So you say you are #antiracist. Are you ready to commit to what that means? This week’s post breaks from #NastyWomenWriters usual focus on women to allow for timely reconsideration and action on the issues of #BlackLivesMatter, racism in America, important and righteous protests in our streets, police brutality and the call for justice. The book, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, has come to the forefront, and is a leader in the conversation that needs to be had. It is this book I will use and refer to in this post about antiracism.
Kendi puts a lot of complex thought, history and theories into context and then revisits them and even revises them. So if you are my age (58) and you have not read it, you are out of date. Maybe you think you did the work and are done. Kendi teaches us that the work of an antiracist is never done. You may be thinking or repeating things that are now considered harmful, like how being color-blind is a good thing. Yes, many of us of a certain age were taught that. We were taught that if we could become color-blind we would be truly evolved, because then we would be seeing people as people first but Kendi corrects this:
“The common idea of claiming “color blindness” is akin to the notion of being “not racist”—as with the “not racist,” the color-blind individual, by ostensibly failing to see race, fails to see racism and falls into racist passivity. The language of color blindness—like the language of “not racist”—is a mask to hide racism”(15).
Or we may still believe that people are racist because they are ignorant. I was taught that one. But Kendi tells us that is not true. People are racist because it is in their self-interest. Therefore, all the policies flowing out of the belief that people are racist because they are ignorant are failing because those policies are following a misguided belief.
Kendi impresses me. In this book he displays an ability to self-reflect and self-confront. He reveals his own struggle to be antiracist. He shows us how he stumbles and learns and knows he is not done. He models for us how to do the same. It is very instructive to read and witness and allows the reader to believe they can do the same, assuming they are as courageous as he is.
Antiracism is active and engaged. It is not static, defeatist or passive. It does not accept racism or policies that create racism. It seeks to dismantle them. It questions and critiques and consistently self-reflects and investigates. And it always says no to racial inequity and sees it as the product of racist policy not the fault of the people who are experiencing it.
Antiracism refuses generalizations and sees individuals. It observes the way we think about each other as being intentionally manipulated and created to serve a purpose. Constructed absolutely for power. For some. It encourages us to consider each other with new eyes. To see race and racism as a power (not social) construct that we need to disempower. It sees Black pain as the useful tool that it is, and using Black pain as a tool must end. Now.
“Race: A power construct of collected or merged difference that lives socially” (44).
“Race and racism are power constructs of the modern world. For roughly two hundred thousand years, before race and racism were constructed in the fifteenth century, humans saw color but did not group the colors into continental races, did not commonly attach negative and positive characteristics to those colors and rank the races to justify racial inequity, to reinforce racist power and policy. Racism is not even six hundred years old”(278).
Antiracism includes true equity across the board. Kendi teaches us to not only be antiracist, we must be anticlassist, anticapitalist, queer antiracist, gender antiracist, ethnic antiracist, cultural antiracist, biological antiracist, bodily antiracist, behavioral antiracist, and color antiracist. We must learn what all of these are and mean and how to be them.
I’ll touch upon a few.
Note: if you say you are antiracist that means you are also not homophobic or transphobic. If you are homophobic or transphobic and you want to be antiracist then learn how to be a Queer antiracist.
“To be queer antiracist is to understand the privilege of my cisgender, of my masculinity, of my heterosexuality, of their intersections. To be queer antiracist is to serve as an ally to transgender people, to intersex people, to women, to the non-gender-conforming, to homosexuals, to their intersections, meaning listening, learning, and being led by their equalizing ideas, by their equalizing policy campaigns, by their power struggle for equal opportunity. To be queer antiracist is to see that policies protecting Black transgender women are as critically important as policies protecting the political ascendancy of queer White males”(240).
To become truly antiracist Kendi had to become a feminist.
“To be antiracist is to reject not only the hierarchy of races but of race-genders. To be feminist is to reject not only the hierarchy of genders but of race-genders. To truly be antiracist is to be feminist. To truly be feminist is to be antiracist”(230).
Note: If you say you are an antiracist and you are telling the truth, then you are saying you are a feminist. You are a feminist antiracist.
If you need help agreeing you are a feminist after having called yourself an antiracist then read the chapter titled: Gender.
“Black women first recognized their own intersectional identity. Black feminists first theorized the intersection of two forms of bigotry: sexism and racism. Intersectional theory now gives all of humanity the ability to understand the intersectional oppression of their identities, from poor Latinx to Black men to White women to Native lesbians to transgender Asians. A theory for Black women is a theory for humanity. No wonder Black feminists have been saying from the beginning that when humanity becomes serious about the freedom of Black women, humanity becomes serious about the freedom of humanity”(233).
“Whoever creates the norm creates the hierarchy and positions their own race-class at the top of the hierarchy”(185).
“It is impossible to know racism without understanding its intersection with capitalism….Capitalism emerged during what world-systems theorists term the “long sixteenth century,” a cradling period that begins around 1450 with Portugal (and Spain) sailing into the unknown Atlantic. Prince Henry’s Portugal birthed conjoined twins—capitalism and racism—when it initiated the transatlantic slave trade of African people. These newborns looked up with tender eyes to their ancient siblings of sexism, imperialism, ethnocentrism, and homophobia. The conjoined twins developed different personalities through the new classed racial formations of the modern world….the conjoined twins entered adulthood through Native and Black and Asian and White slavery and forced labor in the Americas, which powered industrial revolutions from Boston to London that financed still-greater empires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries…The conjoined twins are again struggling to stay alive as their own offspring—inequality, war, and climate change—threaten to kill them, and all of us, off”(188-189).
