Barbara Christian’s The Race for Theory

A Statement on Academic Legitimacy

J. Eik Diggs


Barbara Christian, pioneering scholar of African American literary feminism
(Grayscale of Dr. Barbara T. Christian in glasses and statement earrings, hand placed beside face.)

Most of the inner workings of academia merit scrutiny, and the theory that we stand on to further our political and intellectual agendas is no exception.

In her 1988 piece The Race for Theory, Barbara Christian analyzes and critiques the ways that theory is defined and ascribed value in academia. Her discussion centers on attention to the power dynamics surrounding whose and which definitions of theory are lauded and upheld, and the ways in which the value of an idea is determined in academic spaces.

Christian argues that in the quest to be recognized as the sole generators of knowledge worth sustaining, white Western philosophers determined the parameters of what constitutes theory. That is, power dynamics that disparage certain ideas while protecting others are constantly at play within the academy. To this end, notions of valuable theory have been divorced from ideas embedded in literature and connected to the lived realities of those most impacted by the themes being studied. Instead, concepts that are abstract and purportedly neutral are upheld — operating under a feigned commitment to objectivity.

Christian problematizes the notion that theory must be abstract and difficult to grasp, calling it prescriptive, “elitish”, and counterintuitive for communities of color that have rich histories of contemplating, speculating, and producing texts about the nature of life:

“For people of color have always theorized — but in forms quite different from the Western form of abstract logic. And I am inclined to say that our theorizing (and I intentionally use the verb rather than the noun) is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, since dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking” (p. 58).

The title of the article, The Race for Theory, is deployed by Christian throughout her piece to describe the ongoing competitive process in academia to create new theories — thus, “fixing a constellation of ideas” (p. 51) for a period of time — a race that is sustained by literary critics’ and academics’ incessant vying for position at the front of the pack.