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Introduction to Critical Race Theory and Counter-storytelling

By Luna Castelli

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a movement that joins together activists and scholars who study and aim to transform “the relationship among race, racism, and power”(1). Originally started in the legal discipline, this theory has spread to various fields of study, research, and activism. Nowadays, CRT is commonly applied in fields such as education, Latino studies, Asian studies, and LGBTQ studies. CRT was built on insights from critical legal studies and radical feminism and gains inspiration from figures such as “Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, César Chávez, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Power and Chicano movements” (2).

Critical Race theory can be used to deconstruct the power dynamics that surround race and racism through everyday societal structures and institutions. This theory can be helpful in understanding and transforming these power dynamics by using different methods and approaches that work towards equity and representation for minority populations. For example, a signature of CRT is revisionist history. This method “reexamines America’s historical record” to replace narratives that only reflect the majority perspective with those that include the perspectives and lived experiences of minority populations. In this way revisionist history attempts “to unearth little-known chapters of racial struggle” that can validate the current experiences of minorities and support the desire for change. This is just one example of how CRT can be used to elevate minority voices and work towards equity. 

Another example of this can be seen through one of the major tenants of Critical Race Theory called Counter-storytelling.  Counter-storytelling is used to magnify the stories, experiences, narratives, and truths of underprivileged communities. Everywhere we turn, the world is filled with dominant culture narratives. ‘Dominant culture’ refers to the practices, norms, and ideas that have the most power and influence in social, institutional, and economic structures. For example, although I grew up in the United States I immigrated from South America and I was raised in a household that held the values and practices of my home country. Throughout the years I have held on to my culture’s norms, many of which are different from those of the dominant culture in the USA. This creates a difference in how I behave and think compared to how my peers and mentors may expect me to behave and think. The dominant culture maintains minority experiences in the background and is sustained through various levels of society. Things like history, textbooks, movies, fiction, academia, and media have all been centered around the experiences and lives of the dominant culture. Minority populations interacting with these forms of media may feel deeply excluded as they encounter stories and narratives that do not fit or apply to their lives. Even when an underprivileged community is at the center of the storytelling, the narrative tends to come from elite or privileged individuals outside of the community. This means that the community and their experience is only seen through the filter of the dominant culture. To resist this erasure, counter-storytelling creates space for community voices to create the narrative that defines their own experiences and lives. By giving power to the voices of individuals and communities, counter-storytelling fights against the dominant culture narratives that lack the knowledge and wisdom that minority individuals hold about themselves and their traditions, cultures, communities, homes, struggles, and needs. To see an example of counter-storytelling at work click here

(1) Delgado, Richard. Critical Race Theory (Third Edition) (Critical America) (p. 2). NYU Press. Kindle Edition.  

(2) Delgado, Richard. Critical Race Theory (Third Edition) (Critical America) (p. 5). NYU Press. Kindle Edition.