Going from not-a-racist to anti-racist

posted by Jeff | Monday, December 27, 2021, 7:11 PM | comments: 0

I recently overheard a conversation, between white people, expressing concern about what was being taught in schools around historical figures, insisting that things were "taken out" of history books because of the duality of many figures' role in racism. Putting aside for a moment that schools aren't funded well enough to be suddenly replacing books on a whim, the conversation from there went to the usual inventory about knowing black people and other cringe-worthy declarations that intend to make the case for not being a racist, but unintentionally invalidate the real results of discrimination.

I don't understand the psychology of this scenario exactly, but I suspect that part of the problem is that some white folks feel like they're being challenged, and that makes them feel deeply uncomfortable. That's a reasonable response for someone who does not have the information to be empathetic, but it doesn't make it OK. The challenge is to get them to think not like someone who is defensive about being racist, but someone who is anti-racist. There's a serious difference.

To be anti-racist means to acknowledge that the deck is still stacked against people of color, and to openly oppose forces that contribute to or reinforce that racism. This acknowledgement doesn't mean that you yourself are racist, or created the situation. Not being racist isn't enough to help fix the problem. We can't simply declare that it isn't our fault. Of course it isn't, but I compare it to the simplicity of picking up litter. You didn't throw that garbage on the ground, but picking it up is the right thing to do. Now multiply the importance of that, because it's about humans, not discarded items.

And yes, there are certainly conversations to have about history. The suggestion that anyone is trying to remove people from history is simply not true. But it doesn't mean that there aren't discussions to be had about the role of historical figures in the persistence of racism. This isn't new. That George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners was not overlooked in my grade school history classes. You won't see it glossed over in recent works either (like Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life). It's absolutely appropriate to talk through this. Washington can in fact be both a pivotal founding father and someone who completely failed to take on slavery, because factually, that's what he was.

So how do you get someone from not-a-racist to anti-racist? I don't have the answer to that. I think that I'm admittedly programmed myself to prove that I'm right more than I am to change minds for something like that. The morality of anti-racism is clear and correct to me, but I don't know how you explain it in a non-confrontational way. It doesn't help when your target is blind by their own selection bias that puts them in front of a Fox News screen, or worse, the shady parts of YouTube.


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