To Fight Systemic Racism, You've Got To Be Anti-Racist : Life Kit Even white supremacists don't like to be called racist. That's why, NPR's Eric Deggans says, "not racist" doesn't feel like quite enough. In this episode, he walks us through steps to being anti-racist — in other words, ways you can continually strive to undo racism in your world and within yourself.
NPR logo

'Not Racist' Is Not Enough: Putting In The Work To Be Anti-Racist

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/905515398/905686930" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Not Racist' Is Not Enough: Putting In The Work To Be Anti-Racist

'Not Racist' Is Not Enough: Putting In The Work To Be Anti-Racist

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/905515398/905686930" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

Welcome to LIFE KIT. I'm Eric Deggans. When I began work on this episode, I couldn't help remembering this picture of a billboard I use in talks I give about the nature of racism. Now, this billboard was erected in the small town of Harrison, Ark., back in 2014 to promote a white supremacist radio station called White Pride Radio. The message, below the picture of a cute-looking white girl with a cute-looking dog, read, quote, "it's not racist to love your people."

My takeaway - society has so effectively demonized the word that even white supremacists don't want to be called racist, which might explain why, for people dedicated to fighting racism, simply saying you're not racist - it doesn't feel like quite enough. To effectively defeat systemic racism - that is, racism embedded as normal practice in a society - you've got to be continually working to undo racism in your mind, your personal environment and the wider world. In other words, you've got to be an anti-racist.

You may know me as NPR's TV critic, but I've also spent years exploring how systemic racism affects media and society. I've written a book about it called "Race-Baiter" and built a TEDx talk around how to talk about race across racial lines. As a Black man who speaks often on these subjects, I find race and racism is something people think they know but often don't, at least not as well as they think they do. So as the first step to understanding anti-racism, I suggest you consider words from the man who literally wrote the book on this subject, Ibram X. Kendi, author of "How To Be An Anti-Racist." He told NPR last year that anti-racism has a simple goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

IBRAM X KENDI: So I define an anti-racist as someone who is expressing an anti-racist idea or supporting an anti-racist policy, policies that yield racial equity, while anti-racist ideas talk about the equality of racial groups. And I'm very deliberate in arguing that we should be striving to be anti-racist as opposed to self-identifying as not racist.

DEGGANS: The killing by police of Black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks earlier this year kicked off demonstrations across the globe and lent even more urgency to the cause of ending systemic racism. Now more than ever, some people want to be anti-racist, but how exactly do you pull that off? On this episode of LIFE KIT, we're going to talk about anti-racism. First, we'll talk about internal work - how to define anti-racism and make it part of your everyday thinking, even how to recognize anti-racist TV shows and movies. Then we'll talk about external work - presenting some suggestions on how to bring anti-racism to the wider world. That's right. It's LIFE KIT's look at how to be anti-racist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: The journey towards anti-racism begins with a seemingly simple step - adjusting how you think about racism. This is our first tip - accept that we live in a society that socializes us to elevate white people and white culture. As I learned from Anneliese Singh, building an internal sense of anti-racism involves unlearning racism.

ANNELIESE SINGH: Everyone who lives in the United States kind of learns some form of anti-Black racism.

DEGGANS: Singh just joined Tulane University as its first associate provost for diversity and faculty development, leading the school's diversity and inclusion efforts across the campus. She's also written a workbook on these issues called "The Racial Healing Handbook." Singh says when you're raised in a society that constantly encourages you to elevate white culture, there's an important question anti-racists must ask themselves time and again.

SINGH: How does anti-Black racism live within us? People typically think about racism as these individual acts, as these things that you do, as people behaving badly. But I think anti-racism goes way beyond individual acts and really goes into behaviors that are structurally supported over time.

DEGGANS: An obvious example of this unconscious bias might be the impulse to call police when you see an unfamiliar Black person jogging through your neighborhood. Now, individually, you're making negative assumptions about that person without a lot of data. Basically, you're declining to give them the benefit of the doubt you might give a white jogger. But your decision to call police will also bring a response from law enforcement that feeds into the overpolicing of Black people. And if you are white, you may be weaponizing your white privilege by calling police, secure that they will give you the benefit of the doubt and share your suspicions about the jogger - individual actions feeding into several racist dynamics.

