We’ve become a society obsessed with labeling. As sides are drawn in every realm of our existence, we seem hell-bent on categorizing each other, depositing anyone who opposes our thinking in some bucket from which there is no escape.
Author Ibram X. Kendi (How to Be An Antiracist) is seeking to steer us off this polarizing tendency in relation to race/racism. Far from going easy on racism, he instead turns from permanent labeling of individual people to explicit labeling of our actions, our actual behavior, at any specific time.
Here are his proposed categories to use when examining that behavior:
- Segregationist: One who is expressing the racist idea that a permanently inferior racial group can never be developed and is supporting policy that segregates away that racial group.
- Assimilationist: One who is expressing the racist idea that a racial group is culturally or behaviorally inferior and is supporting cultural or behavioral enrichment programs to develop that racial group.
- Antiracist: One who is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity.
At any point in time, it is my behavior that determines which category applies to me. And my very next action may fit a different category.
Kendi understands that labeling a person as a racist in these times is an invitation to a reactive chain of denial-argument-denial-argument-end-of-conversation, and perhaps end-of-relationship.
Here is how I see his categories applied to my own life:
I will at times find that I’ve failed to take a stand when a racist idea or comment is put forth. My failure to speak out, to object, to push back, supports the systems and mindsets that uphold racial inequity. This can occur in any setting: when I’m with my softball team, in a work setting, or around the Thanksgiving table. In effect, I am acting as a segregationist at that point. I am acting as a racist.
Or, I will find myself in a strategy meeting addressing racist systems, and advocate for some action that I think will help Black people improve their lot – become better parents, manage finances better, interview more effectively. I believe I am trying to be helpful. I’m basically focusing on “improving” Black people rather than deconstructing the systems that make those tasks so challenging. I am acting as an assimilationist at that point. I am acting as a racist.
At another time, I will attend a Black-led meeting and listen and ask how I might support what the group believes needs to be accomplished, to find my place in bolstering those efforts. I trust the group to understand what needs to change, rather than acting as a white supremacist by claiming that I know what “they” need. I am acting as an antiracist at that point.
Kendi’s framework cuts to the chase: Actions perpetuate racism. Failures to act can also perpetuate racism. The policies I am proposing or enabling or inhibiting are what need to be assessed: Do they promote racial equity or increase racial inequity? This approach skirts the trap of labeling any person and concentrates on the systemic changes that are needed. This focuses the energy on the concrete, specific, measurable changes that can have actual impact.
I have to say to my white subscribers that the assimilationist tendency is rife among liberal/progressive folks. People of goodwill, genuine care, concern and compassion can be so eager to help Black people “up” that we fail to recognize the sense of superiority lurking there. Our helpfulness is fueled by the negative images we’ve absorbed about “them”, and how much their lot would improve if we just teach them to operate as we do – to assimilate! A dear Black friend recently voiced his utter aggravation with this mindset: “We don’t want your damn charity! We don’t need favors! Why do you need to feel so special??”
His point was to do as Kendi is urging:
Change the systems!!
Create racial equity where there is racial inequity! !
Gauge your actions by that standard!!
Kendi’s work has provided a fresh framework for me to assess my own engagement. I’ve already seen that on any given day, several times a day, I can cycle in and out of these categories.
And so again, I invite you to join me in this ever-deepening commitment: print out this blog, keep it in a prominent place for a week, and honestly examine your behavior in relation to race/racism. And just to be clear: if at the end of a day you cannot identify any instance in which you encountered some matter related to race/racism, count that as a segregationist day – because our inaction perpetuates the systems of inequity, allowing them to survive and thrive!
Be sure to view the first item in “Resources,” a brief interview with Kendi.
5-minute interview of Ibram Kendi on CBS, with a clear articulation of his beliefs about the racism/antiracism distinction.
How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi; using personal experience and incisive historical account, Kendi sheds light on the dynamics of racism.
“Thanksgiving and the Tale of Two Ships” – a reflection on the Mayflower (1620) and another significant ship, the slave transport White Lion (1619). By James Mulholland.
Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas In America by Ibram X. Kendi; National Book Award Winner.
Wednesday November 27, 4:00 – 5:00: “Street Voices” talk show with guests Rachel Barnhart and Alex White. Hosted by Lentory Johnson and Kerry Coleman. WRFZ 106.3 fm.
Friday December 9, 9:00 – 4:00pm: “Welcoming Diversity” Workshop by the National Coalition Building Institute. Details here.
Saturday December 14, 10:00 – 11:30: Monthly meeting of United Christian Leadership Ministry, Downtown United Presbyterian Church. This organization is engaged in many of the most vital issues impacting our community. If interested, call me at 585-734-2960.
Check out the array of events including workshops offered by 540westmain.org