Neither critical race nor postcolonial theory can be understood apart from histories of anti-racist and anti-colonial political struggles. But while their specific histories may differ, what critical race and postcolonial theories share in common is the fact that they emerged out of—and represent intellectual challenges to—contexts of racial oppression. They also borrow heavily from one another, and share a commitment to developing theory based not solely on the thoughts of academics, but also from the voices and experiences of people of color and the former subjects of colonialism.
Critical race theory, by and large, evolved in response to racism and racial conditions in the United States. While the exact term “critical race theory” was coined by critical legal scholars in the 1970s and 1980s, critical theories of race in the U.S. go back as far as the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with roots in the writings of prominent intellectual–activists such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and W. E. B. Du Bois.
What makes critical race theory “critical” is that its major aim is to uncover and critique racially oppressive social structures, meanings, and ideas for the purposes of combating racism. As such, the two major objects of study and thought for critical theorists of race are, unsurprisingly, race and racism. With regard to race, critical race theorists have presented a major challenge to theories that understand race as something “essential” or biologically ingrained in humans. For critical race scholars, racial categories like Black, White, Latino, Asian, Mulatto, Quadroon, etc., are social constructions, produced not by biology but by social relationships, cultural meanings, and institutions like law, politics, religion, and the state. Moreover, critical race theorists also argue that the construct of “race” has been a central aspect of modern social organization and modern forms of knowledge like human biology, medicine, and law.
Critical race theorists have criticized understandings of racism that simply see it as a result of individual prejudices and hateful acts. They have developed a much more structural and systemic understanding of racism—often termed “institutional racism”—that theorizes racism as embedded not only in individual minds but also in social relationships, practices, and institutions. These social structures and relationships shape individual minds and identities, and allocate economic, political, and social resources (like decent housing, voting rights, and dignity) in racially unequal ways.
Postcolonial theory largely emerged in the second half of the twentieth century, as countries and peoples once ruled as colonies (such as India, then a British colony, and Algeria, then a French colony) struggled for and gained their political independence. Postcolonial scholars have sought to understand the effects centuries of colonial rule and exploitation have had on colonial subjects and their cultures, ultimately for the purpose of combating the harmful consequences of colonial oppression that have been carried over into the new, postcolonial environment.
Like critical race scholars, postcolonial theorists contend that oppression and racism are reproduced by social structures and cultural meanings that are bigger than any one individual and outlast any one historical period. Postcolonial theorists study institutions and archives, as well as literary texts and films, to understand how these structures and meanings are produced in everyday life, and how they often shape powerful countries’ views not only of their former colonial subjects, but also of themselves. In his groundbreaking book Orientalism, for example, Edward Said showed that “the West” (or “Occident”) had for centuries defined itself through portraying the Eastern “Orient” as its polar opposite. In scores of Western academic texts, literary novels, and artworks during the colonial period, Said found a disturbing and fantastical geography of West vs. East, one in which the West’s depiction of itself as “civilized” and “advanced” depended on the degradation of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures as “barbaric” and “backwards.”
Like Said, contemporary postcolonial theorists work to critique and subvert dominant Western styles of thought, imagination, and theorizing for the purposes of allowing the voices of former colonial subjects to be heard. They also aim to expand social theory by taking seriously cultural knowledges that have been historically excluded. In doing so, postcolonial theorists critique the idea that the terms “modern” and “Western” are synonymous with one another, challenging social theories that understand modernity and modernization as internal to and exclusively of the West.
While we might often think of race in terms of individual bodies and racism as purely about individual prejudices, critical race and postcolonial scholars help show that race and racism are intricate parts of social history and the larger social order. Even when individual prejudices wane, racial inequality can perpetuate itself through larger social systems like education, housing, healthcare, and wealth/income. Moreover, these theorists help demonstrate how racial prejudice operates in often taken-for-granted ways. Both critical race theory and postcolonial thought help us see that race and racism have social sources and consequences, and they critique systems of racial dominance with the hope of helping us create more racially just societies.
Born in 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War, W. E. B. Du Bois was to become one of the most prominent intellectual–activists and social theorists in American history. Demonstrating a great intellect from an early age, Du Bois enrolled in college at Harvard University, eventually earning a Ph.D. in history from there in 1895, becoming the first African-American in history to earn a doctorate from Harvard. In his long life (Du Bois lived to be 95 years old), he wrote several books, including The Souls of Black Folk, a powerful and creatively written text that is today considered a classic of social theory. In that book, Du Bois set the ground for critical race theory, presciently stating that the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line. As well as being an outstanding intellectual, Du Bois was also a tireless advocate for Black Americans and a fierce opponent of racism, discrimination, and colonialism. Du Bois also headed the NAACP for several years, beginning in 1910.
