Anti-racism work seems to be everywhere nowadays.
It is promising that a growing number of school districts are now confronting racism and white supremacy.
But, to be totally clear, anti-racism work is not new. It is not even new in schools. In fact, Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latina/o/x people have been doing this work for centuries. But the mainstream uptake of anti-racism is fairly new and seems to be gaining popularity in schools across the globe. The orientation towards anti-racism in schools has potential to be transformative. However, we must remain diligent to ensure that anti-racist spaces are not co-opted, commodified, and gentrified. We must also ensure that these spaces are not performative and don’t become racist spaces that hide behind the cloak of anti-racism. So, in today’s article, I am going to discuss 3 Ways that Racism Shows Up in Anti-Racism Work & What You Can Do About it. Please know that this is not an exhaustive list.
What is Racism?
To start, let’s establish a collective understanding of racism.
There are many useful definitions of racism. For now, let’s use a definition that Dr. Beverly Tatum put forward. In her classic book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Dr. Tatum defines racism as “a system of advantage based on race.” While there are much more complex and nuanced definitions, this one works to get us started. Importantly, this definition moves racism beyond personal animus, ideology, and prejudice to a larger system that includes institutional practices and policies, cultural messages, as well as the actions and beliefs of people in the system (p. 9). This definition is also important because it situates racism systemically not individually but also highlights that it creates advantages for white people, which by default creates massive disadvantages and even death for Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x, and Asian people.
The Smog of Racism
Dr. Tatum also uses the metaphor of “smog” to describe racism. She has described racism as the smog that is breathed in. While this metaphor is not perfect it is useful for three key reasons. First, it underscores the persistence of racism. Second, it describes how everyday racism is often so covert and taken-for-granted that it is accepted as “normal.” As a quick side note, a very important part of building racially just schools is destroying the covert and taken-for-granted ways that racial oppression is accepted as “normal.” In fact, normalizing racial oppression is what, in part, gives it strength to endure.
Back to the metaphor.
This metaphor also makes clear how insidious racism and even anti-blackness & white supremacy are. However, the thing about smog is that its particles are so small that they can easily seep through some of the most stringent barriers.
In a similar way, racism, like smog, can seep into anti-racist spaces, despite people’s good intentions. Here are 3 ways that could happen.
1) white People are Deemed As the Central Anti-Racism Experts
I’m always down with white folks who really want to be co-conspirators for racial justice. However, when white people are positioned as the primary and central holders of knowledge, expertise, and wisdom on anti-racism that is an issue. In fact, that further advantages them, even if they don’t want it to. At the same time, it continues to marginalize Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x, and Asian people’s experiences. It becomes even more problematic when white people’s expertise on anti-racism is so valued that they monetize Black pain into white gain. This often happens when whites are perceived as experts on anti-racism, despite having learned a great deal of what they know about this work from Black people.
To be clear, there is a place for white people in anti-racist work but that place is not to be central while Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x, and Asian people are on the margins. Put simply, what makes racism alive and well within this dynamic is that it continues to advantage white people while marginalizing Black folks.
However, another way that this can show up is that white administrators (and/or families) will slow down the pace and/or depth of anti-racism work in their context. They do this while declaring anti-racism. Often, they slow down the work because other white people are afraid, uncomfortable, and nervous about what might happen if anti-racist work is truly taken up. They fear that Black gain means white loss, which is not true and a function of a race-based zero-sum dynamic.
What You Might Do Instead Towards Anti-Racism
Instead, a more powerful anti-racist practice would be to start with, center, and integrate throughout everything you do Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x, and Asian people’s experiences, wisdom, expertise, and knowledge. This can be powerfully impactful for many reasons. First, it expands the possibilities of what is considered experiences, expertise, knowledge, and it interrupts traditional racialized roles in anti-racism work. To be clear, it is not enough for Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x, and Asian people to share their lived experiences and realities but larger systems fail to change.
