DIVERSITY: ‘To do nothing is to be complicit with systemic racism’


Ibram X. Kendi is on a mission to remove the term “not racist” from the collective American vocabulary.

Instead, Americans need to realize that “our ideas, our policies, our institutions, and even us, every one of us, we’re either being racist or anti-racist based on the ideas that we’re expressing, based on the policies we are supported, based on even our inaction.”

Kendi, a professor in the Boston University’s Department of History and author of the New York Times bestselling book “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” kicked off Pitt’s Diversity Forum 2020 on July 29 with the keynote address on “America’s Persistent Pandemic — Racism: How to Foster Antiracist Practices and Create a Culture of Inclusion, Equity and Justice.”

Kendi said action is one of the key differences between people who use the phrase “anti-racist” instead of “not racist.”

“Literally to do nothing is to be complicit with systemic racism,” Kendi said. “To do nothing is to allow the maintenance of that racism. We need people who are engaged in this anti-racist struggle, being actively anti-racist to ensure that we're building a society of equity and justice for all.”

Valerie Kinloch, dean of the School of Education, and Eric Macadangdang, Student Government Board president, moderated the panel discussion that immediately followed the keynote.

Panelists included Keisha N. Blain, associate professor of History; Majestic Lane, chief equity officer and deputy chief of staff for the Pittsburgh’s mayor; and Morgan Ottley, president of the University of Pittsburgh Black Action Society. 

Macadangdang began the discussion by asking about the importance of instilling anti-racist ideas in children.

According to Kendi, children can begin believing in racist ideas as early as 2 to 3 years old. It’s not long before those ideas are exacerbated by a “whirlwind of racist ideas” in American culture.

Kendi defines a racist idea as “any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group.”

He said his work has been heavily influenced by Black feminist thought, including intersectional theory by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, which asserts that a person’s social and political identities, such as race, class and gender, can “intersect” and create numerous systems of privilege and discrimination.

This is why Kendi prefers to use the term “racial groups” in his work, he said. Members of shared racial identities can discriminate against each other based on sex or social class, for example.

Kendi argues that for someone to be an anti-racist, they must also be a feminist.

“Just as I would argue that in order to be a feminist, one must be anti-racist, because you have white women who are imagining that white women are the representatives of women,” Kendi said. “When they think of challenging patriarchy or sexism, they're really only thinking about the policies that are impacting white women and so then women of color are completely left out in their activism.”

Macadangdang later asked the panelists how Pittsburgh and American society can move forward from racist beliefs and systems affecting its Black communities.

Lane said this is a question that he and many others working for the city of Pittsburgh grapple with. One major issue for the city is its lack of diversity, which affects the ability of institutions to recruit more people of color. 

Discrimination against people of color also has a harmful economic impact. He said that it could be helpful to create economic incentives for institutions to become more diverse and inclusive. 

“There is a benefit that happens when you get out of the zero-sum game of the privilege and the structural racism that we utilize in America, that actually, by doing the right thing, there is a collective benefit,” Lane said.

Blaine said that it’s important to realize that all major U.S. cities have unique challenges with race and discrimination.

And just as people can demand better for the city, they also can demand more from the University, which has an opportunity to address inequity in tenure and promotion for people of color.

Blaine said that while she is happy to have the conversation at the forum, “what I would love is for us to shift from conversation to action.”

“I'm sort of fatigued with conversations,” Blaine said. “And part of what I would hope is that when we show up in the fall that I hear policies are shifting when it comes to promotion and tenure, that I hear departments making an active effort to recruit black faculty. Let's be real, the job market is terrible. I assure you, it is not as difficult as people imagine to be able to bring 5, 10, 15 scholars of color to Pitt next year if we wanted to.”

Ottley said it’s necessary to give black students the chance to speak out. The Black Action Society is a member of a coalition of 18 Black student organizations that form the Black Senate, which has called for immediate action and accountability by Pitt on addressing equity, inclusion and social justice.

The group sent the University a list of action plans, including increasing the number of black faculty on campus. Black students want to learn more about Black history and culture from “people who look like us,” Ottley said.

“Allow us the space to be Black at this predominantly white institution and allow us the space to use our Black voices to advocate for ourselves, because at this point nobody else is,” Ottley said.

Kendi said he encourages deans, presidents, provosts and search committee chairs to hold themselves accountable for recruiting talented scholars of diverse backgrounds.

“For me, the institution is always to blame, not the people who are not there,” Kendi said. “The city is always to blame, not the people who are not there. And I think if people were to take that approach, they would be more successful, because then they would, of course, change policy, change personnel, change culture to better attract and keep people of color.”

To watch the full conversation and the other conversations at the Diversity Forum, visit the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s YouTube page. 

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.

Follow the University Times on Twitter and Facebook.