There is a big difference between “not being a racist” and “being anti-racist.” An anti-racist actively denounces racism in all its forms and promotes equality for all races. To be anti-racist implies action.
anti-racism (noun): the policy or practice of opposing racism and promoting racial tolerance.
Since I learned about the existence of systemic racism and white privilege several years ago, I have been asking, “What can I do about it?” I read book after book discussing the history and the reasons and the causes and the effects, but what do I do??? I basically wanted someone to say, “Call this number. Say ‘Black Lives Matter.’ And done. Problem solved.”
As if it was going to be that easy. But that’s what I wanted. I wanted an easy solution. I wanted something I could do quickly, that wouldn’t interrupt my day or challenge my lifestyle or disrupt my status quo. I wanted a solution that didn’t cost me anything.
Unfortunately, that’s not how change works. So I stopped asking, “What can I do?” and started asking “How much do I care?”
Turns out, I care enough to give money to the cause, to show up at the protests, to speak to all of my friends and family about race, to spend hours reading and re-learning history, to teach to my kids about racism, to fill my home with diverse toys and books, to participate in my communities interracial programs, to celebrate other cultures, to learn more about my own heritage, and more. The opportunities for involvement are endless, but first we must be willing to make some changes.
So, here’s how I’ve become an anti-racist, and how you can too, should you want to make the world a more just and fair place.
#1. Get Angry
I had to get angry enough to do something about racism. I cared before, but I wasn’t angry enough to do anything. I had to confront all of the uncomfortable truths about race and racism and how white people have treated people of color throughout history. I had to read the true stories of slaves being beaten, families being torn apart, segregation, lynchings, suffrage, black people being wrongfully accused, convicted, and murdered by the government, redlining, mass incarcerations, and voter suppression – many of these things continue to this day.
Last year, when the miniseries “When They See Us” was released on Netflix, I watched the preview and looked up the case of “The Central Park Five” since I had never heard the story. I was so horrified that I told Brett that I couldn’t watch it right then because I knew it would be very upsetting, but I added it to my list for later.
I should have watched it right away. I should have been willing to get angry back then. Instead, I preferred to not look too closely, to not confront the truth, to not get too uncomfortable, to not get angry.
As a white person, I don’t feel the effects of racial inequality personally, so it is easy for me to deny or forget that it exists. But when I watch an unarmed man being killed in the street because of racial bias, I get angry. When I watch the portrayal of Bloody Sunday in the movie, Selma, I get angry. When I read Solomon Northup’s story of being kidnapped and sold into slavery, I get angry. When I hear my brother’s stories of his best friend being harassed by police because he’s black, I get angry.
Anger at injustice is the fuel we need for change.
The black community in America is already angry, and rightly so. But as white people, we also need to get angry. And in order to do that, we need to know the truth. As James Baldwin said, in the film, I Am Not Your Negro, the problem is not that white Americans have anything against black people, the issue is apathy and ignorance. And we can solve both of these problems by opening our eyes and ears to the truth.
Relearning the Past
First, I had to understand the history of racism and how it remains deeply imbedded in our current society. If I don’t know how systemic racism came to be or how it still affects people of color today, then I won’t be of any use putting an end to it.
It continues to shock me that we actually have a “Black History Month,” practically admitting that we spend the other eleven months studying white history. The fact that this month exists shows that we have a problem. It is proof that we have not given black history enough of our attention in the past. If the schools won’t teach it, then we must teach ourselves.
Here are three sources of information that have had the biggest impact on my understanding of racism:
- “Explained: The Racial Wealth Gap” – a 16 minute Netflix show explaining how the wealth gap is a result of systemic racism
- 13th – a documentary by Ava DuVernay about the connection between our current system of mass incarceration and the racism that it perpetuates
- Waking Up White – book by Debbie Irving about understanding racism as a white person
I have read many, many books, but I still have a very long list to read. I have watched numerous movies and documentaries that deal with race and racism, but I am still learning. This self-taught class on black history will most likely take me the rest of my life. But that is okay, because I need to be continually reminded that my life of privilege is at the expense of another life. This is what motivates me to take a stand against racism.
Listening to the Present
Besides just re-learning history, we have to learn about the current experiences of people of color. The best way to do this is to listen to the people of color around us. Sometimes it is easy to try to explain away a racist comment or make excuses about it or simply not believe someone’s experience, but if we want to know the truth, we have to be willing to listen and accept it.
As my friend Brianne puts it so well, “I don’t want people to feel ‘guilty’, but I do want them to acknowledge the things they have that others do not, and that one reason they have them is because of their skin tone. I would want them to try and be empathetic to the plight of millions of their countrymen and to listen to them when they try and explain how they feel. Don’t be defensive. Don’t tell me how you didn’t personally own slaves. Just listen to someone when they tell you the things that happen to them on a daily basis.”
