Critical theory is an ideology that divides the world into oppressed groups and oppressor groups and seeks to liberate the oppressed. It is currently the reigning theoretical paradigm in academic disciplines like gender studies, critical pedagogy, critical race theory, anthropology, and queer theory, and forms the ideological foundation for large segments of the secular social justice movement. In my speaking and writing, I’ve characterized critical theory according to several basic premises held by proponents of critical theory. Listed below are quotes which illustrates each of these basic premises.
“My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor… I was taught [wrongly] to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will” – Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” in Andersen and Collins, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, p. 72
“Individualism holds that we are each unique and stand apart from others, even those within our social groups…Setting aside your sense of uniqueness is a critical skill that will allow you to see the big picture of the society in which we live; individualism will not” – Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, 2018, p. 9, 13).
“Some readers may be shocked to see a white person contritely acknowledge that she is racist. I do not say this with pride. I simply believe that no matter how hard I work at not being racist, I still am. Because part of racism is systemic, I benefit from the privilege that I am struggling to see…. All whites are racist in this [systemic] use of the term because we benefit from systemic white privilege.” – Stephanie Wildman with Adrienne Davis, “Language and Silence: Making Systems of Privilege Visible”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 56
”When confronted with the analysis that men have all the power, many men react incredulously. ‘What do you mean, men have all the power?’ they ask. ‘What are you talking about?… I have no power at all! I’m completely powerless!”… men’s experience of powerlessness is real – the men actually feel it and certainly act on it- but it is not true, that is, it does not accurately describe their condition. In contrast to women’s lives, men’s lives are structured around relationships of power and men’s differential access to power, as well as the differential access to that power of men as a group.” – Michael S. Kimmel, “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity,” Readings…, p. 217-218
“in order for those of you who are White to develop empathy for the experiences of people of color, you must grapple with how your white skin has privileged you. This is difficult to do, because it not only entails the intellectual process of seeing how whiteness is elevated in institutions and symbols, but it also involves the often painful process of seeing how your whiteness has shaped your personal biography… how have [your mother and father] passed on the benefits of their whiteness to you?” – Patricia Hill Collins, “Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connect”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 461
“Many whites feel that these [affirmative action] programs victimize them, that more qualified white candidates will be required to sacrifice their positions to less qualified minorities… The narrative behind this assumption characterizes whites as innocent, a powerful metaphor, and blacks as – what?… By contrast, many critical race theorists and social scientists hold that racism is pervasive, systemic, and deeply ingrained. If we take this perspective, then no white member of society seems quite so innocent.” – Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, p. 91
“This book is unapologetically rooted in identity politics. I am white and am addressing a common white dynamic. I am mainly writing to a white audience; when I use the terms us and we, I am referring to the white collective.” – Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, p. xiv
“a positive white identity is an impossible goal. White identity is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy. This does not mean that we should stop identifying as white and start claiming only to be Italian or Irish. To do so is to deny the reality of racism in the here and now, and this denial would simply be color-blind racism. Rather, I strive to be ‘less white.’ To be less white is to be less racially oppressive.” – Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, p. 149-150
“Gender is a learned identity, but, as with race, it cannot be understood at the individual level alone.” – Margaret Andersen and Patricia Collins, “Conceptualizing Race, Class, and Gender”, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, p. 51
“In any relationship between groups that define one another (men/women, able-bodied/disabled, young/old), the dominant group is the group that is valued more highly. Dominant groups set the norms by which the minoritized group is judged.” (p. 25) “Hegemony refers to the control of the ideology of a society. The dominant group maintains power by imposing their ideology on everyone.” (p. 50) – Sensoy and DiAngelo, Is Everyone Really Equal?
“Whiteness rests upon a foundational premise: the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm.” – Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, 2018, p. 25.
“In common usage today, ’hegemony’ might simply be used as a synonym for dominance and supremacy. Concepts of hegemony enable us to appreciate how dominant groups manipulate symbols and images to construct ‘common sense’ and thereby maintain their power. Such groups increasingly are defined and understood not only in terms of class but also in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, and so forth.” – Jacob P. K. Gross, “Education and Hegemony: The Influence of Antonio Gramsci” in Beyond Critique: Exploring Critical and Social Theories in Education, p. 57, 65.
