I remember entering my first Chicano and Latino Studies class in high school. And yes, I wrote the masculine form Chicano and Latino because that is what my teacher used to label the history course. This course name was definitely not my first pick considering my feminists under and overtones. This class, like the many others I would take as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley with a major in ethnic studies, opened my mind to new world views and forms of knowledge that centered the lived experiences and theories of communities of color. As an 18-year-old undergraduate, I knew before I had the words to voice it that I was going to be a scholar who studied race and racism. My interest in studying race and racism was not simply because these concepts were fascinating or controversial but more so because I saw and felt the negative material and symbolic consequences of racism. As such, I wanted to not only be a critical race scholar but instead a scholar activist who combats racism. This is me in a nutshell.
While I can type for days about my commitment to combatting racism with my academic, social, and spiritual tools of intersectionality, I thought it would be more interesting to spend time exploring how race and racism is viewed by a physicist, a black aspiring physicist to be exact. Jordan, as you may know him, is our EDL 696: Critical Race Theory (CRT) “tech guy” for spring semester of 2017. When describing his love for science, Joran stated, “I want to do physics because I think physics is beautiful.” As you can tell, he is a no nonsense kind of guy who gets to the point. His world of physics may seem detached from our world of CRT, but these worlds collide for Jordan. And to your surprise, Jordan has been listening to us all semester long.
To better capture Jordan’s experience in our class, I interviewed him for a little over an one-hour. He answered questions about his educational path, love for science, college experience, and understanding of CRT. Before I share the takeaways that Jordan pulled from our class, I remind us of some of the key tenets of CRT because (a) we will see some of them appear in Jordan’s narrative and (b) who wouldn’t benefit from doing a recap of this complex yet powerful framework.
What is CRT?
CRT is a theoretical and analytical framework that aims to unmask the pervasive impact of racism on U.S. society and offers a critical examination of the intersections of race, power, and law (K. L. Henry Jr., personal communication via class lecture, January 18-April 12, 2017). CRT’s origins lie in the field of law as they are a critique of Critical Legal Studies inability and/or failure to recognize the significance of race relations and racism in U.S. society. Key tenets of CRT reviewed in class include a critique to liberalism, racial realism, interest convergence, recognition of the property function of whiteness, intersectionality, counterstories, and aims for social transformation.
Within the field of education, varying tenets of CRT are utilized in the works of scholars to unmask the pervasive impact of racism on schooling. CRT offers education a critical framework to deconstruct the ways in which white supremacy (re)appears in educational theory, research, pedagogy, curriculum and policy. It is important to note that CRT in education is critique of multicultural education which Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995) identify as an educational reform and scholarly tradition that trivializes culture and race in attempts to create an atmosphere of tolerance for difference. Solórzano (1998) identified multiple tenets of CRT in education that illustrate its intentional departure from and critique of multicultural education. CRT in education, according to Solórzano (1998),
- acknowledges the intercentricity of race and racism;
- challenges dominant ideologies;
- is committed to social justice;
- recognizes significance of lived experiences;
- and takes a multidisciplinary approaches to critical inquiry.
Some CRT education scholars, like Museus (2013), complicate the the tenet of “intercentricity of race and racism” by amplifying the contributions of Crenshaw’s (1989, 1993) work on intersectionality. Crenshaw asserts that within this tenet exists an understanding that the intercentricity of race and racism must not erase an analysis of intersectionality, a recognition of how intersecting forms of subordination impact a person. CRT is complicated; but, it is also captivating. It requires a centering of race and racism and a commitment to social justice.
But what does all this CRT gibberish mean? And how is it being understood by an undergraduate student who navigates the realities of the UA campus each day?
The two answers to the questions above can be found in some of the insights imparted by Jordan in our short interview. To give context to why it is important to recognize Jordan as a learner and knowledge contributor in our class, I provide some details about his UA experience. Jordan’s world of science and math classes looks different than our CRT class. In fact, he shared that he is the only black student in many of his classes and one of few black students in others. When asked how it feels to walk into our CRT class each week, which is made up with a diverse set of students from different ethnic backgrounds, races, sexualities, gender expressions, abilities, religions practices, and etc. (with no disrespect to the identities and experiences included in the “etc.”, as Dr. Henry says), Jordan replied honestly. “It’s nice and also kind of sad at the same time. Nice because it is nice to have a large group of different people. And it is sad because I only see that once a week, and I have 5 classes of my own.” Recognizing that diversity in the classroom is not Jordan’s day-to-day, it is important to know how he experiences CRT and how he understands the abstractions and personal reflections we use to unveil the nuances of racism, not just as concepts but as tools of oppression. Is Jordan listening? Short answer is—Yes. What is he learning from our class? The answer is insightful. Jordan communicated four major takeaways.
