Teaching students to think racially

Race theory is dividing university students, with whites depicted as racist, and blacks as permanently oppressed.

Dennis Hayes

Topics Politics

You may never have heard of ‘critical race theory’, but it dominates academic and institutional thinking about race in the UK today. The University of Birmingham, for instance, recently opened a new research centre for ‘Race and Education’, headed by a leading critical race theorist.

The question of what critical race theory actually means is contested even by its practitioners. Many accept that it is not really a ‘theory’ at all, but rather a ‘perspective’ or a set of beliefs about racism. Or, to be more blunt, it is a political position pretending to be a theory.

For all its supposed academic credentials, critical race theory boils down to one simple claim: ‘If you are white you are racist!’ This absurd ‘theory’ is now in the mainstream of higher education. It is not only promoted by lecturers and professors who work in the area; it is increasingly the perspective of university managers, staff developers and equality and diversity officers, too.

Critical race theorists will dismiss my claim as absurd, but that is because they avoid saying what they really think. The fact that their basic, shared assumption is never stated – that is, if you are white you are racist – allows their views to be promoted and adopted by institutions and those who fund their theorising.

Yet there is an obvious and nasty consequence of their ‘theory’ – namely, the view that anyone who criticises their approach is also probably racist. That’s because critical race theory embodies a metaphysical truth that cannot be questioned. If you do question it, you provide evidence for its veracity and you are likely to be censured or disciplined.

The critical race theory perspective is devious. First, racism is held to be endemic in society, and a catalogue of examples is used to prove this, while counter-examples are ignored. Second, racism is declared to be complex – so complex, in fact, that any clear views on the subject are dismissed as white or liberal prejudice. Third, refuge is taken in relativism, and the ‘theory’ is declared to be a perspective that is both academic and a political or social-justice project.

But what is the evidence for racism being endemic? After all, nearly one-in-10 marriages in the UK are now interracial, and that number is increasing. As the 2011 census shows, there are now over one million mixed-race people in the UK. Other statistics suggest that this figure is significantly higher. Whatever the actual numbers of mixed-race children, there are clearly several million mixed-race marriages, partnerships and more temporary interracial relationships in the UK. This ought to be a killer fact as far as critical race theory is concerned: you don’t marry or move in with people whom your skin colour supposedly prejudices you against.

The Guardian disagrees, and warns us to ‘beware this new mixed-race love-in!’ because racism is apparently an ever-present reality. What arguments could be advanced against the love-in? Well, apparently, ‘would anyone seriously claim that, because men and women feel attraction for each other, sexism cannot exist?’. Such cynicism suggests that those who pose as anti-racist today are never pleased. In relation to critical race theory, the prevalence of mixed-race relationships surely shoots down their view of whites as subjectively racist.

As for the spurious complexity of racism – this amounts to little more than a call on the state and its institutions to pay critical race theorists to explain racism. For its professional practitioners, whether self-styled theorists or not, critical race theory is often profitable, a very nice little earner.

A problem for this expert crowd, however, is that the racial violence of the 1980s has vanished largely thanks to the activities of real anti-racists – so now they have to claim that it is words that wound rather than the knife or fire bomb. What these theorists are doing is racialising relationships, building up sensitivity to differences, as well as to personal slights and instances of cultural clumsiness and ignorance. What were once matters of politeness and etiquette have been transformed into new forms of racism.

How do they get away with it? The answer is that it suits institutions to go along with the idea that ‘if you are white, you are racist’, because managers can gain a certain moral authority by putting all employees into therapeutic racism awareness sessions. Everyone has to be in therapy because if you are white you cannot escape your racism, and all you can do is be aware of it and the dangers of letting it get out of control.

The corollary of this metaphysic is that black and ethnic minority students are encouraged to see themselves as oppressed by white people. This is asserted as an ineluctable fact. Of course, it may not be obvious, so the critical race theorists often have to empower black and ethnic minority students and staff to see their own oppression. This is also done by so-called awareness sessions; how else?

Critical race theory has become critical race therapy, and no one can be excused. Often, these sessions and courses are mandatory. The really damaging aspect to critical race theory is not that this is a nice little earner or that management gains authority from putting all staff and students into therapy; it is that what is being created is a permanent hostility between racialised groups. Critical race theory is recreating racism and reinforcing a therapeutic culture. Both work to undermine the very real social changes that have led many couples from different races to the marriage bed, and which have massively improved community relations across Britain.

Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby and the co-author of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics Politics


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