Race, Class, and Gender is a 500+ page anthology of essays, excerpts from books, and journal articles. The contents of this book are not bound together by a single topic, but by a broad philosophical perspective known as ‘critical theory’. While the authors come from very different backgrounds, what unites them is a common set of basic assumptions about the nature of reality. Because I consider this book to be the most important work I’ve read in the last three years, I’m going to divide my review into five sections.
Part 1 – the good:
– Because critical theory emphasizes ‘experience’ over ‘argument,’ this volume draws heavily on a wealth of experiences. We hear many voices, each telling their own story. I particularly appreciated Karen Russell’s essay on the terrible racism that she faced in Boston where her father Bill Russell played for the Celtics, Leanita Mclain’s essay on the difficulty of being a middle class black woman, Bob Cole’s account of being an academician from a coal-mining background, Nancy Daio’s interview with Asian housing advocate Chang Jok Lee, and Roberta Praeger’s horrifying experience with incest and subsequent life as a single mother on welfare.
– A few essays provided quantitative data and many more provided historical or cultural background. For example, a (brief) overview of economic disparities between blacks and whites, and men and women, was provided by Robert Blauner’s “The Ambiguities of Racial Change” and Edna Bnoacich’s “Inequality in America.” Michael Messner’s article on “Masculinities and Athletic Careers” also included fascinating interviews with male athletes, focusing on how their view of sports shaped their identities as men. Several authors offered first-hand perspectives on their own cultures: Chicano, Filipino, Asian America, Jewish, etc…
– The book is astonishingly current. Many of these essays read as if they had been ripped from the front page of yesterday’s Huffington Post; yet this book was published in 1992! Terms like “white privilege”, “ableism”, and “systemic racism,” which entered our popular, cultural lexicon only a few years ago (do a Google Trends search), were introduced by critical theorists into academia decades ago. Someone (Nietzsche?) once observed that the obscure philosophies of ivory-tower intellectuals in one era are the culture’s unquestioned dogmas fifty years later. That’s what we’re seeing in this book, 20 years ahead of schedule.
– Perhaps the greatest contribution of this volume was to put the authors’ sentiments in print. I don’t know whether their views are broadly representative of anthropology, sociology, and Gender Studies departments across the country (I suspect that they are). But whether they are or not, seeing them articulate their beliefs and attitudes explicitly and clearly was eye-opening. These are primary sources. If we want to know what people believe and how they view the world, it’s almost always better to listen to their own words, rather than consulting secondary sources. For that reason, this book is exceptionally valuable.
See all content on critical theory here.