“Power is typically equated with domination and control over people or things. Social institutions depend on this version of power to reproduce hierarchies of race, class, and gender.” – Margaret Andersen, “Social Change and the Politics of Empowerment”, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, p. 450
“People [in the US] are commonly defined as other on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, and physical or mental ability. Each of these categories has a form of oppression associated with it: racism, sexism, religious oppression/anti-Semitism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism, respectively. In each case, there is a group considered dominant (systematically advantaged by the society because of group membership) and a group considered subordinate or targeted (systematically disadvantaged).” – Beverly Tatum, “The Compexity of Identity: ‘Who Am I?’”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 11
“Dominant or agent groups are considered the ‘norm’ around which assumptions are built, and these groups receive attention and recognition. Agents have relatively more social power, and can ‘name’ others… Agent groups include men, white people, middle- and upper-class people, abled people, middle-aged people, heterosexuals, and gentiles.” – Bobbie Harro, “The Cycle of Socialization”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 17
“Examining privilege reveals that the characteristics and attributes of those who are privileged group members are described as societal norms – as the way things are and as what is normal in society. This normalization of privilege means that members of society are judged, and succeed or fail, measured against the characteristics that are held by those privileged.” – Stephanie Wildman with Adrienne Davis, “Language and Silence: Making Systems of Privilege Visible”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 53
“oppression also traditionally carries a strong connotation of conquest and colonial domination… New left social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, however, shifted the meaning of the concept of oppression. In its new usage, oppression designates the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because a tyrannical power coerces them, but because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society… Oppression in this sense is structural, rather than the result of a few people’s choices or policies. Its causes are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols.” – Iris Young, “Five Faces of Oppression,” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 36
“Heterosexism is the institutionalization of a heterosexual norm or standard, which establishes and perpetuates the notion that all people are or should be heterosexual, thereby privileging heterosexuals and heterosexuality, and excluding the needs, concerns, cultures, and life experiences of LGBT peple.” – Warren J. Blumenfeld, “Heterosexism”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 262-263
“First, in considering oppression theory, the question ‘what is sexism?’ is addressed through a definition that combines prejudicial attitudes or beliefs with social power. Suzanne Pharr defines sexism as “an enforced belief in male dominance and control” held in place by system of power and control that ultimately keep women subordinate to men. These systems of power and control take place at institutional, cultural, and individual levels.” – Heather Hackman, “Sexism”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 199,
“Racial prejudice when combined with social power -access to social, cultural, and economic resources and decision making- leads to the institutionalization of racist policies and practices… the idea of systemic advantage and disadvantage is critical to an understanding of how racism operates in American society.” Beverly Tatum, “Defining Racism: ‘Can We Talk?’”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 80
“Like other forms of oppression, ableism operates on individual, cultural, and institutional levels. Ableism affects those with disabilities by inhibiting their access to and power within institutional structures that fulfill basic needs, like health care, housing, government, education, religion, the media, and the legal system.” Rosie Castañeda and Madeline Peters, “Ableism”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 320
“Like racism, sexism is a system of beliefs and behaviors by which a group is oppressed, controlled, and exploited because of presumed gender differences…. Homophobia – the fear of homosexuality- is part of the system of social control that legitimates and enforces gender oppression. It supports the system of compulsory heterosexuality” – Margaret Andersen, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, p. 51-52
“Racism…, Sexism,…Ageism. Heterosexism. Elitism. Classism. It is a lifetime pursuit for each one of us to extract these distortions from our living” Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, p. 496
“The cultural system of meanings, values, behavioral norms and interpretations of reality express the identity of the society, regulate conduct and maintain its cohesion integration, much as Durkheim said about religion. But that said, the values of every society are shaped by the interests of the ruling classes in such ways that ultimately sustain their power” – Lauren Langman, “From Domination to Liberation: Marcuse, Gramsci, and a Critical Theory of Social Mobilization”, p.12. Conference Papers American Sociological Association
“Marcuse’s notions of ‘one dimensional thought’…complements the critical theory tradition to better understand how hegemony, as cultural domination, normalizes and sustains the political/economic power of particular historic blocs – the ruling coalition of economic, political and cultural elites” – Lauren Langman, “From Domination to Liberation: Marcuse, Gramsci, and a Critical Theory of Social Mobilization”, p.14, Conference Papers – American Sociological Association.
