Critical White Theory
Updated: Mar 28
Just as critical race theory tries to explain the role of race in American history, critical white theory would look at the role of white. White, in other words, is a “role,” or social behavior, not a skin color. Critical white theory, from this perspective, provides answers to such questions as “Why did they do that?” by indicating the role that person assumed. “They were acting White.”
One of the chief characteristics of the white social role is to behave as though other peoples and cultures did not exist. That’s what it means to be monocultural in a multicultural context. The result, of course, is that others are invisible. They do not matter.
Given our beginning as a slave nation with ideals of liberty, this contradiction has a long legacy. Instead of seeing ourselves as one among others, we only saw ourselves. At the same time, this “non-social” image was and is unstable because it is not only based on a lie, but also on crimes against humanity. The white social world exists in a climate of injustice.
A good example of monocultural thinking in a multicultural context is the Supreme Court Justice, Amy Coney Barrett’s interpretative theory of originalism, which assumes that the original meaning of the Constitution is its meaning today. This theory assumes that the Constitution exists apart from its context, and that any contemporary reader should read the text outside of any context.
Texts, from this perspective, are not “social documents” written in a particular time and place, but rather “isolated documents” without a history, so to speak. Originalism assumes that one’s particular social identity doesn’t exist, and neither does the social identity of others. Critical white theory would point out that the denial of the social is a characteristic of white social identity, and regardless of any person’s intention, maintains the lie that only white roles matter.
The fact is that the context of the Constitution was a climate of injustice, and that climate continues. Extracting the Constitution from this messy legacy will not help us to move toward a climate of justice.
I see a similar dilemma in President Biden’s responses to our moral failures, like the incident of border patrol officers using their horses to “corral” Haitian immigrants. Biden said the images were horrific, and “That’s not who we are.” Critical white theory would look at this behavior from the social and historical legacy of white supremacy and probably conclude “that’s exactly who we are.”
The issue is not merely historical consciousness, but even more the question of who is included in Biden’s “we.” If the “we” are only white Americans, then such behavior can be seen as a violation of American ideals. If the “we” also include black and brown Americans, then the images may show us once again that we have not yet made the change that’s been promised.
“We the People” was written in a climate of injustice. It included some white men, who made the necessary compromises to keep others out so they could enjoy American Prosperity. We have always been multiracial and multicultural, but not a multiracial and multicultural democracy. Why not? Because the prosperity of the few was based on the suffering of the many.
Once again, the agenda of creating a multiracial and multicultural democracy has been put aside and whites—liberal and conservative—focus on another compromise that will ensure American Prosperity, white privilege, and an American monoculture.