The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’
The heartbeat of racism is denial.
— Ibram X. Kendi
It’s been said that racism is so American that when we protest racism, some assume we’re protesting America.
— Beyoncé Knowles
Now is a good time to read these books, follow these authors, confront our history, and unpack what we need to unpack.
- So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
- How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide by Crystal Marie Fleming
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
- White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
- How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and by just letting it be, we are responsible for what it produces. We have to actually dismantle the machine if we want to make change.
When social scientists describe racism as “systemic,” we’re referring to collective practices and representations that disadvantage categories of human beings on the basis of their perceived “race.” The key word here is “collective.” Much of the racial stupidity we encounter in everyday life derives from the fact that people think of racism as individual prejudice rather than a broader system and structure of power.
The thing about white supremacy is that it socializes all of us to minimize its terror, to systematically deny or underestimate the harm. “We’ve come so far,” “Things are getting better,” “It could be worse”—all of these tropes minimize racial terror. Americans have been socialized to look on the bright side despite centuries of colonial and racial violence, torture, and the oppression of minorities. Our problem is not and has never been overreacting to racial terror. Our problem is the hegemony of under-reaction, denial, minimization. Ours is a society that has always socialized white folks to live in the midst of racial oppression but go on with their lives like normal. At every turn, those who oppose white supremacy have been met with denial, violence, “race card” accusations, or magnificent claims about progress. It seems that in the minds of many white liberals, we should all be celebrating the fact that most of us are not physically in chains. White supremacy wants you to look at four hundred years of uninterrupted racial terror and conclude “Things aren’t so bad.”
Being seen racially is a common trigger of white fragility, and thus, to build our stamina, white people must face the first challenge: naming our race.
White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result, we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage. Given how seldom we experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven’t had to build our racial stamina.
White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies. It wreaks havoc subtly, almost imperceptibly. Too imperceptibly, certainly, for a nation consistently drawn to the spectacular—to what it can see. It’s not the Klan. White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses, or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively, far more destructively.
The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement. It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem; rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship.
The truth is, white rage has undermined democracy, warped the Constitution, weakened the nation’s ability to compete economically, squandered billions of dollars on baseless incarceration, rendered an entire region sick, poor, and woefully undereducated, and left cities nothing less than decimated. All this havoc has been wreaked simply because African Americans wanted to work, get an education, live in decent communities, raise their families, and vote. Because they were unwilling to take no for an answer.
History duels: the undeniable history of antiracist progress, the undeniable history of racist progress. Before and after the Civil War, before and after civil rights, before and after the first Black presidency, the White consciousness duels. The White body defines the American body. The White body segregates the Black body from the American body. The White body instructs the Black body to assimilate into the American body. The White body rejects the Black body assimilating into the American body—and history and consciousness duel anew.
The Black body in turn experiences the same duel. The Black body is instructed to become an American body. The American body is the White body. The Black body strives to assimilate into the American body. The American body rejects the Black body. The Black body separates from the American body. The Black body is instructed to assimilate into the American body—and history and consciousness duel anew.
But there is a way to get free. To be antiracist is to emancipate oneself from the dueling consciousness. To be antiracist is to conquer the assimilationist consciousness and the segregationist consciousness. The White body no longer presents itself as the American body; the Black body no longer strives to be the American body, knowing there is no such thing as the American body, only American bodies, racialized by power.