Since last summer, we have heard a lot about being antiracist. The 1619 project, which was released in 2019, was given new life in classrooms and workplaces across the nation as a way to correct the historical record. I am happy to see these moves to remove the whitewashing of history in our public schools and I am hopeful that the States with pending bills against the teaching of the 1619 project will be voted down or removed altogether, but being antiracist is not something that kids will learn from just one history lesson. Being truly antiracist comes from a bigger understanding of the world around us and, for white people, an understanding of how our ancestors in America brought terror to Indigenous and Black populations through settler colonialist and chattel slavery practices.
On an individual level, white people need to have a moment in which things click in order to understand why it is important to be an antiracist. For me, that moment came when I was in college in the 1990s. At the time, we didn’t have the terminology of antiracism to use for the practice, but a visit by a professor in one of my classes started me on the path to becoming an antiracist. It would take many more years of reading, listening, and learning in order to continue the process of becoming an antiracist but what follows is the story of my ‘aha’ moment. I truly believe two things – becoming an antiracist is a continuing process and as white people, we need to STOP asking Black people to hold our hands to get there. We have the capacity to learn others’ stories without burdening them with a retelling. Reading books and taking classes where these stories are offered willingly will give context for the personal work that it takes to decenter whiteness and move forward into abolition.
As a kid growing up in a predominantly white part of Niagara Falls, I thought that everyone’s lives were the same. I went to school with Black classmates whom I considered friends, but we never hung out at each other’s homes. I assumed that because we all went to school together that we all had the same experiences in life. That we all lived the same way and had the same stress and worry of any teenager. What I didn’t understand was that as a white girl, I was able to walk freely in the world without much fear.
Any fear that I did experience was rooted in the fear that is passed down from white person to white person. The myth of Black bodies being dangerous. The coded language that equated the city with danger. The idea that white women were to be protected from the forces external to our bodies. These fears are all rooted in white supremacist mythology re-instilled in white women as we go out into the world, to keep us in line and to be sure that our fear continues. Fear of walking across a college campus at night and fear of the other. In this sense, the fear that I experienced was crafted in myth. Of course, there are dangers in the world and there are bad actors, but most of the dangers that white women are taught to fear are rooted in white solidarity and upholding the goals of the white supremacist patriarchy. The danger myth is rooted in power. If we were not afraid, white men might lose their power. This is where the intersection of race and gender meet.
What I did not learn in high school was that my Black schoolmates were already having to stay vigilant each and every day that they attended school or went to the mall or a dance or the grocery store or walked down the street in a predominantly white neighborhood. Anytime they were riding in a car, they could potentially be pulled over and questioned, or worse, and I had no understanding of this. I was in a space that I see many white people in today – that space of being a ‘good white person’. I never used the ‘n’ word and I was nice to my classmates, which made me think that I was not racist. I did not yet realize that being truly not racist was an active thing. The only way to be NOT racist is to be antiracist.
As I mentioned, when I was in college I had a professor who opened my mind to the way Black people moved through the world. He told us a story about getting pulled over by the police several times, calling this phenomenon ‘driving while Black’. This had never dawned on me until I heard a personal story from someone who lived it. Suddenly I started to understand that people who are not white have very different lived experiences. Just because we are all Americans, does not mean we all get treated in the same manner. This was just the tip of the iceberg for my understanding. I would go on to graduate and start work with an open mind, but my true antiracist self would not emerge until many years later.
After my first career job ended, when the bank I had spent 7 years working for closed, I went back to school for a second BA in Sociology. During this second time at Buffalo State I was reacquainted with the professor who told the story of ‘driving while Black’. This time I took classes from him that were full semesters long. Had I not had the interaction with him my first time in college, I probably would have felt strange taking classes from him in 2009-2011. Having been exposed to new concepts in my first college experience, I was ready to keep my mind open in this second round of study.
For 2.5 years, I worked with this professor, as well as several other wonderful professors in the department, on projects and classwork and general research. I honed my qualitative and quantitative research methods and I learned all kinds of new concepts I would have never been exposed to in the workplace. My second bachelors experience, although half as long as my first, was so much more rewarding because my mind was truly open to new ideas and concepts. This time around I was able to unlearn some of the ideas I had held throughout my life and relearn the actual facts. This was the start of my true antiracist training.
So, from 2011 to the present, what have I done to continue learning and how can others do the same without going back to college to acquire additional degrees?
- Continue listening, reading, and researching.
- Ask questions in a constructive manner.
- If you disagree with someone on the merits, do research before responding.
- Make space for voices different from your own.
- Always be questioning the structures of society.
- Keep an open mind.
- Practice empathy (not sympathy) for others.
Keeping an open mind is often the missing piece. Many people shut off from learning and they will only believe the ideas that fit into their narrow world view. When new ideas are presented, they tend to shut down, but it does not have to be that way. Everyone has the capacity to learn. Critical thinking is not a skill that only college educated folks have. We all use critical thinking skills to make decisions daily, we just need to apply these same skills to bigger concepts like race and sexual orientation and gender. When we ask questions and TRULY listen to the answers, we will grow from the experience.
Becoming an antiracist is about giving up the myth of white supremacy that has been perpetuated in America throughout history.
Becoming an antiracist is about actively seeking out the true history of our country and learning the ways that the structures we currently base our society on are corrupt and discriminatory.
Becoming an antiracist is about listening to the stories of people different from yourself and truly absorbing the information.
Becoming an antiracist is about working to release everyone from the past and moving toward a future that is truly equitable.
When Black people are free, we are all free. And until Black people are truly free, none of us are free. Black Lives Matter. Today, tomorrow, and forever. Ultimately, saying that phrase, believing it, and not feeling like it diminishes your own worth means you are becoming antiracist. As white people, we can either be racist or antiracist and each of us have a vested interest in becoming antiracist. Being racist does not serve the greater good. Antiracism is the active approach that we will allow us to do and be better.
Becoming an antiracist is not the end, but the beginning of the journey. Once we have come to better understandings around race, we can move forward into the work of abolition to tear down the oppression of our structures and build them back up with equity. If we all work together, we can make change happen. Drawing on the history of civil rights and abolition, we can make a better tomorrow for all.
Talking about becoming an antiracist is good, but what are the actions that we can take to continue learning and growing in the abolitionist tradition. Here are a few books, shows, and podcasts to get you started.
- When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrice Cullors and asha bandele
- How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
- I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
- Between the World and Me – HBO adaptation of the Ta-Nehisi Coates book
- How to be An Antiracist – conversation with Ibram X. Kendi and Jemele Hill
- 13th – on Netflix