Beyond the buzzword: How can we use Critical Race Theory to further equity and inclusion work?

July 2021 Thumbs Wordpress (2)

Critical Race Theory is the buzzword of summer 2021. Barely searched in 2020, the term reached its popularity peak on Google trends in late June 2021, with related searches for “ban” and “Critical Race Theory taught in schools.” Much of its popularity has been driven by state legislators who have introduced, or passed, bills to ban Critical Race Theory from being taught in public schools. These efforts continue despite teachers’ assertions that this graduate-level legal theory is not being taught in K-12 schools. It has however had a chilling effect: teachers are increasingly fearful that they will be in trouble for speaking about race, at all.

Critical Race Theory (CRT), very briefly, emerged out of critical legal studies in the 1970s and 80s. Its founders included Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw (who also coined the term intersectionality), and Richard Delgado, among others. They sought to explain, “Why has equal protection under the law (such as Brown v Board and the Civil Rights Act of 1964) not led to equal outcomes or opportunities for black people?” What they theorized was that the law (and by extension, all institutions and systems) was never and could never be race neutral, but instead was shaped by those who held power. The theory has grown beyond legal studies to the fields of education, sociology, and more. (Learn more via the video below and our overview of the theory’s tenets, later in the blog.)  

This backlash against Critical Race Theory has also highlighted the concept for those who are interested in learning more. Over the past year, organizations and individuals have demonstrated their interest in understanding systemic racism and taking anti-racist action. And we know that understanding CRT can help them better determine where to advance their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work. YW Boston draws on several theories for its programming from across different disciplines ranging from public health behavioral theory to organizational theory and Critical Race Theory.

Central to Critical Race Theory is the understanding that racism shows up in all aspects of our society, a concept known as systemic racism. By accepting this, we can better train ourselves to identify the instances when racism impacts organizations, including those that don’t seem obvious. This is just one way that CRT can help inclusive leaders become more attune to their organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion needs and begin to plan action steps.

Dr. Sarah Faude, YW Boston’s Director of Research and Evaluation, is trained in Critical Race Theory, the tenets of which inform how she and the YW Boston team support partner organizations. We sat down with Sarah to learn more about the theory, why it has been misunderstood, and how it can support organizational change.

Tell us about where you first encountered Critical Race Theory.

I first learned about Critical Race Theory as an undergraduate at Skidmore College. I found out through our sociology program that they were starting a race dialogue program and as part of the prep to be a facilitator we had to take a foundations class which included reading Introduction of Critical Race Theory by Delgado and Stefancic. It introduced me to CRT particularly about the importance of decentering power, centering lived-experience, and thinking intersectionally.  I continued my learning in my Masters in Education program and then again in my Sociology PhD program. I ended up using it in my dissertation research because it was the most helpful way I could explain the institutional inequalities I was finding in Boston Public Schools’ choice and assignment systems. 

Your dissertation focused on how racial inequality shows up in the Boston Public School registration system. How did Critical Race Theory serve your argument? 
Dr. Sarah Faude

Victor Ray’s “A Theory of Racialized Organizations” came out right around the same time as I was finishing my dissertation. His argument, which is building on the tradition of Critical Race Theory, is that all institutions are racialized despite the fact that we too often view them as race-neutral. I found the way that Ray specifically and CRT generally call attention to the impossibility of “race-neutral” to be incredibly liberating. It took the pressure off to say, “Is there racism in this place or system?” Instead, I got to ask, “What does it look like in this place, in this time, this process? And how did we get here?” I could really focus on things and see things more clearly, that I otherwise would have missed because I’d be too busy chasing down a silver bullet to prove racism. I think this is an important framing that also shows up in our programming. If we say, “racism is here,” then we can spend our energies discovering the ways and root causes of why it’s showing up and what we want to do about it, rather than debating if it’s there and whose fault it is.

How do you understand the key features of Critical Race Theory? 

