“Don’t be so critical” was an admonishment I heard so often growing up that, to this day, just hearing that C-word gives me flashbacks. It’s a trigger word for me, so it should come as no surprise that I’ve been going off like a revolver in a gunfight lately.
The term “critical race theory” is really a string of triggers words that conjure up all kinds of uncomfortable associations, ranging from the more obvious ones associated with “race” to Darwin and his pesky evolution to the provable theorems from high school algebra classes. Taken together, it isn’t surprising that a wall of resistance has sprung up to the concept with precious little understanding of what it even is.
Not being a lawyer, commenting on a body of legal scholarship is risky at best, but I’ll skate out on the thin ice anyway. After all, the vast majority of us are unqualified due to a lack of education or inclination to bandy this term about as if we really understand it thoroughly. But we need only to remove the tetchy “race” word and replace it with “sex” or “gender” to get what I suspect would be a somewhat different reaction.
So we have “critical sex theory” with a fundamental assertion that sexism and unequal outcomes on the basis of sex result from social and systemic factors, often quite elusive in their nature. It’s not that we haven’t had a woman president or there is a gender pay gap because most men are sexist pigs. They aren’t. But it still wouldn’t be that simple.
Replace “sex” with “race” in that thought, and we can come to a similar conclusion. And that is at the heart of this scary critical race theory. It’s not that our ongoing struggle with fair, and sometimes legal, treatment of all citizens regardless of their color exists because most white people are lining up to join the KKK. They aren’t. The causes of this problem are far more subtle.
It’s not just about race or gender. (Strangely, when race is talked about by many white people, it often excludes Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, and so many others that need inclusion in the conversation.) There are issues around classism, national origin, disability, and—my personal favorite—sexual orientation. This all comes together in the concept of intersectionality, a buzzword that has become rather provocative to some, but simply asserts that layering advantages or disadvantages on top of each other can produce complex systems of power and its opposite.
There seems to be something in the human being that requires us to constantly compare and rate. Edward Albee’s declension “Good, better, best, bested” comes to mind. We apply it everywhere—from the Oscars to the NFL, from “Who wore it better?” to “Who’s the best man, I mean person, for the job?” It’s what we do when we buy our clothes, and it’s behind our asking our waiter, I mean server, what’s the best thing on the menu. Life is sometimes an endless choice between chicken or beef.
While this critical race et al. theory seems at least partially predicated on certain specific identities, we currently find ourselves being moved toward a spectrum that is not binary, trinary, quaternary, quinary—that’s as far as I can go.
For example, I belong to that group of people whose favorite color is red. But is that cherry red, fire engine red, or jungle red? What about the blues—royal, sky, Wedgewood? Yellow—cornflower, sunshine, canary? Green—hunter, emerald, seafoam? Certainly makes the choosing of one’s game pieces more complicated when sitting down to play Sorry!
Gender, sexual orientation, social class (a worthy, if very thorny, subject), and race all seem to be asserting themselves as spectrums and not boxes. In some cases, the questions are ahead of the language used to discuss them. But history has shown, arguing about words—particularly those of the trigger variety—goes hand in hand with being able to actually talk about the subject and move us all forward.
When who we are is less a label and more a point on a scale—and multiple scales at that—Mr. Albee’s declension begins to lose its sting. Better has no meaning when looking at more than two options, and there can be no consensus on best when there is a plethora of choices. I identified just three shades of each color a couple of paragraphs back for a total of 12. But practically everyone remembers the 64 Crayola box. Or was it 96? How about 120? Can we go for 152? What’s the best color now?
We’d never come to a consensus on the best, would we? And without a best, there can’t be a “bested.”
And that, after all, is the point.