The Antiracism Book Festival was literally just like comic con for us in the field of antiracism work and education. I felt fully seen throughout the day as I networked with other people in my line of work. And I was especially grateful and blown away by getting to listen to the authors whose research guides my training efforts. Along with these authors like Ibram X Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, I was introduced to more authors, research, and new wonderings about achieving racial equity.
To start, I’ve often thought about how every societal ill can be traced back to white supremacy, our “odious, nefarious product of culture and tradition” as Michel Eric Dyson called it during the “On the rise of Jim Crow and its divisive endurance in our conversations” session. What I have never really thought about is the fact that it isn’t just killing black and brown people. During the session “On the production of Whiteness,” I had an awakening; it’s also killing white people.
Jonathan M. Metzl said that “the GOP platform is built of the disposability of the working class,” particularly the white working class. For this “wage of whiteness” as he called it, many of these people vote against their own interests to avoid a mythological black or brown person who’s going to come into their house and steal/rape or take from social services that would actually benefit them, too. This mythology of course ignores the “true direction” of violence that DiAngelo discusses in her book, White Fragility. In “denying your mortality because of this ideology to screw over other groups,” Metzl told us of the myriad of ways in which these ideologies (and thus policies) kill white people. He discussed the paradoxes between loose gun regulation and the fact that white men are 70% of those who die in suicide-by-gun.
To that point, DiAngelo posed the question, “Where’s the diagnosis for structural racism?” I think the answer to that lies in the decolonization of history, in policy, and in power. As such, I’ll be thinking about these three things as I process this truly amazing conference, so if you had FOMO as you saw my tweets and others, please keep reading as the post is pretty long. I’ll link the authors to whichever book they were discussing or my review of the book if it exists.
Decolonization of History
In the session, “On using the lyric and the poem to blend the past and the present,” Clint Smith III said that “we have to understand our history because otherwise this country can lie to us.” I think those lies have led to Metzl’s point on how white supremacy is both literally and figuratively killing white people, and of course, all of us. As educators, we need to be the ones “going back in the past and correcting the narrative,” thus “reconstructing lost monuments to our own history,” as Tyehimba Jess said in the session with Smith.
Thinking about this reframing of history, language matters. During “On new research in enslavers, runaways, and women,” Erica Dunbar said, “We have to say what isn’t spoken” when discussing research. For example, in their choice to use the term “enslaved person” over “slave,” they reminded us that one term acknowledges something that was done to people whereas the other is an identity put on them that isn’t accurate. Stephanie E. Jones-Roger, of the same session, put it best in saying, “Enslaved people always knew they had the same rights that others did, but were denied of.”
I also think about reframing these narratives in education and how we teach our students. I learned about Haitians being the first enslaved Black people to gain their freedom through revolt from home or along the way as we celebrated Haitian Independence over a bowl of Soup Joumou every year. I didn’t learn it in school, but I did “learn” about American slavery devoid of the knowledge of similar attempts here. I wonder what impact that has on African American children that the only dominant narrative of black history they get is incomplete in many ways, but especially as it pertains to the inclusion of all the resistance that led to slaveholders enacting crueler and crueler “slave codes” to try to control enslaved people. What other messages are we sending when we start Black History at slavery or name schools after Confederate generals? Smith said, “Every day, black children walk into schools named for people who didn’t want them to exist.”
This is true even in who is studied and revered in history class and who is read and revered in English class. (I must say, when Smith said, “I can build my own canon,” I got excited for what the future of education holds, what it can be, and maybe what it is starting to be in some classrooms.) Even how we only revere and/or teach certain forms of writing, art, and performance over others is problematic. Jones and Smith both discussed the stereotypes that people ascribe to spoken word or rapping and reminded us that poetry (think Shakespeare’s plays) was meant to be performed because throughout much history, most people were illiterate. So to assume there is something wrong with these styles of poetry that are meant to be performed, Smith says, “One- you’re being ahistorical, and two- you’re being racist.”