Jordan’s takeaways from CRT:
“Race plays a pretty significant role in everyday life.” Jordan repeated this idea multiple times throughout our talk that race matters. He also understood the nuances of race relations playing in different physical spaces with different histories. When describing his understanding of the terms minority and majority, he replied. “In terms of race, whites as the majority and other races as the minorities at least here in the United States. That is another thing, everything here in the class applies to the United States.” He acknowledged that the classes discussions of race are specific to the United States, yet in the remaining parts of his interview he also sees how U.S. race relations are a part of a larger world project. Jordan’s, first takeaway illustrates his critical understanding of the intercentricity of race which corresponds to the first and second tenets outlined above by Solórzano (1998). You may be asking: What about racism? Did he have any “lesson learned” about the significance of racism?
Power is Concentrated in the White Majority.
Jordan was unafraid to name the impact of race and racism. In fact, he asserted that CRT unmask the unequal distribution of power along racial lines. He said, “One of the problems that CRT puts forth is how essentially all the power is in the hands of the majority and minorities are essentially powerless and at the will of the majority.” When asked for an example of how power, race, and racism work, he offered a simple yet insightful reflection on decision making processes in the U.S. “I think it is pretty true and fairly accurate to say that most of the choices that are made for minorities are not made by people who are part of those groups but instead people that are for the most part white are making the choices.” Here we see Jordan grapple with many things. He is developing a critical understanding of race, racism, and dominant ideologies that encourage things like the white savior complex or entitlement to power carried by white communities. I think it is fair to say that Jordan’s analysis is on point. And that he is well on his way of being mindful and intentional about how he sees and deconstruct issues of race and racism in society.
You…Over There. Take this Class.
When prompted with the question, who should take this CRT class? Jordan was not shy to say that “everyone would take this class.” He clarified further. “I feel like everyone should because if everyone were aware of, as you all say, ‘the space they occupy’ then the problems we have today probably wouldn’t be as significant or they would be much more manageable than they actually are.” There is no need to analyze or speculate what Jordan means here. His takeaway is clear. We owe it to one another and ourselves to be aware of the space we occupy; we owe it to one another and ourselves take a CRT class or two, three, four classes and learn from it.
We Got Problems. But, Where Are the Solutions?
Jordan named the inevitable. CRT is good at naming the problem but less effective at name solutions to those problems. Because there is no better way to illustrate Jordan’s learning than through his own words himself, here you go.
Critical race theory seems to point to a lot of these errors or faults in things but never offers a solution, which is kind of concerning. This is the only class that I have listened in on. I haven’t heard of a class that has all the solutions to the problems that Critical Race Theory brings up. Well, maybe that is because there may not be solutions in some cases. I am coming from a physics background where all of our theories identify a problem, but the theory is useless unless they suggest a solution. That is kinda the way I look at everything. In all the theories in Critical Race Theory, I am always looking for the solution they propose. And sometimes they don’t offer a solution, which doesn’t help to solve the problem. It helps to identify the problem.
His understanding of CRT is honest and raw. CRT, and those of us aspiring to be scholars who honor the CRT approach, may name the problems, but that is not enough. We need to be working to find the solutions.
Jordan’s takeaways should be takeaways for us all. And, I encourage you to take a moment to sit with Jordan’s offerings. Within his reflections lies many opportunities for us all to learn. To honor Jordan’s brave critique of CRT as being a structuralist theory that “diagnosis and analyzes the problem, but doesn’t always offer solutions” (K. L. Henry Jr., personal communication via class lecture, March 8, 2017), I conclude with a reflection on solutions that is in alignment with Stovall’s (2016; 2016) call to CRT scholars to take action.
Be Bold. Be Bold Enough to (Re)Imagine & Enact Solutions.
One way I see that “working to find the solutions” can occur is by paying attention to those people who are listening around you and engage others as you actively work to be a part of the solutions. Jordan for instance, has been listening to us all semester. And I think his understanding of race and racism would benefit those of us guilty of floating in the clouds of theory. His conscious awareness of race and racism should serve as fuel to work in solidarity with him and others to push social justice agendas. If you haven’t noticed already, we are inundated with problems to solve, injustices to fight. So, why not be community members that invite people like Jordan to be a part of (re)imagining and enacting new solutions. As the powerful bell hooks stated in her UA talk entitled Revolution and Resistance: Ending Domination, “What are you willing to be accountable for?” Are you willing to be held accountable to unpacking the problems of racism or imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy? And most importantly are you willing to be held accountable to (re)imagining and enacting solutions to racism or imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy?
Acknowledgement and Appreciation: Jordan, you are an amazing scholar who will transform the sciences. Actually, you are already transforming the world. I hope you keep listening even when others don’t think you are.
Disclaimer: Jordan agreed to take part in the interview and have his insights and words be shared in this blog. He was given access to the blog prior to posting and encouraged to provide feedback before it was published online.