Singh calls white supremacy white body supremacy as a way to emphasize how racism has a physical impact, elevating white bodies and harming nonwhite ones. She suggests some people even go through a process similar to the five stages of grief, especially those who have privilege because of their white or light skin, when they uncover their unconscious bias and realize how extensively racism affects their perspectives.

SINGH: I'm going to be in denial, if I'm white or have light skin, about how white body supremacy works. So moving through that bargaining, denial into, like, some anger and, like, whoa, I am positioned this way - I might not have enslaved people, but, actually, what are the structures I'm upholding right now as a white or light-skinned person that are upholding white body supremacy? And then when we go into acceptance, I think that then we can really leverage our lives to make a difference.

DEGGANS: Part of the anxiety Singh describes comes from unreasonable fears about what building an anti-racist world might actually require, including the myth that anti-racism is a code word for anti-white. She calls out that attitude using a term any fan of '90s rap will immediately understand.

SINGH: Well, I mean, it reminds me of, you know, Public Enemy's "Fear Of A Black Planet," right?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET")

PUBLIC ENEMY: (Rapping) Man, I don't want your wife. Stop screaming. It's not the end of your life. But supposing she said she loved me, what's wrong with some color in your family tree?

SINGH: What would be wrong with upholding Black culture as such an important part of the human experience? And we co-opt Black culture and other communities of culture in music and media, and yet we don't really give credence and respect and honoring of Black cultures.

DEGGANS: So if you want to let go of these fears and change your thinking, how do you manage that? Here we come to tip No. 2. Singh suggests people, especially white people, do some research to learn the historical roots of white supremacy in America and the history of anti-racism. One key for white people is acknowledging that you have a racial culture without elevating it over others. I told her I always found white supremacy's greatest advantage is that white racial culture in America is often treated like it's invisible. It's often not directly talked about among white people, and some people even joke that they have no culture. Singh says white people also have to be prepared to avoid defensiveness when people of color may criticize you or push back if you make a mistake.

SINGH: And, Eric, this is where I see white folks go sideways quite a bit - is that, in those moments, they're trying to be the best anti-racist ally they can be. The experience of rejection is so much then causes this white flight, and then, all of a sudden, how anti-racist are you? Because you can't even sit with this pain of what racism actually causes, whether or not it was your intention.

DEGGANS: For people of color, Singh suggests study and introspection to make sure you're not elevating whiteness or devaluing other nonwhite groups in a process she calls internalized whiteness. She also suggests nonwhite people take risks to challenge racism, even among people of your own race, ethnicity or culture. One important tip for white people - when people of color share their experiences with white privilege or white supremacy, believe them.

SINGH: I can't tell you how many people I've seen who claim to be anti-racist but then, when people of color speak, they're like, oh, well, they're doing it wrong, or that's one person. You have an opportunity in that moment to believe what that person is saying. They are giving you - we don't want to tell white folks the truth because it's a pain in the neck, literally.

DEGGANS: Now, I may be biased, but I always thought TV shows and films can offer important connections to a wide diversity of cultures, particularly because America is so segregated. I often say TV shows and films teach us how to dream about what is possible and what ought to be. For example, is it a coincidence that Barack Obama was elected president after Morgan Freeman played the POTUS in the movie "Deep Impact"?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEEP IMPACT")

MORGAN FREEMAN: (As President Beck) There'll be no hoarding. There'll be no sudden profiteering. I'm freezing all wages, all prices. What a bottle of water cost you yesterday, it will cost you tomorrow.

DEGGANS: I report. You decide. Anyway, that's why it made sense to me when I heard that the current reckoning over civil rights led lots of people to scour Netflix for programs that might help them learn more about anti-racism. And once there, many subscribers stumbled on an underappreciated gem.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAR WHITE PEOPLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Trigger warning - the following program is meant for both white and Black audiences and every other color imaginable.

LOGAN BROWNING: (As Sam) Dear white people...

DEGGANS: "Dear White People" is centered on a group of nonwhite students at a mostly white Ivy League college as they negotiate issues of identity, classism, racism versus anti-racism, homophobia and more. One storyline features a young Black student, Reggie Green, who was nearly shot by a campus security guard at a party. As he's haunted by flashbacks to the traumatic event, he's checked in on by well-meaning acquaintances.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAR WHITE PEOPLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Hey, Reg.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Hey, Reggie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Hey, Reggie.

