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What it really means to be an anti-racist, and why it's not the same as being an ally

Business Insider logo Business Insider 6/8/2020 hhoffower@businessinsider.com (Hillary Hoffower)
a man holding a sign: Anti-racism involves an active commitment to dismantling structures that perpetuate racism. Scott Heins/Getty Images © Scott Heins/Getty Images Anti-racism involves an active commitment to dismantling structures that perpetuate racism. Scott Heins/Getty Images

"Please just think about how MILLIONS of black people had to die in this country before you decided to care about race," tweeted writer Megan Reid on May 31

It was three months after Ahmaud Arbery was shot by a former police officer while jogging, two weeks after Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in her home by the police, and six days after George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer. 

These names are just a few of the many black Americans who have been killed by the police in the past decade alone. But it was Floyd's death that intensely woke America up to police brutality and the horror of systemic racism that has seeped into America's underbelly since slavery began in the US four centuries ago.

 

The Black Lives Matter movement, which originated in July 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the killing of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, is out in full force across the nation and worldwide.

But for a non-black person to fully understand anti-racism, they must endeavor to grasp the underlying context of Reid's Tweet: Black lives (and voices) have been marginalized and silenced to the point of death for centuries. They've been trying to tell us about the deadly problem of institutionalized racism; the white community has not been listening to them and has not been acting to fix it.

a person talking on a cell phone: A masked protester sits to read British writer Reni Eddo-Lodge's book "Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race." Hollie Adams/Getty Images © Hollie Adams/Getty Images A masked protester sits to read British writer Reni Eddo-Lodge's book "Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race." Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Racism against black Americans isn't perpetuated among white Americans alone, and black Americans are not the only racial group to suffer from racism. That is to say, racism and anti-racism exist in multitudes. But it was white European colonialists who were at the helm of slavery 400 years ago, laying the foundation for today's structural racism that everyone is born into.

In researching and writing this article, I was transported back to my readings and studies on colonization and racism from college African-American literature classes. I realized with discomfort that I shouldn't have stopped my education on the subject just because I no longer had a formal class — maybe I sooner would have understood how racism has embedded and benefited my daily life. However, I also realized that my white privilege is not a burden to bear, but a way for me to enact change.

The first step is learning what racism and anti-racism are, what it means to be anti-racist, and how to take action. The guideline below is just a beginning point of understanding it all.

What is anti-racism?

"Anti-racism is an active and conscious effort to work against [the] multi-dimensional aspects of racism," Georgetown African-American studies professor Robert J. Patterson told Business Insider.

Patterson, who authored "Destructive Desires: Rhythm and Blues Culture and the Politics of Racial Equality," added that we need to collectively shift our thinking of racism as conscious, intentional, overt actions to unconscious, covert, and unintentional actions. He added that while racism can happen individually, it often happens institutionally.

When abolitionist Anthony Benezet founded America's first abolition society in 1775, it may have signaled the first known act of anti-racism in America. Anti-racism has its foundations in abolition and the post-liberation fight for structural change as well as 20th-century civil rights movements, Malini Ranganathan, a faculty team lead at the Anti-Racist Research & Policy Center at American University, told Anna North of Vox.

But it's difficult to trace the exact origin of the term "anti-racism." 

Merriam-Webster will tell you the first known use of "anti-racist" was in 1943 — the same year Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker dismantled the longstanding argument that African Americans accepted slavery in his book "American Negro Slave Revolts." 

Aptheker, who later became the literary executor for author and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois, subsequently overturned the then widely-held idea that all whites universally accepted racism in his book "Anti-Racism in US History: The First 200 Years." 

Ibram Kendi wearing a suit and tie: Ibram X. Kendi has popularized the concept of anti-racism. The Washington Post/Getty Images © The Washington Post/Getty Images Ibram X. Kendi has popularized the concept of anti-racism. The Washington Post/Getty Images

Today, anti-racism is perhaps most closely associated with Ibram X. Kendi, the founding director of American University's anti-racist research center (who is now moving to Boston University to open an anti-racist center there), who popularized the concept with his 2019 book "How to be an Anti-Racist." In it, he wrote: "The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it."

What does it mean to be anti-racist?

You don't need to be free of racism to be an anti-racist, Ijeoma Oluo, author of "So You Want to Talk About Race," once tweeted. "Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it's the only way forward," she wrote.

 

Racism views a racial group as culturally or socially inferior. An anti-racist, per Kendi's book, is "one who is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequality."

But to understand what an anti-racist is, one must also understand what an anti-racist is not: a non-racist. There is no such thing as a non-racist, Kendi writes, because it signifies neutrality.

"One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist," he says. "One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist."

