“The heart of antiracism is confession, the willingness to be vulnerable, to identify the times when we are being racist, being willing to diagnose our thoughts and policies. The first step is acknowledging the problem. We can’t act in an antiracist fashion if we can’t admit when we’re being racist.” The wise words of Prof. Ibram X. Kendi, author and founding director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University in Washington.
I didn’t know what to write about this topic, whether I should write anything at all, and whether anything I wrote could make any kind of positive impact. But I was inspired by this video from Ivirlei Brookes, a business coach. She talks about actions white people can take to become an ally, and how change starts in your own life, your own circle, no matter how many people you know or affect. The more that white and non-black people can have these discussion with their own friends, families and circles, the more awareness and action we can drive.
The first step
My first step towards change is making a confession. One which shocks and horrifies me. I’ve been a racist. I’ve been blissfully ignorant of the extent of the suffering of black people, and I’ve been complicit in racism through leading my comfortable, white privileged life. I haven’t been using that privilege for good, I haven’t done nearly enough to educate myself on racism, I haven’t taken anti-racist action. Perhaps worst of all is that all the while, I’ve languished in the complacent attitude of “I’m not a racist.”
I want to show up in the world very differently. Recent global events and the ensuing conversations have made it painfully obvious that neutrality is not an option. Anyone who wants to effect positive change must be an active antiracist. This week, I listened to Prof. Kendi’s conversation with Brené Brown on how to be an antiracist. That’s also the title of his New York Times bestselling book. I found this conversation to be incredibly informative and insightful, and I learned a huge amount. Prof. Kendi explains the concept of what is it to be an antiracist, and why it’s not possible to be ‘not racist’:
“One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’”
What I and many people like me are waking up to is that if we’re tacitly supporting racist ideas or policies through inaction or silence, that means we are promoting racial hierarchy, and being racist. While the opposite of that is actively challenging those ideas and policies, and promoting racial equality. It’s not simply sitting around and saying to ourselves: “I’m not a racist.”
The insidious influence of systemic racism
A large part of the problem is the systemic racism which is so embedded into our society that we’re often not even aware of its insidious influence. Kendi explains it thus:
“To grow up in America is to have racist ideas constantly rained on your head. You have no umbrella, and you don’t even know that you’re wet, because the racist ideas themselves make you feel like you’re dry…There were very powerful people in history constantly raining those ideas on your head. If you’re a white American who has racist ideas and has perpetuated them…you’re both a victimiser and a victim. There’s a specific reason why you had so many powerful people trying to convince white Americans that black people were inferior – because it was in their own self-interest.”
He discusses how “racist ideas literally separate people from reality”. How racist policies encourage white Americans to believe that it’s people of colour and immigrants who are the source of their pain, and the reason they don’t have access to things they want like basic income, healthcare and paid leave. When in fact, it’s the very politicians they support who are the real source of that pain. Those in power who enable and promote racist ideas and policies, use language to dehumanise and demonise people of colour, and normalise the idea that they are inferior.
Individual and collective change
But we have the opportunity to change that. I wrote recently that it’s time to reshape our political and societal structures, and what we value and reward in our culture. It’s time to choose new leaders, ones who will prioritise the health and happiness of all humans and treat all races equally. As Barack Obama put it:
“Aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands. We have…to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.”
And we can change ourselves. Kendi and Brown affirm the belief that everyone has the capacity to change, to grow, to be antiracist:
“The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities…What we say about race, what we do about race in each moment determines what and not who we are.”
And we must create change by educating the next generation. Kendi and Brown discuss how it’s never too early to be talking to children about race, since kids recognise race at six months old, and can start absorbing racist ideas at 2 years old. We have a responsibility to teach them antiracist ideas, because:
“Like anything else, people have to be taught to be antiracist. Just like they’re taught indirectly by so many things that they see and hear to be racist.”
Above all, the conversation between Kendi and Brown crystallised a powerful desire to dive deeper into antiracism, to learn more, and to do more. So, where to start? A lot of people have shared a lot of incredible resources this week, so there’s a strong chance that I may just be reposting a lot of what you’ve already seen. But if even one of these resources is helpful to even one person reading this, it will be worth sharing. So, here are some resources I recommend:
- Ivirlei Brookes on what white people can do to help, the work needed to effect change, and actions you can take. She’s also suggested 5 black female antiracism leaders to follow
- Haile Thomas’ guide to having revolutionary conversations, and what to say when you don’t know what to say
- Daisy Onobogu’s letter to allies addressing the uncomfortable truths about being an ally, how and why to keep on doing that work, and why we all need to make racism our problem
- The Doctor’s Kitchen team have put together a huge list of how and where to sign petitions, how and where to donate, how to protest safely and peacefully, organisations and individuals to follow, what to read, listen to and watch
- British musician Floating Points has also compiled excellent antiracism resources, as well as a template letter that UK folks can send to their local MP to demand change
- The audio version of Prof Kendi’s book ‘Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History Of Racist Ideas In America’ is currently available to listen to for free on Spotify (though I would recommend buying it if you can)
- A Rap on Race is the transcript of a 7.5 hour conversation between American author and activist James Baldwin and cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. The Brain Pickings has a brilliant series of essays pulling out some of the most enthralling threads of their conversation
- The Guardian’s series on Antiracism and America looks at the root of racial inequality
- This Time article looks at what to read on antiracism, but also beyond that, in order to develop a better understanding of the diversity of black people’s experiences
The road ahead
This is just a very small first step. There’s a long, never ending road ahead. As Ivirlei put it: “Becoming an ally is a practice.” I’ll leave you with more spine-tingling words from Prof Kendi, this time in his excoriating essay on ‘The American Nightmare’:
“History is calling the future from the streets of protest. What choice will we make? What world will we create? What will we be? There are only two choices: racist or antiracist”.