As a white person, learning about the depths of racist brutality intertwined with the history of the United States wasn’t an act in self-loathing but empowerment. You have to understand a problem to be able to help solve it, and I wasn’t raised to see racism as a current problem in our nation, let alone understand the depths and severities of the past. That changed because of critical race theory, and I’m a better American – and a better human – because of it. To understand why, it’s important to understand the focus of the criticism in critical race theory.
I didn’t know what critical race theory even was until I was in graduate school; indeed, despite what you might have heard, it’s not taught in elementary schools or high schools. When I went to law school at New York University in the early 2000s, my constitutional law professor was Derrick Bell. A founding scholar of the critical race theory movement, professor Bell had left Harvard Law to protest its failure to grant tenure to women of color and ended up at NYU Law, where he taught until his death in 2011. It was clear at the time that he had two great joys in life – trying to nudge together students he thought would make good romantic matches, and teaching us and the world about the enduring but often obscured imprints of slavery and racism in our society. And those goals weren’t in conflict.
Bell talks of the American contradiction
Professor Bell was (in a very sweet and innocent kind of way) trying to help all his students – white and people of color alike – find love, making clear how important a force love had been in his life. And he clearly loved all his students – white and people of color alike – and wanted us to experience the same joy he had found in love.
He also taught us that the United States has always been a marriage of sorts between the dazzling promise of equality and the ugly reality of racism. But this, too, was a relationship in which professor Bell was invested. He didn’t write off America. He wanted us all –white and people of color alike – to help heal our nation.
For Derrick Bell, the criticism at the core of critical race theory was never aimed at us as students, including white students, nor arguably is that the case for most critical race theory founders and scholars. In fact, quite the opposite. The whole point of critical race theory was to help our collective understanding of racism move past a focus on individual acts and blame to instead scrutinize systems, policies and institutions that are by far the most pernicious and pervasive ways in which our racial caste system is perpetuated.
Professor Bell wasn’t implicating us as in creating those systems and injustices in the first place; he was inviting us to help dismantle them. He wasn’t blaming us for not comprehending the history and complexity of systemic injustice; he was helping us learn – to open our eyes and our minds. That saying that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem? That’s not a critique of whiteness, or any specific identity, but an attack on ignorance and complicity. Critical race theory is about helping Americans – all Americans – understand the reality of our nation’s past and present in order to scrutinize and ultimately fix what has long been broken for communities of color. The criticism is focused on systems, not people.
By the same token, I remember one moment during class when professor Bell asked whether any in the class had ever felt nervous getting into an elevator with a man they didn’t know. Every woman in the class put their hands up, myself included. Most of the men didn’t, and several looked around at the rest of us and were visibly perplexed. That’s not because the question was anti-male, but because it abruptly revealed the ways in which gender shapes our different realities – and how women are acutely aware of the ever-present reality of sexism and gender-based violence, while most men go about their lives completely unaware.
That question, alongside our coursework on the history of women as marital property and other legalized forms of sex and gender discrimination throughout U.S. history, wasn’t about bashing men or even bashing America. Our Founding Fathers wrote that the Constitution of the United States of America was written "in Order to form a more perfect Union." Understanding our nation’s imperfections is an essential step in the project of that perpetual perfecting.
CRT promotes healing and progress
Kimberlé Crenshaw, another co-founder of the movement, once said that critical race theory is not a noun but a verb. It is like learning, healing, repairing and progressing – action verbs that do not just ignore or even bury hard truths but challenge us all, and our nation, to become better. Because saying our nation is suffused with structural and institutional racism isn’t saying our nation is bad, but that we’re not perfect yet and can and must do better. Critical race theory is how we learn to fix what is broken in our nation, not because we hate America but because we love it – and because we want it to truly live up to those principles in our founding documents that sounded so good on paper but we’ve never quite lived up to in practice.
I got an A in constitutional law. Critical race theory, and how to be a better American who helps our country to be even better in every sense, that I’m still learning.
Sally Kohn, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is the author of "The Opposite Of Hate: A Field Guide To Repairing Our Humanity." You can find her online at sallykohn.com and on Twitter: @SallyKohn
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Learning critical race theory is empowering, not self-loathing