Critical Race, Social Learning and Feminist Theories

Table of Contents

Critical Race Theory

During the recent three decades, Critical Race Theory has been actively used by researchers in order to critically analyze racial relations in different contexts, including the educational one. The theory was formulated by researchers for the legal context in the 1980s-1990s, and Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic formulated its widely applicable premises in 2001 (Ledesma & Calderón, 2015). The key assumption of Critical Race Theory is that it is possible to observe white supremacy and racism in all spheres of the U.S. society (Ledesma & Calderón, 2015; Savas, 2014). Thus, according to Savas (2014), this theory declares that “racism still exists in our society and is part of our everyday reality but in more subtle, invisible, and insidious ways in contrast to the past” (p. 508). Furthermore, the goal of this theory is to demonstrate tools available for destroying racist structures in the U.S. society. The theory is also aimed at explaining relationships between the idea of race and its representation in different social contexts (Harris, 2017). In the 1990s-2000s, researchers began to apply this theory to analyzing experiences of racial minorities in different environments, including the field of higher education.

Critical Race Theory explains social dynamics in the U.S. society with reference to claims that all power is concentrated in the hands of whites, and, as a result, representatives of racial minorities can experience certain challenges and barriers while obtaining a higher education or seeking a job (Savas, 2014). Theorists state that this tendency is explained with the focus on the history of white privilege associated with the U.S. society (Ledesma & Calderón, 2015; Savas, 2014). Harris (2017) notes that this theory is also effective to discuss and analyze the phenomenon of racial stereotypes in various social sectors. Therefore, Critical Race Theory is widely referred to in the literature on problems in education associated with representatives of different races.

While applying Critical Race Theory to studying African Americans’ experiences related to obtaining a higher education, it is possible to state that this theoretical model is appropriate to explain cases of racial discrimination in educational institutions, achievements in the field associated with the civil rights legislation, and the idea of racial differentiation that can influence educational experiences of people with different ethnic backgrounds (Ledesma & Calderón, 2015; Savas, 2014). This theory tends to explain why those African American women who are focused on obtaining a higher education can face specific barriers and determine factors that can contribute to the development of institutional bias (Ledesma & Calderón, 2015). From this perspective, it is important to note that Critical Race Theory can provide an appropriate theoretical framework for the study where participants belong to the minority group in order to clarify the connection between race and students’ experiences in educational institutions.

Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory is a widely known psychological theoretical model that was formulated by Albert Bandura in the 1970s. This theory views learning as an interactive process that is highly influenced by social relations and interactions (Kattari, 2015). As a result, observations of people and social models can influence an individual’s beliefs, values, activities, and behaviors. According to researchers, Social Learning Theory is appropriate to discuss not only how people learn and follow certain social models but also how their actions and socialization depend on different settings (Hanna, Crittenden, & Crittenden, 2013; Kattari, 2015). Therefore, the assumptions related to this theory are the following ones: people’s behaviors depend on their social learning and experiences, and people’s behaviors depend on contexts and expected or desired outcomes.

Researchers accentuate the importance of Social Learning Theory in terms of explaining reciprocal interactions between individuals and environments in a range of spheres, including education as the key area where social learning plays a critical role (Hanna et al., 2013; Kattari, 2015). Thus, this theory proposes many perspectives from which it is possible to explain challenges or barriers faced by African American women in association with their education. From this point, Social Learning Theory explains that individual perceptions of obstacles and problems can depend on previous learning of social models or on their previous experiences (Hanna et al., 2013). This approach can explain behaviors of tutors and peers who interact with women of color and have certain prejudice, as well as behaviors of African American female students who can expect bias and behave accordingly. Social Learning Theory suggests that all participants involved in communication or interaction in a specific setting choose behavioral patterns depending on their previous social learning, and their visions and behaviors can influence each other.

