How to be an Antiracist
Kendi, Ibram X. (2019). How to be an Antiracist. New York: Penguin.
The following quote is from the jacket of the book. “THE ONLY WAY TO UNDO RACISM IS TO CONSISTENTLY IDENTIFY AND DESCRIBE IT AND THEN DISMANTLE IT.”
The quote above describes the essence of this book. There are racists. There are people who say they are not racist. Saying you are not racist is NOT ENOUGH. We must actively confront, change policies, and take action. My last ‘New Rule: Words are Rumors, Watch their Feet’ was making the point that it is actions that tell you what people really believe. See https://learningomnivores.com/rules/words-are-rumors-watch-their-feet/
Here are my nuggets from the book:
“Denial is the heartbeat of racism, beating across ideologies, races, and nations.” First, identify issues. Being a white male I know conversations about race can be scary. Read Robin Diangelo’s (2018) on White Fragility for more information. If we can’t talk about real issues, how can we ever solve problems. As a principal in the Minneapolis School System, in the 90s ,I was in a principal’s discussion group with Mike Huerth, a Native American male and Eleanor Coleman, an African American woman. Mike and Eleanor said they had the same concerns I had. Having authentic discussions can be uncomfortable. How freeing to hear that. Thank you Mike and Eleanor, wherever you are for helping me have the courage to talk more openly and honestly about race with myself and others.
“What’s the problem with being “not racist”? It is a claim that signifies neutrality.” I suggest we are rarely neutral and now is not the time to be neutral. We might not want to be honest, or we are scared, or we are afraid of the consequences but not neutral. Not being racist is a passive stance. Another past ‘New Rule; Be Aware of Bullies and Bystanders, I suggested that bullies are a problem. Bystanders might be more of a problem. https://learningomnivores.com/rules/be-aware-of-bull…onstrate-bravery/
In fact, I have read research that says bystanders cause more problems for the person being bullied than the bully. It is the feeling being alone with no support from friends or observers. When supervisors in schools do not support students who are being bullied, it can be devastating for the person. BTW this goes for adults as well as students. See the book Mobbing (1999) about bullying in the workplace. To paraphrase Dante’s quote, ‘the hottest corners of hell, are reserved for those in times of crisis, remain silent.’
The goal must be taking action. “Now it’s know how to be antiracist.” Here is a definition from the book. “ANTIRACIST: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” Let’s actively confront people and policies that limit the individual and collective intelligence, contribution, and creativity to be a better society. James Surowiecki (2005), Wisdom of Crowds, says a decision made by a group is significantly better than a decision made by the smartest person in the group. I ask groups, why? Think about it. Does having more perspectives help make a better final decision? Does having perspectives from diverse points of view make a better decision? Answer is ‘yes.’
Here are some statistics from the book. “White lives matter to the tune of 3.5 additional years over Black lives in the United States, African Americans are 25 percent more likely to die of cancer than Whites. During the 2013-14 academic year, Black students were four times more likely than White students to be suspended from public schools, according to Department of Education data.”
I suggest we rethink some of our practices. As an example, in the 80s while being an assistant principal in charge of attendance and discipline in a large high school, I suspended students for not coming to school. That was the policy. What the heck was I thinking. Students were not coming to class, so I suspended them so they couldn’t come. Jeez. I wish I had read Daniel Health’s (2020) new book, Upstream. Hopefully, I would have done something different.
Another important point is about “microaggressions.” It is a term Chester Pierce, Harvard, created in the 70s. An example is when a person of color sits by a white woman, the white person grabs her purse. When I walk down the street and see a group of black people, I cross the street. Because of the color of their skin, I start making assumptions about the person’s ability, background, and potential. These microaggressions happen in businesses and schools far too often. Making assumptions about people, without even interacting, continue what psychologist call ‘attribution error’ and ‘confirmation bias.’
I really liked this story in the book. “Fable of the man and the lion.” In the fable, a man and lion travel together, arguing over who is superior. They pass a statue that shows a lion strangled by a man. The man says, “See there! How strong we are, how we prevail over even the king of beasts.” The lion replies, his statue was made by one of you men. If we lions knew how to erect statues, you would see the man placed under the paw of the lion.” Whoever creates the cultural standard usually puts them self at the top of the hierarchy.” How true. We often have blinders on. Take the blinders off and deal with our reality. See it, acknowledge it, and take action to change it.
