Oh, Don’t Be Criticulous


Let’s stipulate that there are Perspectives on “Critical”: like, there are contexts in which people say “booo, ‘critical'” and others in which people say “yaaaaay, ‘critical!'” Now: the ways we use “crit_” (-ical, -icism, all the aunts and cousins) vary enough to almost obviate analysis of this boo/yay (like: if you use “critical” to mean “mean” and I use it to mean “very important”  and Erin uses it to mean “evaluative/interpretive” then duh: we are just talking about different things). But these words come up a lot in my job and in what I read outside my job, and I think there is something interesting to dig into about the boo/yay of crit- ness, so here I go.

The answer I wrote recently to the “whaddaya meeeean there’s still bias in this country?” question was unsubtle and reductive–purposely, rhetorically so. Obviously, there are myriad factors that determine whether someone perceives bias in a given interaction, situation, policy, or culture. It’s nice to hear people talk about what those factors are, and I got to last night at a talk on Critical Race Psychology. This is a phrase I love because it could mean 20 different things depending on how you interpret “critical” AND how you break up the noun phrase(s)*…so, “the head-workings of the judgmental people”…or “the mental strategies appropriate to the most important speed competitions”…call me, we’ll play this game for hours.

What it really is though is worth quoting: CRT [Critical Race Theory] perspectives (1) approach racism as a systemic force embedded in everyday society (rather than a problem of individual bias); (2) illuminate how ideologies of neoliberal individualism (e.g., merit, choice) often reflect and reproduce racial domination; (3) identify interest convergence as the typical source of broad-based support for reparative action; (4) emphasize possessive investment  in privileged identities and identity-infused realities that reproduce racial domination; and (5) propose practices of counter-storytelling to reveal and contest identity-infused bases of everyday society. In summary, we propose a CRP that considers race not as one domain (among many) for psychological investigation but instead as a conceptual lens through which to analyze all of psychological science.[…] Among other implications, a CRP challenges psychologists to reveal how institutions and practices in society at large, including such politically liberal and highly educated spaces as psychological science, both bear traces of and function to reproduce racial power. (“Towards a Critical Race Psychology,”Adams and Salter, 2013… Read the whole thing here.)

They talked about several studies they’d done on what influences whether people perceive racial bias, and there were some upshots that feel important to share, even in the simplified way I’ll be able to. Upshot 1: when people are exposed to narratives that include (not “are limited to”) a critical perspective on Black history (i.e., that deal with historical racism), support for policies that seek to address racial discrimination goes up. When people are exposed to purely celebratory (even celebratory of diversity), nation-glorifying narratives, support for those policies goes down. Upshot 2: When white people are given a chance to write an essay affirming their own identity  (in terms of the values they identify with) before being shown a list of situations (including laws) with ambiguous racial influence, their perceptions of bias operating in those situations equalizes with those of people of color.

The Critical Race Psychology people had these great ways of explaining all this that involved other awesome research they’d done…Upshot 1 happens because the more we know about history and the more perspectives from which we know about it (beyond the European-American one we are taught is normal), the more likely we are to understand racism in America as a systemic issue (not as an atomistic “some people are prejudiced” issue). So, a critical perspective is what may prod us towards becoming the city on the hill we’d like to be…if we don’t know we’re in a ditch, we’re not going to try to get to the hill. But then Upshot 2! Unless white people are affirmed in our identity, we’ll look at a picture of our city in a ditch and say “that city is on a hill. The best hill, actually.” So criticism would not get us to the hill, because unless we feel affirmed we’ll just stand in our ditch and yell about how we are on the very best hill and everyone can love it or leave it.

Can you believe I still haven’t put a picture of the dictionary in yet?? Ok, here’s some.


Heavens. Did you know about that root? “Able to discuss”… “judge, discern”? And then def. 1: “Expressing a reasoned opinion on any matter…involving a judgement of its value, truth, or righteousness…or an interpretation.” Well: yeah! That’s partly awesome (discuss! discern! interpretation!) and partly deeply threatening if we think about applying it to one’s identity (you may have a “reasoned opinion” on my value but…ack).

Here’s more, related, if you are curious:

IMG_2973 - Version 2  IMG_2975

I am not working up to some snappy conclusion, by the way. I just couldn’t stop thinking about all this! In my work we are constantly using words from this family…”criteria,” “critique,” “critical friends,” and I don’t know that we think hard about what unites them and whether that could inform our approach. So that’s what I’m going to do with this lexicography: I’m going to keep in mind that those words point back to discernment, and also that when woven into how we talk about history, such discernment can garner support for a just society, but when applied to individuals’ identity, those individuals will lie down on the floor and shut their eyes. This all feels helpful on the road towards critical consciousness…and I also will still love thinking about that instance of “critical” aligning with almost all those definitions.

Ok, and did you catch the word above “critique”?? A criticule!  Gross It sounds like something you’d pop; something that would spurt, and I don’t mean spurt discernment.

*or determiner phrase, depending on your syntax camp.**

**Syntax camp is not a place; believe it or not, linguists have very strong opinions about noun phrases vs. determiner phrases.

One thought on “Oh, Don’t Be Criticulous

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