How To Move From Non-Racist to Anti-Racist

From Non-Racist to Anti-Racist
  • June 16, 2020

As a result of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other black Americans at the hands of white supremacists and law enforcement, America is experiencing a revolution. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement into the mainstream has started a conversation in which we can deconstruct many of the systems that oppress black Americans. White Americans are facing their privilege, talking about ways they have benefited from black suffering, and expressing hope that things will change. But, as my father often says, "Hope and a buck twenty-five'll get you a candy bar."

The conversation about racial oppression and white privilege is the first step in a long journey to create a world that works for all. The next step is to make sure that those conversations are honest.

Avoiding Lip Service-Only Initiatives

I'm sure you've noticed the numerous statements made by companies and organizations over the past several days. Many corporations used their social media platform to affirm their stance on this apparently divisive issue of whether or not Black Lives Matter. Many of these companies proudly posted that they believe in the humanity of black people and that our lives do indeed matter.

The next step is to close the gap between words and actions. If you asked Microsoft if they are a company that believed Black Lives Matter, they would certainly tell you yes: they use their Twitter account to post powerful statements about how systemic racism affects their black employees. However, only 4.4% of their massive workforce is black: that number is more telling than any Twitter testimonial. Countless companies are in the same boat: Microsoft is not unique in having a gap to close between words and actions.

As a queer black woman with a background in marketing, I'm sorry to say that many of these statements made by companies of all sizes and structures, from your favorite online influencer-based clothier to the biggest retailers on the map, may have been insincere at best, and hypocritical at worst. (Except for you, Ben and Jerry's. You guys are okay in my book.) The black squares, the hashtags, and the well-meaning posts of solidarity from many corporations reaffirm what black people have known for years: racism is a big problem, and it affects everything that we do.

Shifting Your Focus from Black Suffering to White Inaction

The problem lies in the framing of the issue: many of the social media posts that I've seen from non-black friends and organizations have painted racism as this faceless force that affects the black community, like black Americans need white people to save us from this evil force of racism. Like Sonya Renee Taylor, author of our very own The Body is Not An Apology, says in this viral clip, racism against black people is not happening in a vacuum.

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The viral video of Haley challenging her racist parents has gone viral for Folks inspired by her desire to stand up to her parents and advocate for Black people. However, Haley missed the mark and my hunch is most white folks do. STOP arguing with your white family about Black people. START talking about the sickness that is whiteness and how you and them have ingested it. White people talk about people of color so that they don't have to deal with themselves and the culture and systems whiteness has created inside them. White people it is time to talk about WHITENESS and not about Black folks. #indefenseofblacklives #whitesupremacymustfall #whitestalkaboutwhiteness #healyourwhiteness #blacklivesmatter

A post shared by Sonya Renee Taylor (@sonyareneetaylor) on

We don't need white people to talk about how things are so hard for black people because of racism. We need white people to look inward and think about how they can use their white privilege to rectify the riotous racism that has plagued black America and influenced all systems upon which America is built.

The question of the moment isn't, "how do we save the black community?" The question of the moment is, "how do we bring white supremacy to a screeching halt?"

We start from within - we must address and fix our own implicit anti-black biases and then slowly work to change the systems around us. That is the only way to repair the system. To create a world that works for all, we must realize that it is not enough to be non-racist. We have to be actively and vehemently anti-racist.

Understanding the Difference Between Non-Racism and Anti-Racism

The difference between being non-racist and being anti-racist parallels the differences between activity and passivity. To be non-racist is to be passive in issues of social justice; it is to believe in the humanity of your black neighbors but to take no steps in achieving equality. To be anti-racist takes it a step further and requires some proactivity. It suggests that you are willing to do the work to destroy the structures that marginalize black people even if it means going out of your way to have tough conversations and dismantle oppressive systems - and feel really uncomfortable along the way. As things stand today, non-racism equates to complicity in these systems.

