One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ – Dr. Ibram Kendi
Dr. Kendi’s contemporary quote, also used by Civil Rights activists in the ’60s, makes an important distinction. If you aren’t working to dismantle systemic oppression as an anti-racist act, YOU ARE A RACIST. That’s a strong statement that is culturally one of the worst things white people (or anybody) can hear about themselves so let’s unpack it.
First, can we agree the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, etc., etc., etc., can be attributed to racist acts? If so we can agree racism exists, yes? The next question: is racism only an individual problem?
Western culture is designed explicitly to condemn racism. You didn’t read that wrong. Culturally, one of the worst things to be called is “a racist”. It’s a masterful way to reduce racism into isolated individual actions I call systematic racism. Racist actions that are intentional, planned, and carried out. A confederate flag on a car, Blackface, lynchings, white power symbols, neo-Nazis, etc., are some examples. Your job in society is simple: don’t do racist things. This is one reason why George Floyd’s murder sparked widespread outrage. Racism out in the open is something we vehemently reject, at least in principle. However, this understanding generates the belief, “so long as I don’t do racist things, racism doesn’t exist.” It creates denial of any complicity in racism beyond individuals who make the news by reducing the depth of racism and white supremacy to one bad apple.
Racism is layered and we need to consider how endemic it is. It’s not in the air we breathe, it IS the air we breathe. It’s in everything and we do ourselves a disservice in the pursuit of justice by reducing it to isolated incidents. This action is one that permits the “white moderate” to remain steeped in privilege and status quo. It’s, to be honest, the easier option since it requires no work or acknowledgment of complicity. Yet we’re all complicit. Racism is produced by the racist ideology (white supremacy) that built our systems across this land.
When Kendi says you’re either an anti-racist or a racist, he’s not saying you draw swastikas on churches, rather, you are a benefactor and participant in racist systems. If that sounds uncomfortable it should be because dismantling racism isn’t comfortable. The work now is it identify how, why, and where you benefit.
Racist or Anti-Racist
Identifying racism is easy when it’s out in the open and on the screen, but you have to dig deeper to attack the source. You should discover quite quickly that it’s not white supremacists* we should be focussed on (at least not directly), it’s white supremacy we are trying to dismantle. Again these are terms that we don’t readily use because they evoke strong emotions and associations. However, making sense of the root problem is necessary to proceed.
Canada’s Shame Too
Racism in America are different in Canada, but don’t think for a second we’re immune. It’s on TV, social media, in my western Canadian city, and in your urban or rural town. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to most. The media will stream pictures from the latest lynching, protest, or riot putting some sense of distance between you and the problem. Unless you’re on the streets it’s easy to think these problems are far away. Canadians have a nasty habit of adopting this posture. We lack the same same explicit white vs. Black dichotomy (not enough Black people). But that doesn’t stop disproportionate police violence against Black skin in larger cities like Toronto, and small ones like Halifax. Canadians have intentionally created a narrative systemic racism doesn’t exist here, because that is a distinctly American problem. In this sense, because it’s more hidden, it’s perhaps more dangerous.
Although the wounds of slavery merely broached our borders, anti-Blackness in Canadian culture is here all the same. (Why didn’t Canadians hold slaves? Probably climate related…no cotton picking fields with winter six months a year.) Canada has other demons in the closet, and this is where we speak to the systemic formation that breeds racism. Systemic racism means that every institution from politics, public policies, economies, legislation, bylaws, are formed by (in our case) white men to match the gaze of white men. Oppression of racialized groups through these systems is systemic racism, and it’s as old as colonialism and still active.
Canada tried to methodically annihilate entire Indigenous cultures, and the privileged have benefited from the genocide ever since. (And before you think this is a problem from yesteryear, the last residential school in Canada closed in the early 1990s. Let’s not even start on MMIW or safe drinking water.) The bulldozing of entire Black communities in Halifax are a blight to Nova Scotia. The entire country watched as Japanese Canadians were stripped of all wealth and shipped into internment camps during WWII. Redlining, police carding, Indigenous incarceration rates, MMIW, the list goes on and on. You’ll have to track down resources on any number of these subjects are start, or expand, your learning.
Have you noticed that ethnic groups are bunched together in your city? Are there poor neighborhoods? Where are they? Who lives there?
