clock menu more-arrow no yes
People protest outside the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta
People protest outside the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on May 29, 2020.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

What it means to be anti-racist

It’s not enough to be “not racist,” experts and educators say.

“I’m not a racist.”

That’s what Amy Cooper, a white woman, said when she publicly apologized for calling the police on a black man bird-watching in Central Park.

The words rang especially hollow coming from Cooper. After all, the previous day she had used her position as a white woman to summon police — and the potential for police violence — against editor and birder Christian Cooper after he asked her to put her dog on a leash. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she says in a video that quickly went viral.

Not everyone acquires the overnight infamy of Amy Cooper. But her claim of non-racism was a familiar one. If asked, most people would probably say they are not racist. And they’re especially likely to say it after they’ve already done something racist. As Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, notes in his book How to Be an Antiracist, “When racist ideas resound, denials that those ideas are racist typically follow.”

But as Kendi also notes, it’s not enough to simply be “not racist.” “The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist,’” he writes. “It is ‘antiracist.’”

The idea of anti-racism has been getting a lot of attention in recent days as Americans around the country rise up against police violence. But the idea is far from new, with roots in decades of civil rights work by black Americans, said Malini Ranganathan, a faculty team lead at the Antiracist Research and Policy Center.

In recent years, thanks to the work of Kendi and others, the term itself has come to be used to describe what it means to actively fight against racism rather than passively claim to be non-racist. Anti-racism involves “taking stock of and eradicating policies that are racist, that have racist outcomes,” Ranganathan said, “and making sure that ultimately, we’re working towards a much more egalitarian, emancipatory society.”

Part of that work is acknowledging our own positions in a white supremacist system. So I should acknowledge that I am a white woman, and as such, I can’t talk about what it feels like to experience racism, or to fight against it as a person of color. But it’s also not the responsibility of people of color to fix racism, or explain to white people how not to be racist. As Dena Simmons, a scholar and practitioner of social-emotional learning and equity and author of the upcoming book White Rules for Black People, put it, “Don’t ask the wounded to do the work.”

So I spoke to experts on the topic to help people — including myself — better understand what anti-racism means and what it looks like in practice. “White folks always want to know how they can do better,” Simmons said. “I say, start by doing something.”

The history and meaning of anti-racism

The concept of anti-racism has its roots in abolition, Ranganathan said — not just the end of slavery but also the call for structural changes in a post-emancipation society, like the eradication of prisons. The idea has “been around throughout the 20th-century civil rights movements” as well, Ranganathan said. More recently, Kendi and other scholars and activists have used the term “anti-racist” specifically to make the point that “it’s not sufficient merely to be non-racist,” Ranganathan said.

“One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist,” Kendi writes in How to Be an Antiracist, published in 2019.One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.”

“There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist,’” Kendi continues. “The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.”

To be an anti-racist, Kendi and others say, requires an understanding of history — an understanding that racial disparities in America have their roots, not in some failing by people of color but in policies that serve to prop up white supremacy. The coronavirus pandemic, during which black and Latinx people in many communities have been disproportionately likely to become ill and die, is just one example. As Kendi writes at the Atlantic, “Why are black (and Latino) people during this pandemic less likely to be working from home; less likely to be insured; more likely to live in trauma-care deserts, lacking access to advanced emergency care; and more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods?”

The answer, he writes, is simple: racism.

Specifically, redlining and other forms of housing discrimination have made black Americans more likely to live in neighborhoods affected by environmental contamination that federal and state officials have been slow to respond to, which increases the rates of chronic illness. Those high rates of chronic illness, in turn, make people more vulnerable to Covid-19. In Flint, Michigan, for example, where much of the majority-black population has been affected by lead-contaminated drinking water, the pandemic is “a crisis on top of a crisis with a side of crisis,” Mayor Sheldon Neeley told Vox’s Khushbu Shah.

Anti-racism is understanding how years of federal, state, and local policies have placed communities of color in the crises they face today, and calling those policies out for what they are: racist.

