Well-meaning white people should focus on being anticlassist, not antiracist
Human beings are funny creatures.
We’re often reluctant to change the way we think or move through the world, but when we’re forced to do it, we don’t ask questions. We go all-in and don’t look for middle ground.
When terrorists highjacked planes on 9/11 and airports turned into mini Gestapo states, we never asked ourselves if it was possible to fly safely without shredding the Constitution. When the Coronavirus pandemic hit, shuttering businesses and forcing us to huddle in our homes for months, we never asked if we could flatten the curve without flattening our economy and way of life.
I’m seeing the same lack of balance around racial discourse. When I was in college, I couldn’t convince my white peers that racism was alive and well in post-Civil Rights America. 30 years later, I’m having debates with the same friends who not only believe racism exists, but insist it contaminates every aspect of our lives. They refuse to accept the possibility that racism can exist without being the source of every societal ill. It’s an all or nothing proposition that drives me crazy.
I was drawn into this craziness last week when parents and teachers at our son’s school met on Zoom to discuss the hot button topic that’s trending everywhere these days: how to be an antiracist.
“I think you should attend,” my partner, Lisa (who is white), told me. “Your perspective would be valuable.”
“You know I don't think the way most people do when it comes to race," I said. "I kind of doubt they’ll want to hear what I have to say.”
“Maybe not, but you should still share your thoughts. You’re the only black parent, and they need to hear from you.”
She had a point. Our son attends a private school in a state that’s 95% white, so it would seem odd if I didn’t at least make an appearance. And even it turned out to be an annoying experience, it would only be an hour out of my life. I’d wasted that much time in traffic every day when I was living in L.A.
As we dialed in, I was surprised (and relieved) to see that I wasn’t the only person of color: a Latino teacher and a parent of Pakistani descent had also joined. I suddenly realized this wouldn’t just be an opportunity to share my thoughts, but to also hear the perspectives of other people of color on antiracism.
In preparation for the evening’s discussion, we had been encouraged to listen to Brene Brown's podcast interview with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of the best-selling book titled (not coincidentally) “How to Be an Antiracist.” Central to Kendi’s philosophy is the belief that eradicating racism requires more than just being race-neutral; not “seeing color” and refraining from engaging in discriminatory behavior won’t cut it. The responsible citizen must combat racism by acknowledging an individual’s race and how it contributes to their life experience while actively engaging in anti-discriminatory behavior that enhances that experience.
In other words, all white people are racist by default, and they remain so unless and until they take affirmative steps to be antiracist. In fact, it requires tremendous effort, discipline, and practice for white people not to be racist.
Predictably, there was self-flagellation among white participants coming to terms with the knowledge that they were failing miserably at the job of being an antiracist. They expressed guilt and remorse for a toxic mentality they had unknowingly “metabolized” throughout their lives.
“Kendi really opened my eyes. I’m honestly ashamed of the thoughts I used to have,” one parent lamented.
Intrigued, I couldn’t resist asking her for examples. She blushed and after a few awkward moments sheepishly confessed her sins: when she was younger, she used to think black people were physically stronger and more spiritually inclined than white people. Now she knows better.
She paused, and I waited for more, but that was all she offered. Really? I thought. That’s what you’re ashamed of?
I’m not naive. I know there were probably uglier stereotypes this woman harbored back in the day but was reluctant to share in mixed company on Zoom. Maybe she used to assume that black and brown people were less intelligent or attractive, or that they didn’t work as hard. But as an aspiring antiracist, she didn't have to dig that deep to justify her guilt now. She was compelled to apologize for any stereotype she had embraced in the past, even if it wasn't necessarily negative or unflattering.
In the mind of an antiracist, it was apparently unacceptable to point out any differences between people of different races, even if they're based in fact. By this standard, it was probably racist to assume that Chinese students work harder than their than white counterparts in America, or that college graduates of Indian descent were more likely to become engineers than lawyers.
Where would it end? I wondered.
I was struggling to digest what I was hearing when Lisa prompted me to chime in. Caught off guard, I didn’t have time to sugarcoat my response. So I spoke from my gut.