We need to do more listening and less defending.
I attended a few “round table” discussions so that I could hear the responses of the black community to George Floyd’s murder. I also learned a lot from at my city’s protest about what it is like to be a person of color living in my town. And here are two more ways that I learned about what it is like to be black in America today:
- “Where Do We Go From Here” – Oprah Winfrey’s Town Hall Special available on Youtube
- Between the World and Me – a book by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I love this article by NPR, because it is 100% true. Educating ourselves about racism is just the first step to changing the system. And it’s also not a one-time fix. White America needs to be continually educating ourselves about race so that we do not allow the strong emotions surrounding George Floyd’s murder to slowly fade back to business as usual. In order to truly create change it will take time. We cannot correct five hundred years worth of wrongs overnight, or even over several months. It will require that we get angry, and that we stay angry until the problem has been solved. Which is why we have to move from being angry, to the next step.
#2. Show Up
Once I was angry enough to do something about racism, it was time to show up. I thought about saying “step up,” but the truth is that white people have a tendency take over. If history has taught us anything it is that white people always believe that their way is best. Sometimes, however, like in the fight for racial equality, it is best for white people to take a supporting role. It is not our job to dictate how or when or where protests happen. It is not our job to criticize or correct or give our unwanted advice. It is not our job to patronize or discredit the stories and experiences of people of color. What we need to do is be supportive and show up. Not take over. Just show up. We provide support with our presence, with our voices, with our fists in the air, when necessary, but always in support.
That being said, there are a lot of great ways to show support for the racial justice movement, and these are the ones that I am doing:
- Giving money. As a white middle class American, throwing money at the problem is probably the easiest thing to do, so it was the first thing I did. If you are uncertain where to give money, look up organizations in your area that are promoting racial justice and policy change. Or you can give to Black Lives Matter, the NAACP, or the ACLU.
- Talking to people about race and racism.In the white culture I grew up in, no one talked about race. And when I did start talking to friends and family about race, it was not received well. I was viewed as “liberal” and “divisive” and “argumentative” and “accusatory.” Navigating these discussions can be tricky and you may upset a few people. [I read the book Talking Across the Divide by Justin Lee to help me communicate more effectively with people who disagree with me on these issues. I highly recommend this book.]
- Voting in local and federal elections. It is hard to admit that I didn’t used to vote at all, especially now that I understand how hard people of color and women have fought to have the right to vote. Voting is not the cure-all, as it is sometimes believed, but with the help of social change, voting can make a big difference. We have to vote for the people who will promote equality and justice, and we have to vote for the policies that ensure fair treatment for all people.
- Signing petitions, making calls, and writing letters. Once we understand the issues, we have to make our voices heard to our local governments, our schools, our police departments. We have to ask for change.
- Getting involved in protests. We show our support for the cause when we physically show up on the day of the march with our signs and say, “We care about your rights as much as our own.” I went to my first protest a few weeks ago and it was a moving experience. If you believe in the movement, then I highly recommend you physically participate.
- Examining my own racial prejudices and changing myself. I’ve done a lot of this work already, which I talked about in my last post, but it is an ongoing process. I still have work to do. Our worldviews are deeply ingrained and very hard to interrogate objectively, but we have to consider the possibility that we are in some ways [or many ways] part of the problem of racism in this society. And then, once we can accept our responsibility, we must commit to changing ourselves.
- Breaking the cycle of racism by raising anti-racist kids. I will talk more about this in my next post.
This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many, many ways to promote equality, and I intend to continue to improve in this way over time.
I found that for myself personally, I wanted to do something, but not know what to do was becoming an excuse for not doing anything. I realized that if I really want to see change happen, I have to push myself out of my comfort zone and do things that are hard. It is easiest for me to give money and tell myself that I am doing my part, but I care more than that. I can do more than that.
Change never comes easy. I’m a personal trainer. I know. I work with people who want to change all the time, but the truth is, no one can change themselves or their community and definitely not their world without digging deep and doing the hard stuff.
That brings us to the final thing that I am doing about racism.
#3. Break the cycle.
As a white parent, the most important and most challenging responsibility I have is to raise anti-racist kids who will not only accept and embrace people of all colors and orientations and religions [as most of us were taught to do], but will actively take a stand against injustice at its root which is in the system and within ourselves.
Because this area is so important to me, I’m going to post separately about how I as a white parent am teaching my kids to be an anti-racist.
2 thoughts on “Racism in America: Becoming an Anti-Racist”
There is far less racism in this country than when my parents were growing up. But there are forces arrayed that have a vested interest in keeping hate and chaos alive.
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Yes, that is definitely true. We have come a long way as a country. I agree completely.