Posted on: 27/07/2021

Critical Race Theory: Why is it relevant for research leaders? (Dr Udeni Salmon)

A brief introduction to Critical Race Theory by Dr Udeni Salmon of the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network.

“I want to speak about a dangerous trend in race relations that has come far too close to home in my life, which is the promotion of critical race theory… I want to be absolutely clear that the Government stand unequivocally against critical race theory… We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt. Let me be clear that any school that teaches those elements of critical race theory as fact, or that promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”

Kemi Badenoch, Equalities Minister, House of Commons debate, 20 Oct 2020

Critical Race Theory has been denounced by Kemi Badenoch and Donald Trump as an inaccurate portrayal of history, promoting blackness as victimhood, and making white people feel bad. Badenoch’s criminalisation of teaching Critical Race Theory above was immediately condemned by UK academics and teachers. But what is Critical Race Theory? The concept originated in Black Feminist studies in the 1970s and was further developed by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw who argued that racism is not simply a matter of individuals being unpleasant to each other, or of acts of violence between groups, but is systematic, historical and structural. Critical Race Theory (or CRT) argues that the historical legacy of empire, slavery and segregation are deeply embedded in our systems of housing, education, justice and policing systems and public health.

So why has this CRT attracted such hostility? One conclusion derived from CRT is that telling individual stories of success in the face of adversity becomes less important than understanding the narrative of subordinated racial groups. This means that Badenoch’s story (which is that her personal success as a politician means that structural racism cannot exist) becomes less important than understanding why there are so few non-white politicians in the UK overall. Another conclusion is that white people, whatever their personal views on racism, automatically benefit from white privilege. For example, Ísis Aparecida Conceição has argued that “reverse racism”, the concept that white people can be the victims of racism, would be considered impossible from the standpoint of CRT: her point is that while white people can be the subject of nationalism (such as Polish groups who live in the UK), they also benefit from white privilege, which are the social and financial benefits and courtesies which accrue from being a member of the dominant race.

So what are the benefits of teaching CRT in schools and universities? The first is that it empowers us to understand that, given the prevalence of racism in our schools, workplaces, and wider society, we will absorb racist messages from birth. Unpicking racism in ourselves and around us is a lifelong task. A Black woman I recently interviewed described how an understanding of CRT helped her navigate the racism she faced as a student:

“When I get stopped by the security guard and asked for my ID, again, I can be confident in speaking to them, saying that not everyone gets treated like this. These ideas (CRT) are helpful in understanding why I got stopped, and not being afraid. These ideas are so important in understanding the world.”

While there will be some social scientists who focus on race, I would argue that theories of race are relevant to research leaders, whatever their field. Theories of race, including CRT, are a powerful mechanism for non-white people to understand the history and politics behind our lived experiences of racism. For white people, CRT is an entry point to understanding the issues faced by their non-white friends, family and colleagues. Understanding CRT helps white research leaders to become better, more informed managers of racially diverse teams.

For more reading on Critical Race Theory, try the following links:

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