“I don’t subscribe to the idea that race should be the defining characteristic of any human being,” I said. “When a white person looks at me, I don’t want them to see me as black before they consider anything else about me — like the fact that I’m a lawyer or that my individual freedom and autonomy matter more to me than anything else. I want them to see and appreciate all of these things when they look at me. After all, if we’re laser-focused on skin color, how can we ever hope to see and treat all people equally?"
The other participants of color agreed with me: they didn’t want their race to be ignored or discounted, but they didn’t want it to be the first thing white people saw or considered about them. They simply wanted to be treated equally.
You might think that white people who are dedicated to fighting racism would be encouraged to hear this, right?
Guilt-ridden parents and teachers pushed back. They insisted that the legacy of institutional racism demanded that race must always remain at the forefront of minds. Why? Because that was the only way to ensure an antiracist society. And why was this so critical? Because if white people aren't antiracist, then they are — by default — racist.
It was an all or nothing proposition; good people couldn’t possibly exist in the middle.
I held my tongue for the rest of the call, wanting to say more but reluctant to test relationships with people I barely knew. I longed to ask these well-intentioned white people why they were compelled to embrace the philosophy of one black man but seemed far less interested in the insights and experiences of people of color in their own community.
As we wrapped up the discussion, Lisa urged me to mention that I had given considerable thought to these issues and had recently released a book about healing the racial divide. Manuel, the Latino teacher on the call, was immediately interested.
“I cannot wait to read it, Monica!” he said enthusiastically. “I want to hear more about what you think.”
The white participants, on the other hand, were far less receptive. In fact, they said nothing.
The only black parent at the school had written about her perspective experiences in an overwhelmingly white state, and antiracists-in-training had responded with the enthusiasm they might have for a textbook on medieval sanitation. We had gathered to discuss the complexities of racism, but they had no interest in a point of view that wasn’t supported by a high profile voice showing them the “right” way to achieve equality.
And this is the core of my problem with racial discourse in America today. Like the media that feed us "facts" we’re expected to trust, we’re expected to accept the guidance of “educators” who tell us there’s only one way to think and talk about race. We’re encouraged to embrace a racial reality crafted by an anointed few — people of color who advocate a perspective on race relations that's blessed by the Establishment — and ignore what anyone else has to say on the subject. The irony is that by slavishly embracing this reality, the people who think they’re taking action that makes them part of the solution may actually be creating more problems for all of us.
If we allow race to define our perception of people we interact with, we’re less likely to appreciate characteristics that may be more relevant and important. When I meet a client for the first time, I don’t want her to focus on my race or fixate on discrimination I may have experienced throughout my career because it has no bearing on the quality of service I can provide. I want her to appreciate my qualifications and work experience and assess whether they fit her needs. I want her to see me as a lawyer who happens to be black, and not as a black lawyer. If she hires me for any other reason, the relationship probably won’t work out well for either of us.
But there’s another, more dangerous pitfall in the antiracist mindset: seeing everyone around us through the lens of race creates a landscape that constantly reminds us of what makes us different from each other. It keeps white people from appreciating that people of color are first and foremost “people” (like them) and that our skin color is just one part — albeit a very important one — of our larger human experience. The more we see ourselves as different from one another, the less likely we are to acknowledge the problems facing all of us, regardless of race, and come together to fight them.
The biggest challenges most people of color struggle with — chronic poverty, unemployment, and lack of education — can’t be “fixed” by overly-apologetic white people who see race the moment they lay eyes on someone. These problems can only be resolved when white people appreciate that race is intrinsically interwoven with something the Establishment doesn’t want us to talk about: class and the Ponzi scheme economy that increasingly perpetuates socio-economic disparity among people of all races. If these well-intentioned white people really want to improve the lives of those less fortunate on fundamental levels, they don’t need to be antiracist; they need to be anticlassist.
Maybe I’ll suggest this as a topic for our next Zoom meeting. I wonder how many parents and teachers would show up for that discussion?