Who said it’s easy to be anti-racist? You have to think hard, be constantly aware and contradict the whole world and even yourself. The only way is unlearning racism together.
Illustration by MK Northum
- Call a Black person “articulate.”
Instead: Because of a long history of oppression, degradation, and dismissal of the talent and skills of Black people, understand that such a statement coming from a white person is often construed, and meant, as meaning “articulate-ness” is something unusual in a Black person.
- Say “one of my best friends is [black, Latino, person of color, etc.].”
Instead: Ask yourself first: Do you know where that person shops for groceries? Where they go to church? Where they get their hair cut? What their children’s/granchildren’s names are? Have you ever been to their home? These are the things you know about a best friend.
- Say that the success of [Oprah, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan, etc.] show that there’s no longer any racism.
Instead: Ask yourself about Madame CJ Walker. She was a millionaire, the first black millionaire, in the early part of the 20th century. Lynchings were still going on. No one would say things were equal then, but she was a famous millionaire. The real question is how many more people like Oprah etc would there be if there were equality?
- Say that if anyone works hard they will get ahead.
Instead: Understand and accept that this is one of the operative myths of our culture: the meritocracy. Any comparative statistic of all the socio-economic indicators shows that structural inequality is the reality. A lot of people who are working hard are not getting ahead.
- Say that it doesn’t matter what color Jesus was, it matters what Jesus did, while insisting that pictures of him must be white.
Instead: Consider that if it really didn’t matter to you, we could make him Black.
- Say that if we could just all be friends, everything would be all right.
Instead: Consider that friendships are nice but they are not a substitute for equity and justice.
- Say that you need a safe space to talk about race.
Instead: Consider why you feel there is a danger zone and why.
- Say that you “don’t see color.”
Instead: Consider that saying this is not a compliment because the implication is that having color is a diminishment. Are you trying to bestow some kind of “honorary whiteness” on a person of color? They don’t want it.
- Say that we should just trust and respect each other.
Instead: Consider whether that isn’t a part of any genuine relationship and why it needs to be highlighted in this instance. Who broke, and continues to break, the trust? Respect has to be earned.
- Say things like, “Look at [Condaleeza Rice, Ben Carson, Colin Powell]. Why can’t other people of color get ahead?”
Instead: Ask yourself why you didn’t invent the atom bomb. Every culture has its exceptional individuals. But most of us are pretty ordinary.
- Lecture African Americans and other people of color on how they need to let go of the past.
Instead: Acknowledge that racism is here in the present. Whites still benefit from white privilege; people of color are still oppressed by racist institutions. Asking people of color to let go of the past history of racial injustice in this country is actually to ask them to deny the present reality that such injustice still occurs.
- Excuse yourself from responsibility for racism because you weren’t born yet when people were enslaved.
Instead: Recognize that every white person alive today benefits from white privilege, right here, right now, in the 21st century. You may not be responsible for enslavement in the past, but that doesn’t change your responsibility for how you knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate racism today.
- Believe that racism is a thing of the past.
Instead: see above
- Insist that you can only understand racism if a person of color explains it.
Instead: Look around, do some research of your own, talk to white allies. There are books, films, organizations, and websites to learn from. (See resources list.) Racism itself is a burden to people of color; it is an additional burden to have to constantly explain racism to whites, which often includes having to justify or defend their views and experiences in the face of hostility.
- Insist that people of color should look at your intent and not the impact of what you do/support/deny because of your “good intentions.”
Instead: If intent is the only measure of your work towards racial justice, then the only benefit of that work is that you feel better about yourself by doing it. On the other hand, if the impact is a measure, then there is accountability to how your work actually advances the goal of racial justice, which benefits everyone.
- Believe that changing “hearts and minds” is the ultimate goal of anti-racism work.
Instead: Changing people’s hearts and minds may be one step on the journey, but that in and of itself does not advance racial justice. The ultimate goal is to make institutional and structural change in our society to achieve racial equity – equal opportunity and access.
- Insist people of color should be doing more for themselves.
