Critical Love

Like breathing and belonging, love is a fundamental human need. Many educators are drawn to their work by a sense of love, but sometimes other emotions masquerade as love. Pity can sometimes convince us that it’s love. At times we care, but it’s grounded in ego or saviorism.[1] Our caring may be distant, or even conditional. The work of being an antiracist educator calls for what Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz names critical love, or “a profound ethical commitment to caring” for the community you serve.[2]

To engage in critical love is to be honest about dynamics of power and oppression, and to work to dismantle the influences of racism, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, ableism, cisheteropatriarchy, and other forms of violence. Educators who enact critical love show their students that they are in the struggle with them.

The application of a “critical” lens is fundamental. It reminds us to investigate beneath the surface of things, to ask why and why again (look at root cause analysis). James Baldwin’s ideas, as well as Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s thoughts on critical consciousness anchor a great deal of thinking in this area. Here are some examples:

Now if I were…dealing with…[Black] children who have an apprehension of their future, which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them—I would try to make them know—that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him. I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that he is stronger than this conspiracy and that he must never make his peace with it. And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth.

I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worthy of a man’s respect. That it is up to him to change these standards for the sake of the life and the health of the country. I would suggest to him that the popular culture—as represented, for example, on television and in comic books and in movies—is based on fantasies created by very ill people, and he must be aware that these are fantasies that have nothing to do with reality. I would teach him that the press he reads is not as free as it says it is—and that he can do something about that, too.[3]

Other scholars on Paulo Freire (1970) and critical consciousness:

“Paulo Freire invited us to understand that the pedagogy of oppression is “an instrument for the critical discovery that both [the oppressed] and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization…. Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one…. The solution is not to ‘integrate’ [oppressed communities] into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become ‘beings for themselves.’”[4]

“Paulo Freire…claimed…that critical consciousness involves a reflective awareness and analysis of the differences in power present in social relationships and institutions. Such an engagement in the critical examination of the social world should foster a “reorientation of perspective towards a commitment to social justice.”[5]

In the excerpts above, we see important principles that guide critical love:

  • Both those who are oppressed and those who oppress are being dehumanized;
  • The goal isn’t integration into the existing social order, it’s transformation of the whole structure of society, power, and relationships;
  • This requires awareness (with ongoing reflection) and analysis of how power operates, both in relationships and institutionally (“…those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies …are criminal.”)
  • The goal of this consciousness is to increase commitment to social justice and
  • To create the circumstances that allow people to “become beings for themselves” – to self-actualize through self-determination.

Scott Seider and Daren Graves (2020) have found that “marginalized youth with high levels of critical consciousness are more likely to demonstrate resilience, mental health, self-esteem, academic achievement, high professional aspirations, and civic and political engagement.”[6] Citing Shawn Ginwright, they go on to highlight that “critical consciousness might be associated with these positive youth outcomes [because it] can replace marginalized adolescents’ feelings of isolation and self-blame for challenges they are encountering with a sense of agency and engagement in a broader collective struggle for social justice.”[7] Critical consciousness includes three dimensions:

  • Social analysis – “The ability to name and analyze the social, political, and economic forces that contribute to inequity and inequality;”
  • Political agency – “The belief that one has the capacity to effect social or political change;” and
  • Social action – “Engaging in events or activities that confront oppressive forces and structures, and the unequal conditions they perpetuate.”[8]

The three dimensions are mutually reinforcing. Social action, for example, reinforces a sense of political agency, which deepens social analysis and leads to more social action.

Jeff Duncan-Andrade (2009) applies critical consciousness to a key aspect of living and learning: hope. He teases out different kinds of hope, helping us see when they do the work of oppression versus the work of supporting freedom. First, he describes “hokey hope,” “mythical hope,” and “hope deferred” like so:

  • Hokey Hope: “an individualistic up-by-your-bootstraps hyperbole that suggests if urban youth just work hard, pay attention, and play by the rules, then they will go to college and live out the ‘American dream.’ …[It] ignores the laundry list of inequities that impact the lives of urban youth long before they get to the underresourced schools that reinforce an uneven playing field. …This, in turn, …delegitimizes the pain that urban youth experience as a result of a persistently unequal society. It is a false hope informed by privilege and rooted in the optimism of the spectator who needs to not suffer—a ‘let them eat cake’ utterance that reveals a fundamental incomprehension of suffering.”[9]
  • Mythical Hope: “[an] ahistorical and depoliticized denial of suffering that is rooted in celebrating individual exceptions. These individuals are used to construct a myth of meritocracy that simultaneously fetishizes them as objects of that myth. Ultimately, mythical hope depends on luck and the law of averages to produce individual exceptions to the tyranny of injustice, and thus it denies the legitimacy of the suffering of the oppressed.”[10]
  • Hope Deferred: Describing educators who “have a critique of social inequality but cannot manifest this critique in any kind of transformative pedagogical project. They “hope” for change in its most deferred forms: either a collective utopia of a future reformed society or, more often, the individual student’s future ascent to the middle class.[11]

