Before Ibram X. Kendi wrote "How to Be an Anti-Racist" and the term “anti-racism” swept into the cultural lexicon, political activist and scholar Angela Davis said that “in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. One must be anti-racist.” But in a world where many people have been taught that being “not racist” is a behavior that should be applauded, suddenly being told that it isn't enough has elicited confusion. Isn’t being non-racist a good thing? Shouldn’t we treat everyone equally, regardless of their race, because everyone has the same opportunities? Well … no. Because the simple truth is that everyone doesn't have the same opportunities.
The election of President Obama in 2008 caused many political pundits to speculate that America had entered into a “post-racial” age. These pundits took the election of a Black man as evidence that racism had ended. Because, surely, if a Black man could make it to the highest office in the country, anyone could, right? But the myth of the post-racial age only obscures the fact that systemic racism still permeates every institution in this country. From the health care industry to K-12 education to the office C suite, racism is endemic in America. And for many white people, the successive murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the spring and summer of 2020 (as well as the global protests for racial justice) brought them face-to-face with the understanding that systemic racism is alive and well in America.
In our society, systemic racism still creates dramatically different life experiences and outcomes for communities of color. Yvonne Davenport-Perkins and Ruka Curate of Lens Diversity write, “One of the reasons why white people haven’t understood (the phrase 'anti-racism') before the summer of 2020 is because privilege acts as a barrier and a shield. Many white people have not had to confront these issues because they weren’t happening in their backyard. But with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown orders, in conjunction with police brutality and an already fraught election process, white people began to see that what POC had been speaking on for many years were not just isolated incidents.” To provide some examples of this systemic racism, the average Black family has roughly 1/10 of the net worth of the average white family. Black and Latinx people make up 32% of the US population but a full 56% of the incarcerated population in the U.S. Only 19% of 18–24-year-old Native American students enroll in college, compared to 41% of the rest of the U.S. population. Latinx workers are statistically more likely to be injured on the job and they face the highest rates of fatal work injuries, but they are also 2.5x more likely to lack health insurance than their white counterparts. All of these statistics show examples where systemic racism intersects with economic, educational, health and life outcomes.
For many folks (especially white folks) this sudden understanding about the myth of a post-racial age, as well as the subsequent realization that systemic racism makes up the fabric of American society, also came with an understanding that being neutrally “not-racist” is impossible.
We live in a world shaped by race, and we’ve therefore been conditioned to have racist worldviews. As Kendi puts it, “A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas argue that the inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society.”
Claiming to be “not racist” gives people a pass from interrupting racism when they witness it. And if one doesn’t intentionally confront racism (both on an individual and a systemic level) and instead pretends to not see it, racism continues to thrive. Or, as Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
So instead, the imperative is for each of us to be anti-racist. The leaders of Lens Diversity, which was created to help corporations, academic institutions and non-profit organizations in response to the many difficult events in 2020, describe anti-racism as “any effort or action designed in direct opposition to racism, bias, oppression, marginalization and brutalization of any group of POC." In practical terms, this means that we have to show up to interrupt, confront and call out racism whenever we see it. It could be in line at a grocery store, in an office staff meeting, in a classroom space or it could be the crucial introspective act of noticing and interrogating our own racist thoughts when they emerge.
In practical terms, being anti-racist means that we have to show up to interrupt, confront and call out racism whenever we see it.
Beyond a commitment to interrupting racism, both internally and in the world, how else do people become anti-racist? First, we have to dispel the notion that being anti-racist is an end goal or a destination to arrive at. We can’t rid ourselves of our racist conditioning, and we will continue to make mistakes (especially white people, whose privilege has specifically allowed them to not “see” racism for much of their lives). So, being anti-racist means showing up, over and over, to fight against racist policies, ideas and actions. “It is possible to become anti-racist, but it is not easy work nor is it a one-shot deal," the leaders of Lens Diversity write. "It doesn’t start and end with posting a black square to show that you’re 'down' or having friends from a different ethnic group. It starts with ignoring your ego and looking in the mirror. Asking yourself, ‘How am I biased? How am I racist?’”
A key piece of anti-racism is educating oneself in a way that interrogates the racialized frameworks we grew up in. For many people, that means unlearning a whitewashed history of our country and seeking out the histories of communities of color. It means educating ourselves on how systemic racism dictates different life outcomes for people of different races.
There are numerous resources for beginning one’s anti-racist education: For starters, the Solidarity Library, Your Black Friends Are Busy and The Institute for Anti-Racist Education have fantastic reading lists. But self-education also has to be paired with action and activism. It’s critical that once people become aware of how systemic racism operates in this country that they actively seek to disrupt those systems. One resource, the Anti-Racist Roadmap, pairs education with activism. It prompts users to identify actions they can take within five different impact areas to reappropriate resources to communities of color and disrupt racism within their own circles. This pairs anti-racist learning with concrete and specific actions. What is clear is that anti-racism requires us to show up again and again, even after we’ve made mistakes.
As the leaders of Lens Diversity state, “All people are operating on a racist ideology, but they can also look to dismantle that and replace it with something better. Anti-racism is a necessary rung in the ladder to equity for all because we all have so much to unlearn. But it starts with self and has a ripple effect.”