How to be an Antiracist

Yes, it’s another one about racism. We’re not done learning yet. We probably never will be. And you don’t get to complain about having to deal with racism until you’ve had to endure it for dozens of years as black people have.

Besides continuing to learn about racism, I’ve also learned something about books about racism this week. Literally for every book about racism that I’ve read or am considering to read I’ve seen people in my social media timelines explaining why the book is no good, doesn’t explain the issue correctly, or even corrupts the debate. I’ve also seen significant praise about all these books. At first, I felt discouraged by this and wondered what the point is, but after contemplating how to find the “right” books I’ve decided that as long as you’re not just reading one book and keep thinking critically, you’re probably going to be ok. Reading different perspectives can help you to shape your ideas. Those ideas can and should then be adjusted as you absorb more information.

The main insight that I got from Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracists is that there are different kinds of racism. When you read about it, it makes sense. But I’d never thought about racism as anything other than just a single concept. The easiest to define and understand types of racism are:

  • Biological racism – the ideas that there are genetic racial differences and that these differences create a hierarchy. If you want that properly debunked I can also recommend reading Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist. Even if that book doesn’t really explain how to argue with a racist unless they are using pure biological racism, which I think is rare.
  • Bodily racism – portraying and treating black bodies as more animal-like and violent than others
  • Cultural racism – creating and imposing a cultural standard and imposing a cultural hierarchy. A proponent of this is suggesting that black people will be better off if only they adopt white culture. We consider white customs the norm and anyone with different customs slightly or not so slightly barbaric.
  • Behavioral racism – is about making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and projecting the behavior of individuals onto entire groups.

Antiracism is to actively work against racism and racist ideas. This can start with simple things (theoretically simple at least). Behavioral racism is probably the type of racism we are all guilty of most often. When a white boy isn’t paying attention in school and getting back grades the boy is considered a bad student. Probably undermotivated and undisciplined. When a black boy is getting back grades and isn’t paying attention in school the behavior of the boy is extrapolated to all other black boys. Black boys aren’t worse students than white boys. But we do often feel that the bad behavior of one of them confirms our ideas about the behavior of the entire group. The fact that many white people believe this is problematic, but what’s worse is that these boys internalize those ideas too. And it’s been proven many times that if you believe that you are not as smart as the people around you, your results will suffer because of it.
Ibram Kendi writes that he grew up having many racist ideas himself and that he was sabotaging himself and his future opportunities because of them. He felt that if he messed up he was failing all black people. Can you imagine a white kid feeling like they failed all white people when they do something wrong?

We also extrapolate the positive achievements of individuals to the groups we identify them with, as many immigrant professional athletes can attest to. If they win, they are seen as an integrated part of the country they represent. If they lose they are referred to by their original nationality. This isn’t just true for black people. As a tennis fan, I know that Andy Murray has commented multiple times on the fact that he is called British by the British media when he’s won and Scottish when he’s lost. Of course, his achievements are his and not related to his country of birth or residency.
The same is true for black athletes. Usain Bolt is the fastest man on the 100 and 200 meters because he was a very dedicated athlete, he worked very hard, was very disciplined. He wasn’t an extraordinary athlete because he was black “and black people are better sprinters”. This idea is biological racism. The fact that there are more world-class black sprinters has to do with culture, role models, and motivation. Not with an innate ability to run faster.

Ibram Kendi argues that the source of racist ideas isn’t just ignorance and hate, it’s self-interest. Racist ideas are a by-product of racial policies. Getting rid of the policies is proving to be so hard because the people who have to adjust them have a self-interest in keeping them in place. The people in charge benefit economically and politically from the current system that benefits white people disproportionately.

An example that makes it relatively easy to explain is how schools are funded in the US. Schools are funded by property taxes in the school’s neighborhood. Property taxes are based on the prices of houses and when many black people live in a neighborhood, housing prices plummet. As a result schools in black neighborhoods are underfunded. This could be resolved by designing a different system by which to fund schools. But the people in charge are mostly white. Their kids live in white neighborhoods and go to white schools. Implementing a system that would allow for better funding of schools in black neighborhoods would mean that there will be less money for schools in white neighborhoods. The self-interest of the people in power ensures that the school funding system will not change anytime soon.
This video explains the school funding system very nicely

School funding is just one example. For most racist policies you’ll find similar self-interests keep them from being overturned. This means that the most effective way of protesting is to make it in the self-interest of those in power to change the policies. That’s very hard to achieve and can’t just come from black people. This fight gains more weight when both black and white people in power stand up against racist policies. But these people also have the most to lose. Will enough people be able to accept losing part of their privilege to enhance equality. Remember, when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. A lot will have to change before we can overturn policies and power structures that support racism today. It will take many self-less people and a lot of time, energy, and courage. I hope we’ll get there and I realize that just reading and writing about racism isn’t enough to contribute in a meaningful way. I also have to examine my privilege and get comfortable with the idea that I will have to give it up to ensure that we all have equal opportunities and resources.

I have been extremely lucky in my life and it’s time to share that luck with as many other people as possible.

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