One of the critical legal scholars of race who helped put the idea of a “critical race theory” on the map in the 1970s and 80s, Kimberle Crenshaw is a professor at the law schools of both UCLA and Columbia University. She is the author of numerous articles and influential books on race, racism, law, and critical race theory, including Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment and Critical Race Theory: Key Documents That Shaped the Movement. Her scholarship is not only respected in academic circles, but is also important in contemporary politics. In fact, her work was influential in the drafting of the post-apartheid South African Constitution.
Authors of the groundbreaking Racial Formation in the United States, sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant laid the contemporary theoretical foundation for a critical sociology of race and racism. In Racial Formation, the two authors argue that racial meanings operate at all levels of society, from our most personal identities to the economy and contested politics of the state. They also set out a theoretical framework for understanding how these layers of racial meaning—what they call “racial formations”—come into existence, become contested, and change over time. Their work is a cornerstone of contemporary racial theory.
Born in Jerusalem, Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said grew up to write what is perhaps the foundational text of postcolonial theory. In Orientalism, Said argued that Westerners’ knowledge about the Eastern “Orient” (Asia and the Middle East) was less a representation of fact than a reflection of Western prejudices and political interests. In defining the “Orient” as the polar opposite of the West, Said argued, Orientalist discourses constructed an “imaginative geography” of an inferior Arab–Islamic world.
Frantz Fanon was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, under the colonial rule of France. As a young man, Fanon served in the French military during World War II. Later in life, he became a psychiatrist, philosopher, writer, revolutionary, and a founding theorist of postcolonial thought. His first book, Black Skin, White Masks, is a powerful account of the social-psychological effects of colonialism. In it, Fanon vividly describes the sense of dependency, inferiority, and shame felt by Black colonial subjects, arguing, much like Du Bois, that the constant need to see one’s self through the colonizers’ eyes leads to a divided perception of the world and one’s self.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is an Indian literary critic and postcolonial theorist, and the only woman of color to ever hold the title of University Professor at Columbia University (Columbia’s highest academic rank). She has gained notoriety as one of the world’s top postcolonial and feminist theorists, and her work is largely concerned with the situations of “subaltern” women, a term used to describe people who are excluded from or marginalized by dominant political, cultural, and social structures. Her most famous work of theory, Can the Subaltern Speak?, explores the many forces that make it impossible, in her view, for subaltern people to be heard outside of the dominant discourses of colonial rule.
Go to your library and check out this fine introduction to critical race theory by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic:
And, while you’re at it, also pick up Robert J. C. Young’s extremely helpful introduction to postcolonial thought:
Though feminist thought was largely ignored in mainstream social theory until the last few decades, feminist social theory has a history as long and storied as feminist movements themselves. In fact, since feminist theory emerged from women’s political movements, it’s impossible to tell the history of feminist theory apart from a history of feminism.
The history of feminist politics and theory is often talked of as consisting of three “waves.” First-wave feminism is generally associated with the women’s suffrage movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. First-wave feminism was characterized by a focus on officially mandated inequalities between men and women, such as the legal barring of women from voting, property rights, employment, equal rights in marriage, and positions of political power and authority. Second-wave feminism is associated with the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. While seeing themselves as inheritors of the politics of the first wave which focused primarily on legal obstacles to women’s rights, second-wave feminists began concentrating on less “official” barriers to gender equality, addressing issues like sexuality, reproductive rights, women’s roles and labor in the home, and patriarchal culture. Finally, what is called third-wave feminism is generally associated with feminist politics and movements that began in the 1980s and continue on to today. Third-wave feminism emerged out of a critique of the politics of the second wave, as many feminists felt that earlier generations had over-generalized the experiences of white, middle-class, heterosexual women and ignored (and even suppressed) the viewpoints of women of color, the poor, gay, lesbian, and transgender people, and women from the non-Western world. Third-wave feminists have critiqued essential or universal notions of womanhood, and focus on issues of racism, homophobia, and Eurocentrism as part of their feminist agenda.
Feminist social theory has influenced and been influenced by the agendas and struggles of each of these waves. “First-wave” theorists like Mary Wollstonecraft and Susan B. Anthony were influential for their focus on how women’s lack of legal rights contributed to their social demotion, exclusion, and suffering. “Second-wave” theorists like Betty Friedan and Andrea Dworkin were prominent for their focus on women’s sexuality, reproduction, and the social consequences of living in a patriarchal culture. And “third-wave” theorists like Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak are significant for critiquing the idea of a universal experience of womanhood and drawing attention to the sexually, economically, and racially excluded. Moreover, feminist social theorists in each wave have critiqued the male biases implicit in social theory itself, helping to construct social theory that draws on rather than excludes the experiences of women.
Ultimately, if feminism, broadly understood, is concerned with improving the conditions of women in society, feminist social theory is about developing ideas, concepts, philosophies, and other intellectual programs that help meet that agenda. Feminist social theory, like any theoretical tradition, is best seen as a continuing conversation of many voices and viewpoints.