MARQUE RICHARDSON: (As Reggie) Ah, the pity hey.

DEGGANS: Creator and executive producer Justin Simien says "Dear White People" often dramatizes lessons about anti-racism without lecturing to viewers. Reggie's story, for instance, shows how asking a Black person how they feel about a racial trauma can sometimes backfire, especially if it seems the question is motivated more by a desire to look like an effective anti-racist than learning how to truly help the person who was victimized.

JUSTIN SIMIEN: The whole goal of it is for you to care so deeply about these people that you don't realize you're being taught anything. And so when you see that he had a gun pulled on him and he had this near-death experience and now for the rest of the school year everyone's coming up to him asking him, are you OK? Is there anything I can do? Like, you understand how that's not enough.

DEGGANS: Simien says Netflix told him viewership for "Dear White People" went up by 600% after George Floyd's killing. And while he's happy new fans found his show, he's worried others may flock to TV shows or films with more predictable, stereotypical concepts, like feel-good stories about virtuous, near-perfect Black people facing down racism in the Jim Crow South with help from well-meaning white people. Well-made TV shows and films about anti-racism, Simien says, should not offer a comfortable narrative about a white savior helping obviously deserving Black people. It should be messier and much more provocative.

SIMIEN: You should feel challenged in some way by that piece. Because it's so subversive, it's ubiquitous and it's systemic and we can't see it, racism lives in our collective blind spots. That's why it's so pernicious. So there has to be a moment in the piece where you go, oh, I didn't think about it like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: And while it's easy in today's times to feel like you know the basics of systemic racism and how prejudice works, Simien says it's important to resist that feeling.

SIMIEN: Things like racism really take a lifetime to fully grapple with and understand. Assume that you don't know everything because as a Black, gay man who has needed to vitally know these things in order to get basic, like, quality of life, I don't know everything. And I am constantly - monthly, daily - surprised. It is, like, constantly realizing that the conspiracy is so much bigger than you ever thought.

DEGGANS: This leads us to tip No. 3, courtesy of Simien. Seek out art centered on anti-racism that challenges you. And don't be afraid to dive into the material. Accept that this will be a lifelong process of learning and reacting. The goal - to cut through prejudices and stereotypes to finally fully see people of color.

SIMIEN: I had a friend tell me - put it this way - that was really profound. He said, you know, we're inviting people to see us for the first time. And it should break your heart that you haven't seen us yet, that I have to interact with you through a character version of myself because I think you can't handle my daily truth. That should break your heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: Once you've done the internal work of learning about anti-racism, studied and soaked up experiences from the right TV shows, books and movies, the next step is to turn towards the external and consider your actions in the larger world. That's where people like Arisha Hatch come in.

ARISHA HATCH: My name is Arisha Hatch. I'm the vice president and chief of campaigns at Color of Change.

DEGGANS: Color of Change calls itself a 21st century civil rights organization, founded in 2005 during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when Black people found themselves labeled as looters and robbers while trying to survive a disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

WOLF BLITZER: So many of these people - almost all of them that we see are so poor, and they are so Black.

CLARENCE RAY NAGIN: They're showing all these reports of people looting. And they are doing that, but people are desperate.

HATCH: And what our founders saw at that time was a real absence of Black political power. Any decision-maker with power, they didn't go to sleep each night afraid of disappointing Black people. And we think about our work as giving people something strategic to do in response to the things that they're seeing in their news cycle and that are happening in their everyday world.

DEGGANS: Color of Change's actions have ranged from working with actor Michael B. Jordan to develop an anti-racism road map for TV and film projects to pressuring companies to stop scheduling weddings at former slave plantations. Hatch's suggestion for those interested in getting involved with larger, external anti-racism actions leads to our tip No. 4. She suggests people, especially white people, start with a local organization led by people of color and uplift their ideas.

HATCH: Part of being an ally and part of letting go of privilege is, I think, putting yourselves in situations where you may be uncomfortable, where you may have a different idea, but that you're actively working to support organizers and activists who have been thinking about these systemic problems for generations.

DEGGANS: Also, Hatch says to be an effective anti-racist, you must assess your own power. Where are the spheres you can have the most influence?

