Antiracism: New Learnings

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“Racism Has No Home Here” signs are appearing all around my neighborhood. 

I finally finished reading How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. A friend loaned me her copy, but it took a while for me to warm up to the book because its approach was jarring to what I previously had held to be important about antiracism.  However, by the time I finished it, my understanding was deepened and changed in profound ways.

Before:

I had spent much of my activist life trying to get folks to understand that racism is systemic–it is more than just direct prejudice against people of another race, or hatred toward people of other races. Rather, it was a whole institutionalization of that prejudice by those in power.  Thus, while individual people of any race could hold prejudice, only white people and white systems could be racist.  Even if individual white people did not harbor direct prejudice, we benefited from these structural systems that kept racism in place. Thus, there was no way for us to be “non-racist.” Rather we must commit to being “antiracist,” and to use the privilege that structural racism had conferred on us to work against racism.

During and After:

So right off, Kendi used examples of how he had been racist in various ways throughout his youth and young adulthood. He brought it back to a personal level, and did not agree that only white people could be racist. So that threw me off a bit. Later he explained it more directly. He wrote:

I thought only White people could be racist and that Black people could not be racist, because Black people did not have power…. This powerless defense, as I call it, emerged in the wake of racist Whites dismissing antiracist policies and ideas as racist in the late 1960s.  …Black voices critical of White racism defended themselves from these charges by saying, “Black people can’t be racist, because Black people don’t have power.”

Like every other racist idea, the powerless defense underestimates Black people and overestimates White people. …[It] does not consider people at all levels of power, from policymakers like politicians and executives who have the power to institute and eliminate racist and antiracist policies, to policy managers like officers and middle managers, empowered to execute or withhold racist and antiracist policies. Every single person actually has the power to protest racist and antiracist policies, to advance them, or, in some small ways, to stall them. …”Institutional power” or “systemic power” or “structural power” is the policy-making and managing power of people, in groups or individually.  … The truth is: Black people can be racist because Black people do have power, even if limited.

Note that I say limited Black power rather than no power. White power controls the United States. But not absolutely. [p. 140-142]  [He then shared multiple examples of Black men in various government positions who advanced policies that were detrimental to people of color, and says:] These were men who used the power they’d been given–no matter how limited and conditional–in inarguably racist ways. [p. 149]

He does not negate structural and institutional racism–but he makes it less covert and more identifiable, by shifting our attention to “policy.” He uses the term “racist policies” instead of “institutional racism.”

Policymakers and policies make societies and institutions, not the other way around. The United States is a racist nation because its policymakers and policies have been racist from the beginning. [p. 223]

Another major shift he articulates is that racist ideas are created by racist policies, and not the other way around.

The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policy makers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume those racist ideas, which in turn sparks ignorance and hate. [p. 230]

So if we want to eradicate racism, we cannot merely use education and persuasion to try to get rid of people’s ignorance and hate, but we must work primarily to change racist policies.

I am pulling out these particular ideas in the book because they changed my own way of thinking about antiracism. Kendi speaks about how if we have incorrect understandings of the problem of racism, that inhibits our ability to be successful in our desire to create an antiracist society.

I would encourage everyone who cares about the problems of racism or other oppressions to get this book and explore all of his ideas, to see which ones might challenge and transform you. It is powerful and essential.

Racist: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.

Antiracist: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.  [p. 13]

The Power of Memory

Presumpscott River

I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer, a powerful novel set in the days of slavery and the underground railroad, told through the voice of one young man who is among “the tasked.” There is so much I could say about this story.  Starting with this word, “tasked.” Coates never has his characters who are in bondage call themselves “slaves,” but rather, “the tasked.” And this subtle shift of language helps to transport us beyond the familiar words (of the masters) that have been written as history, into the direct perspective of those who were counted as property.

Even though I learned about slavery from my early days in school, it was easy to discount (even by benign repetition) the pervasive way this institution shaped the whole of our nation from its beginnings, it was easy to mask its reach and extent and corruption.  I grew up in the north, and it was easy to think of it as something far away, other.  But in recounting exploits of folks in the underground railroad, Coates makes clear that people in the north weren’t safe from slavery, or immune to its power. Any person of African descent could be captured off the streets of Philadelphia and transported away into bondage. A person of European descent who devoted themselves to ending slavery risked being murdered.  It was everywhere in this country.

It is not that the novel opened my eyes to some new knowledge, but that it helped me remember what I have already known, and bring it alive in a vivid way.  The whole practice and institution of slavery makes a lie of any notion of “greatest country” or “good old days” or “American dream.”  From the earliest settler invasions in 1619, through the creation of the “United States,” through the Civil War, up to 1865–246 years–the country was bound up in these practices of forced labor, torture, separation of families, sexual abuse. We are part of a horrible legacy that still shapes everything about our country, even though there are strong incentives for us to “forget.”

In The Water Dancer, the central character, Hiram Walker, has a magical gift that is tied to the power of memory.  He was a precocious child with a photographic memory of everything, except for the memory of his mother, who was sold away from him when he was only a young boy.  That trauma erased all memories of her from his consciousness. But later, crossing a bridge over the river Goose, the bridge where so many people had been lost into the deeper south, he sees a vision of his mother dancing with a water jar on her head.

The story begins here.  On the first page he says,

“knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the “down there” of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.”

He doesn’t come into the power of his own magical gifts until he can awaken the full memory of all that he has lost, and the painfulness of that loss. And perhaps we too will never find healing for all that we face in our world today, until we open our minds to the painfulness of what we call the “past,” (because it is never “past”), until we are willing to face it as it lives within the “down there” of this land we call home.

The Water Dancer creates that kind of magic, conjures the power of memory to transform all that we are.