More Than Just Words: Taking Antiracism Seriously

Protest march against bigotry and hate speech at the University of Minnesota, October 2016 (Photo: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr).

From bumper stickers and social media hashtags and memes, to think tanks and think pieces, the concept ‘antiracist’ has saturated airwaves and crammed agendas. Along with using buzzwords such as ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion,’ everyone from college administrators and film producers affirm their commitment to diversifying their institutions, and by extension, challenging racism. Yet despite such commitments, antiracist strategies are not always clear and diversity and inclusion efforts seem to amount to little more than including a Black person here and there. Such individual additions often mean that, in places like academia, Black students, faculty, and staff, end up unfairly shouldering the burden of undoing deeply entrenched institutional culture. Dismissing individual complaints of racism, some colleagues and institutions even deny race as a problem.

Combating racism is not as simple as inviting individuals from traditionally marginalized groups to sit at the table. We all must contemplate racism, including its gendered forms, and how our intellectual labor and expertise could dismantle it.

It is no simple feat to understand the intricacies of race, including individual culpability. It took centuries of deep theorizing by some of the most sophisticated legal theorists, philosophers, historians, theologians, scientists, political economists, novelists—such as Thomas Jefferson, Josiah Nott, James De Bow, and Cotton Mather—to craft the theory and praxis of race. Think, for example, of such legal principles as partus sequitur ventrem—children take their mother’s status—that became law in Virginia after about half a century of legal maneuvering by both enslaved and enslaver. As the historian Jennifer Morgan explored in a recent genealogical study of the concept, partus arose from the deliberate and concerted efforts of the most sophisticated legal minds in colonial Virginia, as they explored various legal precedent to deal with the problem of female slave reproduction. Rejecting bastardy law precedent on the status of children born out of wedlock and relying instead on property law, Virginians made the slave status inheritable to thwart enslaved parents’ determinations on kinship, transform kin into property, and protect the perpetuity of slave property. Nothing was natural about the inheritability of the slave status. Deep intellectual theorizing and maneuvering constructed race. Of necessity, antiracism requires at least equal erudition.

But what does it mean to commit our intellectual expertise to antiracism? Most of us accept race as a natural phenomenon, that human beings are naturally different. We evoke such acceptance of difference when we extend invitations to scholars to participate in conferences or offer positions to individuals based on physical traits. And while undoing racial segregation and exclusivity necessarily requires targeted integrative practices, we must take care not to mistake symptom for cause. The assumption that a person inhabiting Black skin carries all the necessary tools to tackle racial inequality relies on the same logic as physical markers determine criminality. Such assumptions mean that in addition to performing the labor of integration, diversity candidates shoulder responsibilities for resolving other institutional race problems, including those unacknowledged. By the same token, white colleagues often reject requests for mentoring Black faculty or refuse to serve on committees dealing with race issues because they are not Black. Yet as historians we study the past, as foreign as Black is to white according to race logic, without any sense of irony. As students of history we strive to suspend our way of thinking and being to imagine the realities and choices of historical subjects based on assumptions, options, and tools available to them. What if we applied some of the tools of our discipline to our strategies against racism, including suspending our assumptions based on what we first see?

While committing to antiracism can be vague, or at least it is not as target specific as the Civil Rights Movement’s challenge to racial segregation and disfranchisement, it is equally important to challenge racism in its illusive manifestations. Slavery could have given rise to Jim Crow segregation, the war on drugs, and tough on crime policies because we have collectively bought into the facticity of race. Even when the original conditions of colonialism and slavery permitted Europeans to deploy what social theorist Patricia Hill Collins calls ‘“controlling images” changed, the perception of Black bodies as naturally unruly left intact the framework of race to discipline such unruly bodies.  Moreover, insisting only on hard targets of racism sidesteps the point that racism is not only in places where we expect to find it. From the complex and nuanced to the mundane and pedestrian, we rank and exclude based on race. We mostly accept race as a naturally occurring fact. But we must go against our natural inclination to assume we can know our colleagues based on what we first see—their physical traits. Like historical thinking that requires that we distrust automatic assumptions about the subjects we study, antiracist thinking requires that we train ourselves to distrust and question assumptions we make. We must consistently ask what assumptions about race am I making in this scenario?

Assumptions about race manifests in such decisions as the journals and books we read; conferences we attend; scholars we cite and canonize as authorities; and faculty we hire, mentor, promote, and tenure. How would the academy’s racial problems begin to unravel if we inverted the practice of inviting token Black scholars into white spaces by attending Black conferences, tasking oneself to learn and observe rather than teach and dominate? What if our academic theorizing began with critical race theory and we train ourselves to be equally conversant in scholarship that critically engages race? As historian, Sadiah Qureshi recently framed it, what if in addition to requiring students read white (predominantly male) theorists—canonized as universal truth tellers—like “Tacitus, Herodotus, Max Weber, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Jacques Derrida and, more rarely, Judith Butler,” we also require that students critically engage the works of “Audre Lorde, Stuart Hall, Frantz Fanon, Jasbir Puar, Sara Ahmed, Kim TallBear or Kimberlé Crenshaw?”

Admittedly, it appears contradictory to challenge the idea that Black academics are automatic race experts to then suggest Black theorists and academic journals and conferences are spaces for challenging race. An important distinction, however, is that many of these writings, journals, and conferences are ground zero for taking a microscope to race. In such spaces race is a thing to be examined, analyzed, and dissected rather than assumed as the basis for evaluating intellect, expertise, or scholarship.

We must disentangle diversity from critical race consciousness. Diversity alleviates the problem of racial segregation but does not necessarily challenge automatic assumptions about race. To challenge racism, we must examine and understand the cause and symptoms of racism, taking care that we attend to both.

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Sasha Turner

Sasha Turner is Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @drsashaturner.