To understand that the nation of the United States was built upon, founded upon these dual values of capitalism and racism is to understand that we need to radically rethink, heal and cure our nation of these terrors. Nothing will ever change until we do. If our economy was created on the backs of enslaved Black bodies then it surely is still built upon that because we all know that the system has not changed. Though some have tried. Though some have fought and fought. Though there have been some small advances? Or just a change in the look of it all?
I think right now most of us feel that for all our trying we have not gotten it right. Watching the Black body of George Floyd asphyxiated by the knee of a White male civil servant in broad and public daylight with absolute arrogance in the White man’s eyes tells us, we have not resolved this, not even close. In fact it is getting worse. The gun violence and police killings of Black bodies continues to build. And just this week Rayshard Brooks was gunned down in Atlanta in an unacceptable and completely unnecessary way. Another Black life gone, taken. The pain feels insurmountable. Pain builds upon pain. We are dealing with over 400 years of pain. This is excruciating. We are not getting it right. And it is time to get it right.
Instead of celebrating the founding of this nation over and over again with noxious ignorance, let’s re-found this nation. Let’s gather and come to new ideas, improve upon old ones, come together with the wisdom of hindsight and understanding that there is room for vast improvement. Let’s create new policies which beget different realities.
The link between capitalism and racism must be dealt with. The lives of our Black citizens must not be the cost of our economy. Our wealth. Our comfort. Our privilege. No. Not anymore.
But we cannot focus on one at a time. Kendi reminds:
“Antiracist policies cannot eliminate class racism without anticapitalist policies. Anticapitalism cannot eliminate class racism without antiracism”(191).
And so what to do? Become a Space Antiracist.
I love this term. It feels so modern. Space antiracist. Cool. It captures the vastness of the issue but also breathes air into it, air as big as the cosmos…space, both inner and outer, and because the “I can’t breathe anthem” of this moment asks for just this. Space to breathe for Black Americans. Can we as a nation, a people, take our knees off their necks once and for all and let them breathe?
Space Antiracism: A powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity between integrated and protected racialized spaces, which are substantiated by antiracist ideas about racialized spaces”(201).
“…when we unchain ourselves from the space racism that deracializes and normalizes and elevates elite White spaces, while doing the opposite to Black spaces, we will find good and bad, violence and nonviolence, in all spaces, no matter how poor or rich Black or non-Black. No matter the effect of the conjoined twins”(205).
Expecting Black Americans to fully integrate into White neighborhoods is expecting them to become White. Believing Black neighborhoods are against Whites or inherently violent is racist. If there is violence or poverty it is because of racist policies not the people who live there. Black spaces are extremely important to Black lives. They matter. They are “spaces of cultural solidarity against racism”(211), they are “spacial wombs for non-White cultures” rather than “White spacial wombs of assimilation”(218).
“Just as racist power racializes people, racist power racializes space”(205).
“When people contend that Black spaces do not represent reality, they are speaking from the White worldview of Black people in the minority. They are conceptualizing the real American world as White. To be antiracist is to recognize there is no such thing as the “real world,” only real worlds, multiple worldviews”(207).
In the book Kendi defines an activist as “One who has a record of power or policy change”(245).
Let’s break this down:
A record of power change.
A record of policy change.
And one leads to another. Do one or the other. It will lead to both.
What is it in your life that has an unequal, unfair, racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, bodily or antisemitic power dynamic that you have the power to change? Change it.
Let that lead to the creation of new policies around that which you have changed. Let those policies continue to change the structures of power when they want to return to their old ways (They will try. Old patterns are hard to break).
Let the changes in power and policy continue to inform you and reveal to you all the other power and policy changes asking and needing to happen. Keep moving forward at any node of culture, society, class, you find yourself.
Some of us are seen to have more influence than others and it can be true… we are not all governors or senators or powerful spokespeople with huge platforms. Yes, we need to push and pursue those people but also, don’t diminish the ramifications and echoing out that changing the power and policies in a small group can have on the whole. Model, learn, lead and stay mindful of your own power to change.
And change it!
We can each individually take up Kendi’s mission and take steps to being an antiracist as stated in his book. I know I am going to:
“I stop using the ‘I’m not a racist’ or ‘I can’t be a racist’ defense or denial.
I admit the definition of racist (someone who is supporting racist policies or expressing racist ideas.)
I confess the racist policies I support and racist ideas I express.
I accept their source (my upbringing inside a nation making us racist.)
I acknowledge the definition of antiracist (someone who is supporting antiracist policies or expressing antiracist ideas).
I struggle for antiracist power and policy in my spaces. (Seizing a policymaking position. Joining an antiracist organization or protest. Publicly donating my time or privately donating my funds to antiracist policymakers, organizations, and protests fixated on changing power and policy.)
I struggle to remain at the antiracist intersections where racism is mixed with other bigotries. (Eliminating racial distinctions in biology and behavior. Equalizing racial distinctions in ethnicities, bodies, cultures, colors, classes, spaces, genders and sexualities.)
I struggle to think with antiracist ideas. (Seeing racist policy in racial inequity. Leveling group differences. Not being fooled into generalizing individual negativity. Not being fooled by misleading statistics or theories that blame people for racial inequity.)”(267-268).
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
Kendi, Ibram, X. How to be an Antiracist. (ONE World, 2019).