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Critical Race and Postcolonial Theory

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.

How Critical Race and Postcolonial Theory Matter Today

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.

W. E. B. Du Bois

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.

Kimberle Crenshaw

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.

Michael Omi and Howard Winant

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.

Edward Said

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

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 Spivak

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.

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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: