Too often in the news, we hear stories of powerful people behaving in ways that are undeniably discriminatory while declaring "I'm not racist. I have an *insert identity here* friend. I can't be racist." The fact is, that all people have the ability to be racist. Moreover, all acts of racism exist on a spectrum of microaggressions and daily acts of persecution, with genocide and killings only being one extreme. On this spectrum, all white people are at the very least complicit in benefitting from systems built on racism and that are designed to privilege straight white men at the top (if you are unclear by on what we mean when we talk about identity, intersectionality, and privilege, please read a refresher here!)
When considered this way, no one has the ability to declare that it is an absolute truth that they are at all times in all considerations and to all people never racist. So, if within the current systems and structures built into our society it is currently impossible to not be racist at some point, the next best thing we can be is "anti-racist." By anti-racist we mean we believe that racism is wrong and has no place in our society, thus we are trying hard to unlearn our own preconceptions, learning to do better at accepting and supporting others, and challenging racism when we see it. It means directly challenging any existing system, policy, government, value, or program and that is racist. By being anti-racist, we acknowledge we are not perfect or 100% "woke", but we are open to learning and are actively trying to do and be better. As humans, sometimes that's the best we can do.
So how do we actually practice anti-racism? One way is by using frameworks of equity, diversity, and inclusivity to inform our spaces, a concept we have previously discussed here. Today, I want to share five strategies for specifically practicing anti-racism.
I would like to give the caveat that I am not a licensed professional on this topic nor can I speak to the needs of every unique person with authority. What I am, is someone who cares a lot about anti-racism and who has worked in sectors around education, not-for-profits, event-planning, and community building for the better part of a decade. I know that once you identify a desire to be anti-racist, it can be hard to know where to start. To help you out, I want to share some of the things I have learned to help you challenge your own unconscious biases.
1. Read books written by and about diverse authors
When we surround ourselves in media written by and about people who look and think like us, we can create what is called an "echo-chamber." An echo-chamber is a metaphoric term referring to a phenomenon in which our beliefs and perspectives become cemented in our minds as true because we only take in information that supports our preconceptions and reject all ideas that may challenge them.
To start breaking down our own internal racism, we need to be able to understand and empathize with voices and perspectives that are different than our own. Numerous studies have shown that reading increases empathetic ability and the ability to understand situations from multiple perspectives. This growth is stymied, however, when we only read accounts from people who think and look like us. Instead, we need to actively seek out #OwnVoices stories, or stories written by and about people holding diverse identities, in this case, people of whose race is different than our own.
While reading autobiographies, memoirs, philosophy, and other non-fiction works from people of colour is important, it is critical that we engage with fiction and fantasy written by and about people of colour too.
2. Trace your thoughts to their source
It is a natural and human thing to be a little judgemental on first impressions or to have intrusive thoughts sometimes. What matters is whether we act on these thoughts and whether we choose to question and learn from them or to let these judgements be ingrained as part of our ideology. This is where tracing our thoughts to their source comes into play. When we do this, we question why we have made these judgements of other people and whether they have any foundation in reality.
Let's imagine, for example, that you are walking down in the park and you see a person coming in the other direction. Your first reaction is to be fearful for your safety. By tracing our thoughts, we can understand where that fear comes from. Is the other person holding a bloody knife and screaming at you? In that case, your fear is grounded in reality. Have you previously been attacked here? In this case, your fear might be tied to the place and not the person. Are you scared of this person because they were a black man, even though you were not scared of the white man with his kids or the white woman with her dog? In that case, your judgement is based on racism. Of course, these thought patterns can apply in all situations, from the people we hire to the places we shop to the books we read to the characters to write. All of these thoughts deserve to be considered and challenged.
We need to recognize why we judge people in certain ways so we can recognize when we are being racist. When we recognize the source of our judgements, we can work on correcting our thoughts each time and learning to erase our prejudice. At the very least, tracing our thoughts can help us think twice before we speak or act in racist terms.
3. Listen when people of colour speak
When someone tells you they have been harmed, especially when they tell you they have been harmed by your actions, you don’t get to tell them that they are not hurt or that they are overreacting. Instead, it is your responsibility to listen to what happened to cause the harm, how they feel, and what you can reasonably do to make reparations or to change your behaviours so that the action has no echo.
This strategy is undoubtedly one we need to practice with our friends, family, and coworkers. But it is also one we should practice with the news and with activism. When you see people protesting or see the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter your first response should not be to try and derail or dismiss the movement or to point to someone who has it worse. Your first reaction should be to listen and to understand what hurt has been caused and what you can do to try and make reparations and to change the world so it doesn’t happen again.
Listening can also mean passing the microphone. When people are used to positions of power and privilege, they can be used to being able to always speak and have their voices always heard. Passing the microphone means making spaces for other people to tell their stories and be heard and being silent and listening while they do.
This also means that we cannot police people’s hurt for tone. People can be angry, people can be hurting and grieving, people can be numb. Telling anyone that their movement cannot be validated because of the tone or specific wording of the message does nothing to heal the underlying problem. Instead of policing how people speak, we need to make an effort to listen to what is being said.
4. Educate your family and friends on what it means to be anti-racist
It is not the job of people of colour to handle the emotional burden of teaching all white people how not to be racist. Instead, it is the job of each and every one of us to recognize the inappropriate language or behaviour our family and friends may use and correct them. When we support our friends despite their racism or remain silent, we condone the behaviour and teach others that thinking, speaking, and acting in racist ways are right and are okay. It is not. I like to believe that more people are misinformed or are lazy about combatting racism than they are maliciously hateful. Confronting family and friends about their racism can lead to difficult conversations and change won’t happen overnight. But it is an essential part of anti-racism. To remain silent is to be complicit.
5. Be active, be vocal, be an ally
At the end of the day, anti-racism isn't something you are, it is something you practice. It requires you to call out racism every time you see it. It means protesting, voting, or changing spending habits to dismantle racist systems, programs, structures, companies, and governments, knowing that black lives are more important than white comfort as changes are made. It means always trying to learn and be better and to consistently challenge your own unconscious bias and beliefs. It means using your power and your platforms to be vocal. Being anti-racist means believing that black lives, along with the lives and rights of all people of colour matter and are worth fighting for. And then fighting for them.
As I noted before, I am not an expert on this and I am not perfect, but I care enough to do my research and to try my best to be anti-racist. I am sharing what I have learned in hopes that it can give you a place to start your own research!
I also want to reiterate that this is a living document! Please contact me if you have an amendment or more ideas on how to be anti-racist.
Until next time: think critically, reflect, and keep reading!