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*CONTENT WARNING: This article deals with topics that may be distressing to some readers, including race and racism.*

Critical Race Theory (CRT) has made waves in the media for the last year or so, especially as southern regions of the United States have witnessed obstinate pushback from parents and public school faculty afraid of strains of the critical teachings making their way into primary and secondary school curriculum.

Why CRT is controversial is hard to understand when almost everyone grasps the theoretical work’s basic presuppositions. What’s required is an analysis that takes account of its more psychological mechanisms on top of these presuppositions to understand the role it’s taken on as such a divisive tool in today’s political sphere.

The hysteria around CRT strikes a personal nerve as I am biracial; my mother being fair-skinned and ethnically European and my father of south-east Asian descent, having a much darker skin tone. A common joke growing up was that my white friends thought I was brown whereas my brown friends thought I was white. This joke, however, points to something that we all understand on some level: race is a social construct and the line that determines what makes someone definitively one skin colour over another is arbitrarily decided. There is a revealing colloquialism used for the above-mentioned indecisiveness, that being the idea of passing: having enough of one characteristic associated to a racial group (be it skin hue, or facial complexion) that you can be said to “pass” as a member of that group. 

As my personal example implies, everyone brings unconscious prejudices and judgements when confronting varying skin tones, for better or worse. Even so-called enlightened and educated populaces today are far from post-racial. People like to look to the Scandinavian countries in our current moment as utopian ideals for social equity, but even they still have their race problems, an example being Sweden’s well documented labour segregation issues that are largely predicated on racial biases.

Most of what CRT does is take this notion of racial arbitrariness and examines how civic structures, more specifically after the Jim Crow era in the United States, perpetuate unconscious racism at a systemic level in the same way we still unconsciously categorize races based on skin tone. In a sense, we are all trapped by our skin colours. Especially those who have been oppressed by historic institutions such as slavery, which used skin tone as criteria for who gets to be seen as property and who doesn’t. This is why, despite the abolition of slavery, expediency in classfying modern colonial states as post-racial is a form of subtle violence when the echoes of institiutional racism still ring loud through economic disparities based on racial divides. 

Where things get tricky today is precisely in who decides just how post-racial we are at this moment. Recently, former University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson was on the Joe Rogan podcast and a clip went viral where the two men come to the same conclusions drawn out above, namely that racial categories based on skin color are arbitrary. Aside from the rather doofy comment on those with the darkest skin being decidedly from primitive Africa made by Rogan, the main issue is rather that this idea of racial arbitrariness is somewhat smugly treated as a wonderful discovery by the pair when critical race theorists have been pointing out that very “discovery” since the 1970s.

It was largely white people who fought (and continue fighting, as is the case in states like Florida) against the arbitrariness of race and its concrete effects, yet Rogan and Peterson laugh as if this has been common sense for a long time. The optics of these two men using this realization as a “gotcha” against criticisms that they are racist — the mainstream media having dug up Rogan’s extensive use of the N-word in past podcasts and Peterson’s opinion that affirmative action is Marxist ressentiment disguised as justice — is dubious at best. 

To get a better idea of what CRT is, let’s take a look at what’s considered to be one of the earliest key texts that laid down the discourse’s foundation, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, published in 1952. Fanon, mostly known today as the author of The Wretched of the Earth, uses a dazzling mix of philosophy, psychology, psychoanalysis, and politics to approach the issue of the Black experience in France post-World War II. The central idea of the text, which is plainly stated in the title, is the way in which the Black individual who tries to immerse themself in the francophone culture does so on the basis of a denial of his skin colour and a desire to be white, to be viewed as possessing “whiteness.” 

This is, in many respects, an issue that persists today in Canada. I have argued in the past that a certain liberal political correctness that presents itself as more than willing to accept all cultural differences produces hypocritical gray areas that unfortunately open up the space for reactionary bigots to exploit for culture war points. Trudeau’s administration has been a more than exemplary demonstration of this hypocrisy and a conservative retreat into populist rhetoric to exploit said hypocrisy is often the predictable response. 

Returning to Fanon’s work, a revealing passage should be examined to get a grasp of how CRT is still needed today to explore the psychology of our race issues in a our purportedly post-ideological societies: 

“A few years back we knew a Black medical student. He had the infernal impression that he would never be accepted as a colleague by the white physicians or as a doctor by his European patients. In these moments of delirious intuition, the prolific moments of his psychosis, he would get drunk. And then one day he enlisted in the army… He wanted Whites under his orders. He was a boss, and as such must be feared and respected. What he wanted — in fact, what he was aiming for — was to make the Whites adopt a Black attitude toward him. In this way he would be avenged for the imago that had always obsessed him: the frightened, humiliated n*gger trembling in front of the white master.”

