What’s the problem with being “not racist”? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: “I am not a racist but neither am I aggressively against racism.” But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” is not “not racist.” It is “antiracist.”
– Ibram X. Kendi
Since the assassination of Trayvon Martin, I have been intentionally awakening to my unconscious biases and my racism, and seeking ways to hold myself accountable as a white person (and as a white leadership development specialist) for continuous growth on this uncomfortable lifelong journey. After the murder of George Floyd, I began doubling-down on this commitment, including in professional offerings and in the Leadership Library. In recent months, three resources have been particularly meaningful, and I highly recommend engaging with them, ideally in the following order:
Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, 2020)
While I was astonished by the breadth and depth of Wilkerson’s previous masterpiece about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns (Vintage, 2011), I admit its lengthy story-telling style was a slog for me. However, this was not the case with Wilkerson’s latest exploration of the infrastructure of inequity, Caste, which I found to be crisp, powerful and persuasive.
In this book, Wilkerson argues convincingly for a comparison among the caste hierarchies of India and specifically the social condition of the Dalits (“Untouchables”); the American enslavement – and then the deliberate, legally-sanctioned terrorization and oppression of – African Americans; and Nazi Germany’s research on the American example as inspiration for its persecution of Jews. Wilkerson quotes historian Eugene DeFriest Betit’s Collective Amnesia: American Apartheid: African Americans’ 400 Years in North America, 1619-2019 (Xlibris, 2019) regarding how Hitler “especially marveled at the American ‘knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.’” To my mind, the most effective section of Caste is Wilkerson’s organization of the comparison material into “The Eight Pillars of Caste,” although the entire book is incredibly compelling. Distinguishing between race and caste, Wilkerson demonstrates clearly and thoroughly that human cultures have known from ancient times what policies and practices create infrastructures of inequity. While the book is a call-to-action, it only nods to possible solutions, such as reparations, and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation processes. Drawing different distinctions than those in Caste, Ibram X. Kendi’s book offers more detailed, start-where-you-are recommendations.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (One World, 2019)
Opening with the brilliant “My Racist Introduction,” Kendi offers transformative definitions of racism and antiracism which – potently – leave no room in between for claims of “not racist.” In Kendi’s philosophy and ethics, ideas and policies are either racist or antiracist. There is no escapism into fuzzy leeway; there is no “I’m not racist.” As Kendi says, “this book is ultimately about the basic struggle we’re all in, the struggle to be fully human and to see that others are fully human.” In fact, part memoir and confessional, this book leverages Kendi’s own story of developing racial consciousness as he grew up, then adopting anti-white racism for a time, before “finding and turning down the unlit dirt road of antiracism,” while simultaneously tracking a well-researched legal, cultural and scientific history of racism in the United States. It’s an impressive and provocative combination.
For me, grappling with my racism in a mindful effort to be more antiracist, How to Be an Antiracist offered the distinctions and examples I needed in order to liberate myself from perceived limitations – including a lack of authority on “diversity” as a white person – so that I could take action. Kendi describes why previous attempts to solve racism haven’t worked, and why new antiracist policies are needed: “Incorrect conceptions of race as a social construct (as opposed to a power construct), of racial history as a singular march of racial progress (as opposed to a duel of antiracist and racist progress), of the race problem as rooted in ignorance and hate (as opposed to powerful self-interest) – all come together to produce solutions bound to fail” (p. 201). Not unlike Wilkerson, he argues that the history of racist ideas “is the history of powerful policy-makers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies” (p. 230). My reflections on the implications of this framing have empowered me to begin formulating personal and professional antiracism policies (Kendi defines antiracist policies in the final chapter, “Survival”) and acting on them.
Be Antiracist: A Journal for Awareness, Reflection and Action by Ibram X. Kendi (One World, 2020)
I am grateful to have Be Antiracist to support my continuing self-examination and growth. As the jacket of this rich, disturbing and compassionate workbook states, “The heartbeat of antiracism is confession. It is self-reflection. It is constantly declaring the moments we are being racist and celebrating the moments we are being antiracist.” Following the progression of chapters in How to Be an Antiracist – but certainly usable as a stand-alone resource – the journal advances the explorer through a succession of (at least for me) scary and illuminating prompts. A simple yet poignant one that I am still contemplating is, “When did race come for you? Describe in detail your earliest memory when you saw the world through a racial lens.”
With thanks to the racial discussion groups that my coach training program at Georgetown’s Institute for Transformational Learning have been running since 2016, which introduced me to these pieces, here are a few smaller, complementary nuggets:
- “Race in America.” This is an amazingly comprehensive yet succinct 17-minute Holy Post video accessibly explaining structural racism and inequity in the United States.
- “‘Not Racist’ Is Not Enough: Putting in the Work to Be Antiracist.” A “Life Kit” piece by Eric Deggans on NPR, with other great resources hyperlinked within it.
- “The First Time I Realized I Was Black,” produced by CNN. Stories of Black celebrities and journalists about the origins of their racial consciousness.
- “White Supremacy Culture,” by Tema Okun at DismantlingRacism.org. Here you can find a PDF handout describing the work culture typical in white-majority organizations in America.