Instead: Do your homework about what YOU could do. Recognize that most barriers to advancement for people of color are those created by white society. If you don’t know what these are, research them. Learn about the vibrant history of what people of color have done and continue to do to support themselves as a community. Learn about the genocidal attacks on their efforts by white society. Learn about what other white people have done to advance racial equity.
- Unthinkingly criticize a person of color for doing the same thing(s) white people do all the time, or fail to criticize a person of color simply because they are a person of color.
Instead: Be conscious of your motivation. Are you reacting to the action, or to the person of color who took the action? If a white person took the same action, would you criticize them? On the other hand, are you avoiding a critique because you don’t want to appear racist, even if the critique is legitimate?
- Get offended and/or hurt when someone calls you out on your oppressive behavior.
Instead: Recognize it as a learning opportunity to grow as an anti-racist ally and as a human being.
- Get offended when you feel you’ve been perceived as a racist.
Instead: See above and below
- Believe that identifying yourself as a Christian, progressive, liberal, anarchist, Baha’i and/or a spiritual person guarantees you are a non-racist.
Instead: Realize that all people in our society are ingrained with racist messages. Your political or spiritual beliefs may have given you the desire to overcome that racist training, but they do not in and of themselves mean that you have overcome it.
- Believe you used to be a racist, but are no longer.
Instead: Unlearning racism is a lifelong process. Our racist programming comes from people in our lives, from media, from many forces. It is a huge amount of effort to unlearn it.
- Believe that because you have experienced oppression as a woman, Jew, person with a disability, LGBT, etc. that you understand racism.
Instead: Recognize that different forms of oppression function differently in our society, and people can be privileged in one way while oppressed in another. It is not useful to compare or “rank” oppressions. If you have experienced oppression and know the pain it causes you, let that inspire you to take responsibility for the oppression you cause to others, not deny that you do so. (Would you agree if a man of color said he couldn’t be sexist because he had experienced racism, or an able-bodied lesbian said she couldn’t be prejudiced against a person with a disability because she’d experienced homophobia?)
- Believe that you can relate to a person of color’s experience of racism because you’ve encountered a similar situation.
Instead: Recognize that as a white person you have never experienced what it’s like to be a person of color, and you never will. A personal instance of pain is not the same as a lifetime of oppression.
- Believe that if you have experienced discrimination it is the same as experiencing structural racism.
Instead: Recognize that racism is not just prejudice, but prejudice plus power. In our society, whites have the vast majority of power in institutions such as schools, courts, and corporations and maintenance of national narratives. Individual people of color may be biased against whites, just as whites may be biased against people of color. But the difference is that whites have institutional power to consistently deny resources and rights to people of color impacting their life choices and life chances; people of color do not have similar power to use their bias that way.
- Believe that racism “goes both ways.”
Instead: See above
- Believe that any personal struggle you endure is the equivalent of oppression.
Instead: All people endure personal struggle; oppression is a separate situation. Oppression is when the cards are systematically stacked against you by forces outside your control; when society has the power to deny you rights and resources. Oppression is the systematic exploitation of one social group by another for its own benefit; it involves institutional control, ideological domination and the imposition of the dominant group’s culture on the oppressed group.
- Believe that you understand what racism feels like because you have visited a country, part of town, or venue where white people are the minority.
Instead: Recognize that white privilege is a global phenomenon. Even if you are “the only white person” somewhere, you are still carrying white privilege. Also, if you felt as an individual uncomfortable or unwelcome, you knew that you could leave that venue, that part of town or that country and go back to a place where you felt “normal.” For people of color, they may feel equally uncomfortable or unwelcome in white society, but they do not have a choice to leave it, without uprooting their lives.
- Believe the “stamp of approval” from a few people of color means you are a non-racist.
Instead: All people in our society are deeply ingrained with racist messages. Even if you have done some positive work to be less racist, there is always more work to do. If you assume you no longer have work to do because of what a few people of color have said, you are taking those individual people’s views and assuming they represent the whole race, which is kind of racist.