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Critical Theories

Recently, critical theories have gained a place in our national consciousness, particularly Critical Race Theory, a means of learning and education that acknowledges our country’s history of colonization and enslavement. But what exactly is a critical theory, and why are critical theories important? 

Critical theories, as opposed to traditional theories, address our society through several lenses of liberation. Critical theories examine our behavior and social movements through an understanding of our history -- recognizing who created our social, political, and economic policies, and who benefits from them. Critical theories are a way to understand how our current society functions as a means for either uplifting or oppressing each other, along with recognizing who is left out of human progress. 

Critical race theory, for example, provides a lens through which we can recognize that the United States has a long history of white supremacy and policies that benefit white people above all others. Critical feminist theory is a lens through which we can recognize the oppression of women; while critical Black feminist theory addresses the further marginalization of women of color. 

Critical Theories are credited to Karl Marx, who focused on social alienation and the outcomes of a society that values production above community. Marx had a moral and philosophical objection to capitalism and instead promoted ideas that supported all people. Today, criticisms of Marxism center around contemporary American society’s focus on individualism, as well as capitalism, as the “best” way that our society can function. Despite economic and social inequity, gun violence, and our current pandemic, many people fear the changes that would come with a shift in socioeconomic policy.

Critical Race Theory is a very hot-button topic and has become a buzzword or a catch all for complaints from conservative pundits. Critical race theory examines the history of our society through the lens of race, noting that the United States has been based on white supremacy and racism since at least 1619, when the first enslaved people were removed from their homes and brought here to belong to owners. CRT takes a critical eye toward racism and white supremacy, which makes many people feel defensive as they claim not to be actively racist today, despite enjoying white privilege and denying benefits like reparations to Black citizens. CRT is especially important in terms of teaching accurate history to young people.

Anytown, ILI, Youth Race and Leadership Forum, and other OCCJ programming address critical theories by seeking to interrupt the automatic consciousness that determines what is “right” or the “truth.” For example, both young people and adults who partake in OCCJ programs are encouraged to examine their identities, seeking examples of both privilege and lack of privilege. We further explore who creates the notion of what is “normal” in our society and what is considered outside the norm, and how each of us can elevate those who are underserved in our communities.

Stay tuned for information on other critical theories, including ways each critical theory is addressed through OCCJ programming for both young people and adults!