Second, starting with and centering Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x, and Asian people can shift the relational systems of the work. In other words, it means that what we build is not based on what is palatable to white people but rather what is needed for Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x, and Asian people to thrive. In addition and possibly most powerful is that this can move white people beyond “using their privilege” to make things better in a white supremacy system. Instead, it shifts the focus to working to destroy the conditions that promote white supremacy in the first place so we can rebuild something that is racially just. I know this is easier said than done. But, to get started, you and your team might work through the following questions:
- With whose experiences, wisdom, and expertise do we start and center our anti-racism work?
- How might we make sure that when Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x, and Asian youth and adults share their lived racial experiences that it results in larger systems changes?
- How might we make sure that Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x, and Asian experiences, wisdom, and expertise are central to the anti-racist work that we do?
- At whose pace is our anti-racism work progressing and why?
2) Using Anti-Racist Language While Maintaining Racist Power Structures
My dad loves to paint. When I was a kid, he would paint everything, including houses. In fact, my brothers and I helped him paint a few houses. Putting a fresh coat of paint on a house can make a home look beautiful. However, putting fresh paint on the exterior of a home does not change the structural foundation of the house. Similarly, to use liberation, anti-racism, equity, and racial justice language but maintain racist power structures is akin to putting a fresh coat of paint on a house with a broken foundation. It might look good externally but it is deeply flawed and problematic internally.
Language is imperfect. However, language is not neutral and is a conveyor of power. Even radical language can be used as a cloak to maintain systems of racial oppression. One of the ways this shows up is schools doing the same thing but adding the words “equity,” “racial equity,” “anti-racism,” and “liberation” to their district or school documents (e.g., website, mission statement, etc.). But, one quick way to know whether or not the work in your school is anti-racist is that it would result in some type of racially just redistribution. This can be in time, fiscal resources, opportunities, etc. (I have an entire chapter in my forthcoming book on this . . . so stay tuned).
What You Might Do Instead Towards Anti-Racism
Instead, start with building anti-racist, liberating, and racially just processes, systems, and power relationships. This might mean the language that you use for your work will evolve. And that is okay. To do so, you and your team might work through the following questions:
- What are the primary systems that make our school/district function (e.g., instruction, collaborations with families, course assignments, etc.), and how might we reorient these systems to be anti-racist?
- In what ways would we describe our processes for relating to each other as adults in the school, youth, and families? How might we reorient these processes to be anti-racist?
- In what ways do unequal power relationships show up in our school? What might we do to reorient our relationships to power to be more anti-racist?
3) Racial Diversity and Access Become Main Goals
I want to be clear, diversity is important, especially racial diversity. However, racial diversity alone is not enough to interrupt systemic racism. Opening up access in school districts and schools is also important. For example, this might include having more Black students in advanced courses. I understand the importance of this for a number of reasons. But what does it mean to provide access for Black youth to courses where they experience even more academic, cultural, and psychological violence? Therefore, access, even when combined with racial diversity, are still not enough to destroy the insidious ways that racism, anti-blackness and white supremacy have been ingrained into schools. Here’s the thing: It’s not enough to provide Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x, and Asian youth access to a white supremacy system. Our work instead should be to destroy these systems and rebuild.
What You Might Do Instead Towards Anti-Racism
Instead, what if you and the people you’re working with radically reoriented yourselves to new meanings about advancement, opportunities, and access? This would require tearing down (i.e., deconstructing/destroying) and building anew (i.e., reconstructing). To do so, you and your team might work through the following questions:
- What does our school mean by advancement, opportunities and access? And to what ends?
- Who benefits and who does not based on these current conceptions? What racial and cultural ways of being are we missing when we rely on these notions?
- How might we reorient our notions of advancement, opportunities, and access to be anti-racist?
- Whose perspectives might we have to center and how?
My hope is that this article will help you and your team continue to do racial justice work. In this article, my aim was to identify a few ways that racism can continue even in anti-racist spaces. In doing so, I also wanted to provide some suggestions for alternatives that you and your team might otherwise pursue.
To get more content, like this be sure to sign up to subscribe to raciallyjustschools.com.
I’d love to get your comments below. Please react, share widely, and let me know some ways that you’ve experienced racism in anti-racist spaces. Thanks for taking time to read this.