Why I Am “Critical” of Critical Theory

by Bakari K. Lumumba

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.
— Audre Lorde (1984)

The nature of contemporary higher education institutions is appreciatively a far cry from the racially exclusive institutions they were nearly a century ago. The proliferation of numerous social and political movements and the changing demographics of America have led to the diversification of higher education institutions at the fastest rate in American history.

Nevertheless, racism in higher education remains a structural barrier to students of color (SOC) despite this purported diversity. As feelings of isolation, loneliness, exclusion, marginalization, physical assaults, invisibility, and silencing are pervasive and well documented by SOC, these feelings have a detrimental effect on SOC’s ability to matriculate through historically White institutions (HWIs). Furthermore, the rapid diversification of the student body has led arguably to the illusion of inclusion, in which the implementation of surface-level conversations, and practices, are used in place of structural and institutional changes regarding the future of higher education and its students. For example, terms such as diversity, multiculturalism, pluralism, equity, equality, inclusiveness, and social justice, are just a few of the catchphrases used when discussing the presumptive progressive values of HWIs.

However, these terms ring as hollow as the university quad on summer break for most SOC. As HWIs on a macro-level have failed to palpably make their campuses as inclusive and welcoming as their websites and campus brochures would appear. This lack of institutional sincerity and misalignment with professed values, while a contemporary issue, has its origins in the purpose of higher education institutions rooted in White cisheteropatriarchal racism, elitism, and exclusivity. As the permeation and institutionalization of White cisheteropatriarchal racism, elitism, and exclusivity, in higher education manifest itself in the modern-day canon that revolves around an established set of readings or “classics” such as Shakespeare and Dickinson as the paragon of literary brilliance, is one way that HWIs practice an insular form of education rooted in Whiteness and racial exclusivity.

Nevertheless, despite the normalization of Whiteness as the epitome of educational excellence, numerous theoretical perspectives have arisen to counter the insular nature of “traditional” academic theories and institutions. One such theory is Critical Theory and its progeny of related postulations that critique systems of power, hegemony, societal institutions, and social structures. Critical Theory was forged in the academic cauldron of Marxism; the initial impetus was rooted in the fight for the rights of the proletariat and the eventual triumph of socialism over capitalism. Today, Critical Theory has expanded to address a broad range of issues that plague the culture, thought, and formation of western democratic nation-states and institutions, notably higher education. For instance, “Critical Theory views thinking critically as being able to identify, and then challenge, and change, the process by which a grossly iniquitous society uses dominant ideology to convince people this is a normal state of affairs.”

This position, while laudable, is not “critical” enough! Thus, the purpose of this treatise is to challenge the notion that the Frankfurt School, which began as the Institute for Social Research in the 1920s (due to the works of German-Jewish academics such as Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Hebert Marcus, Walter Benjamin, Jürgen Habermas, and Max Horkheimer), is the progenitor of what is known as Critical Theory, while also challenging the “criticality” of Critical Theory. This challenge is being made not to tarnish or refute the groundbreaking and foundational work of the Frankfurt School but to highlight the lack of self-reflection and specious omission of the Black subaltern as the substratum of criticality and Critical Theory.

For example, the Frankfurt School is held in high esteem by its theoretical acolytes (Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality) for the audacious manner in which it questions societal inequity and power imbalances. However, the Frankfurt School is a beneficiary of the very inequity, privilege, and imbalances it professes to seek to critique. The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory are decidedly Eurocentric and have been called “a history of White men in conversation with themselves.” Thus, critical theorists and their canon, in my opinion, are merely palliative ideological elixirs used to soothe the intellectual desires of bohemians at odds with contemporary society. While concomitantly being unlikely to produce truly emancipatory discourse, literature, and action due to its inability or unwillingness to center the incisive views, thoughts, and experiences of the Black subaltern capable of inducing true liberation from White global hegemony.

