“I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” James Baldwin
I have been thinking, talking, researching, analyzing and living with racism my entire life. There is an abundance of scholarly, anecdotal and lived experiences that define what racism is and what it is not. Most scholars agree that racism is not only the belief in the racial inequity of different people, but it is how racial differences are used in systems for personal and professional advantages over other groups.
What has been missing in the literature, ironically, is what I think is the most important part of racism; how not to be racist; or what is an anti-racist.
This is a problem because when asked, the majority of White people self-declare and adamantly say, “ that they are not racist.”. They will swear, they will cry, they will do everything to convince you, a Black person, and themselves, that they are not racist, not because of their actions, but because they say, “I believe Black and Whites are equal.” The sad part is, most of the White folks really believe that they are not racist. Even more disturbingly, they don’t even think racism is an issue in America.
Although we have a definition of racism, we have not adequately defined what is anti-racism or a person who is a “non-racist” or “an anti-racist.” The common definition we have now defines being anti-racist, “as someone who believes in the equality of all races.” While I believe in the equality of all races, that belief alone does not make anyone anti-racist. The belief that all people are equal is about basic human dignity. And that has nothing to do with racism.
Racism is much more complex. It involves more than your personal, untested beliefs; it requires beliefs, understanding, and action.
Being an anti-racist is hard and it is definitely not something that can be “self-declared” in a statement, without supporting documentation. That is why I am proposing the following definition and new name for what it means to be a non-racist/nonracist:
Non-Racist/Anti-Racist (noun/verb/adjective): -A person who believes in equality among all races and ethnicities; understands the role of racism and white supremacy; and works personally, structurally, and institutionally to take actions to stop racism in all its forms.
Again, I am stating that being non-racist, or anti-racist, is a process, not a statement. First, you must believe in the equality of all races and ethnicities. Next, you must understand how racism works institutionally and personally; and, lastly, you must take action to dismantle both personal and institutional racism.
Now when I think of the disconnect between White and Black people on what is a “non-racist” or “ an anti-racist”, it because we are looking through different theoretical frameworks. When we discuss racism through this new theoretical lens, it becomes very clear to me the disconnect between me, and many Black people, and my White friends and White Americans about race, we don’t have the same definition. It also explains, personally, it is of no racial implication on my life if a white person only “believes that we, races and ethnicities, are the same equally.” Their personal, often, non-scrutinized, “I am not racist” statement, has no bearing on the effects of racism in my life.
Further, having a white person understand racism, partially or even in its entirety (include personal implicit racial thoughts) is also useless to Black people and does not make you non-racist. White people who simply understand racism: what it means to have white privilege, structural and institutional racism, but aren’t doing anything to change those systems aren’t helping Black people either. It’s like explaining to fish in a polluted water, where the pollution is coming from when it started, and what the effects will be on the lives of the fish in the polluted water (spoiler: it is the same outcome for Black folks. It is not helpful).
If you aren’t using your white privilege, your belief in the equality of the races, or understanding of how racism works, that you are not a non-racist/anti-racist. You are just knowledgeable about my oppression as a Black American. And your knowledge doesn’t really help me as a Black person, you are not anti-racist; you are just knowledgeable.
(All western universities regarded ancient Greek and Latin literature as universal truths worth of memorization and unworthy of critique. “Stamped from the beginning.”)
The most difficult, yet the most important part of being an anti-racist/non-racist is in the third part of the definition,: taking action. In order to be anti-racist, you must take actions to undo the racist institutions, White supremacy, and be willing to give up unearned privilege and massive wealth redistribution in America. And that’s where we lose most White People because people can understand things, but not be willing to do anything to stop them. Does it matter to “anti-water pollution” if I am knowledgeable about pollution in the water, but I continue to partake in companies that dump plastics, look away when my friends pollute the water or do nothing to stop the pollution? I posit that action, stopping and undoing the racism, is the most important part of being an anti-racist.
The hard part about American racism, is that it was so severe, so deep, so much a part of the country’s structure and DNA, that even getting White people to agree to the first part of the definition, believing in the equality of all races, particularly Blacks and Whites, has been an epic struggle. So much so, that it required a Civil War! So when we discuss a person being anti-racist/non-racist, for a long time in America that simply meant that you thought Black people were human and that was revolutionary! If you understand racism, you will see why this “acknowledgment or belief of equality” did very little to stop racism in America. It did, however, get White people, who were progressive and educated, to “say” in public, “they believe all races are equal.”