What then to make of this passage in the context of today? Broadly speaking, the struggling immigrant’s mindset in Canada often reflects — though perhaps not to the “infernal” degree presented in Fanon’s example — this reversal of power dynamics. Although, now it’s veiled through liberalism’s filtering of historicity and injustice into myriad market mechanisms and their priming institutions, what Louis Althusser called the Ideological State Apparatus

The most effective mechanism for this veiling today is through the culture industry and its underlying doxa of “hustle culture.” A powerful example of all this is comedian Dave Chappelle’s emotional speech when receiving the Mark Twain Prize back in 2019. Chappelle, at around the 6:40 mark in the video, speaks to his come-up in the comedy industry and the sage advice his highly supportive mother offered him in his pursuits, “sometimes you have to be a lion to be the lamb that you really are.” Let’s avoid the pitfalls of branding this sentiment as right or wrong, for as Chappelle explains prior to this specific sentiment, the dangerous environment surrounding Chappelle’s childhood made it that much harder for him to make it without taking on the attitude of a ‘lion.’

A detour into some Hegelian philosophy is necessary to fully paint the present picture. Fanon alludes to the German philosopher many times in White Mask, mainly for Hegel’s highly influential concept of self-consciousness. For Hegel, self-consciousness is a for-itself in so far it’s for-another. That is, we don’t have a sense of self without others to reflect who we are back to us and vice-versa. On a not entirely unrelated note, this is why activists have been pointing out for years that solitary confinement is a torturous practice in correctional systems, because it literally deprives the confined person of their selfhood. In this way, those who have faced colonial violence when coming to colonial countries, whether directly, through intergenerational trauma, or in the subtler forms today found in economic disparity and gentrification, are enmeshed in a former colonial system of which they unavoidably gain their sense of self through, despite being championed (confusingly) for their differences.

This is where the culture industry steps in. Take the often-lauded immigrant success story in the context of free-market capitalism. This is one of those forms of subtle colonial violence because it packages up colonial traumas and filters them through the “success” of the market’s falsely championed equalizing effects: those who work hard will always make it, those who learn to become ‘lions.’

The false pretense of the market’s “indiscriminate requirements” of who can make it and who can’t today continues to strengthen political correctness as a viable tool for political currency in the executive branches of governments. This is where professor Peterson’s diagnosis of corrosive politically correct politics in Canada is wrongly attributed to cultural marxism. It is, more accurately, market fundamentalism that allows politically correct politics to dominate any serious political action taken by liberals or conservatives in the name of justice. Liberals, allowing a multiplicity of identities and values to assert themselves so long as they do it through the safe distance of exchange and through the systems that reify post-Reagan Western meritocratic mythology, and conservatives noticing this inherent hypocrisy and worrying about what a lack of national cohesion can do to “bedrock values” that underpin much of the West (leading to reactionary phenomena such as the trucker convoy which is literally a protest of the privileged, an attempt at a conservative revolution disguised behind COVID-19 grievances). 

Further, the competitive attitudes of many immigrant parents have led to an uptick in youth born from immigrant families getting university degrees, with that cohort outnumbering the percentage of youth with university degrees whose parents were born in Canada. To say that this trend is directly analogous to Fanon’s example of the Black doctor would be a simplification and perhaps offensive, but as a way of capturing an integral part of what fuels many Western immigrant parent’s ethos today, it’s essential. 

Another issue that reveals the negative reaction to CRT today are the continued attempts made to ground racism in science. This has a long history, from more crude forms of eugenics in the mid-20th century, some of which Fanon dissects in sections of White Masks, to more recent cases such as the debate around The Bell Curve, a 1994 book that attempts to correlate racial IQ disparities in America with a conservative political agenda. While this mode of thinking may seem antiquated, a clip from the aforementioned Joe Rogan podcast makes it clear that these narratives still live on. 

It is a logical fallacy to say that because something that is critical is despised it implicitly proves its point. However, that is only the case when the arguments put forward are engaged with. The gut reaction in southern school boards in the United States that these teachings be banned without a basic understanding of the ideas is indicative that we are not post-racial. CRT, whether used to address the confusing flippage of power dynamics today amongst immigrants in Canada or the systemic racism that still exists in the US, remains an important tool. Ultimately, the hostile reactions to CRT explain why the “all lives matter” talking point that was exercised at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 is the most basic expression of how subtle colonial violence operates today.