Beyond Being “Not Racist”

What’s the problem with being ‘not racist’? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.”

Ibram X. Kendi

A few months ago I read Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist for my book club. If you have not read it yet, I highly encourage you to do so. In his book, Kendi describes his own racial journey of recognizing his internal racist ideas and dismantling them. He reflects on his racial views of power, biology, ethnicity, the body, culture, behavior, Whiteness, Blackness, class, space, gender and sexual orientation. First, however, he defines terms. What is racist? What is an anti-racist? Kendi defines a racist as “someone who supports a racist policy through the actions, inactions or who expresses a racist idea.” While he describes an antiracist as “someone who supports an antiracist policy through their actions or expresses an antiracist idea.”

But, what is a racist policy or idea? In the second chapter of Kendi’s book he reflects on the “Dueling Consciousness” between three mindsets: assimilationism, segregationism and antiracism. This perhaps was the most eye-opening chapter of the book for me. I had always looked at racism through the segregationist lens. The term assimilationist was new to me. According to Kendi, an assimilationist is “someone that is expressing the racist idea that one racial group is culturally or behaviorally inferior to another and supports behavioral or enrichment programs to develop that racial group.” As I read through the book, I realized that many of my “not racist” ideas were actually “racist.” Kendi’s book gave me the terms and definitions to help me identify my own racist ideas and see them play out in society.

So, a few months ago when I saw that Kendi was releasing a companion workbook and journal to his book, I immediately pre-ordered it. This past Monday, Be Antiracist, arrived on my doorstep. In the introduction to the journal, he says the “heartbeat of racism is denial,” while the “heartbeat of antiracism is confession” and “self-reflection.” I am eager to continue on my own journey towards being an antiracist by reflecting on the times I was being racist. The first prompt in the journal is “When have your ever described yourself as ‘not racist’? What does ‘not racist’ racist mean to you? Why do you think so many people are invested in believing they are not racist?” Here is what I wrote:

For most of my life, I considered myself to be “not racist.” I saw racists as people wearing white hoods and burning crosses on people’s lawns, flying Confederate flags and scrawling swastikas on windows. I believed being “not racist” meant that I didn’t think I was superior to another person because my skin tone was a different hue. I was friends with people of many different races, I didn’t use the ‘N’ word or racial slurs, I was grieved by atrocities of slavery, the Jim Crow era, police brutality and I supported affirmative action. I was color-blind and treated everyone ‘the same,” so how in the world could I be a racist. Therefore, I was unequivocally “not racist.” What I was missing in my definition of being “not racist” and falling into the color-blind hole, was that in doing so I failed to see racism in myself and the world. I became racially passive, which is not what I want to be.

I think that many people see themselves as “not racist,” because it is easier than leaving their comfort zone of complacency. Speaking out against racist policies and ideas is hard work. Educating yourself about what racism is and is not takes time and we are busy. It does not feel good to think of yourself as a racist, so instead we deny it or make excuses for it. If systemic racism doesn’t exist, then I can’t be racist and can go on living my life as is. If you truly believe all lives matter, then we must put aside our denials and reflect on our own racist ideas. To do so, we need to learn to be more comfortable with uncomfortable feelings. It is OK to feel angry, ashamed or guilty, but more important is to move past these feelings, forgive yourself for your past ideas and move forward. Dr. Kendi wrote that antiracism is “a journey not a destination.” I can be racist in one moment and antiracist in another. I am inspired and hopeful that one day America can truly be great for everyone. And so, I will continue to work towards the day when my antiracist moments are always the norm and my racist ones have faded into oblivion.

I challenge us all to move beyond being “not racist.” How would you answer Kendi’s journal prompts?

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