But it goes deeper still. When the systems of the land are designed around racial bias they also form cultural understandings of each other which in turn create implicit bias. Stereotypes (prejudice) + power = racism, and culture is built around aspects imprint our understanding of each other. To grossly oversimplify, implicit bias would be having an unexplained fear or freight of Black skin because the media always portrays them as criminals (which they do). It’s the idea in the back of your head that all Indians are or were drunks at some time. It’s the notion reservations are dirty and lack vibrancy. Or the simple idea “ethnic” foods are both smelly and exotic. Not all stereotypes are racists, but you get the idea of how we absorb ideas about each other without really thinking, or more importantly, knowing about each other through relationship.
Can you name your own implicit biases or stereotypes. Maybe you want to take a test?
Whiteness and White Trauma
As far back as I can remember, I can’t recall a time the issues of systemic racism was in mainstream media (that’s predominantly dominated by white editors and reporters) so much. How will we approach this dialogue?
If you ask prominent white men who have enjoyed the seat of power both figuratively and literally in virtually every space across this country, it doesn’t exist. Systemic racism doesn’t exist. Which plays directly into the reductionist view of racism I mentioned earlier–that racism only encompasses rare isolated acts, there’s no complicity in racist systems, and reverse-racism is a real thing. Rex Murphy, Stockwell Day, Premier Doug Ford, are just a tiny selection of “old stock Canadians” who had no problem casually declaring white supremacy in the form of systemic racism doesn’t exist. Of course, why would they? When you’re at the top of society every aspect in culture matches your gaze. In their worldview everything seems fine. Well not fine, since there are “unruly” brown bodies protesting in the streets, but eventually they’ll see how good they have it in the Land of the Free (no wait, that’s America).
In a sense, if you’ve never thought about systemic racism and the privileges it affords, you are due for some trauma when you first here the stories. You’re also face the tension that the lifestyle you cherish may be rooted in systemic privileges and the pursuit of justice could threaten inherited position. This is a genuine concern for many whites and the chief reason why Donald Trump got elected (and may even re-elected). Whites understand implicitly and explicitly Trump represents and will fight for the white way of life. When thoughtfully considered, the work of becoming anti-racist requires dismantling white supremacy or “white values” in order to proceed.
Let’s stop for a minute and clarify the term “white”. I’m using racialized terminology to describe white people. That’s not a specific person, but rather a racialized category society has bestowed on a select group of melanin challenged people. It’s not a real thing, rather a social construction to Other based on skin colour and race. (Read Christian Imagination by Jenkins for an in-depth analysis of the emergence of race categories.) The term whiteness is used to describe white culture and the privileges it affords. Whiteness for some has turned into an identity as it’s replaced ethnicity. That’s a loss because ethnicity is something we all have. Whether we remember our ethnicity and ancestors is a different question. Regardless, it is a value that God and one we keep into eternity (Rev. 7). Your race does not.
Who’s classifies as white is another important question. Culture determines who’s in and who’s out and that’s in fact a moving target depending on what era you live in. Ask your Ukrainian, Irish, or Italian grandparents what life was like when they grew up. They weren’t considered white. Rather, whiteness shifted to retain power and slowly and accommodated more categories (or ethnicities). It’s also a sliding scale based on complexion. Many multi-ethnic people can “pass” as white while holding Indigenous, Latin, or any other ethnic roots. But one thing does not change: the determined hatred of Black skin that white supremacy demands.
To recap, there are a lot of terms around racialized violence and racism we shouldn’t be afraid to use nor engage with. White supremacy, racist, racism, white trauma, white privilege, are all signifiers of racialized divisions that are unjust. The work from here is to determine in what manner you, as an individual, need to start dismantling old (and racist) formation. That will take time and will require some brutal honesty. Find a friend that can venture on this journey with you. Word of caution: don’t find a friend of colour and tokenized their experience to help your own. There are plenty of resources out there to get you started and keep you busy for a long time.
When you grasp the three spectrums of racism: systematic, systemic, and endemic, you will at least have a foundation to build a response from. Anti-racist work doesn’t need you to be an expert in matters of race relations or reconciliation, but it does require some pre-work to understand the extent of the problem. Small actions can start right away, and what that looks like will depend on what you need and where you’re at on the journey of becoming anti-racist.