Patterson, the Georgetown professor, said that people "collapse identity and behavior" when they misconstrue not being racist as being anti-racist. In the process, they underappreciate how action signals anti-racism and underestimate their own influence in dismantling the systems that support racism.

a group of people holding a sign: To be an anti-racist, one must understand how they're influenced by systemic racism before taking committed action to challenging racist policy and power. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images © Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images To be an anti-racist, one must understand how they're influenced by systemic racism before taking committed action to challenging racist policy and power. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Patterson said Kendi's view of anti-racism highlights the way racism is socialized into behaviors — how racial inequities and disparities are embedded in private and public life. We must unravel those behaviors by thinking about and pulling back assumptions we make about "the naturalness of things," he said.

If your default thinking is "I'm not racist," a more informed point of view would be recognizing how you're informed and influenced by the embeddedness of race and institutionalized racism. "It's really critically thinking about and analyzing how race matters in seemingly non-racial context," he said.

To be an anti-racist, Kendi said in an interview with Vox, is to admit when we're being racist and then challenging those racist ideas. "We adopt anti-racist ideas that say the problem is power and policy when there is inequity, not people." That is, it is the system, not a racial group, that needs to be changed. "And then we spend our time, we spend our funds, we spend our energy challenging racist policy and power." 

What is the difference between an ally and an anti-racist?

"I think that people think that racism is black people's problem," Patterson said.

It is not. Misunderstanding whose problem racism is and who can fix it misplaces the burden of responsibility to solving racism onto the disadvantaged group.

"Racism is a white problem," Robin DiAngelo, sociologist and the white anti-racist author of "White Fragility," told The Guardian in a February 2019 interview. "It was constructed and created by white people and the ultimate responsibility lies with white people. For too long we've looked at it as if it were someone else's problem, as if it was created in a vacuum."

That leaves the onus on white people for personal accountability: understanding and recognizing the economic and social benefits and privileges this system bestowed upon them (including this writer) and taking action to transform these conditions.

This involves getting past white shame and guilt. While white people today didn't create racism, activist Ben O'Keefe tells Vox, they can choose to admit that they benefit from it and acknowledge their power in changing conditions. "We don't need you to carry the burden of your privilege," he said, addressing the white community. "We need you acknowledge it and to use your privilege, promote good, and to fight oppression."

a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Demonstrators kneel as police officers in riot gear push back, outside of the White House, June 1, 2020 in Washington D.C., during a protest over the death of George Floyd. JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP via Getty Images © JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP via Getty Images Demonstrators kneel as police officers in riot gear push back, outside of the White House, June 1, 2020 in Washington D.C., during a protest over the death of George Floyd. JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP via Getty Images

But in using white privilege for different vantage points to talk about anti-racist practices, it's important to not speak for black people's experiences, Patterson said. That "kind of reinforces the idea that black people can't speak for themselves or that you need a white voice to authenticate what the black perspective is," he said. 

The act of "doing" also marks the difference between an ally and an anti-racist. An ally, Patterson said, is someone who supports the cause and is interested in the issues, but doesn't as explicitly engage in actions. "An anti-racist is more actively fighting against the structures, etc., that perpetuate racism, whereas an ally might be in a more supportive cast role," he said.

To be clear: It is action that lies at the heart of anti-racism. As Kendi wrote in a December 2018 article for The Guardian, "A racist or anti-racist is not who we are, but what we are doing in the moment." 

Where can I find anti-racist resources?

How do you take the step from ally to anti-racist, moving beyond the black squares of Instagram to doing real work? One must move past the biggest obstacle: feeling that racism is too big a problem to tackle.

Thinking you can't do enough to enact change, Patterson said, leads to inaction. Instead, think about the ways you may participate in the problem, your sphere of influence, and how your conversations can reshape views. "What happens besides a hashtag, a tweet, an Instagram post?" Patterson asked. "And what is the work that you are doing in these spaces where you can really have influence?"

Keep in mind that anti-racism isn't about sitting on information, but acting on it.

Here's where you can start:

  • Educate yourself: Read about privilege, histories of race, and oppressed voices with the help of anti-racism reading lists from publications like The Strategist and TIME
  • Identify steps to take by talking to friends, family, and peers
  • Check out this Google Doc of anti-racism resources 
  • Volunteer or donate to organizations fighting racist policies that create and support racial inequality
  • Call out racism when you see it and espouse anti-racist ideas to help change racist policies

Patterson said all these different steps will create an arsenal of demonstrative ongoing interest that isn't just "for the hashtag." For example, consider how these actions would play out when you're in a board room discussing diversity and inclusion or in an college admissions committee discussing test scores and supposedly objective measures, Patterson said. 

It took too long for non-black people to catch on to the Black Lives Matter movement. But now that the white community is listening, we all need to recognize our power in creating change. And Kendi said it best in his interview with Boston University earlier this week: "You have to believe change is possible in order to bring it about."

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