The other day, in the context of talking about my pop culture analysis writing and the cultural work I endeavor to do by generating writing in the first place, I described my approach as “anti-racist,” and a colleague asked me what I meant by that. In thinking through my response in the moment (these kinds of questions can sometimes make the lunchtime work-chat experience uncomfortable), I realized I haven’t ever written an articulation of my thoughts. Hence the writing of this post.
When I describe myself or any facet of my work as anti-racist, I’m informed by Ibram X Kendi’s writing on anti-racism, the idea being that it’s not enough to be non-racist, that to truly dismantle unjust systems, one must be actively and intentionally anti-racist, which is to say, one must be constantly reckoning and renegotiating the must acknowlege the ways in which they are complicit in an unjust system and reckon with experiences where one has been benefitted by or harmed by said unjust systems.
And attempting to be anti-racist is perhaps best understood as just that, an ever-ongoing and never-ending attempt. It’s not a Get Out Of Jail free card to being racist. To be anti-racist is to make a constant practice of existential reckoning: reckoning with how institutionalized inequity impacts our lives, reckoning with whether (more like, to what extent) such institutions help or harm us en masse, reckoning the social hierarchies to which we inadvertently belong, based on feature or conditions we don’t control…it’s about recognizing and (re)negotiating the ways in which we all are individuals but are also part of systems much larger than any of ourselves, and that these systems uphold white supremacy. It’s about the daily decision to work towards dismantling whtite supremacy.
Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker and Dr. Lauren Wadsworth address this in their book Did That Just Happen? Beyond ‘Diversity’–Creating and Sustaining Inclusive Organizations as they discuss the importance of diversity in workplace teams. The secret to diverse teams, they say, “is not being perfect–never making mistakes, or knowing the ‘complete’ list of right or wrong words to utter and avoid…it is important to create and encourage workforce and academic cultures that directly acknowledge the increased complexity of diverse environments.” The work isn’t something you can check off a list and then be done for good. It’s something you work at with every decision you make every single day, both big ones and small ones.
The definition of being “antiracist” alway changing, as are the political and sociocultural circumstances into which we usefully or uselessly try to define terms like antiracist. So if that colleague were to ask me tomorrow, my answer might be different. And maybe no two people’s answers align perfectly. As Pinder-Amaker and Wadsworth go on to say, “know that you are going to keep making mistakes. This is inevitable…Recognize that the goal isn’t perfection. Rather, a commitment to continual self-interrogation and effort is what’s required.” While we may be individual actors, we do have some power within institutions. As I have argued elsewhere, “you can either be part of the system in a way that challenges and improves that system, or you can just be part of the system.“
More specifically, I do a lot of this reckoning every time we do a round of hiring, every time we as process a scholarship application, every time we write a grant, every time we hold an event. And I’m proud to work with a team who also regularly engage in this kind of reckoning, as it undoubtedly makes everyone stronger to hold space for each other this way.
You can buy “Did That Just Happen?” by Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker and Dr. Lauren Wadsworth here.
You can buy “How to Raise an Antiracist” by Ibram X Kendi here.