Here are a few of the key elements as they are laid out in the introduction of Words that Wound with a little of my explanation into what they mean to me and our work at YW Boston. 

  1. Racism is ordinary and everywhere. People talk about racism like a cancer that needs to be cut out. And it’s not – it’s in our societal bones, in the very fabric of our society. Once we see it as ordinary, we can move beyond debating if it exists and instead focus our energy on better understanding how institutions and values support it (and how we can choose an alternative path).  
  1. Be skeptical of neutrality, objectivity, colorblindness, and meritocracy. Any time we hear or assert that there is a single truth or that there are equal opportunities, CRT encourages us to dig deeper. Who created these narratives? Who has access to power? Who benefits from this framing of the world? 
  1. Context matters. CRT encourages a historical (rather than ahistorical) reading of the law and the world. Where we are today and the inequalities we see are informed by where we’ve been. We don’t just wake up to a world that is racist, we are often viewing the world from a castle we’ve built brick by brick over generations. 
  1. Value experiential knowledge. The dominant narrative of how the world works misrecognizes the very different experiences of people of color and others at the margins. Counternarratives provide other explanations, and reveal the ways that power and whiteness operate. Counternarratives help us notice the water we’re swimming in. Broadly, we can all learn from “critical reflection on the lived experience of racism and from critical reflection upon active political practice toward the elimination of racism” (p.6). 
  1. CRT is interdisciplinary. It draws from lots of spaces and has perhaps influenced even more. It shares a common interest in the above four elements and a critical interrogation of power. It’s fundamental goal is to create a more racially just future. 
  1. The goal is eliminating racial oppression. CRT (not unlike YWCA’s nationwide!) has a central goal of “eliminating racial oppression as part of the broader goal of ending all forms of oppression.” (p.6). When we look intersectionally, like YW Boston does, we see that systems of oppression overlap and intersect – CRT argues that race is at the center of those intersections. 
How is this different from simply learning about the history of racism?

Well, it is and it isn’t, depending on how you learn the history of racism and what areas you’re studying. If you’re reading up on the history of racism in the law, then it’s pretty likely you’re engaging with Critical Race Theory or at least communities of scholars who’ve read it. CRT was initially asking, “How do we understand the legal system, the premise of legal precedent, and the ways in which the law has defined and constructed race, gender, citizenship, ability, disability? Why didn’t “equal protection under the law” lead to equal experiences and material conditions? Who designs the law and who does it protect?”

Other areas may share overlapping values and elements of CRT without being CRT explicitly. For instance, Dr. Ibram X Kendi’s (How to be an Anti-Racist) original argument that there’s either racist or anti-racist ideas. What is implied is that racism is central to all ideas no matter whether you’re racist or anti-racist. The governing assumption again is that there is racism here, and he’s offering a topology to explain different policies and beliefs, given that assumption.

Again, Critical Race Theory is a very particular thing that has come to represent many things beyond it. There are lots of critical theories of race that are not Critical Race Theory. There are also other theories of race and racism that don’t fall into the critical camp. “Critical” theories in a social science context or in a humanities context are often explicitly talking about power and equality of opportunity. “Critical” is often a signal that there’s an interest in talking squarely about power. The current conversation on Critical Race Theory is a resistance to and rejection of any and all critical conversations on how race and racism have been central to our history, society, and culture in the United States. Critical Race Theory is the buzzword or strawman to represent all challenges to the dominant narrative that the United States has been a story of progress, of inclusion, and of equal opportunity. But it hasn’t been that way, not for most people or for most of our history. Once we take a deep breath and look squarely at that history and listen to counternarratives, then we can really get to work.

What about Critical Race Theory is making people nervous?

I think there was a tweet making the rounds that said something to the effect of, “If you’re worried about your child learning Critical Race Theory in school, don’t be, because that means they’re in law school.” If the idea of CRT stresses you out because it’s having hard conversations about our history with race and racism, then yes, that’s happening in K-12 schools even if it isn’t CRT, exactly. Similar to counternarratives, it is all about valuing and uplifting. It’s not about pushing people down, it’s about lifting people up, so that they also feel valued and welcome in a classroom, and it’s making space. It’s making your tent bigger. And it might be startling for students or teachers or families to realize that they haven’t seen the humanity and their peers. Until this moment, that’s a moment of guilt and shame. That isn’t actually about what we’re doing to uplift others. It’s about our own reckoning with the fact that we weren’t given the tools we need to be successful and kind.

More generally, I think people are nervous because it can feel risky. If you’re somebody who has built a successful career without having to name racism, its history in your life and workplace, and your own complicity in these systems – there is a lot of reflecting, learning, and unlearning to do. And honestly, doing that work is really hard and it’s not something that can be done overnight. Admitting you’re not as far as you should be or want to be can feel risky. It’s risky because it requires vulnerability. For someone who is saying, “I’ve spent my whole career studying or working to make the world better and I’ve never really talked about race,” there’s a lot of perceived and real risk to admitting how long you didn’t see this water you’re in. I was lucky in that I got to it early enough that it didn’t feel risky for me to name it; it felt risky for me to not name it. I think organizations are in that place to where some of them are realizing the risk if we don’t talk about it.

I think a lot about one of our survey questions that we ask participants. We ask them the extent to which they agree or disagree with the statement “talking about race causes unnecessary tension.” This question gets, on average, one of our lowest averages before our sessions, and some of the most growth after our dialogues. Why? Because the tension is there whether or not you talk about it – and once you can begin to see your own and your colleagues’ full humanity, then the stress and nerves of talking about race and racism get a little bit easier. It just takes practice and a willingness to grow.

How can an understanding Critical Race Theory contribute to stronger DEI initiatives at work?

Critical Race Theory pushes us to ask “why” when looking at outcomes, values, norms, and institutional practices. We at YW Boston draw from a number of different theories, including CRT, to focus on root cause analyses. It also pushes us to ask “in what ways are things unequal?” and “how do we change it?” Thinking about my own research and my dissertation, everyone who worked in Boston Public Schools knew that outcomes were unequal for White, wealthier families compared to their less affluent peers of color, and they couldn’t quite figure out what agency they had in fixing that. When I spent time looking for patterns of how things got that way and the history behind decisions, we were able to identify windows of opportunity that they did have control and authority over.

Similarly, I think organizations talk about how it is frustrating that their staff isn’t diverse. They feel that the problem is too big or that the solutions are very expensive (and to be fair, they can be). It may feel impossible to do anything about, or that the things that you want to do are so far beyond the scope of your expertise and what’s feasible if your organization. And I think where Critical Race Theory can be helpful is slowing down to think about what are all the different policies and practices you do control. For instance, policies in your handbook, who you reach out to when you have a job posting, how you expect employees to “show up” at work. All of those things, you do control and shape as members of an organization. These may not always impact who applies to your job but it will impact whether people stay. Too often we see that the issue isn’t getting people of color in the door or even to the interviewing stage, but it’s getting people of color to stay once hired. Once you’ve narrowed the scope of the problem to things within your organization, you actually have a lot to work with.

"I think where Critical Race Theory can be helpful is slowing down to think about what are all the different policies and practices you do control." -Dr. Sarah Faude Share on X

While YW Boston’s work is not based on Critical Race Theory, and is influenced by many theories, CRT’s key ideas do inform our work. Here are some examples of how our work draws from CRT, in Sarah’s words: 

Affinity group spaces: This is one strategy that organizations can put in place to protect time and space to acknowledge that racism is ordinary and to question, “how does it show up here?” “What does my learning and unlearning journey look like?”  

Indigenous land acknowledgements acknowledge this history as racist and colonial. The point is to be thoughtful about the fact that this is always under the surface and sometimes we see it and sometimes we don’t. Land acknowledgements call attention to this racist history and present so that we aren’t forgetting that racism informs everything we see and do, down to the land we stand on.  

