Race in America is a controversial issue. Sensitive. Taboo, even. Seemingly always has been. And it looks like it’ll stay that way.
Maybe if we stop talking about it, it’ll go away. We’ll create a post-racial society where the only race that matters is the human race. We’ll move beyond Affirmative Action and see people not as demographics, but as individuals, as the competent, hardworking people that they are.
We’ll stop being so sensitive and learn how to take a joke. We’ll stop ruining the mood at parties or at cocktail dinners. We’ll go back to the ways things used to be, before the internet, before everyone got so goddamn preachy about everything. Before everyone and their mother had something to say about anything under the sun, before identity-politics infiltrated universities and polluted all manner of discourse and “scientific” studies.
We must ask ourselves, however, “why?”
Why exactly is race so touchy? Why is it taboo? Why is it uncomfortable? Why does every single sociologist seem so hellbent on pushing what they even admit is a “social construct?”
Race has to do with power and power dynamics. Power defined as material and immaterial ability, the access to physical resources and public influence, to shape and redefine reality as an actor wishes. Power dynamics defined as the relationships between those in power and those living under them. Power dynamics understood as the eternal tug-of-war between dominant groups and outsiders, between those who would work to benefit themselves at the cost of others and those who seek to prevent this.
CRT needs no introduction.
Critical “racist” theory.
Unsurprisingly the people that fear it the most have no understanding of what it actually is. What it seeks to accomplish, what its intellectual basis is or the methods by which it seeks to study power.
CRT is just that: a means to study power. A critical, historically contextualized attempt to analyze American politics, law, and society. An honest attempt to see who will look away first when confronting the ugliest scars of our past, to find out who has the stomach to lay bare every skeleton in this nation’s closet.
In order for CRT to even hold water, let alone make sense, however, you already need to have a certain understanding of the world and how it operates. You need to understand white supremacy as more than just Klansmen and Proud Boys, as more than just an ideology or a progressive buzzword. You need to see white supremacy as what it is: whiteness as the de facto benchmark for comparison, in every aspect of society and reality.
You need to see white supremacy as not a preference to whiteness, but a deference to it. Whiteness must be understood beyond a lack of seasoning in the kitchen drawers or a penchant for IPAs. Whiteness must be accepted as an ever shifting framework of logic, of cultural, of political, of economic, of cultural characteristics. The ultimate body of whiteness is not the skin itself; it is the meaning attached to actions, to thought. It is the history behind what is seen as unnatural and vulgar; it is the circumstances by which we have arrived at such distinctions.
This is a tough pill to swallow, even for BIPOC.
And why would it not be? Of course it would be. The acknowledgement of whiteness, of white supremacy, requires, no, demands a willingness to accept that reality is not what you were told it was. The acknowledgement of white supremacy as an actual thing, as a legitimate entity, requires a person to accept that they will have to question every. single. bit. of information that they’ve ever been told or learned.
And this is just the first step. We haven’t even gotten to anti-racism within its revolutionary contexts or within the history of the Black Power and Latino Power movements.
Taken in bites, it’s palatable. It makes sense.
White supremacy, as a contextual lens, would see the world as a product of itself: our reality and our history is the end result of a dominant force’s interests. That dominant force, of course, is whiteness. Logically, then, it would make sense that those in power, the dominant social group, the kings and lords and Senators and Presidents, would not want their authority questioned. Though racism and bigotry certainly factor into this pigmented calculus, the simplest explanation leans towards the tendency of self-preservation.
And so we have reached the crux of the “question of race.” This is where all roads lead, where Occam’s Razor can divide no more.
The “controversy” of race, the uncomfortable feelings it creates, is rooted in this desire for self-preservation. Not only in the practical sense, in terms of political power or financial influence — note that slave owners perverted the Bible in order to create more docile enslaved populations by omitting any teachings regarding personal freedom or rebellion and instead only focused on Scripture that discussed slavery as a positive or the virtues of being a reliable servant — but in an existential sense. In the sense of ego and individuals.
