top of page
  • Wolfgang Hutton

Ayanna Pressley And The (Un)Logic of Critical Theory

Opinion by Wolfgang Hutton

“We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need any more black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.”—Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley

Ah, what a quote. But what does it mean, exactly? What are the assumptions about belief and identity implicit in Congresswoman Pressley’s words?

First, she assumes that politicians, activists, writers—really anybody, for that matter—must bear two expressions of their identity: an outward, physical expression (the color of their skin, their gender, their socioeconomic status—their “face”) and an inward, psychological expression (their values and norms—their “voice”).

Second, she asserts that these two things are related but disconnected, in that certain outward expressions have values and norms that are typical of them and which they would default to under normal conditions (i.e. the natural-state rich person would be fiscally conservative, the natural-state sexual minority would be socially liberal, the natural-state immigrant would be pro-multicultural, etc.), but these default conditions can be lost via outside interference.

And third, she asserts that in these unnatural instances in which a person (in this case, a brown person or a black person) believes in values and norms that do not belong to their set of default conditions, the person in question has chosen to betray their natural essence (i.e. brownness or blackness), and therefore can no longer serve as an effective and authentic representative for constituents of that identity group.

These are all tenets of a belief system based on Critical Theory, a philosophy of social analysis which is not unique to Congresswoman Pressley but shared by many people across the political spectrum today, and increasingly on the left. This belief system is thoroughly complex, bolstered by the work of many different highly intellectual people, and yet, I believe, both wrong and threatening to the very foundation of modernity.

Let’s reexamine our reading of Pressley’s statement: first of all, what is this implied interfering force that might corrupt someone to betray their natural essence? What is this impetus that might lead black and brown faces to open their mouths and speak with ‘un-black’ and ‘un-brown’ voices? Under the Critical Theory paradigm, this interfering force is whiteness.

See, whiteness in Critical Theory is not simply an identity that one is born into (a “face”), but rather a social property imbued with certain political, economic, and social privileges. Whiteness and the privileges that it holds are tightly coupled, and social power structures have been built-up to create and sustain both this condition of privilege as well as the white identity itself. Whiteness in this case, does have a “face” which people can be born with, but it also has a particularly powerful “voice,” one which all white people have access to, but which is not exclusive to white people and is indeed transmissible across boundaries of identity. See, if someone whose identity is marginalized wants to experience some of those political, economic, and social privileges which come with whiteness, they can obtain some semblance of those privileges by adopting certain values and norms which uphold the status quo, as the status quo systematically advantages white people. In this way, the marginalized individual in question sacrifices their conscience on an altar of social power, further bolstering white social hegemony by allowing whites to proclaim that the status quo is universally beneficial and that everyone can take part in it, when in reality both of these proclamations are lies that simply legitimize oppression. They are able to become less marginalized by co-opting whiteness, and in exchange, the white power structure is able to suppress dissent by co-opting their “voice.” The individual is now participating in a symbiotic relationship with whiteness, and is said to have taken on the condition of false consciousness.

What are some telltale signs that someone has taken this Faustian bargain of false consciousness and avowed themselves to whiteness? Well, it all comes down to narratives. White power structures are, after all, only maintained because people buy into certain narrative myths that legitimize white hegemony and keep the wheels turning. For example, the narrative that American society is meritocratic (or at least close to meritocratic) is one such myth that advantages white power by invalidating the possibility of systemic racism as a cause for the political, economic, and social disadvantages presented to people of color. Those people of color therefore, who do not believe in systematic forces of racial oppression which pervade multiple levels of society, are quite un-POC in their “voices,” and have been co-opted by the power structure.

Another telltale sign that someone has assumed false consciousness is that they participate in discourse using the so-called “master’s tools.” Critical Theory lecturers have occasionally passed around this term, referencing a quote from a famous speech given by Audre Lorde at a feminist conference in 1979: “[T]he 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.” These master’s tools include empiricism, positivism, science, and anything else that seeks to perpetuate “epistemic injustice” by excluding other “ways of knowing” (such as the lived experience of marginalized people) from discourse. As Robin DiAngelo states in her book Is Everyone Really Equal?, “[The] scientific method (sometimes referred to as ‘positivism’) was the dominant contribution of the 18th-century Enlightenment period in Europe. Positivism rested on the importance of reason, principles of rational thought, the infallibility of close observation, and the discovery of natural laws and principles governing life and society. Critical Theory developed in part as a response to this presumed superiority and infallibility of the scientific method, and raised questions about whose rationality and whose presumed objectivity underlies scientific methods.” In this conception of science, the rationality and objectivity of the scientific method is undergirded by white masculinist definitions of what it even means to be rational and objective at all. In this way, someone who might reject that the lived experiences of some black and brown folk can be used as evidence to support the existence of a larger system of racial oppression, instead citing data which contradict said lived experiences, is engaging in epistemic violence by denying them their voice, excluding them from the conversation based upon inherently white standards of truth, and thereby perpetuating this very system of oppression. If the dissenter in question is themselves a person of color, then they have taken on the condition of false consciousness for certain. Their voice surely is not a voice of color.

