This article in my teachable moment series, looks at the concept of being an Anti-Racist. Although the focus is on racism, the concept applies to other forms of discrimination. For example, substitute Sexism for Racism. It still works. It is based on my experience and personal journey addressing equal opportunity issues. However, the internet is full of other articles on this topic. If you’re ready to explore, the resources are there. Reading this article is only a first step.
Definitions first. What is racism? Commonly defined, it’s a “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.” Thus, Anti-racism is “beliefs, actions, movements and policies adopted or developed to oppose racism.”
“There are many Americans who believe sincerely that they’re not racists,” according to author Ibram X. Kendi. He’s right! How many times have you heard things like “I don’t have a racist bone in my body;” “I don’t see color;” “I have friends who are black;” or “I can’t be racist, I’m black.” You can read the full article at https://mashable.com/article/how-to-be-antiracist/. It’s called “6 ways to be antiracist, because being “not racist” isn’t enough.” It’s a good read. Can you be racist and not even know it? Yes! It’s called being a passive racist. It’s not that you’re either racists or anti-racists; rather, it’s often a matter of degree. A common training paradigm is a continuum from Active Racist, to Passive Racist, to Passive Anti-Racist and finally to Active Anti-Racist.
Many of us can recognize Active Racism when we see it. Active Racists don’t bother to hide their prejudice thoughts, discriminatory behavior, or antagonism towards those “other people.” But what is passive racism? It means conscious and unconscious maintenance of attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that support the system(s) of racism without openly advocating violence or oppression. It’s when we buy into stereotypes and characterization of others. And because we do, we pass them on to our friends, neighbors and children.
A favorite example is a mother walking down a sidewalk, holding her child’s hand. They see a black male approaching. Mom squeezes the child’s hand a bit harder, maybe even crosses to the other side of the street. She never said a word, didn’t actively support racism. But did she communicate passively to her child to be afraid of black males? Maybe, maybe not. It takes more than a single incident but the more the mother engages in these subtle, passive behaviors the more it reinforces a system of racism.
How about passive anti-racism? Some believe there is no such thing. Others think it’s a matter of degree. That you don’t go from being non-racist to an active anti-racist. It takes a lot of work, energy and commitment to be an active anti-racist. It goes beyond a protest, having difficult conversations, making donations or a social media post. An essential part of becoming an anti-racist is learning. Looking inward. Making a resource list to read or watch. Listening closely to voices doing active work.
It’s uncomfortable and often risky being an anti-racist regardless of your gender or the color of your skin. It’s hard to stand up and have those difficult conversations with family and friends who are in that passive racism arena. Sometimes it feels easier just not to get involved, to just ensure you aren’t contributing to the problem. Therefore, some say “silence is violence” or that passive anti-racism doesn’t exist.
So, here’s my example of the stages. Imagine a restaurant and a black family comes in to eat. Active Racism is refusing to serve them or giving them an inferior service, seating, or quality of food. Passive Racism could be stares, a hurry to finish your meal and leave, or comments seemingly not based on race such as “I wonder how they can afford to eat here.” Passive anti-racism, if you believe it exists, might be smiles and engaging in polite conversation with them. Active anti-racism might be calling out active racism including those passive comments of your friends and family.
No one is born a racist. We learn racism and we can unlearn it too. The choice is ours. If these teachable moment articles are helpful for you and if you have questions on these topics, please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are based on the author’s learning and experience. That includes serving as a Military Civil Rights Counselor/Facilitator, Senior Coast Guard Instructor and Liaison Officer at the Department of Defense’s Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Past Co-Chair International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) Diversity Committee, and Civil Rights, Assistant Civil Rights or Human Relations Committee assignments over a twenty-eight-year active duty military career. The views expressed by the author are their own and not the views of the Community Voice, the U.S. Coast Guard, or any other organizations the author references.