I just read How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s an insightful book that defines and catalogs racist and antiracist thought in clear and unwavering terms.
One of the most tangible things I took from this book was a renewed desire to examine my own life and what I believe in. Early on, Kendi makes it very clear that there is a big different between being “not a racist” and being “antiracist”:
” ‘Not racist’ signifies neutrality. But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle…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.” How to Be an Antiracist, p. 9
For years, I’ve taken some comfort in the fact that I am not a racist. I don’t believe in a racial hierarchy and I recognize privilege that I have as a white person in America. However, this attitude has been a shield that I’ve worn around myself to avoid venturing out into uncomfortable territory. It’s stopped me from doing more, from thinking more about the existing power structures at play around me. Safe in being “not racist,” I had inadvertently absolved myself from the racism all around me.
One example: Years ago, I was offered admission to Temple Law, in Philadelphia, a city I wasn’t (and still am not!) very familiar with. I hadn’t ever been to the campus. I don’t remember why I applied there, but there was some reason. After I was accepted, my dad told me that a colleague of his, originally from Philly, was adamant that I shouldn’t go to school there because it was located in a really rough, high-crime neighborhood. (Read: low-income, Black).
Guess what? I didn’t go there. I didn’t even look into it further. There were a lot of factors at play in the decision, but I can’t deny that fear was one of them. And it’s pretty ridiculous because I never looked into it, I never visited the campus. Most of all, I never really even thought twice about it. It’s in a “bad neighborhood?” Well, okay, that’s not for me. That was the beginning and end of my analysis. I never stopped to ask why, what does that mean, exactly? A bad neighborhood, how? Who lives there? What’s really going on? What am I avoiding? I wish I had asked a few more questions. I wish I had looked into it, head on. I wish I could say that I based my decision solely on the merits of the place, on what was truly best for me, not some shot-gun, fear-based approach that was absolutely rooted in racist underpinnings and avoidance. I don’t know that a deeper analysis would have changed where I went to law school, but it might have. At least, it would have made me a more self-aware person.
How many times has this happened in my life? How many times I have chosen the path of avoidance, of denial?
Kendi’s book is a clear call to action. It starts with identifying and labeling racist thoughts and actions, especially our own. This is difficult, as racist thought is so deeply embedded in our culture. How do we overcome our bias? For starters: Read and learn. Listen. Make a commitment to doing better. Confront racism where you see it, in yourself, in your family, in your communities. We all have a responsibility fight racism and to move forward.