Some commentators believe that the women’s movements of the twentieth century were so successful in combating gender inequality that we have entered a “postfeminist” era. While it is undeniable that feminist political movements have made tremendous gains for women over the last 100 years, social scientific evidence demonstrates that there are still large inequalities between men and women when it comes to areas like income and wealth, political power and opportunities, legal rights, sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, and overall status in society. This is even more the case in countries outside of the United States and Europe. As long as gender inequality and oppression exists, feminism and feminist thought will continue to matter to millions of people throughout the world. Moreover, feminist intellectuals continue to develop cutting-edge and nuanced understandings of the social world that enrich the power and possibilities of social theory writ large.
The publication of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1949 marked a watershed for feminist theory and politics. In it, de Beauvoir presents the idea of “Woman as Other,” a relational theory of femininity that asserts that the category of woman is defined by everything man is not. De Beauvoir also focused on how control of women’s sexuality and reproduction has historically subjugated them to men, and was one of the first theorists to argue that gender was not an essential characteristic of people, but rather something that one becomes through socialization. “One is not born,” she wrote, “but becomes a woman.” Her work is a cornerstone of feminist social theory, and has been highly influential to second- and third-wave feminist thought and politics.
Dorothy Smith is a Canadian sociologist best known for her critiques of male bias within social theory and for the development of institutional ethnography. Smith is renowned for developing a distinctively feminist-oriented sociology, arguing that the abstract, all-encompassing theories common in sociological thought are problematic in that they come from an implicit male perspective that ignores or suppresses the experiences of women. Smith advocates beginning inquiry not in the realm of abstract theoretical systems but from the standpoint of women in their everyday lives. In starting with peoples’ experiences, Smith argues, sociologists can then move out to explore the institutions and social relations that structure and often exert control over these actors’ lives. Smith calls this approach to social inquiry “institutional ethnography,” and claims that it is not a sociology for sociology’s sake, but a sociology for people (see, for example, her Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People).
Patricia Hill Collins is Distinguished University Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and former President of the American Sociological Association. Collins is a foundational theorist of what is commonly called intersectionality, a perspective on inequality which argues that oppressions of race, class, gender, and sexuality cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but instead “intersect” and help mutually reinforce and shape one another. For example, Collins argues that the gender inequality that Black women have historically experienced is related to but qualitatively different from the gender inequality experienced by White women. This is not because of essential differences between Black and White women, but because White women have historically been privileged racially while Black women have been dominated through race and gender. Collins first presented this field-shaping perspective in Black Feminist Thought in 1990. More recently, she has written Black Sexual Politics, a book that more fully explores and theorizes the intersections of racial and sexual oppression.
Considered by many to be the most important feminist theorist writing today, the philosopher Judith Butler first came to prominence through her provocative book Gender Trouble. In it, Butler controversially critiques the idea that a universal notion of “woman” should serve as the foundation of feminist politics and thought. Instead, drawing on the ideas of Foucault and the philosopher of language, J. L. Austin, Butler argues that the seeming reality or naturalness of gender, sex, and sexuality is actually a product of the ways we act them out in conformity to cultural languages and norms. In addition to her groundbreaking work on gender and sexual identity, Butler has also written on issues central to moral and political philosophy. She teaches at the University of California–Berkeley.
Check out “Feministing,” one of the more popular feminist blogs going today at:
In recent years, feminist theory and politics has turned more of its attention to the issues faced by women outside of the United States and Europe. To learn more about gender inequality and campaigns for justice around the world, check out the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women at:
Many think that Islam and feminism are fundamentally opposed to one another. Yet, across the Middle East, many Muslim women are using their knowledge of Islam and the Qur’an to fight for women’s empowerment. Learn more about Islamic feminism by reading or listening to this story from National Public Radio:
Race is a concept that signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies.This definition of race is at the heart of Omi and Winant’s theory. Race signifies and symbolizes social conflict. Here they are pointing out that the idea of race is always related to larger social conflicts.
A creative and critical extension of Foucault’s thought on sexuality into the race and gender hierarchies of colonialism.
This collection of essays by the feminist theorist looks at how texts construct social relations. Included is her famous work, “K Is Mentally Ill: The Anatomy of a Factual Account”.
This collection of essays by the science historian and feminist scholar traces her move from Marxist analysis to postmodern theory and “posthumanism.” Her influential essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” calls for feminists to move beyond essentialism and a call to nature.
An influential and groundbreaking study of the relationship between white privilege and gender relations.
This provocative article traces the roots of the sociological canon to the colonial project, which Connell argues came “at the price of narrowing sociology’s intellectual scope and concealing much of its history.” Essential reading for anyone interested in the creation of theoretical paradigms (or the shifting of them).
Collins investigates the intersection of sexuality, race, and gender and calls for a progressive gender politics in this powerful book.
Details the life and times of Okonkwo, a leader of the Igbo tribe of Nigeria. A famous piece of postcolonial literature from one of Africa’s most acclaimed novelists.