The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

What Could Be More American Than Critical Race Theory?

Paper cutouts of faces in profile with a range of skin tonesCritical race theory has become the latest front in the culture wars. Depending on what you’ve read or what you’ve heard from politicians, you may be under the impression that critical race theory means talking about racism in any context, or that it means white people are inherently racist.

But critical race theory, or CRT, is actually an academic movement that critically examines the law as it intersects with issues of race. CRT is rooted in the broader concept of critical theory, which critiques society and culture in order to reveal and challenge power structures. The history of critical theory is one of people who had previously been sidelined rising up with their own understandings of the world. Critical theory says, we can make our society more equal for everyone, and here’s how.

For example, if you’re a woman who works outside the home, you have critical theory—more specifically, feminism and the feminist movement—to thank for that ability. If you’re an LGBTQ+ person who enjoys the same rights as heterosexual people, you have critical theory—more specifically, queer theory and the LGBTQ+ movement—to thank. If your children don’t work backbreaking hours in a factory, you have critical theory—more specifically, the labor movement—to thank.

In all of these cases, critical theory comes from those on the periphery. Those who have been marginalized in the past gain the power to stand up and demand equal rights for themselves and their families.

In the case of critical race theory, Black, Latinx, and Asian American thinkers like Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, Patricia Williams, and Robert S. Chang have stood up and asked why people of color should not receive equal treatment under the law as white people. Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”—a speech delivered on July 5, 1852—was also an early work of critical race theory that raised questions about the nuances of freedom in the United States.

On this 4th of July, we wonder, what could be more American than that?


In a sense, our founding fathers were also proponents of critical theory.

In a sense, our founding fathers were also proponents of critical theory. They were critical of the British monarchy and believed they could design a more just society, one in which power is vested in the people. They built a democracy which, though deeply flawed, remains full of promise. When people on the margins force us to examine those flaws, they are moving us toward the highest values of our Constitution: freedom, justice, and equality for all. Critical theory springs from those roots.

As research scientists who study womanism and the social determinants, racial injustices, and cultural biases that burden the progression and viability of Black girls and women, we believe that critical theory, including critical race theory, plays an important role in our work, and we believe that its evolution has improved our lives and the lives of all Americans.

So when we’re told that students should not be learning CRT in schools, or that it’s demonizing white people and dividing our society, we need to take a step back and view it in the larger context of critical theory as a whole. When we question whether we can do better, and when we give voice to people who have been sidelined, we are part of this grand tradition, and we are living up to our highest ideals as Americans.


Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and an expert on the womanist worldview and activist methodology. LaShawnda Lindsay, Ph.D., is a research scientist who leads the Black Girls and STEM Education Research Initiative at WCW.

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Guest — Liz Camarie
As a white woman born in 1949, I appreciate your description of CRT. It honors the reality of the lives many generations. And it s... Read More
Wednesday, 07 July 2021 18:18
Guest — Rinchen Angmo
It's a good thought
Wednesday, 28 July 2021 06:28
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Placards of Hope, Placards of Change: A Reflection in Response to the Killing of George Floyd

Heart icon in speech bubbleThe callous killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 by a uniformed police officer while on duty and while being filmed by bystanders was arguably the most brazen act of police brutality involving an unarmed Black civilian since the Black Lives Matter movement began. What this act demonstrated was that those who are hell-bent on asserting white supremacy and upholding its racist regime are now afraid of nothing and outside the moral community.

The mass demonstrations calling for justice and the widespread expressions of solidarity with Black people and racial equality that have erupted in recent days show clearly that the balance of public opinion and power is shifting towards a multiracial coalition of people who embrace the oneness of humanity as well as the end of racial prejudice and racial inequality. In the long run, racial equality will prevail because it is the truth about human beings, but, at this moment, we are collectively in agony about a shameless, heartless, evil act of race-based assassination.

The protests that are growing day by day are the collective expression of the frustration, pain, fury, and indignation of those who have waited so long and so patiently for the truth of Black people’s equality to be enshrined not only in the law and the practices and policies of those who enforce it, but also in the hearts and minds of their fellow human beings. The enforced, racialized power asymmetries in virtually every sphere of life — political, economic, educational, medical, environmental, and so on — recreate an uphill battle each and every day for every Black person, every other person of color, and every ally of Black people and other people of color, ensuring that the rhythm of social justice efforts is always two steps forward and one step back, if not one step forward and two steps back.

Only when those whose hearts and minds are thoroughly suffused with the reality of racial equality are both in the numerical majority and in positions of influence and power will things begin to shift towards closure on this spiritual disease of racism. Fortunately, what the recent uprisings have shown us is that we are getting there. That people like George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, not to mention the string of their predecessors, not to mention the disproportionate number of Black lives lost to COVID-19, not to mention everybody since 1619) should die to get us there, however, is unconscionable.

As a womanist social movement theorist and also a trained psychologist, my mind turns to the methodologies we are employing to move the needle on racism and an analysis of the kinds of actions we are taking to eradicate the white supremacy, structural racism, racial prejudice, and racist violence we all deplore. I am concerned that we need to be more creative, innovative, and — yes — evidence-based in our social change approaches. We now have the benefit of a century of social scientific research about intergroup relations, as well as decades of neuroscience research, for example, on implicit bias, that helps us understand what works and what doesn’t work, but I’m not sure we are carefully deploying it in our creation of strategies to end racism and its correlates.

