Quotes from Sensoy and DiAngelo’s Is Everyone Really Equal?

Robin DiAngelo, whose website identifies her as a critical race and social justice educator, is one of the most well-known critical race theorists in the U.S. today. IsEveryoneReallyEqualHer book White Fragility is a best-seller and she travels the country, giving seminars on race and social justice at churches and universities. In Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, she and co-author Özlem Sensoy, address not just race, but gender, class, sexuality, physical ability, and other identity markers. This book is extremely important for anyone interested in the influence of contemporary critical theory on the secular social justice movement. Rather than offer any commentary on the book, I’ll simply highlight important quotes:

“A critical approach to social justice refers to specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e. divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e. as structural), and actively seeks to change this. The definition we apply is rooted in a critical theoretical approach.” (p. xx)

“[In Chapter 5] we introduce the concept of power, which transforms group prejudice into oppression, and define terms such as dominant group and minoritized group. This chapter also explains the difference between concepts such as race prejudice, which anyone can hold, and racism, which occurs at the group level and is only perpetuated by the group that holds social, ideological, economic, and institutional power. The chapter explains the ‘ism’ word (for example racism, sexism, classism) and how these words allow us to capture structural power as it manifests in particular forms of oppression.” (p. xxii)

“we do not intend to inspire guilt or assign blame… But each of us does have a choice about whether we are going to work to interrupt and dismantle these systems [of injustice] or support their existence by ignoring them. There is no neutral ground; to choose not to act against injustice is to choose to allow it.” (p. xxiv)

“Mainstream culture prevents us from understanding a central tenet of social justice education: Society is structured in ways that make us all complicit in systems of inequality; there is no neutral ground. Thus an effective critical social justice course will unsettle mainstream perspectives and institutional discourses” (p. 4)

Positionality is the concept that our perspectives are based on our place in society. Positionality recognizes that where you stand in relation to others shapes what you can see and understand.” (p. 15)

“all knowledge is taught from a particular perspective; the power of dominant knowledge depends in large part on its presentation as neutral and universal (Kincheloe, 2008). In order to understand the concept of knowledge as never purely objective, neutral, and outside of human interests, it is important to distinguish between discoverable laws of the natural world (such as the law of gravity), and knowledge, which is socially constructed. By socially constructed, we mean that all knowledge understood by humans is framed by the ideologies, language, beliefs, and customs of human societies. Even the field of science is subjective” (p. 15)

“Practicing thinking critically helps us see the role of ideology in the construction of knowledge about progress. It challenges the belief that knowledge is simply the result of a rational, objective, and value-neutral process, one that is removed from any political agenda. The notion of value-free (or objective) knowledge was central to rationalizing the colonization of other lands and peoples that began in the 15th century” (p. 25)

From the section “A Brief Overview of Critical Theory“:

“Our analysis of social justice is based on a school of thought know as Critical Theory. Critical Theory refers to a body of scholarship that examines how society works, and is a tradition that emerged in the early part of the 20th century from a group of scholars at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany” (p. 25)

“Efforts among scholars to understand how society works weren’t limited to the Frankfurt School; French philosophers (notably Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Lacan) were also grappling with similar questions… This work merges in the North American context of the 1960s with antiwar, feminist, gay rights, Black power, Indigenous peoples, The Chicano Movement, disability rights, and other movements for social justice” (p. 26)

“One of the key contributions of critical theorists concerns the production of knowledge…. These scholars argue that a key element of social injustice involves the claim that particular knowledge is objective, neutral, and universal. An approach based on critical theory calls into question the idea that objectivity is desirable or even possible. The term used to describe this way of thinking about knowledge is that knowledge is socially constructed. When we refer to knowledge as socially constructed we mean that knowledge is reflective of the values and interests of those who produce it.” (p. 29)

“Positionality asserts that knowledge is dependent upon a complex web of cultural values, beliefs, experiences, and social positions.” (p. 29)

who we are (as knowers) is intimately connected to our group socialization (including gender, race, class, and sexuality)…what you know’ is connected to ‘who you are’ and ‘where you stand.'” (p. 29-30)

For every social group, there is an opposite group… the primary groups that we name here are: race, class, gender, sexuality, ability status/exceptionality, religion, and nationality” (p. 44)

“although we are individuals, we are also -and perhaps fundamentally– members of social groups. These group memberships shape us as profoundly, if not more so, than any unique characteristic we may claim to possess.” (p. 46)

“To oppress is to hold down –to press– and deny a social group full access and potential in a given society. Oppression describes a set of policies, practices, traditions, norm, definitions, and explanations (discourses), which function to systematically exploit one social group to the benefit of another social group. The group that benefits from this exploitation is termed the dominant (or agent) group, and the group that is exploited is termed the minoritized (or target) group…. Sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism are specific forms of oppression” (p. 61).

