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 80s, critical theories of race in the U.S. go back as far as the mid 19thth and early 20th centuries, with roots in the writings of prominent intellectual-activists such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and W.E.B. DuBois.
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 20th century, as countries and people 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 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.
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.
Born in Jerusalem, Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said grew up to write what is perhaps thefoundational 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 DuBois, 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.
Julian Go is Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. Previously, he worked at Boston University, and he has served as a visiting professor at Harvard University. Go’s scholarship has won numerous awards, including from the American Sociological Association, the American Political Science Association, and the International Studies Association. Go’s research examines the logics and consequences of colonialism, as well as postcolonial thought and theory, especially in relation to US colonialism.
Benjamin is Professor of African American studies at Princeton University. Her work examines how new technologies that may seem colorblind on the surface work to perpetuate and even increase racial and other forms of inequality. For example, automated technology like facial recognition software may have difficulty recognizing black people’s features because it standardizes white bodies. This “New Jim Code” can have far-reaching and even fatal consequences. Benjamin’s work highlights how technology may reinforce social boundaries in unexpected and unintended ways, a fact exacerbated by the widely-held assumption that technology inevitably leads to progress. Her writing highlights how technological development isn’t always positive and tends to benefit dominant groups.
Raka Ray is Professor and Dean of Social Sciences at the University of California Berkeley. She conducts research on class and gender in India and has made important contributions to feminist and postcolonial theories. Her work highlights how social movements’ success depends on the political fields that they operate in. Likewise, research examines how people reproduce class and gender inequality through daily life in the home and questions whether middle class success strengthens or inhibits democracy.
Seemin Qayum, a historical anthropologist whose research and writing focuses on nationalism and gender in Bolivia, is a policy advisor at the United Nations focusing on sustainable development and livelihoods for women.
Recognized as one of the most important cultural theorists of the 20th century, Stuart Hall was born in Jamaica in 1932 and served as president of the British Sociological Association from 1995-1997. Hall’s work focuses on cultural hegemony and media criticism, examining how the production and consumption of cultural stuff like film, language, books, etc. justifies and reproduces inequality while shaping society in surprising ways. His influential essay Cultural Identity and Diaspora examines the construction of cultural identity within African diaspora communities, arguing that these communities do not have essential historical identities but rather constantly construct them based on history, culture, and power relationships.
Robinson worked as a professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His most well-known theoretical work Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition critiques Marx’s historical determinism by introducing two key theoretical concepts: racial capitalism and the Black radical tradition. Racial capitalism describes the process of extracting value from others’ racial identities. Robinson argues that all forms of capitalism are structured by race, with some groups of people treated as inherently less valuable and thus worthy of exploitation and dehumanization. The Black radical tradition describes resistance to racial capitalism as black people have fought for recognition of their--and everyone’s, including oppressors’--humanity, dignity, and liberty.
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.
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: