Whose job is it to define who I am? Is it an institution’s job or is it mine?
In all the brouhaha over critical race theory (CRT), this question is rarely asked. That may be because much of the controversy over CRT has been about defining a nation and a system.
CRT is a theoretical genre within the larger realm of critical theory that has become a mainstream movement. It teaches that the United States was founded on racism, oppression and white supremacy—and that these forces are still rooted in our society.
What gets overlooked within this movement, however, is that individual identities are being erased. This shouldn’t surprise us, given that a core idea of CRT is that racism is not merely the product of individual prejudice but something systemically embedded in legal systems and policies.
Whether one is white, black or brown, individual identities inevitably get submerged by this systemic ethos. Further, because CRT does not encourage dissenting views, individuals feel pressured to go along with whatever box CRT puts them in.
This is highly problematic, regardless of where one stands on the overall issue. For one thing, the imposition of individual identity is a violation of a fundamental human right—the right to define ourselves as we wish.
None of us have identities that fit into neat boxes. I’m a Sephardic Jew born in an Arab Muslim country in North Africa. Some people consider me a Jew of color, although I look Caucasian. My identity is also influenced by groups to which I belong, from an Orthodox synagogue to industry groups to the passionate fan base of the Los Angeles Lakers.
My political identity is of a centrist who loves to engage with all sides. My views can change depending on new information. It’s hard to pin me down because I refuse to pin myself down. All this to say that no one has the right to define who I am, either as a Jew or as an individual.
And yet, in many ways, critical race theory aims to do just that—put people into neat boxes. Because CRT revolves around race and racial categories, by definition it must downplay the individual. We become defined by our skin color, a radical departure from Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dictum that we ought to be judged by “the content of our character and not the color of our skin.”
This stereotyping is especially problematic for groups that have a long history of being put in stereotypical boxes that have led to their persecution, such as Jews. Throughout the centuries, Jew-haters have used any convenient box to attack Jews—communist, capitalist, powerful, weak, religious, secular, insular, universal and so on.
Today, one of the consequences of CRT is that Jews are put in the “ultimate white privilege” box, reinforced by an association with the powerful “white” State of Israel, a country that attracts an inordinate amount of anti-Semitic hostility, particularly when it defends itself.
As a result, Jews are facing a form of identity erasure, made worse by CRT’s erasure of individual choice.
The Jewish tradition, while valuing communal connections, values individual agency above all. We make choices as individuals, whether to serve God or our fellow humans.
We sin as individuals, seek forgiveness as individuals and forgive as individuals. The major figures of the Bible, from Moses to King David, all had their individual flaws. The sages of the Talmud were in constant debate.
The Jewish message is that none of us have static identities based on qualities or characteristics that can never change. Our message is always one of action and hope—each one of us is a work in progress, even kings and great leaders.
Critical Race Theory nullifies this powerful idea—that we are individuals with the power to make a difference, both in the world and in our lives.
We can and must teach in our schools the shameful and complicated racial history of the United States, and fight its lingering effects, but without ignoring the long arc of progress or the ability of individuals to think critically and strive for improvement. Even when we are part of groups—what is commonly known today as “identity politics”—it is what we bring to these groups as individuals that nourishes our lives and helps the groups succeed.
We have an obligation to teach our kids the universal truth that the sanctity of our individuality is the real source of human dignity. We might call that Critical Human Theory.
David Suissa is editor-in-chief and publisher of Tribe Media Corp, and “Jewish Journal.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.