Additionally, we have the benefit of dynamic systems theories of varying kinds (a favorite of mine is Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory) that allow us to map how everything from individuals to families, communities, and entire cultures generate, shape, embed, and sustain things like racism — and which enable us to locate effective points of intervention. We also now have such enormous troves of big data that we could answer questions about human behavior and attitudes in real time and at a scale previously impossible. We could and should take a much more research-informed approach to ending racism, and I am glad that this is something we stand for and work towards at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

I am also concerned that we have a social change means-ends problem that we need to scrutinize more closely. Understandably, many social movements begin with emotion-driven, fist-in-the-air protests that are good for mobilizing people and publicizing issues, yet we must remember that the fist is a bellicose symbol inconsistent with peace and harmony — aims that most protesters cherish. The pursuit of justice requires that protests be followed up by the long-form, in-the-trenches work that actually effects structural change, making sustainable peace and justice possible.

Furthermore, new emotional foundations are required to create and sustain a more peaceful and just society. There is already too much pain and trauma in this world because we keep justifying all of the ways that we hurt each other, and all this pain just becomes a factory for hate and violence, both interpersonal and structural.

As a womanist, I would argue that, when we meet epithets with epithets or rage with rage, we are energetically reproducing the conditions we wish to eliminate. We must instead devise new transformational methods that enable us to dig into the spiritual well of goodness that resides within all of us to generate higher-vibrating, more positive and elevating emotional states and belief patterns, and that bring people together socially and relationally in a common space of love, respect, encouragement, enthusiasm, and esprit de corps. This is a tall order, but it is, I believe, what is really needed now.

As I watch the demonstrations on TV, I often find myself thinking, “If I were to make a placard for all the world to see — a placard to catalyze change — what would mine say?” I realized that mine would say “Everyone is sacred.” In times like these, I believe we need a reminder that our fundamental essence is that of Light — our innate divinity and the star-stuff we are all made of — and that everything else, good or bad, is overlay (and changeable).

We cannot continue this regime of oppositionality, in which we perpetually create divides, pit the divided against each other, and struggle to vanquish those who are not us. This regime will never lead to unity, peace, or justice. In the deepest recesses of our souls, we know this, but our politics, practices, and habits of thought have not caught up. The small reminder that everyone is sacred potentially places us on a course towards transformation, and that transformation is my reason for being and the impetus behind all of my work.

What fuels you? And what would your placard say? We would love to hear from you, because now is not the time to be silent. Rather, it is the time to recreate the world.

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

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Let’s Put the Humanity Back into Human Rights

Quote: Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the worldThich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967, famously characterized the human mind as a storehouse filled with two kinds of seeds: good and bad. Humans have the capacity to be both good and evil, he pointed out, and it’s the seeds we water that ultimately grow. Think about that.  When we look around the world today, we see a lot of evil sprouting up all around, and we wonder where it came from. We scratch our heads, we point fingers, and sometimes, in frustration, we join in the fray. Based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s insight, we should really take a closer look at how we are watering the seeds of the very evils we decry and detest – incivility, hate-based conflict and violence, and even basic intolerance.

Human Rights Day on December 10 gives us the opportunity to think about the ways in which we are dehumanizing each other, and to find our way back to affirming – and, indeed, watering the seeds of – one another’s full humanity. Isn’t that the point of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed 70 years ago? This is a tall challenge right now because we are very much in an “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” moment. This polarized point of view is now an emotional trigger affecting every single policy issue and every single attempt at public discourse. It’s even dividing families and weakening friendships.

The truth is this: Human beings yearn for the water of connection and the sunshine of goodness. Like the seeds of any plant, human being-ness takes root in rich soil and stretches its leaves toward the light. If you doubt this, just look at babies and how they thrive in the presence of love, care, kindness, helpfulness, connection, validation, and education.  When these forms of goodness are absent – or worse when the opposite kinds of conditions prevail – little ones fail to thrive. Often, when watered with the bad things, children are traumatized, and they carry these traumas with them throughout life, where they become far more susceptible to extreme degrees of fear, anger, and hate. We have the power to shape their world, to water their world with goodness. We hold their future in our hands, beneath the water in our watering cans. This understanding – and this responsibility – is enshrined in the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year, in addition to the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.

If we wonder why people are engaging in conflict, erupting in violence, exhibiting intolerance, and expressing incivility with such ferocious abandon, we need only to think about how we are re-traumatizing each other, over and over and over – interpersonally and systemically, in ways both small and large. As we fray the threads of the social fabric with vitriol and ire on the one hand and exploitation and indifference on the other, we undermine the progress we have made across the decades towards a world in which human rights are universally recognized and upheld. If we truly want to transform the situation, we need to start watering different seeds ASAP.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – revered, even if imperfect – provides a roadmap for bringing ourselves back to sanity and full humanity. What are some of its pointers? First, we are urged to recognize the inherent dignity of all people. Second, we should protect human rights with the rule of law. Third, we must stay connected to the truth that everyone wants social progress, better standards of life, and larger freedom. Fourth, we must remember that we need to teach people about these rights so that they will be more widely affirmed and enacted. From these initial suggestions follow 30 specific articles, crafted together by the nations of the world, to create a common footing for justice and human wellbeing. If there’s only one thing you do for Human Rights Day this year, just read it, from beginning to end.

Layli MaparyanLayli Maparyan, Ph.D., is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. An expert on Womanism, her scholar-activist work interweaves threads from the social sciences and the critical disciplines, incorporating basic and applied platforms around a common theme of integrating identities and communities in peaceable, ecologically sound, and self-actualizing ways.

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Guest — Grace Mwenyo
Great insight!
Sunday, 16 December 2018 07:34
Guest — Wendy Rogers
Encouraged.
Friday, 28 December 2018 13:54
Guest — Izzy
This is a really moving text, I love the way it implies how we are all seeds, it gives it a more powerful and more greater underst... Read More
Wednesday, 09 January 2019 04:28
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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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