Racism, for the most part, has become a taboo in liberal society. It is a character flaw. It is something to be ashamed of and something to shame others for. It is in direct opposition to the virtues of personal merit and individual choice.
CRT is an uncomfortable, nonconsensual journey of introspection. It is not enough that CRT forces people to reconsider themselves and their history, no. It is the fact that this introspection can happen any time, anywhere under a “racially cognizant” society. People are not safe at school nor at work, they will find no respite in the grocery store or in the movie theatre. They won’t even find it at home or in bed.
And again we come to this question of power and power dynamics. For a group that has never once had to change their very identities to accommodate others, of course this is jarring. Of course this is uncomfortable. White people largely lack the experiences that so often help bind BIPOC color together — every non-white person knows what “the look” is, how we instinctually search for confirmation from each other when a white spectacle unfolds itself — and thus lack the language and understanding to relate to BIPOC, never mind engage in critical discourse on race. White people lack the universal growing pains unceremoniously dumped on to foreigners, on to biracial children, on to those who grew up “talking too white” and not being “Mexican/Vietnamese/Black” enough for certain members of their communities.
White people simply do not understand what it’s like to live in a world that wasn’t created and maintained with them in mind. Of course, an exception can be made for white women, as misogyny and rape culture often transcend racial lines, though it is as equally as often to be predicated on those same lines; in the same way that men do not often think about protecting themselves against sexual assault or coordinating their schedules and commutes around times of day or certain areas, so too does the white person not consider the systemic barriers or cultural nuances created by white supremacy and whiteness.
But what of those like Candace Owens? Like Morgan Freeman, whose famous solution — though most likely outdated — to racism is to “stop talking about it?” What of those people of color who do not believe in CRT, who think those so hyper-obsessed with race are just looking for an easy way up?
Once more, for emphasis!
Race is about power and power dynamics. It is about consent and the privilege of being able to consent at all. Those BIPOC who would bash advancements in civil rights, who would mock CRT and sociologists uncovering the linkages between reality and white supremacy, these wanton masses are first and foremost afraid.
They are afraid that their “honorary status” as white (as much of the Asian community has been relegated through the myth of the model minority, up until COVID or any other bout of Yellow Peril), as “one of the good ones” will be taken away from them. That they will be cast back into that bucket of crabs with the rest of the fellows, that they will become just another chink or wetback. This fear arises out of an unconscious understanding of how the world “truly” works: though they may never admit it, these people understand the kind of systemic hurdles BIPOC face. They realize how difficult it is for people that look like them to succeed. And they are deathly afraid that, despite doing everything by the book, despite working hard and pulling long hours and bettering themselves, everything can be taken away and destroyed. On a whim.
This fear among the “Uncle Toms” of any BIPOC community are reasonable. They are rooted in self-preservation: the American Dream, the talking points of “anyone can succeed with hard work,” “successful people wake up early,” and “just pull up your bootstraps,” become vulnerable otherwise. The ideals that not only built this country, but the Western world, the principles that drove them to immigrate to America or to sacrifice everything to work for slave wages, inch closer and closer to becoming lies should they admit what they seemingly already know.
And what they “know” is simple: they, as individuals, are far more prone to the whims and the prejudices of the system than they like to admit. They have far less agency than they want to believe. We, as individuals, have far less power than we care to acknowledge. Thus, it comes back to the issue of power and consent: if we admit to ourselves the legitimacy of white supremacy, if we accept whatever that CRT helps us uncover, we will come to realize that many things in our lives were decided for us, not consented to by us. This is the true privilege behind whiteness and race: active consent, in all realms, material and immaterial.
Race is not a “touchy subject” for everyone. It is a touchy subject for those who have never had to question their identities or their place within society. Race is not taboo. It is taboo for people who lack the language and experiences to speak about it, let alone find common ground from it.
Race is not controversial. Questioning who benefits from it, how they benefit from it, and why certain people need to be exploited by it to maintain our society, is, however.