HATCH: A lot of people have a job or go to a church or a part of a school district, you know, even beyond being an elected official. But what are the ways in which you walk through the world and where you have power that you can actually help to shift culture in some small way?

DEGGANS: Beyond the obvious strategy of confronting family and friends who may be racist, do you find opportunities to spend your money with nonwhite-owned businesses? When you sit down at a PTA meeting at your child's school, which parents do you speak with and get to know? At work, are you considering how procedures or strategies may advantage whiteness, and are you helping to challenge them? If you or a relative has a rental property, are you making sure you consider applications from nonwhite people? These are ways you can make a difference in your own environment where you have power.

Of course, white allies want to avoid the problem known as white centering, where they see their racial point of view as best or normal, valuing their ideas over those from people of color. But there's a flip side to that notion. White allies also have to be careful they're not robbing their organizations of their expertise by not speaking out when necessary. That's something Lisa Daugaard, executive director of the Public Defender Association in Seattle, found out from a client. Daugaard, who's white, recalled a moment when she was reluctant to contradict people of color regarding an element in one of her cases. And then her client, who was Black and also her friend, spoke up and said...

LISA DAUGAARD: You know, if you didn't see and understand things that I didn't already see and understand, I wouldn't need to be talking to you. I'm talking to you because I am hoping you will share things that I don't see. And so if you're withholding something that you have to contribute to this, that's not what I need as a friend, and that's not what I need from a lawyer.

DEGGANS: Daugaard says it can be complicated for white people seeking to get involved with anti-racism work. She urges white people to be aware of the wide range of views Black people may have about issues and make sure they're not excluding perspectives.

DAUGAARD: People need to be conscious of not having the effect of silencing other people whose experience is legitimate and whose insights are real and important.

DEGGANS: Daugaard received a MacArthur genius grant in 2019 for her work on criminal justice reform. In 2011 she helped develop a program called the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, also known as LEAD. LEAD pulled together a coalition of police, prosecutors, civil rights advocates, public defenders and others to find new ways to handle people - often people of color - who kept cycling through the criminal justice system over petty offenses. They found after three years, people in the program were 58% less likely to be arrested. Daugaard says LEAD shows it was possible to bring together groups that had previously opposed each other on issues of policing and criminal justice. Creating such a coalition required focusing on common goals, building trust and believing that the partnership was possible in the first place.

DAUGAARD: What we all learned from that is that there is reconciliation possible when you genuinely make space for everybody to share what they are about, what their fears are, what their suspicions are. And then things just go really differently.

DEGGANS: In this work, I guess optimism always helps.

So what are our big takeaways about how to be anti-racist? Tip No. 1 - accept that we've all been raised in a country that elevates white culture. Being anti-racist will mean challenging those notions inside yourself. Tip No. 2 - learn the history of racism and anti-racism, especially in America, to educate yourself about the complexities of the issues you'll be confronting. Tip No. 3 - seek out books, films and TV shows which will challenge your notions of race and culture and dive in deeply, learning to see anti-racism in new ways. And tip No. 4 - find local organizations involved in anti-racism efforts, preferably led by people of color, and help uplift their voices and ideas.

This takes a lot of energy and can feel overwhelming, and it doesn't help that one way systemic racism works in America is that it encourages people to accept the status quo and reject many anti-racism ideas as too extreme. But there's no better feeling than really making progress on working to build a better world. After all, the stakes are high. We need to take care of ourselves and one another. And these tips offer great ideas for starting on a long and rewarding road. Above all, Color of Change's Hatch suggests keeping one optimistic thing in mind.

HATCH: This is what winning looks like and feels like - that the moral arc of history is on our side and that we are getting closer and closer every day to a culture that actually embraces the beauty and creativity of Black people in our lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I've hosted one about how white people can understand their role on racism and another one on how to pick the right TV streaming service. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. And here as always is a completely random tip, this time from Luis Arjona.

LUIS ARJONA: To calculate tip, you can take the total amount of your check, move the decimal over one digit to the left, and that'll be 10% tip. Then you can double it for 20% or take half of the 10%, add it to the 10%, and you can leave a 15% tip that way.

DEGGANS: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo, and our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. Special thanks to Marcia Davis. I'm Eric Deggans. Thanks for listening.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.