The key principles and assumptions of Social Learning Theory can be effectively used for clarifying African American women’s experiences in higher educational institutions. Women of color should learn how to successfully interact with representatives of different cultures, and they need to adapt to new social models or to specific models followed by the majority of students in a concrete educational environment (Thomas, Wolters, Horn, & Kennedy, 2014). According to the principles of Social Learning Theory, if African American females have successfully adapted to a new environment in which white or male students can dominate, they experience fewer obstacles and challenges (Hanna et al., 2013; Kattari, 2015). Furthermore, visions, values, and beliefs of these women can change depending on the setting in which they interact. Therefore, this theory is selected as a theoretical framework for this study because it can explain how behaviors of African American women and students in colleges can be modified with reference to specific social models and patterns they observe in their daily life.

Feminist Theory

Feminist Theory was developed in the 20th century by a group of researchers as the continuation of discussing the aspects of feminism. This theory is aimed at understanding inequalities that are observed in society in relation to treating females and determining their roles in contrast to males (Collins, 2015; Friedman & Ayres, 2013). Feminist Theory also explains such aspects as discrimination, inequality, oppression, sexual objectification, and stereotyping with the focus on the gender factor (Carastathis, 2014; Friedman & Ayres, 2013). From this point, Feminist Theory is important to discuss and clarify details of gender inequality that can be observed in different social contexts, and this theory is crucial to guarantee the better understanding of specific barriers and challenges associated with women’s positions in society and gender discrimination oriented to them.

It is important to note that Feminist Theory unites a range of feminist theoretical models and movements that differ in their approaches to explaining gender differences, inequality in society, and observed oppression in relation to females. Adherents of feminist theories state that, in the U.S. society, women are often viewed through the lenses of their sex or gender, and specific biases developed with reference to these views influence the success of females in relation to their education and observed workplace practices (Collins, 2015; Friedman & Ayres, 2013). Thus, it is possible to state that many researchers choose to discuss experiences of African American women while obtaining a higher education with reference to Feminist Theory because the observed discrimination and structural oppression can be a result of gender-based biases (Carastathis, 2014; Collins, 2015). As a consequence, Feminist Theory is appropriate to explain why African American females in higher educational institutions can be oppressed, offended, abused, and discriminated without reference to their race.

It is stated in the literature on the problem of African American women’s experiences in postsecondary educational institutions that the role of women in the modern society is reconsidered in the context of feminist movements and other social theories, but the application of feminist theories to studying experiences of women of color is still important because they can face different barriers due to their gender (Carastathis, 2014; Collins, 2015; Friedman & Ayres, 2013). While identifying barriers that African American women can face in higher educational institutions, it is possible to explain them with the focus on Feminist Theory in addition to the theories related to the aspects of race and social learning (Collins, 2015; Friedman & Ayres, 2013). In addition, the selection of this theory for the theoretical background is important in order to conclude about differences in challenges and barriers that can be faced by African American females in comparison to African American males who usually study in the same institutions.


Carastathis, A. (2014). The concept of intersectionality in feminist theory. Philosophy Compass, 9(5), 304-314.

Collins, P. H. (2015). No guarantees: Symposium on black feminist thought. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 38(13), 2349-2354.

Friedman, C. K., & Ayres, M. (2013). Predictors of feminist activism among sexual-minority and heterosexual college women. Journal of Homosexuality, 60(12), 1726-1744.

Hanna, R. C., Crittenden, V. L., & Crittenden, W. F. (2013). Social learning theory: A multicultural study of influences on ethical behavior. Journal of Marketing Education, 35(1), 18-25.

Harris, J. C. (2017). Multiracial women students and racial stereotypes on the college campus. Journal of College Student Development, 58(4), 475-491.

Kattari, S. K. (2015). Examining ableism in higher education through social dominance theory and social learning theory. Innovative Higher Education, 40(5), 375-386.

Ledesma, M. C., & Calderón, D. (2015). Critical race theory in education: A review of past literature and a look to the future. Qualitative Inquiry, 21(3), 206-222.

Savas, G. (2014). Understanding critical race theory as a framework in higher educational research. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 35(4), 506-522.

Thomas, J. C., Wolters, C., Horn, C., & Kennedy, H. (2014). Examining relevant influences on the persistence of African-American college students at a diverse urban university. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 15(4), 551-573.

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