Duncan-Andrade then goes on to elaborate: critical hope, writing “critical hope demands a committed and active struggle ‘against the evidence in order to change the deadly tides of wealth inequality, group xenophobia, and personal despair.’ Critical hope counteracts that despair by connecting “moral outrage to action aimed at resolving undeserved suffering.”[12] There are three mutually constitutive elements of critical hope:[13]

  • Material Hope: comes from exploiting “cracks” in the “concrete” that young people grow up in (to use the author’s metaphor). He writes, “the quality of our teaching, along with the resources and networks we connect our students to, are those cracks. They do not create an ideal environment for growth, but they afford some leaking in of sunlight, water, and other resources that provide the material justification to hope. …Material hope…comes from the sense of control young people have when they are given the resources to “deal with the forces that affect their lives.”[14]
  • Socratic Hope is “the courage to pursue the painful path of bursting through those jagged cracks in the concrete. …Socratic hope requires both teachers and students to painfully examine our lives and actions within an unjust society and to share the sensibility that pain may pave the path to justice. …[Effective] educators teach Socratic hope by treating the righteous indignation in young people as a strength rather than something deserving of punishment; Freire called this a “pedagogy of indignation.” The moments of despair and rage that urban youth feel are not only understandable, they are, ‘an appropriate response to an absurd situation.’”[15]
  • Audacious Hope is “the solidarity to share in others’ suffering, to sacrifice self so that other roses may bloom, to collectively struggle to replace the concrete completely with a rose garden. …[Critical] hope is audacious in two ways. First, it boldly stands in solidarity with urban communities, sharing the burden of their undeserved suffering as a manifestation of a humanizing hope in our collective capacity for healing. Second, critical hope audaciously defies the dominant ideology of defense, entitlement, and preservation of privileged bodies at the expense of the policing, disposal, and dispossession of marginalized ‘others.’ …[Audacious] hope demands that we reconnect to the collective by struggling alongside one another, sharing in the victories and the pain. This solidarity is the essential ingredient for “radical healing,” and healing is an often-overlooked factor for improving achievement.”[16]

Critical consciousness enables critical love, which undergirds critical hope.

Additional guidance can be found in literature about another form of education: mentoring. Torie Weiston-Serdan (2017), mother of the theory of Critical Mentoring, describes the need for a “mentoring augmented by a critical consciousness, one that compels us to take collective action and to do it alongside our young people.”[17] Monique W. Morris (2019) similarly highlights the concept of “transformative” mentoring, in which the adult mindset includes a commitment to “know our children,” “believe in their promise,” and take an “approach [that] is grounded in healing.”[18]

[1] For a humorous representation, see Ruffin (2019) at

[2] Education Equity Starts, 2021; see also See Muhammad, Dunmeyer, Starks, & Sealey-Ruiz, 2020.

[3] Baldwin, 1963. Delivered on October 16, 1963, as “The Negro Child-His Self-Image, published in The Saturday Review, December 21, 1963, reprinted in The Price of the Ticket, Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985, 1985.

[4] Morris, 2019, p. 35, citing Freire, 1970.

[5] Clonan-Roy, Jacobs, & Nakkula, 2016, p. 103-104.

[6] Seider & Graves, 2020, p. 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Seider & Graves, 2020, p. 4-5.

[9] Duncan-Andrade, 2009, p. 182-183. Weiston-Serdan (2017) describes youth who reject the invitations of programs that offer programming that’s not responsive to their needs, while Morris (2019) and Nunn (2018) discuss how young people who operationalize refusal in the face of hokey hope and the like are labeled, punished, and made disposable.

[10] Duncan-Andrade, 2009, p. 184.

[11] Duncan-Andrade, 2009, p. 184-185.

[12] Duncan-Andrade, 2009, p. 181.

[13] Duncan-Andrade, 2009, p. 185-186.

[14] Duncan-Andrade, 2009, p. 186.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Duncan-Andrade, 2009, p. 186-190.

[17] Weiston-Serdan, 2017, Loc. 105.

[18] Morris, 2019, p. 161.


Baldwin, J. (1963b, December 21). The Negro child – His self-image. The Saturday Review.

Clonan-Roy, K., Jacobs, C. E., & Nakkula, M. J. (2016). Towards a model of positive youth development specific to girls of color: Perspectives on development, resilience, and empowerment. Gender Issues 33, 96-121.

Duncan-Andrade, J. M. R. (2009). Note to educators: Hope required when growing roses in concrete. Harvard Educational Review 79(2), 181-194.

Education equity starts with critical love. (2021). Resilient Educator.

Morris, M. W. (2019). Sing a rhythm, dance a blues: Education for the liberation of Black and Brown girls [Kindle iOS version].

Muhammad, G., Dunmeyer , A., Starks, F. D., & Sealey-Ruiz, R. (2020). Historical voices for contemporary times: Learning from Black women educational theorists to redesign teaching and teacher education. Theory Into Practice. DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2020.1773185

Nunn, N. M. (2018). Super-Girl: Strength and sadness in Black girlhood. Gender and Education 30(2), 239-258.

Seider, S., & Graves, D. (2020). Schooling for critical consciousness: Engaging Black and Latinx youth in analyzing, navigating, and challenging racial injustice. Harvard Education Press.

Weiston-Serdan, T. (2017). Critical mentoring: A practical guide [Kindle iOS version].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s