To be anti-racist means that you understand that a threat to the freedom of one of us is a threat to all of us. Passive non-racism (otherwise known as, "I'm not racist!") has no place in a progressive society that benefits us all, not just those of us who are white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, and heterosexual. Injustice for one of us is an injustice for all of us. It's the responsibility of every American citizen to fight back against unjust systems. This is not negotiable.

I know I just gave you a lot to think about. If you're a person of any background and you're reading this, you probably want to know how to take steps toward anti-racism, but you're not sure how to start. It's like what they say about the best way to eat an elephant - you do it one bite at a time.

Educating Yourself And Finding Your Biases

When the protests first started, I was overwhelmed with emotions: first, joy that people were starting to talk more frankly about race, then fear that things might not change, regardless of the current flurry of support for the movement. I decided to do what I always do when I feel overwhelmed, and I made a to-do list of actual tangible things that I could do at that moment to help the cause. The number one thing on the list - and the first thing I think you should do, reader, is to take the time to educate yourself. We all have to be proactive about educating ourselves on the history of bigotry in America to understand where it comes from. We must take it upon ourselves to do this research without burdening the people who live within this system to educate those who are discovering injustice for the first time.

To move towards implicit anti-racism, one must examine personal biases. This is important for non-black people, but it's also important for black people to examine the anti-black biases that we subconsciously absorb every day as a byproduct of living in an anti-black society. In The Sisters are Alright, Tamara Winfrey Harris talks about how these implicit biases that we have against ourselves are illustrations of how we can be complicit in our own oppression. And, as Winfrey writes, it shows "how hard it is to love yourself when everyone insists you are unlovable."

The labor of reexamining one's own personal anti-black biases is beneficial for people of all ethnic backgrounds and helps us move toward a more pro-black future shaped by liberation. However, this movement will take time and will require compassion from others and from oneself. True growth can only happen through patience. As Sonya writes in The Body is Not An Apology, we must avoid shame for the sake of itself is harmful. "Take a deep breath of kindness for yourself and your history of body shame/shaming. We can only do what we know." Be kind to yourself. You will make mistakes. You have to be willing to learn from them and wake up every morning as a better person than you were when you went to bed the night before.

Practicing Anti-Racism in Relationships

Once the self is settled into the ongoing education and unlearning, it's time to begin the task of addressing the need for anti-racism within your relationships. Given the state of the world right now, relationships might feel more tense than usual. It's your job to be receptive and ready to learn something from every conversation you have about race. Some people might be more defensive about proving that they are not racist instead of taking a proactive stance and learning how to fight racism. It is your duty as a citizen of this earth to avoid becoming this person. Speak up for the rights of others, but put black voices in the center of those conversations. Don't make things about you if it's not about you.

The goal here is progress, but true progress will not happen overnight, or even in the course of one conversation. We take the knowledge we get from one another and hopefully use it to create a multi-faceted code of ethics for all humans to abide by. This is an ongoing practice and commitment to discomfort, education, and movement.

University of Michigan surgeon and founder of Visual Abstract Dr. Andrew M. Ibrahim illustrates the process of moving to anti-racism in relationships in three parts - fear, learning, and growth.

  1. Fear: Once someone decides that they want to be anti-racist, they enter the first zone where many of their interactions with others are based on fear of social rejection and a desire to be comfortable. This usually results in forming relationships only with people who look and think like we do.
  2. Learning: Once we advance to the learning zone, we realize that we can only really learn how to be anti-racist by being vulnerable in our relationships - we must recognize that racism is a problem by being mindful of our own biases and knowledge gaps. We move away from fear and seek out questions that make us uncomfortable to ask.
  3. Growth: Finally, we arrive at the growth zone, which is where the real action is. It requires the person who desires to be ant-racist to speak out when they see racism occurring, uplift marginalized voices and promoting policies and leaders who are anti-racist.

Building Anti-Racist Practices Into Your Organization

Many organizations, systems, and institutions in America are built with strong roots in racism and anti-blackness, which is why the task of fighting racism in organizations might seem daunting. However, there are time-tested practices you can put to work, many of which our authors have outlined in great detail.