It also requires an understanding of one’s own position in a racist society, many say, an acknowledgment that you can’t simply opt out of living in white supremacy by saying you’re “not a racist” — you have to actively fight against it. “Anti-racism is an acknowledgment of privilege in a way that, I think, simply disavowing racism is not,” Ranganathan said. “It takes seriously that we all are situated into different matrices of power and privilege, and the first step is to take stock of that and not to disavow it or invisibilize it.”

Asked to define anti-racism, writer and middle-school teacher Christina Torres cited Beverly Daniel Tatum’s conception of racism as a moving walkway. “We’re all on the moving walkway,” Torres said. “If you’re not racist, you’re kind of just standing still on the moving walkway, but you’re still complicit in societal racism because you’re part of society.”

“The only way to be anti-racist is to walk in the other direction,” Torres said.

The practice of anti-racism

As for how to actually walk against the tide of racism, experts say one key step is educating yourself. White people “need [to] listen to the things that people of color have been telling them for years,” Cornelius Minor, an educator and author of the book We Got This.: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be, told Vox. “One of white folks’ favorite things to do is to claim that they didn’t know.”

But it’s not the job of people of color to educate white people about racism or anti-racism. “I’m the victim of racism, and now you want me to try to solve the problem,” Simmons says she recently told colleagues. “The problem does not lie within me, it lies within the system that you benefit from.”

Instead, people can seek out the many resources already available on anti-racism. In recent days, many publications, including the Guardian, USA Today, and Time, have posted anti-racist reading lists. Many people have also shared resources on social media.

Once you’ve educated yourself, the next step is “to actually take action that benefits the members of your community,” Minor said.

On Tuesday, many people posted black squares on Instagram as part of the “Blackout Tuesday” campaign. But some noted that the idea could actually harm the movement for racial justice by clogging the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which activists use to share actual information, with blank posts. Moreover, as Recode’s Rebecca Heilweil reports, some say that “just posting a black square and then logging off gives both brands and nonblack people a way of signaling support on social media without providing any real help.”

Beyond just posting something, real action could include talking to friends and relatives about their own racism.

“White folks get really brave on social media, but then really scared when they’re around their grandparents,” Minor said. “Take that same energy that you got for Twitter, and go sit down with your uncle.”

As with other aspects of anti-racism, there are many resources available for talking to white family members about racism — here’s one from Teaching Tolerance, and another by Jamilah King at Mother Jones.

For white parents, it’s also crucial to teach kids about race and anti-racism. That can be as simple as “pointing out who’s in the cartoon and who’s not present,” Minor said. “Why do we think those people are not here?”

But it also requires thinking about who is in your child’s world. “White folks have to actively choose not to live around white folks,” Simmons said. For many white people in their daily lives, “You can see folks of color but they’re serving your food, they’re cleaning your houses,” she continued, and so white parents need to put their kids in situations where they can interact with people of color in a meaningful way.

“Let them see the world outside themselves,” Simmons said, but “be careful not to be voyeurs.”

As with other aspects of anti-racism, there are many resources available for parents. Torres recommends Teaching Tolerance, a website with resources designed for the classroom that could be adapted at home, and the work of anti-bias educator Liz Kleinrock. The New York Times has also compiled a list of books to help parents explain racism and protest to kids.

And beyond educating those in your family and community, anti-racism is also about identifying and fighting racist practices and policies when you see them, Ranganathan said. Policing is an obvious one in this moment, but others include standardized testing that favors white students and air-pollution standards that leave black and Latinx people living in toxic neighborhoods. “To be anti-racist would be to be bold enough to call out these policies as racist,” Ranganathan said.

It’s also about identifying the teachers, politicians, and thought leaders who are working against these policies. “To be anti-racist would be to give support to these actors, and to throw your weight behind these organizations and these types of conversations,” Ranganathan explained.

The work of anti-racism can’t stop next month, next year, or when the news cycle moves on. Right now, a lot of white people are paying attention to racism and police violence “because they have no choice,” Simmons said. They’re stuck at home because of the pandemic, and the protests are all over the media.

But anti-racism can’t be something people think about only while it’s convenient, Simmons said. “It has to be a commitment that you make.”

Future Perfect

Why you’re not getting a delta-specific booster yet

Explainers

Murders are spiking. Police should be part of the solution.

Explainers

We can’t just run away from wildfires

View all stories in Explainers