Anti-racism is not limited to just being “not racist.” Anti-racism involves actively working to understand, challenge, and dismantle white privilege. White people must work against practices and systems that disadvantage Indigenous peoples and people of colour. This means continuously questioning the status quo and learning to confront racist systems. In this piece, I take a lot of inspiration from Rachel Cargle and Brené Brown. One of Rachel Cargle’s teachings is that white feelings should not be privileged over the lives of black and brown people. This is a key point in confronting white fragility. Brené Brown teaches that discomfort and vulnerability can lead to positive outcomes, as long as you “lean in” and don’t let that discomfort scare you into inaction. Anti-racism requires holding oneself accountable and not expecting Indigenous peoples and people of colour to do all of the work of anti-racism.
I am going to outline key concepts in anti-racism and reference sources that I’ve relied upon when learning how to engage with anti-racism to try to further the conversation about understanding and challenging racist practices and systems. Here, I seek to unpack white privilege in a way that helps white people understand what racism is, how and why it occurs, and how to practice living in anti-racist ways. I hope that the following information can provide a starting point for anyone interested in unpacking their white privilege and engaging in anti-racist practices. I am not suggesting that I have it all figured out, nor that I am an authority on the matter. I am continuously learning how to understand and practice anti-racism, and this post is a part of that learning.
Racism and anti-racism
If you Google “racism defined,” the definitions it spits out are: “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior,” or “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” Translated, this means that you treat other races as “lesser than” due to beliefs about their qualities.
This definition is unsatisfactory. This definition makes it seem like there could be such a thing as “reverse racism,” where white people could be treated as less-than by other races due to beliefs about them as a group. A better definition of racism is from the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre (ACLRC), where they define racism as a combination of racial prejudice and power. Racial prejudice is the Google definition of racism, when people hold negative perceptions and attitudes about people based on their race or skin colour. Add in an unequal distribution of power, and here’s what racism truly is: the “authority granted through social structures and conventions—possibly supported by force or the threat of force—and access to means of communications and resources, to reinforce racial prejudice, regardless of the falsity of the underlying prejudiced assumption” (ACLRC 2019). Un-jargoned, this means that society has privileged white people in ways that provide them with power, resources, and social standing that are dangerous to Indigenous peoples and people of colour.
White privilege is created and maintained through violence. White people are continuously upholding and perpetuating systems that privilege them, unless they commit to practicing anti-racism—identifying, challenging, and changing the values, structures and behaviours that privilege whiteness (ACLRC 2019).
White people need to understand the positionality of their whiteness
Being white is often sensed as “normalcy,” while Indigenous peoples and people of colour are “othered.” White people get to speak for the common experience of humanity, while Indigenous peoples and people of colour are delegated to speak for their entire racialized group. “The media, politics, education are still in the hands of white people, still speak to whites while claiming—and sometimes sincerely aiming—to speak for all of humanity…” (Holliday, Hyde, and Kullman 2010, 153). Whiteness is not neutral, and it is not objective.
White feelings < black and brown lives
Rachel Cargle is an activist and an academic with an Instagram page devoted to confronting the power and privilege that white people have. A lot of her message focuses on white feminists, who actively reproduce racial hierarchies while trying to fight for feminism. She struggles with white women in her comment section feeling hurt, sad, guilty, or angry with her for pointing out their privilege and their ignorance. They often criticize her for being divisive within the feminist movement, or for pushing away those who are well-intentioned. This particularly occurs with those who are “spiritual” and “progressive” and insist that they deserve to be met where they are at. They think they deserve to be afforded gentleness and kindness from black women. This is white fragility, coined by DiAngelo in his article White Fragility, where a minimal amount of racial discomfort for whites is intolerable and triggers defensiveness. White supremacy expects people of colour to cater to the needs of white people and sooth their discomfort. But Cargle has refused “to listen to white women cry” (Meltzer 2019).
Why is this powerful? Cargle actively refuses to censor her message and experiences to comfort white people. She speaks the truth to people who don’t want to recognize their power and privilege. When Indigenous peoples and people of colour call out white supremacy, white people often deny or minimize their experiences, silencing them or blaming them for pointing out what’s wrong. This can show up in statements like, “I didn’t mean to be racist,” “you’re over-reacting,” “you’re making people uncomfortable,” or “you’re not making it easy to be on your side.” It can show up in actions, like not speaking out when racism or oppression is occurring, or like opting out of difficult conversations. White people are exercising and promoting white supremacy when they dictate how comfortable they want to be by silencing Indigenous peoples and people of colour.
Lean into the discomfort
Brené Brown teaches that those who can tolerate being the most uncomfortable—the most vulnerable—and lean into that discomfort are those that can develop real relationships and those who can rise strong. This can be applied to a lot of areas in life, but it has also helped me understand and engage with my own feelings of white fragility. When someone is experiencing racism or speaking about experiences with white supremacy, my knee-jerk reaction is to clam up and get out quick, due to fear and shame regarding my own role in racism and white supremacy. But this is not productive and doesn’t align with anti-racist practices. In moments like these, it’s helpful to have a lens to apply to these feelings and interrogate the discomfort.
After engaging with a number of anti-racist educators and their works, Brown’s advice leads me to avoid seeing myself as a “victim” of discomfort, and to lean in to the opportunity to grow and learn how to be a better ally—my discomfort is nothing compared to the experiences of oppression and racism that others face. The power that has unjustly been granted to me through white supremacy affords me the privilege to choose whether I have to actively engage with racism. Action is required in order to avoid perpetuating racist systems and practices. Confronting and giving up that power means recognizing where I stand, naming the reason for my discomfort, and—despite how uncomfortable it can be—taking a stand against racism.
Racism occurs at the intersection of power and prejudice. Anti-racism is a continuous, active process that white people have to work for—it is not a passive activity. No matter how uncomfortable or upsetting it may be to engage with racism and white supremacy as a white person, racism and white supremacy are actively dangerous to Indigenous peoples and people of colour. White feelings matter less than black and brown lives. White tears are not allyship, they unfairly center whiteness as the most important perspective when talking about race. If you’re uncomfortable, lean in and do the work to dismantle white supremacy and challenge racism.
Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre. 2019. Accessed October 7, 2019. http://www.aclrc.com/racism-and-power
Holliday, A., M. Hyde, and J. Kullman. 2010. Intercultural Communication: An Advanced Resource Book for Students. 2nd Edition.
Meltzer, M. 2019. “’I Refuse to Listen to White Women Cry’: Rachel Cargle has built a brand—and a business—by calling out racial injustices within feminism.” The Washington Post Magazine. September 11. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/magazine/wp/2019/09/11/feature/how-activist-rachel-cargle-built-a-business-by-calling-out-racial-injustices-within-feminism/
Article written by Sarah Foley, TAYFFI Intern | Sarah is a Fourth year major in Environmental Biology and honours major in Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan. Sarah was on the Dean’s List in 2017-2018 academic year and was awarded the Eric Whiting Memorial Scholarship in 2018 and 2019 as well as the Biology Club Scholarship in 2019.