Now I’ll admit it is nice to have the American constitution, that defined black people as 3/5th of humans, change the definition of me and my Black people, from part-humans to full-humans was nice. It nice to be acknowledged as a full human. However, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment did not stop racism. There was no action taken to undo racism, or retribution to former slaves, after the Civil War.
I’d like to interject this fact, there is no scientific thing as different races. Whiteness was created to help economically Rich white people, stay rich. The early settlers in America did not have the same rigid race-based discriminatory policies. Whiteness was intentionally created and there is no scientific basis to a “White or Black race.” All of that was a lie. So we had a Civil War, not because they were people who are anti-racist rather the Civil War was about the lights though.
And to me, it speaks to the depth and how ingrained racism is in our country that we still can’t get past this first step. That people are still able to claim anti-racism because of antiquated notions of whiteness and blackness that was developed to support chattel slavery.
But that’s only one part of racism. Now the belief that black and white people were not equal is the foundation, literally written into the founding documents, the constitution, of our country.
That lie, “black and whites are unequal” it is sewed into the very fabric of our every American institution. Which is why we need to understand, all American institutions, systems, and people, to see how racism was, and is currently, applied in all aspects of our culture.
Once we have an understanding of how racism has affected our institutions, countries people personally and as a whole, we then have to take actions to stop those institutions and change those rules. And that part is where we lose a lot of white people; The giving up of things.
Many White people will believe people are equal, some will understand racist systems, like the police department, but only a handful are willing to take action to dismantle these systems or up any of the privilege, money, and advantages they received because of racism. Taking action on racism cannot happen without a massive redistribution of wealth and money in this country. Action against racism requires reparations.
Nonracist/Anti-Racist, White folks, need to engage in honest discussions about what it means to give back to people who have been wronged. It means saying as a White person, I have access to school and material things, because of racism, and I am willing to give that up, to make a more equal and just country. I am an anti-racist/ non-racist because I am willing to give up what I received unjustly from racist systems, racist institutions, and racist people. Using our water pollution example again, it means, I am willing to go and take plastic out of the water, I am willing to stop working for and/or shopping with companies that pollute the oceans, and if I see someone litter in the water, even if it’s my relative, I will tell them it’s not acceptable, and I am willing to go into to the water to retrieve the litter they left.
Again as someone who is a scholar of racism in America, I know so many White people that believe have mastered part one of non-racist definition, their personal beliefs in the equality of the races/ethnicities. There are also an amazing group of White people, many of whom work for NPO’s, Schools, Social Workers, that have some understanding of the structure of racism and how it impacts institutions. Many of them developed careers, and make a living, (ironically in predominantly White organizations, with White board of directors, within racist institutions.) teaching, understanding, and explaining racism to other people. Many in this second group, with their limited understanding of race, create programs to “help” Black people, that require absolutely no action from White people. In fact, White people who understand racism often get paid and set up careers and have job security that exacerbates poverty and racism, “helping” Black people.
Understanding systematic, individual, and institutional racism and then taking action to do undo that racism, is how you are an anti-racist/non-racism. That third part the people that are willing to give up the things that they got from races or give to others privileges has yet to be seen.
In World War II, the Nazis took things from the Jewish people, had a Holocaust that killed close to six million Jewish people, and created set up structures and institutions in Germany that was based on discrimination against Jewish people. When the war was over it wasn’t enough for the German government to say to the Jewish people whose land they had taken and family members they had murdered, “I believe you and I are inherently equal.”
Nor was it enough to have White Germans explain and understand what happened during World War II which led to the treatment of the Jews. Having academic fields of study of Nazi Germany, the role of propaganda and fear was an insufficient attempt. Jewish people did not need former White Nazi German, social workers, teachers, or nonprofit organization in Germany; they needed their shit back.
It was clear to everyone, after World War 2, that the only thing that was right, that was “non-racist” or being an “anti-racist” was the third part of the action. Yes, Nazi’s had to believe that the Jewish people are equal to them, and the German government, needed to understand how Hitler was able to create the idea of a master race. BUT GERMANY, AS A COUNTRY, WITH THEIR MONEY, had to do action in order to be anti-racist to the Jewish people.
- They had to pay reparations.
- They had to give back art that was stolen.
- They had to give the land back to the Jewish people that were taken.
- They had to make sure that their system their country was set up so that it would never ever happen again they made laws renouncing racism, personally and institutionally.
Further, The German people, along with the allies of Germany, use their money, through taxes, and gave checks reparations movement cost and schools to the Jewish people that they oppressed.
I’ll end this with the message of our racial prophet in America, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and his knowledge of being anti-racist. I would like to believe Dr. King would agree that “beliefs in equality and equity” is not enough; we need White people who are vigilant in becoming an anti-racist.