When I attended the Racial Equity Institute’s Antiracism Workshop, we did an activity that looked at a variety of American laws, policies, and court cases and considered how they ended up laying the ground work for producing disparate wealth. While we did look at the Antidrug Abuse Act of 1986 and learned how the law specifically targeted black and brown people despite its race neutral language, we did not look at the War on Crime’s policies and what wealth disparities were created out of that. Elizabeth Hinton, during the session “On the endurance of mass incarceration,” said that “the War on Crime was a job-creating program for white men” who ended up becoming police officers and prison guards, thus being another policy that created disparate outcomes, but if and when we learn of these things in school, we learn the sanitized version that doesn’t include how black people were harmed or left out.
I think even in considering policy, we have to realize to what extent our ahistorical socialization has led to people believing “the narrative of black pathology” which “excuses policy” as Carol Anderson as said during the session “On racism’s stranglehold on American democracy and antiracist resistance for survival.” Because of that, she found the coverage during Ferguson to be despicable. She said that the media “ignored the kindling, but focused on the fire.” This is what inspired her to write White Rage. I’m still working on my post for that, but I would say that book definitely gives some context about the historical kindling for the people in Ferguson (and everywhere really) who were “steeped in America.”
During the session “On hope, resistance, and redemption in the face of White Supremacy,” DeRay Mckesson (yeah, I was fangirling hard) made some distinctions about holding people accountable and finding justice that I thought were interesting and related to policy. He said that accountability happens “after trauma has occurred” whereas justice would be to “avoid the trauma to begin with” through policy change. He said after Black Lives Matter, “a lot of conversations are happening, but the outcomes are getting worse” as more unarmed black people are killed by police than when BLM first ignited. This connects to the debates around mass incarceration and the “War on Drugs;” there is a national conversation around prison and sentencing reform, but “even if we decarcerated every person in prison for drugs, we’d still have the highest number of incarcerated people in the world” said Hinton. Again coming back to policy, she said, “We’ve got to rethink what were doing with prison.”
Ultimately, “racism is strategic not pathological” as Alicia Garza, the Kendi/Anderson moderator, put it. Until we acknowledge that, I think the systems stay in place. Kendi said that we have to “base policies on outcome, not intent.” If the policy continues to produce disparate outcomes, then, “there is something wrong with our policies that we thought were just.”
Essentially, “people are never to blame. Antiracists never blame people.” This statement of Kendi’s really resonated me when I think about my work with teachers and pathologies they put on their poor students and on students of color and their families.
When we talk about policy change, I wonder how we make it happen. I thought about this throughout reading Stamped from the Beginning, and spent a lot of the conference thinking about it. Kendi, during the “On racism’s stranglehold” session, said, “In order to have freedom, you have to have power.”
Anderson stated that “It’s in the collective where the power is.” We can’t just hope our leaders will do the right thing. Even thinking historically, Steve Luxenberg, in the “On the rise of Jim Crow and its divisive endurance in our conversations” session, reminded us that “slavery did not end in 1865” if you think about how many Supreme Court rulings and other policies allowed our country to become deeply divided and unequal. In fact, he stated that “They are followers, the Supreme Court justices, not leaders.” Luxenberg blew my mind when he talked about the Plessy case which is the focus for his book. Did you know that Plessy was a volunteer to get arrested for this case? Did you know the trail road company was trying to end the separate train car laws because it was so expensive to run? I did not, and my mind is blown.
While I don’t know what my favorite session was because I loved them all differently, my favorite person to listen to was Michael Eric Dyson who was also in the “On the rise of Jim Crow and its divisive endurance in our conversations” session. The man is a god among men. He talked to us about literary geniuses trying to use their power to get through to JFK. James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and others met with JFK, and “they lit his ass up” as Dyson put it. While the meeting wasn’t successful at the time, their message did eventually impact JFK and influence his policy.
The point of his story was for us to not underestimate our own power, I think. He said, “Sometimes the people who write in the privacy of their homes can shake the world” and to “use your platform to leverage your authority.” Among other things, my favorite and most recent example he gave was Beyoncé’s Coachella performance and her use of “capital for resistance.”
The Other Quotables
“7th grade is just puberty and deodorant.” -DeRay McKesson
“Wealth is not success.” -Carol Anderson
“I get more distraught when hearing people of color reproducing racist ideas. Internalized racism is the real black-on-black crime.” -Ibram X Kendi
“When I hear people say ‘I don’t like politics,’ I hear ‘I don’t like power. I want to be a slave.’” -Ibram X. Kendi
“Poetry is spell casting.” -Rasha Abdulhadi