By JESSICA LUTZ
Angela Davis said, “In a racist society, it's not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist,” and antiracism is very popular right now.
Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to be an Antiracist” has been flying off of the shelves since its publication last year, and the very public murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks this year alone have only increased its popularity. I think many white folks are drawn to his book because it makes antiracism feel achievable. We might think, “If I read this book, I will become antiracist and I can stop feeling so inadequate, angry and unsure about my part in this movement.”
While that isn’t the case, I’d like to share with you some things I’ve found helpful in my practice to be more antiracist as a white woman working at this predominantly white institution for the past four years.
What does it mean to be antiracist?
In his book, Kendi defines an antiracist as “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. ... By policy, I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations and guidelines that govern people. There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.”
But it is not enough to examine only policy and ideas. We must also “think nothing is behaviorally wrong or right — inferior or superior — with any of the racial groups. ... To be antiracist is to deracialize behavior, to remove the tattooed stereotype from every racialized body.” To claim color-blindness is to purposefully ignore the very real impacts of racism, and it hinders our ability to talk about race and racism.
Antiracism is not a goal to be achieved.
There is no course you can take, diversity training available, or degree you can get that will certify you as officially antiracist. Antiracism is a practice like patience or gratitude: you have to keep doing it over and over and over again. As white people, our need to be verifiably antiracist is the product of internalized white supremacist ideology. White culture really loves things like certifications and degrees because white culture loves hierarchy, power and status. You don’t need a piece of paper to be antiracist. Anyone who tells you that you do is looking to sell you something.
We are not living in a post-racial society.
White supremacist culture is based entirely on a racial hierarchy where white people are superior to all other people. Today, that ideology may be more covert and veiled but it is alive and well.
There are racial inequities all around us: wage disparities, net worth and wealth disparities, health disparities, generational wealth disparities, incarceration rate disparities, educational disparities, nutritional disparities, housing disparities. When we look at all of these disparities, white people fare better simply because of the color of their skin, privilege and better access to resources.
I do not have time to unpack all of these disparities here, but I encourage you to start with this article about redlining, a state-sponsored system of segregation through limiting access to mortgages for Black people and its long-reaching domino effect on wealth accumulation and generational wealth for Black Americans.
Antiracism is about more than just you.
You need to learn about yourself, your beliefs, and how you’ve been socially conditioned to be racist (please see the reading and resource list below). Moreover, it is our responsibility to break free of the racist framework we were enveloped in growing up. You cannot control how you were raised but you can definitely control what you do moving forward.
Antiracism is not just an internal process. Antiracism is supporting antiracist policies and ways of thinking. Antiracism is naming racism when you see it. Antiracism is using your privilege to speak up and be heard. Antiracism is using what power and status you do have to disrupt the status quo and elevate melanated voices.
Use your voice and privilege.
Another tenet of white culture is perfectionism. We tell ourselves we need to know absolutely everything before we can speak on something and to make a mistake is unacceptable. We hold ourselves to such absurdly high standards we end up quitting before we even start. Progress will never be made by staying silent and living in fear of making a mistake. What Chancellor Patrick Gallagher did over the summer was a fantastic example of using your position and power to speak up about racism at this University. His language was clear and there were even some action steps outlined for how we might make the University of Pittsburgh a more inclusive and antiracist place.
You are still going to have racist thoughts and moments.
Racism is a set of insidious cultural norms and beliefs that have been reinforced repeatedly and will continue to be reinforced. Racism, like shame, thrives when we do our best to avoid thinking about it when it happens. You will never be rid of racist thoughts, which leads me to my next point.
You will get it wrong and you will make mistakes.
Please accept this now. It will never feel good or comfortable, but it will happen. When it happens, you will need to rely heavily on a group of people who have explicitly agreed to do this work and support you in doing yours. Start thinking about who will be in your group now. If you can’t find someone to talk to, join a White Co-Conspirators Group through the School of Education here at Pitt.
Do not burden your Black friend or co-worker when you make a racist mistake. People who have been historically disenfranchised and oppressed have to live in and experience our racist society every single day and are not obligated to help you on your journey of antiracism.
Pay attention to your thoughts.
The thing about racism is that it will show up and keep showing up, no matter how long or how hard you try to extinguish it. Instead of fighting a lifetime’s worth of socialization and racist beliefs, try to notice them when they pop up. Mindfulness can be extremely useful in this area.
For me, it can look something like this: If I’m walking alone and I see a Black man walking toward me, racism is the first one on the scene. Racism will tell me this man is a threat, based on what I have been explicitly and inexplicitly taught. My antiracist counter to that immediate thought is, “There’s racism showing up again. Instead of holding my bag a little bit tighter, I’m going to treat him like the human he is. How would I treat a human? I would smile and say hello. Let’s go with that.” Those snap judgments we don’t stop to question are how white people end up becoming Karens and Kens.
Keep an open mind and never stop learning.
I have been actively working to do better for years and I am still learning new things. Unfortunately, there’s a lot to learn. No matter how long you’ve been working to be more antiracist, there is always more to know.
“A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn
“How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi
“Some Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States” by Judith H. Katz
“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh
“How to Tell the Difference Between Real Solidarity and ‘Ally Theater’” by Mia McKenzie
“The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by Richard Rothstein
“13th” documentary on Netflix
The 1619 Project from the New York Times
The Great UnLearn by Rachel E. Cargle: A monthly self-paced, self-priced learning collective, committed to celebrating and highlighting the genius of academics of color.
Talking about Race: Being Antiracist, The National Museum of African American History & Culture
Jessica Lutz is a member of Staff Council and an academic advisor with TRIO Student Support Services at the University of Pittsburgh.