in the past years. Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the first proponents of the theory and also coined the term, says that CRT’s definition is ever-changing and can’t be confined to a single explanation. Crenshaw says that the theory recognizes race as a social construct that manifests systematically which perpetuates a society where people of color are not at the same level as white people. Furthermore, the Theory notes that race intersects with other things such as sexuality and gender, and its purpose is to acknowledge racism as something that’s ever-present and continues to cultivate a society where people of color are treated as second class citizens in America (George, 2021).
Other simplified definitions of CRT states that: “race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies” according to Education Week (Sawchuk, 2021). There are five (5) notable foundations of Critical Race Theory: that race is a social construct, that racism is a normal concept used to maintain racial inequalities, that any progress toward racial inequality is ultimately in the vested interest of the dominant group (the white people), that racial identity is malleable and changes in accordance to the needs of the dominant group, and lastly, marginalized groups have a unique insight as to how systems can be oppressive (Zalaznick, 2021).
With a myriad of definitions, CRT has fostered debates in many institutions, even in the household, and as the theory becomes increasingly popular, we see it manifest in the real world. Though CRT definitely can offer insights as to how systemic racism is upheld through the people of the society, its core essence is tied towards racism in America.
In America, Critical Race Theory has mainly sparked controversy due to debates of its place in a classroom, with eight U.S. states including Idaho and South Carolina passing Anti-CRT legislation (Ray & Gibbons, 2021). In reality, CRT itself is only taught in law schools while the theory is applied in K-12 to enable students to learn unfiltered American history including slavery and other tough yet important aspects that make up American society, no matter how brutal (Hoover, 2021). Moreover, not many teachers, and adults in general are well-versed in CRT, with over 57% of adults having not heard of the term, which shows how easy it is for this theory to be misconstrued (Kahn, 2021). In fact, if you search up “is critical race theory” in Google search, one of the first automated searches that come up is if it’s being taught in school or not.
Many opponents of CRT call the theory ‘prejudiced’ as the Theory categorizes all white people as ‘oppressors’ while other racial minorities such as Black people and Asians are labelled as ‘oppressed’. Contrastingly, the theory doesn’t label white people as ‘oppressors’, but rather remarks on how racism is embedded into our society that would always make white people gain the upper hand, and that they need to do better and take accountability to combat systemic racism (Ray & Gibbons, 2021).
The debate surrounding Critical Race Theory’s place in the classroom is fueled by parents fearing that learning all the unsavory truths of American history might be too violent for their child, or it might lead to difficult discussions about race and power, yet lots of youths have proved the value of learning about Critical Race Theory (Hoover, 2021). Jerusha Conner, a Professor of Education at Villanova University has conducted research into youth groups. She notes that when youth organizations are more aware about the privilege and injustices that different groups face such as redlining, which is when groups of communities in a certain area are denied services by a mortgage lender typically racially-motivated (Britannica, n.d.)—there is a desire to see reform and better social change, which gets youth organizations more involved to take action to address these issues. In addition, learning CRT allows students to perform better at school in terms of academics and also socially. Youth organizers are more likely to report getting a grade of A, and have lower chances of feeling alienated at their school community.
Lastly, Conner states that learning CRT has life-long benefits that transcend the high school years. She notes how the alumni she interviewed have decided to pursue pro-social careers such as educators in hopes of passing down the values they’ve learned. Furthermore, participants of youth organizing and activism are more likely to have done more volunteer work than their peers, which shows that when CRT is applied right, this could support said youth to achieve long-term goals as well. However, most notably, the benefits of learning CRT are more emphasized in young people of color, as they get to understand more about the dynamics of racism in America, and can help them, and their peers, unlearn internalized oppression and oppression in general (Conner, 2021).
In the context of global racial equality, it’s hard to say whether CRT has any influence in the fight towards achieving it. On one hand, Critical Race Theory is a very well-recognized framework that, at its core, is taught in law schools in the U.S.. However, Critical Race Theory itself can only be applied to a certain extent in other parts of the world due to varying experiences.