Focus on impact: Especially in the last year we see more and more people working to say the right thing, whether interpersonally or through broader corporate statements and commitments. These are important but the most important kind of talk is actually not what you say but what you do. Focus on action, on organizational change, and on impact. Where are you trying to go? How are you going to get there? Who gets to decide?

How are you using Critical Race Theory in your work as YW Boston’s Director of Research and Evaluation?

I think the most important way that connect Critical Race Theory to evaluation, but also organization-wide, is creating more room in the conversation. When we decenter whiteness, it is not to disregard or to discount whiteness, but to make room for more at the center. When we’re working with partners, we are disproportionately working with White people. Anytime you average the experience of everyone in the room, you’re looking at a whitewashed average because there are more white people in your sample. One of the things I’m working towards is to start pulling out subsets that are specifically the experiences of women, of people of color, and even more specifically women of color. We do not do this at the organization level, because that doesn’t protect anyone and their experiences, but we look across organizations and across programs in order to add depth in our narratives. So, we listen to both the average and we pull out, value, and amplify that subgroup in the spirit of CRT’s counternarratives. Their experiences need to be elevated in order to help complicate what we think may or may not be happening within organizations.

How do you see the role of “complicating” in organizational change?

I think that by asking complicated questions, what you’re doing is going into the weeds. You need to pay attention to the things people gloss over and take for granted. Otherwise, you miss recognizing the variation, such as in people’s experiences within an organization. I see each variation as an opportunity to make something a little bit more equitable and inclusive. If we view our work as a handbook that is one big monolithic dry document, then we miss recognizing that in each paragraph, each section, maybe even each sentence, there is an opportunity to welcome more people. Valuing more people’s experience signals their value to the organization and creates a better culture. We need to sometimes rebuild our institutions brick by brick with intention in order to see the changes we’re looking for.

And so, that complexity is always opportunity. It helps us see all the different opportunities that we have before us we might have missed recognized because the task felt so big. Like asking, “How do we fix our culture at our organization?” Well, let’s take that big thing and start breaking it down into its component parts by: who works there, the departments, the documents, the policies, the practices, and even within each of those. If we can both have the big picture goal in mind and be in those weeds, we have an opportunity to iterate and to innovate and continuously work towards inclusion.

How do you recommend people continue learning about Critical Race Theory?

I think that, like any theory, discipline, or field, there’s ladders of entry. There are opportunities for learning, depending on what you’re interested in. Derek Bell wrote science fiction parables, like “Space Traders,” as part of his writings on critical research so it’s not just in legal journals. Patricia Williams wrote it as an auto ethnography, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, which to use words more familiar, is an analytic memoir. The founders of Critical Race Theory were a small group, but the ripple effect is huge. I encourage readers to find an entry-point that works for them – or ask us to recommend some more! 


About YW Boston

As the first YWCA in the nation, YW Boston has been at the forefront of advancing equity for over 150 years. Through our DE&I services—InclusionBoston and LeadBoston—as well as our advocacy work and F.Y.R.E. Initiative, we help individuals and organizations change policies, practices, attitudes, and behaviors with a goal of creating more inclusive environments where women, people of color, and especially women of color can succeed.

Whether your organization is large or small, you’re just starting out with DEI, or are further along on the journey, YW Boston will work with you to find the right solutions. YW Boston offers a variety of DEI Services designed to create lasting change. For more information, please contact Sheera Bornstein at  

About InclusionBoston 

InclusionBoston advances diversity, equity, and inclusion by partnering with organizations looking for improved results. Using our advanced assessment tool and the latest research on behavioral and organizational change, we partner with organizations to create an action plan and provide them with the resources needed to drive lasting change. Our customized, evidence-based approach builds internal capacity and promotes cultural change while supporting organizations throughout their journey. YW Boston also offers one-day workshops where participants explore frameworks, develop knowledge, and engage in dialogue.  

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