“Just as race doesn’t exist biologically, race doesn’t exist behaviorally.” Think about it, there is no achievement gap at birth. When a child is born (absent a genetic or physiological disorder), they can learn any of about 6000 languages. Kendi makes the statement, “The racial problem is the opportunity gap, as antiracist reformers call it, not the achievement gap. We must no longer be ashamed of being Black, As long as the mind thinks there is something behaviorally wrong with a racial group, the mind can never be antiracist.” I have heard the phrase ‘students know more ways to learn than we know how to teach.’ This makes school and business leaders nervous. It also makes us aware of expanding our repertoire of learning rather than one way fits all. “To be antiracist is to think nothing is behaviorally wrong or right—inferior or superior—with any of the racial groups.”
Kendi quotes one of his teachers, when asked about being objective. “It is impossible to be objective. ‘If we can’t be objective, then what should we strive to do?’ “Just tell the truth.” Wow, that simple. That takes courage and strong values. That’s what we should strive to do. “Tell the truth.”
Here is another reason for organizations to model the way. “White teachers are about 40 percent less likely to believe the student will finish high school. Low-income Black students who have at least one Black teacher in elementary school are 29 percent less likely to drop out of school.” Beliefs drive behavior. Change the belief, change the behavior. The reverse is also true. Change the behavior and you can change the belief.
“Racism has always been terminal AND curable. Racism has always been recognizable and mortal.” I love this statement because it says we CAN make the world better. We can find solutions. The issue is, ‘will we?’
Here are some suggestions from Kendi to be an antiracist.
- I stop using the “I’m not a racist” or “I can’t be racist” defense of denial.
- I admit the definition of racist (someone who is supporting racist policies or expressing racist ideas).
- I confess the racist policies I support and racist ideas I express.
- I accept their source (my upbringing inside a nation making us racist)
- I acknowledge the definition of antiracist (someone who is supporting antiracist policies or expressing antiracist ideas). struggle for antiracist power and policy in my spaces.
Here are some questions for you?
- What am I doing to change policy?
- How can I genuinely urge people to focus on changing policy if I am not focused on changing policy?
Here are some suggestions for teams that we work with to eliminate racial inequity in our spaces.
- Admit racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people. Identify racial inequity in all its intersections and manifestations.
- Investigate and uncover the racist policies causing racial inequity.
- Invent or find antiracist policy that can eliminate racial inequity.
- Figure out who or what group has the power to institute antiracist policy
- Work with sympathetic antiracist policymakers to institute the antiracist policy.
- Monitor closely to ensure the antiracist policy reduces and eliminates racial inequity.
- When policies fail, do not blame the people. Start over and seek out new and more effective antiracist treatments until they work.
- Monitor closely to prevent new racist policies from being instituted.
Kendi had to face his own cancer and cancer in his family. He made the following statements at the end of the book. “Cancer is likely to kill me. I can survive cancer against all odds. My society has racism. The most serious stage. Racism is likely to kill my society. My society can survive racism against all odds.”
“What if we treated racism in the way we treat cancer? What has historically been effective at combatting racism is analogous to what has been effective at combatting cancer. But before we can treat, we must believe. Believe all is not lost for you and me and our society.”
“Believe in the possibility that we can strive to be antiracist from this day forward. Believe in the possibility that we can transform our societies to be antiracist from this day forward. Racist power is not godly. Racist policies are not indestructible. Racial inequities are not inevitable. Racist ideas are not natural to the human.”
“But racism is one of the fastest-spreading and most fatal cancers humanity has ever known. It is hard to find a place where its cancer cells are not dividing and multiplying.”
“What gives me hope is a simple truism. Once we lose hope, we are guaranteed to lose. But if we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive, a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free.”
One final point about what we say and what we do. Maybe it is because I have worked in Urban schools for half of my professional life. Maybe it is because I literally grew up next to the tracks with parents who did not complete high school. It seems every school leader, staff, or district I work with has something in their literature on mission, vision, and values about believing in diversity. OK, here are the words again. Let me ask you, ‘if you believe that diversity is important, what would I see or hear when visiting your school that would tell me you see diversity as a strength.’ Let’s embrace diversity as a creative source of collaboration and action. The future is what we deserve. The future is what our kids deserve.
I am requesting you do the AAA model. Awareness, Acknowledgment, and Action. Words without action is just talk. Take action. One of my favorite quotes from Angeles Arrien is, “if your job is waking up the dead, GET UP, TODAY IS A WORKDAY.”
Davenport, N., Ph.D., Schwartz, R., & Elliott, G. (1999). Mobbing: emotional abuse in the American Workplace.
Ames, Iowa: Civil Society Publishing.
Diangelo, Robin. (2018), White Fragility. Boston: Beacon Press.
Heath, Dan. (2020). Upstream. New York: Avid Reader Press
Surowiecki, James. (2004). The wisdom of crowds. New York: Anchor Books.