One of the key takeaways from CRT is that it sees people of color to be minorities, which is why it wishes to listen to stories by people of color and to always include diverse perspectives from other races (George, 2021). However, other countries don’t always have ‘people of color’ as the ‘oppressed’ as they don’t even have ‘white people’ as the dominant group in their country. In Indonesia, one could argue that the Chinese-Indonesians, Papuans, and other minority ethnic groups, such as indigenous people, are the ones being discriminated against. For example, the anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia rose as they were linked with communism in the 1960s which led to them being the main target of the May 1998 riots, and even though progress has been made, lingering resentment for the Chinese-Indonesians are still present as we see the effects in Basuki Tjahaja Purnama’s imprisonment in 2017 (Rakhmat & Arshansyah, 2020). Through this, we see how people of color can discriminate against other people of color, in fact, racism isn’t just limited to white people. Though systemic racism exists in all parts of the world, racism can also be an individual thing coming from one’s own individual beliefs (Gao, 2018).
Now that we know anyone has the potential to be racist, we see how the foundations of CRT cannot be applied to all corners of the Earth. It is a theory that does aim to interrogate how race plays a role in systems but its understandings are based on a situation in which the white people are the dominant race, which isn’t true to every country. It’s possible to discriminate among our own communities, such as dark-skinned Black people who have been subjected to prejudices by lighter-skinned Black people, and even the other way around, which leads to questions being raised about if one can really call themselves Black and other inter-community discussions (Greenidge, 2019).
Colorism is also a prevailing issue in our society which should be explored as well in our quest towards global racial equality. It’s defined as the “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” by activist Alice Walker whereas racism is something that is mostly seen through the eyes of the government (Tharps, 2016). Additionally, colorism is something that’s dominant in other racial groups such as Latine people, Black people, and Asians, which leads to values of white supremacy being upheld within people of color (Cadet, 2020). Because of this, the quest for global racial equality is much more complicated than applying CRT to different systems as racism is something that can also happen individually.
It’s hard to find an instant solution that can be a guaranteed-fix for racism for all nations as we all have diverse experiences with race, and how racism is upheld through systems, communities, and ourselves. However, it’s important to note the role that education plays in destigmatizing conversations surrounding race and combating racism itself. Though other solutions recommend examining racism in the workplace and recognizing disparities in access to health care, growth and betterment stem from getting educated and unlearning the harmful notions of race (Witte, 2021).
One’s socio-economic level deeply affects the quality of education they receive. Students from poor families often struggle with taking in information due to their delayed cognitive development, and because of their unstable living conditions- are subjected to moving around a lot; and end up in different schools with different curriculums (Budge, 2016). Moreover, those who go to international schools are more likely to be exposed to topics on racial inequality, such as the International Baccalaureate that often integrates global issues and open-mindedness in its teachings. Through this, we see how the wealth and education gap can hinder students from receiving an education that is able to tackle racism and other important issues, which is what proponents of CRT are trying to solve.
Germany is a country home to one of the most devastating events in history: the Holocaust. However, this does not hinder Germans from learning the events of the Holocaust as it is integrated in many aspects of their curriculum including religious studies, sciences, and more. Professor Jan Schulte from University of Bochum says that there are advantages to teaching his students about the Holocaust such as being able to draw connections to present-day issues, notably the refugee crisis (Johnstone, 2020). The overarching point of teaching Germans about the Holocaust is for them to be aware of its past in order for them to do better in the present and future.
With that being said, this can be done as well in America by teaching kids the hard truth of slavery which is what CTR aims to do. A study conducted a survey with 1,025 adult Americans and asked them two questions about slavery, with a score of two out of five on average, and only 52% agreed that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War (Guskin, et al, 2019). In effect, having a curriculum that talks about one’s country’s racist past may be hard, but is ultimately knowledgeable as one is able to start dismantling modern-day oppression in institutions and unlearn one’s own implicit biases (Perry, 2020).
To conclude, Critical Race Theory aims to tackle how racism is embedded in our system that still can oppress marginalized communities. Though it is a well-respected framework that can help us understand systemic racism better, the quest for global racial equality isn’t as easy as learning the theory, but putting it into practice. However, one must realize the diverse experiences each country has in order to come up with adequate steps to lessen discrimination whether that’s closing the racial wealth gap, or integrating topics of race in the school curriculum.
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Mikaila F. S. Sutanto is a student of Mentari Intercultural School Bintaro. She is the 3rd place winner of 2021 Jakarta Youth Summit Essay Competition. She can be found on Instagram with the username @mikailasutanto