Critical theory is a body of scholarship that examines how societies and cultures work. Differing from a descriptive approach, Stuart Sim and Borin Van Loon, in Introducing Critical Theory: A Graphic Guide, explain how critical theory gets beneath the surface of culture and literature to unmask the largely invisible and unquestioned ideologies that shape them (p. 21). Yet, the purpose of critical theory is not merely to expose the ideologies, but to transform them (p. 5).
In order to illustrate the power of hidden systems to impact culture, the authors move swiftly from the grand-narrative approach of Karl Marx to Antonio Gramsci who explored oppressive ideologies like hegemony. In their book Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, critical social theorists Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo define hegemony as “the control of the ideology of society” and expose how “the dominant group maintains power by imposing their ideology on everyone” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, p. 73). Gramsci would agree with Sensoy and DiAngelo’s definition while highlighting how the success of ideologies such as hegemony depends on the extent to which they can make themselves invisible. Writes Gramsci, “This is the trick of hegemony… to persuade the whole of society that a prevailing ideology – the very one which…[is produced by and] protects the dominant class – is really the only natural and normal way of thinking” (Sim & Van Loon, p. 37).
In conversation with one another, both texts offer additional forms of ideologies that have been made “unrecognizable” (Sim & Van Loon, p. 37) within culture and throughout literature yet are surfaced through critical theory. They include patriarchy, racism, whiteness, and white supremacy just to name a few.
Patriarchy is “the belief in the inherent superiority of men and the creation of institutions based on that belief.” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, p. 103) Sensoy and DiAngelo cite global examples of generally accepted and, therefore, largely unrecognizable forms of patriarchy such as the “male[ness] of god; the father as the head of the household; males as authority in all social realms such as law, government, religion and culture; [and] women as inherently inferior to…and property of men.” (p. 103)
Racism is “a systemic relationship of unequal power between white people and peoples of color” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, p. 142) that is invisibly “embedded into all aspects of society.” (p. 103) In order to engage racism, Sensoy and DiAngelo believe that “we must challenge the dominant conceptualization of racism as individual acts that only some bad individuals do” and, instead, understand it as “a system in which we all are implicated.” (p. 142).
Whiteness is a socially constructed ideology that “refers to the specific dimensions of racism that elevates white people over peoples of color.” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, p. 142) Whiteness, along with the accumulation, protection, and utilization of power generates white supremacy. Rather than identifying white supremacy with the more overt expressions of hate-based racism typified by the Ku Klux Klan, Sensoy and DiAngelo use the term to capture the camouflaged “pervasiveness, magnitude, and normalcy of white privilege, [white] dominance, and assumed [white] superiority.” (p. 143).
While all four authors do well to expose the necessity of critical theory to uncover and transform oppressive ideologies and while each asserts that every person is impacted by these ideologies, both books beg the question: Who is blind to these ideologies and who is not?
In 2017 the answer to this question surfaced in a devastating way. In May of that year, I was joined by a dear friend who is a Muslim Sheikh in the Old City of Jerusalem. Alongside a delegation of white and black faith leaders from the United States, he and I were facilitating a conversation about how faith traditions can become disarmed. Just as we were inviting the learning community toward a radical return to the nonviolent essence of Islam and Christianity, we heard several loud pops. The sound was unsettling and very close to where we sat.
A white faith leader looked around and asked, “What was that? It sounded like firecrackers. Is there a religious celebration today?” Assuming he was correct, he smiled, shrugged it off, and leaned back into the conversation at hand. So too did his white colleagues. My black colleagues responded not with curiosity, but with silent looks of anguish. They were familiar with the sound of gunfire and didn’t need to wonder about what they had just heard. The Sheikh? His eyes were closed and, as he rocked back and forth, I could just barely hear the words of his prayers. My minoritized friends were able to see something insidious at work that my dominant culture friends were blind to.
A day later, two contrasting stories of what had transpired emerged in the tabloids. The first was the dominant cultural narrative and it went like this: Due to the increase in stabbing attempts of Israeli soldiers by Palestinian teenagers, the soldiers were on high alert. A young, well-trained soldier was vigilant and self-controlled as he and his platoon made their way through the maze of the Old City. Despite the density of the crowds, the soldier identified a female Palestinian teenager approaching him with a knife and preparing to stab him. Rather than wait to be injured, he opened fire and “neutralized the threat.”
The second story, the narrative of the oppressed, went like this: It was true that there had been an increase in stabbings in the months leading up to that moment. But these stabbings were not isolated, unprovoked events. They were, instead, a restless response to the systemic racism that rejected the possibility for baseline human rights for the dark-skinned Palestinians by the lighter-skinned Israelis. The stabbings were in response to the institutionalized racism that manifests in acts of terror like midnight raids of Palestinian homes, unlawful long-term incarceration of Palestinian children, and dehumanizing harassment of Palestinian women at checkpoints.
On the day when shots rang out, it was observed that this particular young solider was especially on edge and, in the hours leading up to the assault, had been antagonizing Palestinian teenagers who sought to access the Old City by way of the Damascus Gate. While his platoon navigated the impacted streets of the Muslim Quarter, someone called out “Knife!” Without hesitation, the soldier identified an innocent Palestinian teenager and unloaded over thirty bullets, cutting the body of 16-year-old Fatima Abdel Rahman Hjeiji in half. It was undetermined if a knife was found on her person.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, my white colleagues accepted the dominant-culture narrative at face value. They had been groomed within a system of privilege where their safety was all but guaranteed by white, militarized bodies whose job it was to contain the violence of darker-skinned persons. From their perspective, law enforcement was understood as the ultimate authority and was believed to be trustworthy.
While disturbed that a death had occurred within a stone’s throw of them, the dominant-culture story was consumed affirmatively. No questions were asked and they were relieved to know that their safety was being prioritized by highly trained soldiers with assault rifles. As far as my white colleagues were concerned, the system had worked and order had been restored. Because they had forever benefitted from the oppressive ideologies of patriarchy, racism, whiteness, and white supremacy, they remained blind to the rushing currents of injustice that were drowning their black colleagues and were, therefore, ready to move on.
From the perspective of the black faith leaders, Fatima’s execution represented just another in a long line of dark-skinned lives prematurely extinguished by strangely familiar oppressive ideologies. While they found truth in the narrative of the oppressed, they didn’t need this latter story to surface in order for them to understand that the same demons of white supremacy that hunt them in the streets of their neighborhoods were present and active in the streets of Jerusalem.
As far as my black colleagues were concerned, the system had done exactly what the system had been designed to do. Because they had forever suffered at the hands of patriarchy, racism, whiteness, and white supremacy, they were in solidarity with Fatima’s family and with one another. Rather than moving on, they were ready to lament.
In light of this story, I return to my question: who is blind to oppressive ideologies and who is not? Based on the aforementioned experience, the more proximate one is to power, the blinder he seems to be to the oppressive ideologies that lurk just below the surface of culture and literature. He doesn’t see them because his life does not depend on understanding them. Alternatively, the further one is from power, the more likely she is to see, understand, lament, and respond to those same ideologies. She sees the system because her survival demands it.
So how does a dominant-culture leader begin to see more clearly and read more critically so that we can collaborate more constructively, and influence more restoratively?
- Begin with the knowledge that “the societal default is oppression” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, p. 203) and that the dominant-culture narrative is self-serving. Position oneself in trusting proximity to those who see the matrix of oppressive ideologies and invite them to help you see more clearly.
- Recognize that knowledge is not neutral, is subjective, and likely influenced by oppressive ideologies. Diversify your library away from white, male thought leadership to include non-dominant culture authors who critique the very systems that we have benefitted from.