The battle to outlaw race talk is everywhere. Anti-Critical Race Theory (CRT) laws have been passed or proposed in thirty states. Banned books include everything from The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison to The 1619 Project to—unfathomably—the children’s book Ruby Bridges Goes to School. Critical Race Theory, in reality, is not scary or bad—it’s just a theory that says, essentially, race matters and impacts our lives. (For more on the efforts to undermine CRT, see this report from UCLA on the current national campaign designed to sow conflict and confusion in local municipalities nationwide.)
Attacks on race talk are not new. A similar national movement to silence race talk shaped my colorblind childhood in the 1980s. I—and my well-meaning parents—thought I was learning how to be polite and treat all people the same. But in fact, the campaign to silence race talk and to paint those who talk about race as “racists” or “troublemakers” came from the national government, in one of several attempts to discredit Black nationalists, derail discussions of civil rights, and enfeeble affirmative action. It was not a legal battle back then, but an effective cultural censure nonetheless.
Attacks on race talk are also not accidental. “Racism has always been integral to fascism,” according to Barbara Arnwine, who teaches law at Columbia University Law School. Now, as ever, racism is being deployed in the interest of dismantling democratic participation, public schooling, and democracy itself.
When we begin to see these links: racism linked to the erosion of civil liberties linked to fascism, then we also begin to see these links: antiracism linked to democratic protections linked to a healthy multiracial civil society. We need antiracism today more than ever because our lives depend on it—all of our lives. Despite this reality, I would venture to guess that many White people aren’t sure where they fit within antiracism. I get this. It can feel like the stakes are very high. People are afraid of offending. People are tired of meetings and conversations that are both charged and confusing. Most of us get stuck in this weird double bind where we don’t do anything because we can’t get it perfect—but doing nothing is wrong too.
Now, as ever, racism is being deployed in the interest of dismantling democratic participation, public schooling, and democracy itself.
By and large, White people (myself included) were not raised with the skills to be racially competent because our lives have not depended on our capacity to recognize and intervene with racism. As White people, many of us were taught to stay out of it, not be racist, and be colorblind instead. This means that as we learn about systemic racism or historical racism, we often become emotionally overloaded. And when antiracist learning requires that we leap from step 3 to step 100 in one conversation or one moment, we turn away because we assume we are not capable of doing it. We need scaffolding.
People of Color and Native people should not have to provide this scaffolding. They should not have to do the work of talking gently to White people when we are offensive, holding our hands when we feel embarrassed, or teaching us about the history of racism while we learn.
And yet this is precisely the kind of scaffolding White people need. White people need someone who can answer our stupid questions, push us when we don’t understand feedback, walk with us as we learn things we’ve never been taught, empathize with us when we make inevitable mistakes and generally keep us company in the shame, confusion, and tension that often characterize antiracist learning and action. That is where other White people come in. White people can do this for one another so that People of Color and Native people don’t have to.
What I’m describing here could be seen as coddling White people at a time when we need people to buck up and be less sensitive. But I challenge that framing. This is a strategic large-scale intervention designed around the emotional needs of a part of the population that is unskilled at navigating racial stress. If it worked to tell people just to buck up, I would do that. If it worked to hit people over the heads with books, I would do that. If we could do this with just a handful of super thick-skinned White people, then we could leave this blueprint for large scale action in the recycle bin.
But shifting a system of racism that has been in place for hundreds of years is going to take more than a handful of White people—it will require millions of White people walking an antiracist path alongside People of Color and Native people. Not just here and now, but for 8 generations, as Resmaa Menakem has estimated. Changing the underlying assumptions and institutions that hold systemic racism in place is going to take consistent, persistent effort. That means that we need ways to support and challenge one another to take action with who we are, with what we’ve got. It doesn’t mean we can move slowly, but it does mean that we need to start meeting one another where we are and helping each other move forward.
The anti-CRT movements that are taking over local governments, school boards, and state political parties across the country have been steady and successful in their efforts. They will not go away without a countervailing democratic show of force. But too often White people opt not to speak up because we ask ourselves, “Who am I to say something?” or “What if I offend somebody?” Or we think, “The anti-CRT campaign isn’t really about me, is it?”
The erosion of voting rights in Black and Brown communities is about me because it’s a threat to the democracy I live in. The banning of books that help us understand Black history is about me because Black history is American history. The censorship targeting race talk is about me because it has been through talking and learning about race that I have come to better understand myself, my friends, and my communities—all of which have been shaped by race and racism.
Given all of this, who am I not to say something? Speaking up does not have to be a battle and it doesn’t even require that we demonize the other side. It requires that we state what we stand for: I’m pro-truth. I’m pro-unity. I’m pro-history. I’m pro-community. And it means approaching other White people with the assumption that they too could take antiracist action if supported and challenged by other White people in ways that help them move forward on an antiracist path.
“How Reclaiming Antiracism Can Save Our Democracy” Panel in the Under the Blacklight Series. African American Policy Forum. Aug 22, 2022. Martha’s Vineyard, MA.
This affirmative framing comes from the African American Policy Forum.