“The bias of higher education, including the so-called sciences, is white and male, racist and sexist; and this bias is expressed in both subtle and blatant ways… Sexist grammar burns into the brains of little girls and young women a message that the male is the norm, the standard, the central figure beside which we are the deviants, the marginal, the dependent variables. It laws the foundations for androcentric thinking, and leaves men safe in their solipsistic tunnel-vision.” – Adrienne Rich, “Taking Women Students Serious”, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, p. 393
“racism, like other forms of oppression, is not only a personal ideology based on racial prejudice, but a system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and actions of individuals” – Beverly Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids…, p. 7
“But critical theory goes even further. It unearths the ways in which an unjust society utilises a set of ideas to convince people that this unjust situation is normal. Critical theory is a way of reading this situation so as both to understand and change it” – Ted Fleming, Book Review of The Power of Critical Theory for Adult Learning and Teaching. In The Adult Learner: The Journal of Adult and Community Education in Ireland. 2005, p. 85.
“Prior to celebrating diversity, we must first eliminate intolerance. No matter what form it takes or who does it, we must all take action to stop intolerance when it happens. Working towards a celebration of diversity implies working for social justice – the elimination of all forms of social oppression… Social injustice takes many forms. It can be injustice based on a person’s gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, or economic class.” – Mary McClintock, “How to Interrupt Oppressive Behavior,” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 483
“These political times call for renewed dialogue about and commitment to the politics of liberation…Liberation requires a struggle against discrimination based on race, class, gender, sexual identity, ableism and age” – Suzanne Pharr, “Reflections on Liberation,” in Adams et. al,. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 450
“Liberation is the practice of love… Liberation is finding balance in our individual lives and in the agendas of our coalitions. Liberation is the development of competence, the ability to make something happen consistent with a goal…. Liberation is the belief that we can succeed, a sense of confidence in ourselves and in our collective efforts… Liberation is a joy at our collective efficacy and at surviving in a world that sometimes tries to kill us…Liberation is the knowledge that we are not alone… Liberation is commitment to the effort of critical transformation, to the people in our community, to the goal of equity and justice, and to love. Liberation is passion and compassion, those strong and motivating feelings that we must live be our hearts as well as our minds. Liberation is based in something far bigger than me as an individual, or us as a coalition, or our organization as a community, or any one nation, or any particular world. It’s about that force that connects us all to one another as living beings, that force that is defined differently by every spiritual belief system but which binds us by the vision that there can be a better world and we can help to create it.” – Bobbie Harro, “The Cycle of Liberation”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 469
“I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist patterns, and investments in the racist system that has elevated me… I didn’t chose [sic] this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it. To the degree that I have done my best in each moment to interrupt my participation, I can rest with a clearer conscience.” –Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, p. 149
Premise #4: ‘Lived experience’ is more important than objective evidence in understanding oppression
“The idea that objectivity is best reached only through rational thought is a specifically Western and masculine way of thinking – one that we will challenge throughout this book.” – Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins, “Reconstructing Knowledge,” in Anderson and Collins, Race, Class, and Gender, p. 4-5
