Ever since Ibram X. Kendi published his book How to be an Anti-Racist, resistance against his message has been very vocal. The main point of criticism is Kendi’s central assertion, as follows:
“The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’
To which my reaction would be: “of course.” How is any of this controversial?
In the face of injustice, can you seriously claim to be “neutral in the question of justice”? In the face of genocide, can you be “neutral in the question of genocide”? In the face of a war of aggression, can you be “neutral in the question of war of aggression”? How is racism any different?
Let us assume the resistance to anti-racism does not come from racism itself, but from a position of “do I really have to be political about this?” Fair point, somehow, but only on the surface and in the end rather dangerous. Critique could also come from an honest position of “am I, as a person that can be understood as “white,” now being discriminated against myself?” – which is a frequently held opinion (I am using quotation marks around “white” here to indicate that this is not primarily about skin color but power and privilege).
Certainly, sometimes, it hurts being dismissed in a discussion because you are being perceived as “white.” And it certainly is not what I would consider an ideal situation. Nobody should not be listened to because of the color of their skin (as has been the typical experience of “non-whites”, by the way). And yet, from my own experience – as a “white”-identifiable person myself – I have indeed seen that sometimes, “white” people do need to listen rather than to dominate the space as they sometimes, sadly, are used to do. “White Privilege” most clearly shows up in places where rhetorical dominance is displayed in discussions, where true dialog is rejected, and nobody really listens to each other but just bullies others rhetorically.
But back to the question of anti-racism. Let us first ask the question, what is racism? It is the belief that another person, due to their real or perceived heritage, background, appearance, etc., is valued less in society than somebody that is seen in the default or “normal” position. Frequently, those seen as non-normative are also de-humanized; they are seen as less than human, and whatever constitutes perceived normality within society is normalized as “human.” A racist in a predominantly “white” European society would consider people with African, indigenous or other non-European background as less human than themselves. Or, briefly, racism is the belief that others who are not “like you” are less human than you yourself.
Is this really a position towards which you could be neutral? If you said “I don’t care that African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, or even Irish- or Italian-Americans (or many others) have been and sometimes still are being dehumanized in our discursive, political and judicial practices” – would that really mean that you are neutral towards the question of racism? Would that not rather seem like agreement, even if tacit not active?
If you do not stand up, even in the smallest possible way, against racism, could that not be interpreted as tacit agreement with racism? Would you not expect at least a modicum of positioning towards such an issue? And let’s say you would feel that nobody should assume that by not standing up – again, in the smallest way possible – against racism, all you are doing is not wanting to just make a superficial statement like a shibboleth, a password, just to signal that you are “one of the good ones.” But as the experience of so many “non-whites” has shown, such an assumption is not reasonable. The “silent majority” has not necessarily been silent because they were disagreeing with racism, rather the opposite. Even if you considered a statement against racism to be unduly superficial, such a statement (as small or weak it may be) would at least signal that you agree that racism should no longer be tolerated in society. Sometimes, we need to speak up, we need to make our voices heard to prevent the suffering of other human beings. We have a duty to be political, in the truest sense of the word.
You see, Kendi is right that there cannot really be neutrality in these questions. You are indeed either agreeing or disagreeing with racism. He is saying nothing here that should be controversial.
The fact that some consider it to indeed be controversial should, well, let’s say, ideally lead to some serious introspection and soul-searching. Let’s leave it at that.