An example of the unwillingness of Critical Theory to center the work of scholars and theorists outside the Western/European sphere of influence is representative of the omission of social theorists such as Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B Du Bois, and Anna Julia Cooper. Intellectual pillars of the African American community who used their education, research, and scholarship to highlight racial inequity, anti-Black racism, and misogynoir in American society. Woodson’s work championed the study of Black history (leading to the creation of Negro History Week and subsequently Black History Month), Black education, and miseducation. Du Bois’s study The Philadelphia Negro (Du Bois et al., 1899), the first significant study of the Black community in America, and canonical sociological text The Souls of Black Folks (1903), which expounds on the Black experience of “double consciousness,” has been excluded from the canon of Critical Theory. While Cooper’s seminal text A Voice From the South (1892), which highlighted the intersection of race, gender, and the socioeconomic realities of Black families during the late 19th century, has also found itself outside the axiomatic critical canon.

This exclusion is illustrative of the historical manner in which higher education, in collusion with Whiteness, has sought to exclude Black scholars, their scholarship, and experiences from the canon of Critical Theory and Western thought, philosophy, and higher education as a whole. Moreover, the excavation of Black critical theorists to the periphery of “critical thought” represents the presumption of the inferiority of Black people that renders them incapable of sentient thought, action, and behavior, while also demonstrating how a fundamental tool of Western higher education, “criticality,” is used to marginalize Black people.

This complexity is highlighted in the brilliant canonical essay of Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Lorde opines that “the use of the master’s tools brings about only the narrowest parameters of change possible.” These parameters typically call for the inclusion of Black scholars into the mainstream Eurocentric critical canon. This move, for many, would be considered a cause for celebration, a monumental move that seeks to center Black thought in the halls of academia. I, however, see such an action as representative of the self-defeating politics of integration that allows the dominant society to use the talents and gifts of the Black diaspora to its benefit, creating an unequal exchange of Black intellectual property that began during the Holocaust of Enslavement. Thus, I am calling for the creation of a Black critical canon that allows Black critical theorists from Ptahhotep to Malcolm X to develop philosophy and praxis independently to genuinely challenge a dominant and coercive system of thinking that seeks not only to marginalize but also dehumanize Black people.

Bakari K. Lumumba is a Pan-Africanist, father, and founder of lumumbaspeaks.com, a Black empowerment initiative. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Ohio University’s Patton College of Education’s Higher Education Student Affairs program.

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Comments (7)

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  1. Ross Connelly says:

    A refusal of the political science department at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s to welcome and recognize the legitimacy of political economy is an example of the validity of the article’s argument. What that subfield entailed, however, extended far beyond a white-based canon, which refutes part of the article’s thesis.

  2. HBCU Watch says:

    First, Bakari spare me with the “Students of Color” narrative because African & Caribbean immigrants, Asians, & Latino students are NO serious ally for native born Black American students while at these historically and currently racist HWCUs (Historically White Colleges and Universities). Second, if you’re so critical of the White normalization of theories, paradigms and narratives, why are you pursuing a PhD at HWCU? In my opinion, you have a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome and Cognitive Dissonance of the highest order. Third, if you’re “critically conscious” why you’re not pursuing your PhD at one of the 105 HBCUs? Sounds a little hypocritical to me.

    In sum, you’re simply just another “Congolese immigrant” who incessantly seeks validation from the White academia and the White establishment. Remember, the “master will never give you the keys to his house”.

  3. Katie Singer says:

    I am also curious as to how the article is refuted by the referenced subfield’s extensiveness. I am also interested as to whether the writer is familiar with the stance of J. David Singer (Poli Sci) at U of M on this issue in the 1970s.

  4. Bakari Lumumba says:

    Moreover, you are attacking me (ad hominem ) not my argument. Also, if I was seeking validation from whites why would I write about anti-Blackness in higher education?

  5. L. Jones says:

    Thank you for recognizing the “self-defeating politics” is not something we should celebrate. I’m ready for the creation of a Black critical canon. Will you lead the charge?

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