After using your newfound interpersonal skill of receptiveness and igniting your desire to create anti-racist structures that support your organization's black colleagues, you can begin to build systemic practices in your organization that focus on education and activism. Some systems need to be destroyed and rebuilt from the ground up so they can function equitably for everyone.

In Diversity Beyond Lip Service, La'Wana Harris breaks down how the organizational activist can shift from an inclusive mindset to inclusive action. She explains that truly inclusive organizations go a step beyond simply hiring people of color. They take a close look at the needs of the organization, and welcome diverse employees as critical to the success of the organization, based on their unique contributions. New hires at your organization should have access to mentors and resources that will help them integrate into the corporate culture. Offer a wealth of resources for your workforce to use, and you'll be amazed by the success that you will see.

Now, here comes the hard part - the one part of moving towards organizational anti-racism that gives even the most staunchly anti-racist leader cause to pause. We have to talk about race at work. It's uncomfortable, it goes against everything we were taught by our parents, but it's unavoidable. The thing is - the goal is not to pretend like race doesn't exist because that can cause erasure of the unique benefits that diversity can bring to your company. The goal is to create an organization that appreciates and nurtures all employees' uniqueness regardless of background.

According to Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran, authors of Subtle Acts of Exclusion, the goal of every diverse organization should be for cross-cultural competency to be normalized. Ideally in an organization, "differences are celebrated and respected, and people are seen and acknowledged for the unique and individual essence they embody." For people to be their best selves at work, it has to be okay for them to bring all of themselves to work. They need to feel safe in order to survive and thrive. That's how you find great people, and that's how you keep them.

Challenging Anti-Racism In the World

Like I said before, activism starts from within the self and moves outward to the world around you. There is a great deal of unlearning that must occur - specifically, unlearning the inherent biases that we have obtained from years living within oppressive systems. On the bright side, after you've done the work of being receptive to the words of others and unlearning your personal biases, you only have one tiny item remaining on your to-do list: change the world.

The process of changing the world might seem overwhelming, but the real focus is much narrower than it seems. What we hope to accomplish through active anti-racism is a truly equitable world that works for all people socially, economically, and psychologically. In Decolonizing Wealth, Edgar Villanueva describes the importance of closing the racial wealth gap, wherein white Americans have a majority of control over the economy, in this passage:

"When we reclaim our share of resources, when we recover our places at the table and the drawing board, we can design our healing. We can create new ways of seeking and granting access to money. We can return balance to the world by moving money to where the hurt is worst." If we use anti-racism as a tool, we can have an economy that is more equally balanced.

In The Making of a Democratic Economy, Marjorie Kelly and Ted Howard present an optimistic view of our economic future. Provided we adhere to the necessary principles: community, inclusion, place, good work, democratic ownership, sustainability, and ethical finance, we can practice a new common sense for a better, more equitable world.

Buckling in for the Long Haul

Transitioning to a society that is anti-racist and radically inclusive is going to require all of us to, as my manager, Katie would say, adopt a marathon mindset. Racism is so deeply ingrained in our society that it will take all of us working from the self outwards to topple white supremacy.

Anti-blackness is an urgent problem that is actively causing fatigue and death in black communities. It is our responsibility to correct this injustice within our personal relationships and the world - beyond what your post on social media says. Non-racism is passive, and passivity is complicit in the murder of black Americans and the destruction of our communities. Anti-racism, being active in the movement to fight racism and all of its byproducts, is the only way to create a truly equitable and inclusive society.

The promise of "diversity," whether that promise is made to the self, to employees, or to the world, often feels like having successfully panned a golden nugget in an otherwise bleak mine. It's only when we step closer that we find that diversity without actionable items is just a clumsy dusting of gold paint over an otherwise unassuming rock. However, when you begin by challenging your own biases, make room for uncomfortable conversations, and build anti-racist practices within your own community, we might find that El Dorado is closer than we thought.

Alexandria Love is a writer, comedian, and performer from Oakland, CA. She works as a Communications & Content Producer for Berrett-Koehler Publishers and enjoys writing at the intersection of social justice and humor. She has a B.A. in Literature from UC Santa Cruz and an MA in Communications from the University of San Francisco

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