What Does It Mean To Be Anti-Racist
The following excerpts have been taken from “Talking About Race” on the National Museum Of African American History and Culture website. You may view it in its entirety, here.
What does it mean to be Antiracist?
To create an equal society, we must commit to making unbiased choices and being antiracist in all aspects of our lives.
Race does not biologically exist, yet how we identify with race is so powerful, it influences our experiences and shapes our lives. In a society that privileges white people and whiteness, racist ideas are considered normal throughout our media, culture, social systems, and institutions. Historically, racist views justified the unfair treatment and oppression of people of color (including enslavement, segregation, internment, etc.). We can be led to believe that racism is only about individual mindsets and actions, yet racist policies also contribute to our polarization. While individual choices are damaging, racist ideas in policy have a wide-spread impact by threatening the equity of our systems and the fairness of our institutions. To create an equal society, we must commit to making unbiased choices and being antiracist in all aspects of our lives.
Being antiracist is fighting against racism. Racism takes several forms and works most often in tandem with at least one other form to reinforce racist ideas, behavior, and policy.
Types of racism are:
- Individual racism refers to the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individuals that support or perpetuate racism in conscious and unconscious ways. The U.S. cultural narrative about racism typically focuses on individual racism and fails to recognize systemic racism. Examples include believing in the superiority of white people, not hiring a person of color because “something doesn’t feel right,” or telling a racist joke.
- Interpersonal racism occurs between individuals. These are public expressions of racism, often involving slurs, biases, or hateful words or actions.
- Institutional racism occurs in an organization. These are discriminatory treatments, unfair policies, or biased practices based on race that result in inequitable outcomes for whites over people of color and extend considerably beyond prejudice. These institutional policies often never mention any racial group, but the intent is to create advantages. Example: A school system where students of color are more frequently distributed into the most crowded classrooms and underfunded schools and out of the higher-resourced schools.
- Structural racism is the overarching system of racial bias across institutions and society. These systems give privileges to white people resulting in disadvantages to people of color.
- Example: Stereotypes of people of color as criminals in mainstream movies and media.
No one is born racist or antiracist; these result from the choices we make. Being antiracist results from a conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily. These choices require ongoing self-awareness and self-reflection as we move through life. In the absence of making antiracist choices, we (un)consciously uphold aspects of white supremacy, white-dominant culture, and unequal institutions and society. Being racist or antiracist is not about who you are; it is about what you do.
What is Race?
Although race has no genetic or scientific basis, the concept of race is important and consequential. Societies use race to establish and justify systems of power, privilege, disenfranchisement, and oppression.
The notion of race is a social construct designed to divide people into groups ranked as superior and inferior. The scientific consensus is that race, in this sense, has no biological basis – we are all one race, the human race. Racial identity, however, is very real. And, in a racialized society like the United States, everyone is assigned a racial identity whether they are aware of it or not.
Race as Social Construction
The dictionary’s definition of race is incomplete and misses the complexity of impact on lived experiences. It is important to acknowledge race is a social fabrication, created to classify people on the arbitrary basis of skin color and other physical features.
American Anthropological Association states that, "the 'racial' worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth. The tragedy in the United States has been that the policies and practices stemming from this worldview succeeded all too well in constructing unequal populations among Europeans, Native Americans, and peoples of African descent."
What is Whiteness?
Whiteness and white racialized identity refer to the way that white people, their customs, culture, and beliefs operate as the standard by which all other groups are compared. Whiteness and the normalization of white racial identity throughout America’s history have created a culture where nonwhite persons are seen as inferior or abnormal.
This white-dominant culture also operates as a social mechanism that grants advantages to white people, since they can navigate society both by feeling normal and being viewed as normal. Persons who identify as white rarely have to think about their racial identity because they live within a culture where whiteness has been normalized.
Thinking about race is very different for nonwhite persons living in America. People of color must always consider their racial identity, whatever the situation, due to the systemic and interpersonal racism that still exists.