“There is no single true, or all encompassing, description. We participate in creating what we see in the very act of describing it. Social and moral realities, the subject of this chapter, are just as indeterminate and subject to interpretation as single objects or events, if not more so. My premise is that much of social reality is constructed. We decide what is and, almost simultaneously, what ought to be. For many minority persons, the principal instrument of their subordination…is the prevailing mind-set by means of which members of the dominant group justify the world as it is – that is, with whites on top and browns and blacks on bottom. Stories, parables, chronicles, and narratives are powerful means for destroying mind-set — the bundle of presuppositions, received wisdoms, and shared understandings…the cure is storytelling (or as I sometimes call it, counterstorytelling.” – Richard Delgado, “Storytelling for Opposistionalists and Others”; in Critical Race Theory, pp 71-72
“Heterosexual white men in this society tend to have a dualistic view of the world: we are either right or wrong, winners or losers. There is only one truth, and we will fight with one another to determine whose truth is right. To understand oppression requires that we accept others’ experiences as truthful, even though they may be very different from ours. To live with equality in a diverse, pluralistic society, we have to accept the fact that all groups and individuals have a legitimate claim to what is true and real for them” – Cooper Thompson, “Can White Men Understand Oppression?”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 478
“Ideology – the received wisdom – makes current social arrangements seem fair and natural. Those in power sleep well at night; their conduct does not seem to them like oppression” – Richard Delgado, “Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others”; in Critical Race Theory, pp 71-72
“This new ideology [pf color-blind racism] has become a formidable political tool for the maintenance of the racial order. Much as Jim Crow racism served as the glue for defending a brutal and overt system of racial oppression in the pre-civil rights era, color-blind racism serves today as the ideological armor for a covert and institutionalized system in the post-civil rights era. And the beauty of this new ideology is that it aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards.” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists, p. 3-4
“at no point in history have dominant groups, whether capitalists, men, or whites, proclaimed that their domination is rooted in unfairness and oppression or characterized their behavior as abominable. Hence, whether in the slavery, Jim Crow, or post-civil rights eras, whites have never acknowledged any wrongdoing.” – Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists, p. 19
“Other [non-critical] forms of thought were seen as affirmative of the existing order in spite of their self-proclaimed neutrality and objectivity… Social interests were hidden within the philosophical discourse.” – Stephen Bronner, Critical Theory, p. 23
“The extent to which the concept of race has changed over time demonstrates that earlier categories based on race.. have primarily served to perpetuate or justify systems of privilege and power. For instance, in the United States the ‘one-drop rule’ was established during slavery in order to ensure that anyone who had a remote relative of African descent, even if this heritage was not visible, could be kept in slavery… On the other hand, ‘blood quantum’ rules have been used to eliminate most ‘mixed-bloods’ from tribal rolls… In both cases the goal was to perpetuate a system of advantages that benefited the white power structure.” – Ximena Zúñiga and Rosie Castañeda, “Racism”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 63-64
“The process of gendering and its outcome are legitimated by religion, law, science, and the society’s entire set of values… Western society’s values legitimate gendering by claiming that it all comes from physiology – female and male procreative differences. But sex and gender are not equivalent.” – Judith Lorber, “’Night to His Day’: The Social Construction of Gender”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 205.
“The gendered practices of everyday life reproduce a society’s view of how women and men should act. Gendered social arrangements are justified by religion and cultural productions and backed by law, but the most powerful means of sustaining the moral hegemony of the dominant gender ideology is that the process is made invisible; any possible alternatives are virtually unthinkable (Foucault 1972; Grasci 1971).” – Judith Lorber, “’Night to His Day’: The Social Construction of Gender”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 207.
