Where did critical theory come from?
All forms of critical theory, such as critical race theory (CRT), originated from the postmodern movement that began in the 1960s (although some would argue as early as the 1940s). The postmodern philosophy itself was first developed by a number of French academics, philosophers, and activists. Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault are two of the primary thought leaders.
While the beginning of postmodernism coincides with the timing of the civil rights movement in the US, they are not related.
So what exactly is postmodernism?
It was conceived as a response to a perceived failure of modernism. In this context, think of modernism as a philosophy that embraced freedom of expression and believed in progress. As you can imagine, modernism isn't very compatible with socialist or communist political environments (freedom of expression is often more than frowned upon there!)
To make a simple comparison, modernism is about freedom and progress while postmodernism is about labeling and rejecting. Postmodernism is described as having an attitude of irony and rejection toward long-held beliefs. The key components of postmodern thought are:
How did postmodernism lead to critical theory?
If you just step back for a minute and look over those 6 items above, you'll undoubtedly spot some serious problems with this way of thinking.
It should be of no surprise that this postmodern movement did not go far beyond the walls of academia due to its cynical, destructive nature. It lacked goals. It lacked evidence. It lacked focus. But after simmering in academia for a couple of decades, applied forms of postmodernism began to appear.
What critical theories emerged from applied postmodernism?
Below are the primary forms of critical theories that exist today. You have likely seen them referenced in recent anti-racism statements like those made by many public agencies and school districts.
The West has constructed the idea that rationality and science are good in order to perpetuate its own power and marginalize non-rational, non-scientific forms of knowledge production from elsewhere. Therefore we must now devalue white, Western ways of knowing and promote Eastern ones.
Sex, gender, and sexuality are social constructs. Gender roles are taught and learned as sets of actions, behaviors, manners, and expectations, and people perform those roles accordingly. Gender is a set of things a person does, not something to do with who they are.
Racism is present everywhere and always, and persistently works against people of color for the benefit of white people (white privilege). Racism is prejudice plus power, therefore, only white people can be racist. Only people of color can talk about racism and white people need to listen and support them.
The structure of power in society is highly influenced by gender, which is socially constructed. Identity is the intersection of gender, sex, sexual preference, race, and other related categories.
Disability is the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by the political, economic and cultural norms of a society which takes little or no account of people who have impairments and thus excludes them from mainstream activity.
Negative attitudes about obesity are socially constructed and the result of systemic power that marginalizes and oppresses fat people and of unjust medicalized narratives in order to justify prejudice against obese people.