You Want to Be An Anti Racist? Part 1: 1619 Project to Colorism.
A Glossary for Racial Justice Education (read this before talking to that uncle of yours).
I’m VERY sympathetic to the recent critique that “When black people are bleeding in the streets, white people start book clubs.” The pain point being that while black, indigenous, and people of color are literally dying as a result of racism, white people are gathering together in comfy chairs, drinking tea, and having “lively” discussions about racism. Of course, reading the latest by Ibram X. Kendi or Michelle Alexander is necessary at this point in time, but reading, alone, is not sufficient for real change.
Still, education on the part of white folks remains a necessary part of this process. Jumping into the movement for racial justice without some initial self-education can lead to white people quickly getting in over their heads. They can do more harm than good, actually perpetuating racist systems, practices, and beliefs without intending to.
It reminds me of what Richard Rohr said when, after founding the Center for Action and Contemplation, someone asked him, “Father, what is the most important word in the title of the Center?”
His answer: “And.”
Effective action must be informed and tempered by reflection, education, and contemplation — especially in the arena of racial justice work where our own egos, identities, and insecurities create inter- and intrapersonal minefields that can derail the work.
In the spirit of that, below I am providing a number of terms I feel are essential for an initial racial justice literacy along. This is a 13-part series with around seventy definitions, inclusive of links to further resources for when you would decide to deepen your understanding.
Best of luck in your journey.
Part 1: 1619 Project to Colorism
1. 1619 Project — An ambitious and valuable project on the part of the New York Times to reframe the history of the US to better reflect the, too often ignored, experience of African Americans. It has also introduced the valuable perspective that two “nations” have existed side-by-side within North America for nearly 400 years: one based on the subjugation and enslavement of Blacks and the displacement and genocide of Native Americans — this being the nation founded in 1619 — and a second nation founded in 1789 on the ideals of equality, freedom, and representative democracy.
2. Allyship — The requirements of being a true ally continue to develop, which is a good thing. CNET has an excellent article at the link that even includes checklists(!) from Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. The central theme of true allyship is that being a real supporter of antiracist work is not a label you earn or a destination to arrive at (i.e., being “woke”). Instead it is a life-long process of learning, listening, reflection, and informed action. For a more concrete example, I always like to point to Pastor Daniel Hill (author of White Awake and White Lies). Daniel is a leader committed to lifting up the voices of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) while always resisting white supremacy and white centeredness. I see it in Daniel and his work, as he always insists on deferring to BIPOC gatekeepers that invite him into this work, running his ideas by them, and carefully balancing the priorities of speaking critique to his white audience while also addressing BIPOC with messages of love, affirmation, and consolation. As note, I also like how this Black owned business Black Coffee Northwest (a major center of activism in their community) have put a new spin on allyship, cultivating terms such as “accomplice,” and “co-conspirator.”
3. Antiracist — Although he did not invent it, we have Ibram X. Kendi to thank for putting this term on blast with his books How to be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning. The need for this term arose from people who would claim to be “against racism” or “not racist” but failed to follow up those positions with any sort of action. Inaction becomes commensurate with collaborating and complicity with a racist system.
4. BIPOC — Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This has become shorthand for groups that have traditionally been placed outside of “whiteness” and or suffered from racial discrimination and oppression. BIPOC is an improvement on the term “non-white,” which obviously still defines these groups by proximity to whiteness and therefore is terribly white centered. That said, the term has shortcomings. Black women who support the spirit of inclusion behind the term but warn of its drawbacks provide critique here.
5. Birdcage Theory — This concept, developed by Marilyn Frye and introduced in her timeless and digestible book of essays The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory, has been a tool for our understanding of many types of oppressions and systemic nature. It speaks to the difficulty in seeing the overall structure of oppression. If we consider the wire of a birdcage in isolation, we will fail to see why it would serve to confine anything. It’s only when we expand our frame to include the entire structure of individual wires that we see how the bird is a prisoner. The same goes for the barriers and even subtle forms of discrimination a person of color might encounter. Taken alone, one instance of discrimination might not “seem” significant. But when viewed in tandem with dozens even hundreds per day, the true power of oppression emerges.
6. Black Exceptionalism — This is a slippery concept with many layers to it. An online search will uncover that the definition has evolved and changed even in the past five years. What is most salient is the way it weaponizes the success of against black people against them. White folks will point to the success of a few Black individuals, e.g., Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé, and claim that as evidence that: (1) structural racism does not exist; (2) we live in a post-racial society; (3) opportunities for success are equal for all people; (4) if a person is not successful, then it must their fault. “Just look at [insert famous Black person’s name here]. See, that proves racism is a myth!” your racist uncle will say at the dinner table over the holidays. This argument not only conveniently absolves white people of any moral culpability in a racist system, but it is fallacious, relying on a few anecdotal exceptions while ignoring mountains of incontrovertible data to the contrary. Tyree Boyd-Pates has a TEDx talk on this and how it is used against Black males. Professor Ralina Joseph has written an outstanding book on how it is used against Black females.
7. Colorblind — This is another term your racist uncle will use. Please. Don’t. Don’t do it. Don’t be it. Don’t say it to describe yourself. I can’t say it better than the subtitle of this article: Being “Color Blind” Doesn’t Make You Not Racist — In Fact, It Can Mean the Opposite. People will say they “don’t see color,” as proof that they are not racist. The problem with this misguided approach is that it ignores the fact that a Black, Latinx, and/or Asian person has a fundamentally different experience of reality than a White person. If we claim to be colorblind or live in a post-racial society, we close off opportunities to discuss and examine the racialized experiences of people.
8. Colorism — Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple (who, along with Audre Lorde and bell hooks, is one of my go-to sages for insight on the experience of Black women in America), is often credited with introducing the word and concept of colorism in her 1983 book In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens. She defined colorism as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” It’s also referred to as light-skin preference (see Brown Paper Bag Test). While Walker, Lorde, and hooks have criticized this practice in the African American community, it’s found in many forms throughout the world in communities of color from Asia, Africa, to the Americas.
Ted Neill, MPH, is a writer based in Seattle. He has written extensively on HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Greatest Generation. His recent novel, Reaper Moon, examines the intersection of faith, politics, and racism during a global viral pandemic. His YA novel, Zombies, Frat Boys, Monster Flash Mobs does the same, except with zombies, frat boys, nerds, and ninjas. His illustrated kids’ series Mystery Force features kid protagonists saving the world despite (and sometimes thanks to) the visible and invisible disabilities they live with.