“Ideology refers to a system of beliefs that distort reality at the same time that the justify the status quo…. This myth [of a classless society] serves the dominant class, making class privilege seem like something one earns, not something that is deeply embedded in the institutions of society. Langston and Bonacich also suggest that systems of privilege and inequality (by race, class, and gender) are least visible to those who are most privileged by them and who, in turn, control the resources to define the dominant cultural belief systems. This is perhaps why men more than women deny that patriarchy exists, why whites more than Blacks believe racism is disappearing, and why the privileged, not the poor, are more likely to believe that one gets ahead through heard work.” – Margaret Andersen and Patricia Collins, “Conceptualizing Race, Class, and Gender”, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, p. 51
“In ‘Ideology and Belief Systems’ we see how dominant ideologies about race, class, and gender and ideologies of resistance developed by subordinated groups gain institutional expression in language, the media, humor, and music. People with the power to define reality create dominant ideologies reflecting their own interests, as Gloria Steinem reminds us in ‘If Men Could Menstruate.’” Margaret Andersen and Patricia Collins, “Rethinking Institutions”, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, p. 174
“the very discourse of colorblindness – created by neoconservatives and neoliberals in order to trivialize and disguise the depths of black suffering in the 1980s and ‘90s has left America blind to the New Jim Crow.” – Cornell West in the forward to Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. x
“For me, the new [racial] caste system is now as obvious as my own face in the mirror. Like an optical illusion –one in which the embedded image is impossible to see until its outline is identified- the new caste system lurks invisibly within the maze of rationalizations we have developed for persistent racial inequality.” – Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 12
“Since segregationists had first developed them in the early twentieth century, standardized tests – from the MCAT to the SAT and IQ exams – had failed time and again to predict success in college and professional careers or even to truly measure intelligence. But these standardized tests had succeeded in their original mission: figuring out an ‘objective’ way to rule non-Whites (and women and poor people) intellectually inferior, and to justify discriminating against them in the admissions process. It had become so powerfully ‘objective’ that those non-Whites, women, and poor people would accept their rejection letters and not question the admissions decisions. Standardized exams have, if anything, predicted the socioeconomic class of the student and perhaps a student’s first-year success in college or in a professional program – which says that the tests could be helpful for students after they are admitted, to assess who needs extra assistance the first year”- Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, p. 426-427
“Racial structures remain in place for the same reasons that other structures do. Since actors racialized as ‘white’ – or as members of the dominant race- receive material benefits from the racial order, they struggle (or passively receive the manifold wages of whiteness) to maintain their privileges… Therein lies the secret of racial structures and racial inequality the world over. They exist because they benefit members of the dominant race.” – Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists, p. 9
“The central component of any dominant racial ideology is its frames or set paths for interpreting information… Dominant racial frames therefore provide the intellectual road map used by rulers to navigate the always rocky road of domination and… derail the ruled from their track to freedom and equality.” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists, p. 74
Premise #6: Individuals at the intersection of different oppressed groups experience oppression in a unique way
“Imagine a black woman [who may be] a single working mother… She experiences, potentially, not only multiple forms of oppression but ones unique to her and to others like her.” – Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, p. 59
“Most people in the United States think of feminism, or the more commonly used term ‘women’s lib,’ popularized by the media and mainstream segments of the movement raises problematic questions…Since men are not equals in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure, which men do women want to be equal to? … Implicit in this simplistic definition of women’s liberation is a dismissal of race and class as factors that, in conjunction with sexism, determine the extent to which an individual will be discriminated against, exploited, or oppressed.” – bell hooks, “Feminism: a Movement to End Sexist Oppression,” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 238
“Feminism as a movement to end sexist oppression directs our attention to systems of domination and the inter-relatedness of sex, race, and class oppression. Therefore, it compels us to centralize the experiences and the social predicaments of women who bear the brunt of sexist oppression as a way to understand the collective social status of women in the United States.” bell hooks, “Feminism: a Movement to End Sexist Oppression,” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 248
“Time and time again, I have observed that the usual response among white women’s groups when the ‘racism issue’ comes up is to deny the difference. I have heard comments like, ‘Well, we’re open to all women; why don’t they (women of color) come? You can only do so much…’ But there is seldom any analysis of how the very nature and structure of the group itself may be founded on racist or classist assumptions.” – Cherrie Moraga, “Shifting the Center”, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, p. 26
“individuals appear at differing points on the sexuality and gender continuum and n the path toward a definition of their identities; and individuals come from disparate racial, sexual, gender, class, ethnic, religious, age, and regional backgrounds as well as physical and mental abilities. Therefore, the weight of oppression does not fall on them uniformly.” – Warren J. Blumenfeld, “Heterosexism,” Readings…, p. 265
See all content on critical theory here.