September 14, 2020

Antiracism as a Process

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

I stumbled upon a celebrity story that actors Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds recently apologized for getting married at a former plantation where people were held as slaves.

My initial response was, well, confusion. How do people who think that a plantation is a fine location for a wedding (and there are apparently many that do) decide a few years later that it is something to apologize for? Isn’t one’s wedding location something that one gives a great deal of thought and consideration in advance? Why didn’t the idea of getting married on a plantation bother them in 2012, but it does now?

This post is not about bashing or praising the actors, who have since donated large sums of money to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. It is instead about understanding that becoming more aware of the tangled web of racism in the United States is a process, one that we all stumble through imperfectly. This is a learning process, especially for people who do not regularly experience the negative effects of racism.

Challenging racism is an active, ongoing process, one that has come to be called “antiracism.” Antiracism asks people to do more than not discriminate against others (although we should avoid doing this too), but asks us to actively create positive changes to reduce and eliminate racism.

In his book How to Be an Antiracist, author Ibram X. Kendi weaves in his own personal story to highlight that becoming antiracist has been a process for him, even as a Black man. “For the better part of my life I held both racist and antiracist ideas, supported both racist and antiracist policies; I’ve been antiracist one moment, racist in many more moments,” he admits (eBook chapter 11, p. 294).

Kendi begins his book describing an award-winning speech that he gave as a high school senior, which essentially blamed African Americans for their struggles in the United States, a speech he now describes as racist. “To be an antiracist is to recognize there is no such thing as racial behavior,” he has concluded, noting that individuals’ behavior should not be attributed to their larger racial group (eBook chapter 8, p. 194).

By placing himself in the center of his analysis, he reminds readers that racism is not something just practiced by “bad” people. All of us have beliefs and ideas that are created within an environment that has for centuries promoted racial hierarchies. His work asks us to become conscious of these racial hierarchies in order to dismantle systems of inequality. His personal narrative reminds us that we are all imperfect and can grow from self-reflection.

However, Kendi’s strongest points highlight that individual change is not enough. It is great for people to become more aware of their thoughts, words and deeds, but he explains that we also need to consider the roles that power and public policy:

We all have the power to discriminate. Only an exclusive few have the power to make policy. Focusing on “racial discrimination” takes our eyes off the central agents of racism: racist policy and racist policymakers, or what I call racist power. (eBook chapter 1, p. 39).

In founding Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research, one of Kendi’s goals is to help incubate antiracist public policies, or policies that promote equity. He notes on his website that “Racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people,” and points out in his book that “We are particularly poor at seeing the policies lurking behind the struggles of people” (eBook chapter 2, p. 58).

Public policies that have shaped people’s life chances are often invisible, especially if they were created decades ago and have since been outlawed, like redlining, which helped create segregation in the U.S. Policies that lead to disparities in funding public education also can be difficult to see.

Antiracist policies are created to address, and as much as possible, eliminate inequalities. For instance, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggested guidelines for creating equitable policies in response to COVID, including, “Target aid to those most in need due to the COVID-19 and consequent economic crises” and to “Protect state finances to preserve the foundations of long-term economic growth and opportunity.”

Kendi’s book reminds us that, “The source of racist ideas was not ignorance and hate, but self-interest,” an important point that racism is not just perpetuated by “bad” people, but that policies driving inequality are maintained and go unchallenged because they serve the interests of those with economic and political power (eBook chapter 18, p. 470).

Because the policies that create social structure are often a challenge for us to see, they can be easy to ignore. It takes some effort—and the tools of sociology—to be able to see this process at work. But it’s never too late to start looking.


This song/video and powerful message after the song, regarding "racism, hatred and enslavement", was just released and is getting a lot of attention. This song What Color Am I- aka "The People's Anthem", was actually played before the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark racial discrimination case. Would be great if you listened to it, blogged about it and shared it as this message needs to be heard by the masses.

Thank youCharles J. Jones

The knowledge you share really changed me in my life, I sincerely thank you for what you have done, your blog will definitely help more people.

Thank you! I hope to see more posts from you.

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