According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to be “woke” means to be alert to injustice in society, especially racism. So for those of you who think it’s a meme at your disposal, think again.
Though you may assume that your progressive beliefs and concern for equality make you woke, I advise that you first take a moment to examine your actions, intentions, and biases more closely. One excellent way to approach such self-examination is to refer to the five tenets of Critical Race Theory.
Now you may be wondering what Critical Race Theory even is. To define it simply, CRT is a relatively new theoretical framework which strives to address the institutionalization and ownership of power as it relates to race, society, and culture. The first time I’d even heard of this subject matter was at a forecasting fair during my sophomore year of high school. Although I’d like to think I was intrigued by the course for political reasons, it was definitely more out of love for the teacher. Little did I know then, that class, called Intro to Critical Race Theory, would open doors that I would never be able to close again. I was made aware of numerous disturbing truths about our society, especially with regard to race-related injustices. More importantly, however, I was given the tools to challenge these issues and work towards change.
At present, it is no secret that racial tensions run high in the United States. Much of the time, the popular solution is harmful ignorance. Luckily, the college campus is the perfect environment combating such ignorance; a place where students should be encouraged to explore the subject of race through active conversations. The tenets of CRT, as defined below, are a great blueprint for these discussions, as they offer a compelling outlook on the way race plays into education, law, and other components of society.
1. The Permanence of Racism
The permanence of racism refers to the notion that racism is a permanent and omnipresent force in all facets of American society. Racism, as an institutionalized construct, exists within the policies, laws, and practices of social, political, and educational systems. It remains deeply embedded in American history and remains as such, even if it exists in a more implicit manner. To sense the presence of racism, you need only observe school demographics, the criminal justice system, or the constant policing of people of color.
2. The Critique of Liberalism
Most self-professed liberals are entirely willing to admit that racism exists. However, the majority of this progressive party is largely unaware of the ways racism manifests, and more importantly, their own roles in its promulgation… being liberal doesn’t give you a free pass to the “woke” table. The Critique of Liberalism is largely a result of colorblindness, especially in regards to the neutrality of law and equal opportunity. Colorblindness, though sometimes well-intentioned, is one of the foremost contributors to racial injustice, as it allows us to ignore racist policies which perpetuate inequality. Many institutions, including academic ones, support colorblindness as a means of creating social equality, thus excluding discussions of race from their curriculum. These actions are in fact very harmful, for they prevent open dialogue around problems facing students of color on campus.
3. Whiteness as Property
This tenet holds that whiteness is a property interest just like any other entity that is thought to hold value. Whiteness is protected and recognized by various powerful institutions. As such, being white in America grants an individual the ability or right to own property and receive all the benefits that come with it. In this sense, property refers to everything that can be owned, whether tangible or intangible. It embodies anything from a home and job to rights, labor, and time. Historically, white people have felt that by nature of their skin color, they were afforded the right to exploit native American land or slave labor. This concept is not, however, strictly a historical one. People of color in this country remain at a social, political, and economic disadvantage due to their race while white people continue to have primary access to any form of property.
4. Interest Convergence
Interest convergence refers to the idea that the needs of people of color are only met if they converge or align with the needs of their white peers. This stems from the notion that white people have always been the primary recipients or beneficiaries of legislation, even those concerning civil rights. Take, for instance, the example of diversity guidelines at colleges and universities. While such guidelines provide great opportunities for students of color, they are also very beneficial to the primarily white staff of these institutions. By creating a more diverse environment, these guidelines are able to raise the ranking and reputation of their school. Overall, the idea is that white individuals are far more likely to support minority rights if it is in their personal interest to do so.
Arguably the most important tenet, counter-storytelling legitimizes the voices and experiences of marginalized groups. This tenet allows minorities to challenge the stereotypes and stories perpetuated by the dominant (male, white, heteronormative) culture. These stories can take any form and often involve the personal and combined experiences of POCs. Such storytelling is as empowering for the storyteller as it is informative for the consumer.
Critical Race Theory is naturally subject to criticism and change. Nonetheless, these basic tenets are enough to make us just a little bit more aware of the workings of our society, and even those of our school. Barnard is highly praised for the value it places on women’s empowerment. But even as a progressive, feminist school, there remains a lot of room for improvement. Feminism doesn’t stop at the rights of white women. True intersectional feminism must strive to be more inclusive and diverse, taking on the trials faced by women of various races, genders, classes, religions, or sexual orientations. The use of counter-storytelling, along with a deep and expansive understanding of the other tenets, can be an essential tool in the creation of a conscious campus and the fostering of an intersectional feminist outlook. Every student, regardless of their background, has a responsibility to examine themselves closely and see how critical race theory applies to their personal and shared experiences. Behind all these tenets lies a crucial need for conversation. Rather than resorting to colorblindness, academic institutions and the students within them must strive to create a safe space for dialogue around race.
We’ve heard it many times: we are the next generation and we are responsible for making changes in this world we’ve inherited. Only once we address current injustices and admit to our own roles within, can we get a little closer to being as “woke” as we hope to become.
Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: an Introduction. New York University Press, 2017.
Hiraldo, Payne. “The Role of Critical Race Theory in Higher Education.” ScholarWorks @ UVM, scholarworks.uvm.edu/tvc/vol31/iss1/7/
Project, The Bridge. “Critical Race Theory.” Berkman Klein Center, cyber.harvard.edu/bridge/CriticalTheory/critical4.htm.