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Power, freedom, and critical race theory

Updated: Sep 28, 2021

I’m not gonna hit you with a long list of the things this post is NOT about. Like, it’s not about critical race theory, or racism, or political correctness, or whether the n-word should or should not be said in the classroom. No.

It’s about power. That’s all. And I want to use an article by Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School and an African-American, to talk about power. (There’s no paywall to read his article, but you do have to sign in.)

This is important to me because I just wrote a book about it, Why Couples Fight. It’s important to you, I think, because it will help you understand yourself and your life. And, with our book, understand and improve your relationship.

Randall’s article was about his using the n-word in his law school classes. The whole word. Not of course using it as an insult, not hurling it at anyone. Only using it as a quote. Only using it to talk about the word, a word that he abhors as much as any other African-American. The question is, Why shouldn’t he be able to use the word itself, in a class that’s seriously discussing racism, to refer to something he’s talking about? He’s saying racists said that word. Why can’t he say the word that the racists say?

Kennedy says he should be able to do that. Other African-American law professors have said he shouldn’t be able to do that. Now I’m not here to talk about this issue itself. But listen to what Kennedy says is behind the uproar:

Why the objection to circumstances in which it is clear that the instructor was deploying the term only for pedagogical purposes? Because vocalizing the term has become, in the eyes of many objectors, a symbol of either obtuseness or defiance: a sign that the (white—more about that later) instructor is unaware that he or she ought never, ever vocalize the term, or a sign that the instructor is disobeying that injunction. I am convinced that in a substantial number of instances these fights are not really over hurt feelings. They are struggles over status and power. Objectors have made avoidance of vocalizing “nigger,” even in the guarded circumstances of classroom instruction, a matter of taboo in which the failure to abide by the rule of avoidance is taken as a sign of disrespect. It is not the word or the circumstances of its deployment in the classroom that causes anger. What causes anger is the “failure” of the teacher to submit to the objectors’ demand, regardless of the circumstances.

“They are struggles over status and power.” A white professor says the n-word and even though every word the professor’s said before, everything they’ve done, is non-racist or anti-racist, the students deem the word hurtful and the professor did not obey their “injunction,” and so they feel disempowered and attempt to re-empower themselves by demonstrating and writing letters against the professor.

Forget who’s right or wrong here, for a moment. The issue is power. Here, I think, are the laws of physics when it comes to power in the social world:

1. In the real human world, everything we really care about—respect, attention, care, and so on—is in short supply. There’s not enough to go around. It certainly feels that way most of the time to too many people.

2. As a result, whenever someone has something or claims something, there’s a risk that other people will be disempowered, or feel disempowered, or claim to be disempowered. “Hey, you’ve got that, or you can do that, and I don’t have that or can’t do that, and that doesn’t feel right to me and makes me feel powerless.” We feel this way even if we’ve lined up for the bus and it fills up and the door closes before we can get on. Helpless and disempowered.

3. And so we are all of us at risk, at any moment, of feeling disempowered.

4. But we don’t like to say we feel disempowered. In fact, we tend to feel we have to deny this reality. To say, “I feel disempowered,” is to say, “I’m weak, helpless, of no consequence.” We’d much rather blame or label the other person or party than talk about feeling disempowered.

So how do we know this is about being and feeling disempowered? Because...

5. We do things to re-empower ourselves. Why would we—like those students—do what we do if we didn’t feel disempowered? That’s exactly why we argue, contradict, get mad, put someone down, and so on and so on. To give ourselves more power or at least the temporary illusion of more power.

6. It never works! That’s what we learn from another article, this time by another African-American Harvard Law School professor, Derrick Bell, who also happens to be one of the developers of critical race theory, which we will also not discuss here as such. He thought his way through to critical race theory by asking why so many civil rights victories turned into defeats. Public schools in the South were desegregated, for example, only to have white families set up white “academies,” reinstituting segregation all over again. In terms of power, Blacks had been disempowered by the system of segregated schools. They re-empowered themselves by finding a way to get the public schools legally integrated. This made the whites feel disempowered, so they found a way to re-empower themselves by setting up a system of segregated private schools.

And on and on it goes.

Power moves breed power moves. Power dynamics are always self-maintaining.

I wish I could heal our country. But to the extent to which these very same dynamics are hurting your relationship—and they almost certainly are—I know our book Why Couples Fightcan provide healing for you.


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