If it isn’t clear by now why this framework is ridiculous, then allow me to explain. Forgive me if this is suggesting too much, but the whole idea of false consciousness looks a lot like a convenient way to immediately dismiss anyone who disagrees with you as brainwashed. And let’s be mildly charitable to Pressley and DiAngelo here—let’s say some black and brown voices who support the status quo are brainwashed and self-hating—even so, not every black person who doesn’t believe in Critical Theory is Jesse Lee Peterson. Some, indeed, many conscious objectors to Critical Theory exist among POC intellectuals on both the left and the right, and to dismiss them as all traitors to their communities for simply believing in universality, progress, and rationalism is unfounded, presumptuous, and frankly laughable.

Furthermore, it can be dangerous. The Enlightenment project of liberalism was not a white project—it was a universal project founded upon the notion that through our mutually operable senses of reason and our singular objective reality we could come to peacefully agree upon the values by which a prosperous society should be structured. It is jeopardizing the whole foundation of modernity to suggest that those values—including democracy, human rights, and the rule of law—are instead products of a self-sustaining hegemonic social order.

Historically speaking, most successful movements towards further racial equality have explained how the emancipation of racial minorities actually fits the logic of liberalism, and policies of racial exclusion are simply failures to live up to the right ideals. When Frederick Douglass wrote “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July,” he explained how slavery was in contradiction with the fundamental principles of natural rights present in the American Constitution. When Ida B. Wells spoke out against the vigilantist lynching of black men in the Jim Crow South, she argued for anti-lynching legislation on the basis that black Americans deserved the same right to fair trial, and that the rule of law is foundational to just democratic governance. When Martin Luther King Jr. marched on the Washington Monument, he proclaimed “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” These great intellectuals of black American history believed that more liberalism and more universality was the solution to an unequal and broken system. None of them argued that liberal epistemology itself was the problem—no successful movement for racial equality throughout history ever has. To put it mildly, it is an insult to the legacy of these great people—and to black intellectual history as a whole—to say that these men and women were using the so-called “master’s tools” or were somehow otherwise guilty of submitting to white power structures.

Finally, I wonder if Critical Theorists are even aware that their claim—that science and rationality are rooted in white conceptions of reality—is exactly what white nationalists want people to believe. It’s absurdly ironic, in an incredibly dark and slightly humorous sort of way. Both Critical Theorists and white nationalists share in this view that the natural state of black discourse is anti-positivist, except that while Critical Theorists use the terms “counterstories,” “lived experiences,” and “ways of knowing,” white nationalists describe our discourse as relying on myth, ignorance, and superstition. In both cases, the more rigorous form of discourse is relegated to whites and thought inaccessible to someone well-socialized to a black way of life. Legitimizing this way of thinking is deeply perilous. In an interview with Thomas Chatterton Williams, Richard Spencer, an avowed white supremacist and neo-Nazi, said the following with regards to some statements by a critical race theorist, “This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist...This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.” The main reason why white nationalists love this narrative is because it renders any possibility of multiracial liberal democracy as essentially doomed to fail. If white and black epistemologies are fundamentally incompatible, then where is the hope that intercultural dialogue will ever be capable of bringing about harmony between them? Why should they even belong to the same state at all? Now more than ever, we must reaffirm the notion that we are absolutely epistemically equivalent. For despite the disharmony, the suffering, and the racial violence, it is only between groups of people who agree on what reality is that change can ever occur.

Black and brown voices are ultimately diverse, and whether positivist or anti-positivist, pro-status quo or anti-status quo, Republican or Democratic, they all merit consideration on the basis of their real intellectual content. So maybe instead of creating a new POC anti-liberal orthodoxy, we should celebrate a wide diversity of black and brown political thought, and welcome well-founded dissent against Critical Theory. After all, when Max Horkheimer wrote Traditional and Critical Theory in 1937, he famously defined the goal of Critical Theory as being, “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” So if genuine freedom is the goal, then ferociously pigeonholing POC thinkers into expectations of what they ought to believe based upon their identity might actually render us more unfree than we began.


bottom of page