“Oppression involves institutional control, ideological domination, and the imposition of the dominant group’s culture on the minoritized group. No individual member of the dominant group has to do anything specific to oppress a member of the minoritized group” (p. 62)

“All major social group categories (such as gender) are organized into binary, either/or identities (e.g. men/women). These identities depend upon their dynamic relationship with one another, wherein each identity is defined by its opposite… Not only are these groups constructed as opposites, but they are also ranked into a hierarchy” (p. 63)

Figure 5.1 (p. 64):


“While numbers do matter, oppression isn’t simply the result of a numerical majority” (p. 67)”

Oppression is ideological. Ideology, as the dominant ideas of a society, plays a powerful role in the perpetuation of oppression. Ideology is disseminated throughout all the institutions of society and rationalizes social inequality... Oppression is embedded within individual consciousness through socialization and rationalized as normal; once people are socialized into their place in the hierarchy, injustice is assured. Oppressive beliefs and misinformation are internalized by both the dominant and the minoritized groups, guaranteeing that overall each group will play its assigned role in relation to the other” (p. 68)

“Dominant groups have the most narrow or limited view of society because they do not have to understand the experiences of the minoritized group in order to survive.. Minoritized groups often have the widest view of society, in that they must understand both their own and the dominant group’s perspective — develop a double-consciousness- to succeed” (p. 70)

Language is not a neutral transmitter of a universal objective or fixed reality. Rather, language is the way we construct reality” (p. 70).

Internalized oppression refers to internalizing and acting out (often unintentionally) the constant messages that you and your group are inferior to the dominant group and thus deserving of your lower position” (p. 72)

“Hegemony, Ideology, and Power. Hegemony refers to the control of the ideology of society. The dominant group maintains power by imposing their ideology on everyone.“(p. 73)

“Power in the context of understanding social justice refers to the ideological, technical, and discursive elements by which those in authority impose their ideas and interests on everyone.” (p. 73)

“From a critical social justice perspective, privilege is defined as systemically conferred dominance and the institutional processes by which the beliefs and values of the dominant group are ‘made normal’ and universal.” (p. 80)

“Because dominant groups occupy the positions of power, their members receive social and institutional advantages; thus one automatically receives privilege by being a member of a dominant group (e.g. cis-men, Whites, heterosexuals, the able-bodied, Christians, upper classes).” (p. 81)

it [is] difficult for dominant group members to see oppression, or to believe accounts of it happening to others. In addition to the structural barriers, there are psychological and social investments in not seeing oppression… These investments cause us to resist pressures to acknowledge oppression; where we are dominant, we generally don’t like to have our privilege pointed out” (p. 87-88)

“Patriarchy is the belief in the inherent superiority of men and the creation of institutions based on that belief. Examples of patriarchal ideology worldwide are: a male god; the father as the head of the household; males as authority in all social realms such as law, government, religion and culture; women as inherently inferior to men and the property of men.” (p. 103)

“Antiracist education recognizes racism as embedded in all aspects of society and the socialization process; no one who is born into and raised in Western culture can escape being socialized to participate in racist relations. Antiracist education seeks to interrupt these relations by educating people to identify, name, and challenge the norms, patterns, traditions, ideologies, structures, and institutions that keep racism in place… To accomplish this, we must challenge the dominant conceptualization of racism as individual acts that only some bad individuals do, rather than as a system in which we are all implicated. Using a structural definition of racism allows us to explore our own relationship to racism as a system and to move beyond isolated incidents and/or intentions” (p. 142)

“Critical scholars define racism as a systemic relationship of unequal power between White people and peoples of Color. Whiteness refers to the specific dimensions of racism that elevates White people over all peoples of Color.” (p. 142)

“White power and privilege is termed White supremacy. When we use the term white supremacy, we do not mean it in its lay usage to indicate extreme hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or the dozens of others like it. Rather, we use the term to capture the pervasiveness, magnitude, and normalcy of White privilege, dominance, and assumed superiority.” (p. 143)

“Our inability to think with complexity about racism, as well as our investment in it, makes Whites the least qualified to assess its manifestations… Very few Whites believe that structural racism is real or have the humility to engage with peoples of Color about it in an open and thoughtful way.” (p. 149)

Intersectionality is the idea that identity cannot be fully understood via a single lens such as gender, race, or class alone — what legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) called a ‘single axis framework’ (p. 139).” (p. 175)

our socialization is the foundation of our identity. Thus to consider that we have been socialized to participate in systems of oppression that we don’t condone is to challenge our very sense of who we are.” (p. 185)

Critical theory challenges the claim that any knowledge is neutral or objective, and outside of humanly constructed meanings and interests.” (p. 187)

“[You should] Work from the knowledge that the societal default is oppression; there are no spaces free of it. Thus, the question becomes, ‘How is it manifesting here?’ rather than ‘Is it manifesting here?'” (p. 203)

“Critical social justice perspectives:

  • There is no neutral text; all texts represent a particular perspective
  • All texts are embedded with ideology; the ideology embedded in most mainstream texts functions to reproduce historical relations of unequal power.
  • Texts that appeal to a wide audience usually do so because they reinforce dominant narratives and serve dominant interests” (p .210)

Like Levinson’s Beyond Critique, Sensoy and DiAngelo’s Is Everyone Really Equal? is an important resource for those interested in contemporary critical theory. While the former work focuses on the historical development of critical theory, the latter shows how contemporary critical theory is applied in practice to antiracist and social justice work.

All content on critical theory is available here.

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