How are you?
I’m not being perfunctory. I really want to know. You are leading during a time like no other time in history. You have been navigating a pandemic, balancing work responsibilities at home with family life, and now, trying to make sense of the recurring evil of racism.
If you tell me you are tired, I understand. You may want to tell me you are ready for things to go back to the way they were. I get it. If you tell me that you feel helpless regarding making a difference in anything you are facing at the moment, I want you to stop, take a deep breath, and walk with me for a few minutes.
As a leader, you can change the world.
Like no other time in history, you have the opportunity to shape a future without racism. To fight this disease that threatens the lives and dignity of so many of our sisters and brothers, you must become the courageous leader God has gifted you to be. Antiracist work is hard and exhausting, but you have been created to lead for such a time as this.
If you are willing, walk with me a little further. I’m going to ask three questions. They are for you and your reflection. I don’t need to know the answers. All I ask is that you be honest with yourself.
1. Are you a racist or an antiracist?
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in his book How to Be an Antiracist, writes “A racist is someone who is supporting a racist policy by their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea. An antiracist is someone who is supporting an antiracist policy by their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” He says that “racist” and “antiracist” are labels like nametags. They are not permanent. They are placed and replaced based upon what you might be doing or not doing, supporting, or expressing at any given moment.
What is interesting is, there is no “not racist” category. Not racist claims neutrality. The opposite of racist is antiracist. You either agree that some racial groups are better and should be on top of a scale of education, employment, opportunities, etc. or you are working for racial equality. Here’s another choice: You either believe problems are rooted in groups of people or the problems are rooted in power and policies. You either allow racial inequities to persevere or you confront racial inequities. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” In fact, “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.
Have you ever heard someone say, regarding recognizing the differences of people, “I’m color blind”? This statement is related to the idea of being “not racist.” This sounds harsh, but color-blind individuals, by failing to see race, fail to see racism and fall into racist passivity. Saying “I don’t see color” or “I’m color blind” is a mask for racism.
Before you get angry and walk away, both the ideas of “not racist” and “I’m color blind” are interwoven into the fabric of our culture. In 1896, United States Supreme Court Justice John Harlan proclaimed in the case that legalized Jim Crow segregation, “Our Constitution is color-blind. The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage.” A color-blind Constitution for a White-supremacist America.
2. Are you willing to struggle with your humanity and the humanity of others?
Being a racist or an antiracist are not fixed identities. You can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What you say about race, in each moment, determines what you are not who you are. The movement from racist to antiracist is always going on. It requires knowledge and understanding. It requires the intentional work of turning away from racism based upon biology, ethnicity, body, culture, behavior, color, and class. And beyond that, it means standing ready to fight at racism’s intersections with other bigotries.
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi writes, “No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other. We can unknowingly strive to be a racist. We can knowingly strive to be an antiracist. Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”
Are you willing to enter the struggle? Many of us don’t want to be in the racist category because there is shame attached to it. No one want to be labeled “racist.” But we don’t want to be in the antiracist category because there is so much work attached to it.
Here’s one of many challenges: we know how to be racist. We know how to pretend to be not racist. The question is, are you ready and willing to be antiracist?
If you are still with me, I know you are ready, have been ready, and are already working to be the courageous leader needed to navigate and lead through this time in history. Let’s take one more step.
3. Where did I learn this thinking or feeling?
Racism is complicated. It is woven into the politics and power of our government, the policies of our schools, the practices of our public safety systems, and the politics and practices of our churches. The truth is racism is woven into everything we hold near and dear. One of the steps we must take to be antiracist is to recognize our own participation in racism and how we continue to perpetuate it.
I have one more question for your reflection. It is in relationship to different forms of racism. As you read each form, ask yourself this question, “Where did I learn this thinking or feeling?” I will remind you of the question after each category.
- One who is expressing the idea that the races are meaningfully different in their biology and that these differences create a hierarchy of value.
Biological racial difference is one of those widely held racist beliefs that few people realize they hold. They do not realize that those beliefs are rooted in racist ideas.
We often see and remember the race and not the individual. So, we place all people into certain and selected color-marked categories. He acted that way because he is Black. She acted that way because she is Asian.
- One who is expressing the idea that the races are meaningfully the same in their biology and there are no genetic racial differences.
An antiracist treats and remembers individuals as individuals. “She acted that way, not because she is White but because she is racist.”
Here’s a Question to Consider:
- When I think and feel that that non-white people are biologically inferior to white people, where did I learn this thinking or feeling?”
- One who is perceiving certain bodies as more animal-like and violent than others.
The research reveals that Americans today see a Black body as larger, more threatening, more potentially harmful, and more likely to require force to control than a similarly sized White body. No wonder a Black body had to be lynched by the thousands, deported by the tens of thousands, incarcerated by the millions, segregated by the tens of millions.
Over the years, we have taught ourselves and our children that the violence in America has a Black face. In fact, as far back as the 1600’s the Black body was demonized as being a beast and less than human.
- “One who is humanizing, deracializing, and individualizing nonviolent and violent behavior.”
The research reveals a stronger more prevalent correlation between violent crime and unemployment than violent crime and race. If Black people are violent demons, then the violent-crime levels would be relatively the same no matter where Black people live. But Black upper-middle-income and middle-income neighborhoods tend to have less violent crime than low-income neighborhoods. The research reveals that low-income neighborhoods struggle with unemployment and poverty and their typical by-product is violent crime.
Here’s a Question to Consider:
When I feel afraid of a Black man or woman or feel uneasy driving through a “Black” neighborhood,” where did I learn this thinking or feeling?”
There are other forms of racists like ethnicity, culture, behavior, class, gender, sexuality, etc. The question is, “where did I learn my thinking and feeling toward people who are different?”
I am grateful that you have been willing to walk with me to this point. We will take another step in another blog. I am also grateful that you can see that your leadership is needed to grow a new generation of antiracists.
You can find more information about being an antiracist by reading the book How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi. You can also find a list of resources on an earlier blog titled, “Overcoming Racism.”
Sara Thomas and I are leading a group discussion regarding racism and antiracism. Click here to register your interest in participating.