By Ray English
From NALP PDQ
October 2022 edition
The topics of race, race relations, and anti-racism are prevalent in our personal and work environments these days. These subjects are especially relevant during Global Diversity Awareness Month in October. White people are tiptoeing around their BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) colleagues and friends trying not to say or do something that may offend them. When it comes to race relations, most people recognize the need for change and sincerely want to contribute to that change. However, many people are unsure about what they can actually do. Thus, neutrality tends to be the default mode for most. People often mistakenly believe that simply being “not racist” is enough to eliminate racial discrimination. Moreover, white people look to their BIPOC friends and colleagues for assistance. The reality is that most people, white or BIPOC, don’t really know what anti-racism means, or understand what it means to be anti-racist.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines racism as, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” When people think of racism, they tend to think of it in terms of individual actions. They might think of a person wearing a white sheet over their head, burning a cross, or using racial slurs. However, racism is not always so overt. Focusing on such direct and overt actions may cause a person not to examine their own beliefs and potential bias, as well as the potential of systemic racism.
Systemic racism is racism that exists across a society within and between institutions and organizations. It refers to the complex interactions of large-scale societal systems, practices, ideologies, and programs that produce and perpetuate inequities for racial minorities (see Resources: Dunning-Kruger). The key aspect of structural or systematic racism is that these macro-level mechanisms operate independent of the intentions and actions of individuals, so that even if individual racism is not present, the adverse conditions and inequalities for racial minorities will continue to exist. Systemic racism is deeply embedded into our culture and our communities. This deep-seated racism impacts our schools, judicial system, even our healthcare system. It is so ingrained that people don’t recognize or notice how policies, institutions, and systems disproportionately favor some while disadvantaging others.
Anti-racism is generally defined as the practice of actively identifying and opposing racism. The goal of anti-racism is to actively seek to change policies, behaviors, and beliefs that perpetuate racist ideas and actions. Anti-racism is rooted in action, hence the words “actively identifying” and “opposing.” It is about taking steps to eliminate racism at the individual, institutional, and structural levels. Thus, combating racism starts with a decision to knowingly act against it.
As Ibram X. Kendi, a leading scholar on race and racial discrimination, explains in How to Be an Antiracist, “the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it.” Being anti-racist requires five action steps.
Step 1: Examine Your Own Beliefs and Actions
First, it is necessary to examine your own beliefs and actions. Turning inward, we must each try to discern whether our beliefs and action around race are rooted in facts and objectivity, or whether when it comes to race, we simply act on a gut feeling or intuition. Research has shown that even people who support racial equality often unknowingly hold racist attitudes. This discrepancy is often explained by the existence of implicit biases, or attitudes that are largely unconscious but nevertheless influence behavior.
Step 2: Listen to the Experience of Others
Just because you have never experienced or witnessed racist actions doesn’t mean that they don’t happen. Race intersects with many other aspects of a person’s identity including sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, and disability. Not all people are impacted by race in the same way. Listening to the experiences of others and thinking about how your actions or policies may affect people differently can help you adopt an anti-racist stance.
Step 3: Participate in Events Designed to Combat Racial Injustice
Work to make changes in any setting where you have the power to do so. Use your position and voice to effect change in your workplace, your school, your community, and your local government.
Step 4: Discuss Racism
Talk to friends and family about the effects of racism. Call out racism when you see it. Having real conversations about racism can be influential and effective.
Step 5: Seek Diversity
Research has shown that being exposed to positive examples of anti-racist behaviors leads to people being less racist and more tolerant. This phenomenon is known as passive tolerance. Rather than basing beliefs on racial stereotypes, people gain a more representative and realistic perspective through direct experience (see Resources: Contextual Effect).
To be an anti-racist means actively seeking to change policies, behaviors, and beliefs that perpetuate racist ideas and actions. It requires reflection and action. It involves looking not only at your own beliefs and behaviors, but also fighting racism on the interpersonal, institutional, and structural levels. Being anti-racist is a conscious choice to engage in actions that support equality.
Dunning-Kruger: West K., Eaton A.A., “Prejudiced and unaware of it: Evidence for the Dunning-Kruger model in the domains of racism and sexism,” Personality and Individual Differences, 2019;146:111–119.
Contextual Effect: Christ O., Schmid K., Lolliot S., et al., “Contextual effect of positive intergroup contact on outgroup prejudice,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014;111(11):3996-4000.
Ray English is Assistant Dean and Professor of Practice and DEI Ombudsperson for the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. This article was submitted on behalf of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Section.