Growing up, everyone I knew made racist jokes at church, at school, at work, everywhere. I was never comfortable with them, but I never stopped them either. It wasn’t until college that I was exposed to Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglass, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, the freedom riders, Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, the Alien and Sedition Act, Japanese internment, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Trail of Tears, reconstruction, Jim Crowe, and so much more. It was then that I joined the Black Student Association. My new friends experienced a different world than me. Inspired by them, I became more involved in politics and joined the NAACP. I had the opportunity to work side by side with people of color and wanted to do my part to create a more just and equitable world.
My wife was my constant companion on this journey. As we raised our children, it was important to us to teach them tolerance and acceptance. We did the best we could with what we knew. We exposed them to art and literature that reflected diversity, we taught the values and virtues of inclusivity and tried to raise tolerant children. They have come into adulthood in the era of Black Lives Matter, have seen a national awakening that goes beyond the Civil Rights Movement that explores the complexities of white privilege and institutional racism. I taught them to be tolerant, but they are teaching me to be antiracist.
What’s the difference? Tolerant says we need to treat each other with dignity and respect and see each other as equals with limitless potential. Antiracist says we acknowledge and are actively working to correct centuries of institutional racism so that we can achieve equality. Both are important, and they are not mutually exclusive.
Professor Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist, defines antiracism this way:
“First and foremost, it’s critical for every American to stop saying terms like, “I’m not racist.” And I think it’s critically important for Americans to admit the racist ideas that they have likely been raised to believe. It’s critically important for Americans to admit the racist policies they’ve supported that have led to inequality and injustice and death. And it’s critically important for them to admit the times in which they were being racist because there’s no way they can change themselves if they’re still in that denial. So to be anti-racist is to admit when we’re being racist. And then not only that admission, but then we challenge those racist ideas. We adopt antiracist ideas that say the problem is power and policy when there is inequity, not people. And then we spend our time, we spend our funds, we spend our energy challenging racist policy and power.”
In short, we have to stop perpetuating the idea that racism is only individual acts or behaviors and acknowledge it’s centuries of beliefs, policies and processes that have benefited white people at the expense of people of color.
I grew up in a tight community mostly isolated from national and international happenings. My children have lived through and been shaped by 9/11, the great recession, and now, this global pandemic. All of which they have experienced in real time, on the internet, and through social media. It has given them a different global perspective. Maybe this helps explain how they were able to see racism as more institutional than individual. They have grown up more connected to the world around them. This may be one reason they are less prone to white fragility.
Dr. Robin Diangelo defines white fragility this way:
“White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”
Instead of trying to insulate themselves from the problems of racism, my children are inclined to address it. They are not as inclined to maintain a racist status quo, but are more inclined to challenge it. This may be more about the circumstances in which they were raised, than the way my wife and I taught them, but in fairness, it is probably a combination of both.
If we, like my children, are committed to change the inequities that exist in our society, we will have to change the fundamental structures that have perpetuated those inequities. This will require us to identify our blind spots, acknowledge our privilege, and be willing to do all we can to make the system we live under more equal. Therefore, acknowledging that all people are equal is not enough. We have to change the fundamental way society operates to ensure equality though changing the status quo. Understandably, this may feel threatening to those who have consciously or subconsciously been benefited by this status quo.
So what do we do? Let me suggest three things:
- Be informed
- Be humble
- Be engaged
Be informed: The more I have read and tried to understand the perspective of people of color and systemic racism the more it has moved me to action. Here’s a list of resources that are beneficial to gain a greater understanding of institutional racism and how to be anti-racist. Here are some great kid’s lit options as well. The more we know, the more power we have. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and White Fragility by Robin Diangelo have been very meaningful for me. We can also be informed on pending legislation and initiatives both on a national and local level.
Be humble: I’m trying to be open to new ideas and more importantly challenge some of my old ones. I want to be honest about my racial insensitivities and my privilege. Because I have spent a lifetime trying to be aware of racial issues, I sometimes absolve myself of the responsibility of being involved. That has to change!
Be engaged: Something as complex as racism can often lead me to ask: what is to be done? The problem feels insurmountable and because I don’t know how to do everything, I do nothing. There are, however, tangible things I can actually do. I can donate. Two causes I have recently contributed to are the NAACP legal defense fund and the Equal Justice Initiative. I can let my voice be heard, not only on social media, but with family and friends. I can participate in marches, demonstrations, and dialogue groups. Perhaps most important, I can vote, not just in national elections, but in state and local races. A movement of this size and scope will take both protest and politics to see real change.
I am optimistic as I think about the future. Especially as I watch my children and others lead out on these important issues.
I told them about freedom riders, they told me about Black Lives Matter
I read them Roll of Thunder Hear Me Cry. They gave me Just Mercy.
I showed them Eyes on the Prize. They showed me the 13th.
I took them to Martin Luther King Day celebrations. They took me to Black Lives Matter rallies.
I woke them up to watch Barack Obama’s acceptance speech when he won the Iowa caucus. They woke me up to my privilege.
I taught them to make a difference. They are teaching me to change the world!
Learning to be antiracist will take time. Just like raising children. Both are worth the investment.