Reflections on Antiracism - A Series of Short Essays

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I’ve recently finished reading a profoundly important book: Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist.

I had originally planned on writing a pretty straight-forward review, which tackled the arguments, noted the evidence, and highlighted a couple of things that struck me as problematic. But this book deserves more than that. While relatively short (230ish pages with notes) it weighs in heavily on the origins and trajectory of racial policies, racist ideas, and racism. Kendi reorients how one might understand racist ideas and racism as the product of race as a power (rather than social) construction. His argument is compelling. Kendi turns conventional thinking about historical and modern racial hierarchies around. Rather than seeing racial policies as the culmination of a tragic story of ignorance begetting racism begetting policy, he frames his study with policy defined by race as the origin of (and not incidentally, the justification for) racist ideas that spawned the ignorance and hatred that defines modern racism. On these merits alone this stands as a book worthy of our attention...and it should be taken seriously.

But more important, Kendi’s book forced me to take an honest look at and make a very difficult appraisal of my own understanding of and my own relationship with these topics. Kendi’s work is thoroughly and admirably personal. He is brutally honest and he is hard on himself…I thought that my response should be equally self-reflective, equally honest, and equally critical. And so I offer a series of reflections on How to be an Antiracist - in installments, published here.

A little personal background might be helpful.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1967 (not the “Heart of Dixie’s” finest hour). Moved to Southern California in 1976 and consider myself an Angeleno. I hold a BA in history from UCLA and a Ph.D in American History from the University of Virginia.

White, male, straight, cis, happily married for two decades (and counting…), no kids. I teach history at a private high school in Los Angeles. Unlike my sisters and brothers who teach in public schools (LAUSD and nationwide), I have the resources and the latitude to do things unimaginable under other circumstances. Yes, I am privileged in this regard…and accordingly, so are my students. I love my work and feel like I can and do make positive contributions to young peoples’ lives.

I come from a working-class background and most in my family are pretty mainstream conservative. I do not identify with any political party. I tend to judge issues, like I judge people, individually…one at a time. I am adamantly supportive of civil rights and equality for everyone regardless of race, class, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, religion, age, sexual orientation, marital status, ability, or any other category that might come up. Most in my family are devoutly Christian, and though I believe that I am part of something in the universe bigger than myself, I profess no particular religion. I believe that the founding principles of the United States are entirely good and transcendent, but have yet to apply equally to all Americans. I acknowledge all of those who have come before me who have sacrificed their safety, their security, and even their lives in an attempt to realize these principles.

On the daily: I am frustrated by the superficiality of so-called “woke” Internet culture - most of what I read in this genre is overly simplistic and boring, it’s intellectually lazy and plays on racial stereotypes, and it’s lacking in substance. I am both perplexed and annoyed by people who demand “civil discourse” and yet express partisan rigidity to the point of apoplectic rage. I find those who insist on inclusivity and tolerance while simultaneously dismissing good-faith arguments and ideas with which they disagree to be hypocritical…to put it nicely. I find anyone’s smug expressions of moralizing self-righteousness utterly exhausting. And finally, as a historian, I am offended by pundits, ideologues, and partisan journalists who manipulate history to further their political agendas. They are demonstrably and definitively disingenuous charlatans.

On the bright side: I have met and engaged with numerous people (on the Internet and in real life) who have the very best of intentions (though sometimes flawed), who are kind, empathetic, and open-minded, who want to listen to the perspectives of those folks who have lived different life experiences, who want to be part of a conversation instead of dominating it. I count myself among these open-minded (admittedly flawed) individuals. I want to listen. I want to learn and be a decent human being. I don’t always get it right. As my students, colleagues, and readers will attest…I have no problem admitting when I am wrong. And I look forward to revising my ideas when presented with convincing evidence.

Now here’s where things get interesting and where I will begin my series of reflections on Kendi’s most exceptional work. I have, for as long as I can remember, thought of my white, open-minded, striving for inclusivity self as “not a racist.” Sounds great, yes?

Kendi would disagree. In fact, he understands this disposition as part of the problem. And so we begin…

I will post the links below as I complete each short essay in the series, which for now I envision as an open-ended project…an experiment in Internet discourse, as it were. Please read the essays and accompanying citations completely and carefully before you chime in...then please do chime away. I may ruffle a few feathers. But the truth here, and I mean this in the best of faith, is that I am looking for answers and solutions just like many of you. The discourse will make some uncomfortable. So be it.

REFLECTIONS ON ANTIRACISM

Essay One: (White) American in progress…stay tuned