The Discomfort of Becoming Anti-Racist
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
If you were enraged by the video of George Floyd’s neck being crushed by a cop—yet another Black man killed by cops—read on. If you’re white or pass as white and feel powerless to help Black men, and Black women, but want to, read on. If you identify primarily as Latinx, Asian, Muslim, or Indian American and believe that being an advocate for Black individuals helps us all, read on. If you understand that goodwill and passive compassion isn’t ever going to drive change, read on.
Earlier the same day George Floyd was killed, a white woman, Amy Cooper, called the cops on a Black man who asked her to put her dog on a leash. She was ignoring the rules. He was asking her to follow them. The man, Christian Cooper, was birdwatching when he came upon Amy and her dog in the Ramble area of New York City’s Central Park. (I trust you’ve seen the video.)
First, the woman threatened Mr. Cooper with the idea of the police, knowing that the police are a deadly threat to Black men. “I’m going to say there’s an 'African American' man threatening my life,” she said. And then she did it, she called. After the incident, after the video went viral, she attempted to reassure the news media, saying, “I’m not racist.” What? Not racist?! Yes, you are.
"I'm not racist" is a deeply troubling statement. Here's why: It reveals that she expected to be let off the hook. It's as if she were saying, "It was all a big misunderstanding." Just as she, as a white woman, could get away with entering an office building without a keycard—saying that she forgot the keycard at home—she could get herself out of this tight spot with just words. That type of 'rules don't apply to me' attitude is the definition of white privilege.
White privilege feeds a culture in which men and women like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Oscar Grant, Abner Louima, and so, so many others, can be beaten and killed by cops while you and I go hiking in National Parks without being heckled, get approved for bank loans, and unthinkingly rip the tags off a shirt we put on in a dressing room (yeah, yeah, you'll take the tags to the cash register, obviously) without the fear of being accused of breaking-and-entering, conning a bank, or stealing.
I want to see my white privilege and understand how it hurts Black people and our society as a whole. I want you to see your white and white passing privilege, too. I want us to never, never fall back asleep again.
I want us to be verbs.
I’m a writer. I’m not much of a protester, though I sometimes stand on sidewalks in Oakland or Petaluma with a raised sign. I’m most comfortable with a pen. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I want to be honest. If there’s anything I can offer to this discussion it lies in the intersection of language and racism.
Here’s what Amy Cooper should have said: “I never thought of myself as a racist person.” That’s a statement that would have rung true and gotten at the heart of the issue. But to say, “I’m not racist” is self-delusion, and we need to wake up from it.
Here’s how Ibram X. Kendi defines the incredibly important distinctions between racist, “I’m not racist,” and being antiracist (from his book How to Be an Antiracist, Random House, 2019):
“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.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism… What’s the problem with being “not racist”? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: “I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.” But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is “antiracist.”
Think about it in terms of parts of speech: “Not racist” is a noun. Nouns just stand there. But “Anti-racist” shoves that noun into an action suit (cape, mask, etc.) and makes it action-oriented, a verb. (You want to be a verb.)
My point is, start doing things: Reading, listening, donating, workshopping, protesting, discussing, and holding our friends to anti-racist standards. My god, if I can manage to make an effort, you surely can. I want to know and you should, too: where are you at with this? Say something. Remember, you want to be a verb. Remember, you chose to read on.
Remember, you are here to wake up.
Workshops, podcasts, and people to follow
CO-CONSPIRATORS LOUNGE with Myisha Hill, who is the creator and author of CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE (get the book). The Co-Conspirator Lounge is a $5-15/mo. online membership group that focuses on one specific topic on race, power, and privilege—one per month, deep dive.
Note: I am enrolled in the Co-Conspirator Lounge and Check Your Privilege so if you sign up, too, we can make part of this journey together. The Lounge includes videos, journaling, creative prompts, and discussion.
8 REASONS BLACK WOMEN DON’T TRUST WHITE WOMEN is a 30-day workshop facilitated by Catrice M. Jackson which guides women in uncovering the surprising ways in which their behaviors are hurting Black women (shetalkswetalk.com).
Doran co-hosts the podcast THAT’S NOT HOW THAT WORKS with Trudi Lebron. Check out episode #79/Your Woke Urban Dictionary (https://nothowthatworks.com).
Organizations to support that get things done
The Southern Poverty Law Center www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate
Black Lives Matter organization https://blacklivesmatter.com
NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People https://www.naacp.org
Outdoor Afro https://outdoorafro.com/
Colors of Change https://colorofchange.org/
Urban Mentors Network http://www.urbanmentors.com/
Campaign Zero https://www.joincampaignzero.org/problem
Call and send emails to your City Council members and to your community's Board of Supervisors. Demand that they create strong policies for your community that protect Black individuals from police brutality, mistreatment, and unfairness.
Read about Black experiences
Regarding reading, what follows isn’t even close to exhaustive and is oriented toward inner shifts and personal actions; please add additional books in comments—and say why you’re adding them. I am working my way through these; I’m no expert.
Here’s the thing, though: Don’t brew tea and get comfortable in your reading chair. Gather sticky notes and highlighters and share passages that make you go ah-ha. Share, publicly, in whatever way is most uncomfortable yet not paralyzing for you.
The function of reading is to inform your activities and voice. Books are not intended as a replacement for action. Remember to verb.
SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE by Ijeoma Oluo, for understanding the structural injustice that really exists in America from the perspective of a Black woman.
HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST by Ibram X. Kendi is THE book right now and the book I quoted above. It’s a field guide to moving from passively being ‘not racist’ into actually being anti-racist. A workbook is forthcoming.
STAMPED FROM THE BEGINNING: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, also by Ibram X. Kendi.
WHITE FRAGILITY: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism is by Robin DiAngelo.
THE NEW JIM CROW: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.
Image credit: PickPik