Whiteness (and its accepted normality) also exists as everyday micro-aggressions toward people of color. Acts of micro-aggressions include verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs or insults toward nonwhites. Whether intentional or not, these attitudes communicate hostile, derogatory, or harmful messages.
Since white people in America hold most of the political, institutional, and economic power, they receive advantages that nonwhite groups do not. These benefits and advantages, of varying degrees, are known as white privilege. For many white people, this can be hard to hear, understand, or accept - but it is true. If you are white in America, you have benefited from the color of your skin.
Being white does not mean you haven’t experienced hardships or oppression. Being white does mean you have not faced hardships or oppression based on the color of your skin.
We need to be honest about the ways white people have benefited from racism so we can work toward an equitable, fair and just society.
White Dominant Culture
White dominant culture describes how white people and their practices, beliefs, and culture have been normalized over time and are now considered standard in the United States. As a result, all Americans have all adopted various aspects of white culture, including people of color.
White supremacy is an ideology where white people are believed to be superior to nonwhite people. This fallacy is rooted in the same scientific racism and pseudo-science used to justify slavery, imperialism, colonialism, and genocide at various times in throughout history. White supremacist ideologies and their followers continue to perpetuate the myth of white racial superiority.
The belief of white superiority has been part of the United States since its inception. The white European imperialists who settled here believed they were inherently superior to nonwhite groups. These beliefs justified atrocities like the genocide of Native Americans and nearly 250 years of African slavery. After slavery, white supremacist ideologies manifested into a series of laws that would limit the freedom of African Americans, known as Black Codes and Jim Crow. White supremacy and its legacy can still be found in our legal system and other institutions through coded language and targeted practices.
Direct and violent forms of racism that promote white supremacy have been on the rise in recent years. These acts are more directly linked to white nationalism. White nationalism is a concept born out of white supremacy. A key difference is a focus on nationhood. White nationalists in the United States advocate for a country that is only for the white race due to feelings of entitlement and racial superiority. They also believe that the diversity of people in the United States will lead to the destruction of whiteness and white culture - hence, the correlation to white supremacist ideology.
Internalization of Whiteness and White Dominant Culture
Racism is perpetuated by deeming whiteness as superior and other racial and ethnic groups as inferior. The prevalence of white dominant culture and racism leads to an internalized racial superiority for those who adhere to it. This internalized dominance "describes the experience and attitudes of those who are members of the dominant, privileged, or powerful identity groups. Members of the [dominant] group accept their group's socially superior status as normal and deserved.
When people of a non-dominant group (people of color) are discriminated against, targeted or oppressed over time, they often believe the myths and misinformation about their group. Known as internalized racism, it happens when an oppressed group believes the racial views that society communicates are true, and they act as if they were true.
If you identify as white, acknowledging your white racial identity and its privileges is a crucial step to help end racism. Facing your whiteness is hard and can result in feelings of guilt, sadness, confusion, defensiveness, or fear. Dr. Robin DiAngelo coined the term white fragility to describe these feelings as "a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves." Since white people "live in a social environment that insulates them from race-based stress," whites are rarely challenged and have less of a tolerance to race-based stress.
For those of us who work to raise the racial consciousness of whites, simply getting whites to acknowledge that our race gives us advantages is a major effort. The defensiveness, denial, and resistance are deep.
- ROBIN DIANGELO, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism”
The feelings associated with white fragility often derail conversations about race and serve to support white supremacy. While these feelings are natural human reactions, staying stuck in any of them hurts the process of creating a more equitable society. This defensiveness, guilt, or denial gets in the way of addressing the racism experienced by people of color.
For white people doing anti-racist and social justice work, the first meaningful step should be to recognize their fragility around racial issues and build their emotional stamina.
Besides your own internal reflection, processing, and daily commitment to anti-racist work, try participating in affinity groups, or caucuses. These groups are people sharing common interest, backgrounds, or experiences, coming together to support each other.