We are living in precedented times. I know, we’ve all heard the opposite for the past two years. We have a once-in-a-century pandemic raging around the world. People are acting with entitled cruelty and rage, especially towards service workers. Millions of people have lost their lives for a teetering economy and “unprecedented” profits for a few. So how different are things?
Some people have always been this way. So much of the last two years have been normal to them. The same people who stormed the capitol and protested about haircuts have always held power in america. White men used to occupy every office, every position of institutional power. While the country’s demographics may have changed, many of those institutions have not.
Right now I’m making my way through the essays in The 1619 Project, the book with the same name as the digital work. It’s been a reminder that things have never been perfect and were sometimes worse. The founding fathers wrote about all the men created equal while 20% of america lived in chains. Free whites agitated against England by describing their oppression as slavery. They did this while brutalizing people they had purchased and sold. Black people, Indigenous people, immigrants, and more have led the fight for equal rights for centuries. To this day, we fight to uphold the promises of a country we live in.
There’s a reason we need to remember this history. There’s a reason why people are desperate to ban books that challenge their narrowing worldview. If we forget where we came from, we won’t notice what we’re bringing with us. Here are a few ways to think about that.
look for the cover up
My goal for antiracist change is to undo a racist system faster than it took people to build it. A curious thing happens during change. Before the change can root into people’s minds, the present system tries to hide. Many of us know a company that says they practice equity that just so happens to look no different from what it used to. People love getting credit for things they’re already doing. If we can call our current system “equitable,” then change feels painless. We’re already done! But those of us who live in an unjust system know that what we want isn’t the same system in progressive clothing.
How can we be sure, then? Look at the change more closely. Who is proposing these changes? Who will the changes affect? How much of a tangible difference will it make in their lives? What do they think about the changes? Who consulted them, and when?
It’s tempting to say that equity means that everyone receives exactly the same help, but it’s not true. It’s easy, but if creating an antiracist system was easy, we would have done it by now. Don’t settle for a status quo that masquerades as progress.
make equity meaningful
Start by how you define it. Do you explain equity to people by talking about three kids watching a baseball game? Reciting an example that you’ve heard won’t have the same impact as speaking from the heart. I often interview job candidates about their understanding of equity. I look for answers that feel “lived-in.” What does equity mean to you? Why is it important to you? Why should it be important to me?
I describe equity in different ways depending on the audience I’m working with. If we’re talking about people facing hunger, I could describe three people who need to eat. One person can fill their fridge with food that they like, and they know how to cook it. One person sometimes has enough to eat, they have a few things they know how to cook, but they also can’t eat grains. Another person rarely has enough to eat, they have mobility issues that make it hard to go to the store or earn money. Equality might mean giving each of them a loaf of bread. Equity means first understanding that the food system was not created to serve everyone equally. People with power have their needs met, their farms subsidized, their grocery stores attractive and close by. People without power have navigated those systems the best they can, even though the system itself says they are unimportant or unwanted. This is even more true for people intentionally marginalized because of the color of their skin. Considering that, an antiracism practice can start with a goal, everyone should be able to eat, and work backwards from there. What does each person need to be able to eat? What hazards in our present system can prevent a person from being able to feed themselves? Let’s fix those things!
moral support is not enough
What does it mean to stand with people fighting for a cause? When you picture it in your mind, what actions are you taking? Are you joining them at a protest? Are you telling your friends about why the issue matters, or inviting them to join you? Are you making a public comment at a city council meeting?
A school board in Tennessee recently banned the graphic novel Maus. The story depicts the Holocaust in harrowing detail. I remember reading it in high school as one of the first times I really knew what the Holocaust was about. In response to the book’s banning, the book became a bestseller. People started donating copies of the book to their local libraries. What problem does that solve? Jennifer Iacopelli wrote in response on twitter,
School libraries don’t need you to donate copies of Maus and other banned books. They need you to step up and run for the school board so the books don’t get banned in the first place.
— Jennifer Iacopelli (@jennifercarolyn) January 30, 2022
There are plenty of people running for school board who want to ban this book and more. Books by Black authors, most of them not even about race, are facing bans across the country. Say what you will about racists, but they have a worldview, a goal, and a relentless drive to achieve it. We have to do more to push back against their efforts.
No matter who we are and what we do, we all have some privilege and power. Use your privilege to be open to growth, change, and reflection. Learn from Black, Indigenous, and people of color who organize for antiracist change. Use your power to make those changes a reality. It’s not possible to throw money at an issue when our opponents are throwing everything. If we truly want to live in unprecedented times, we must keep working to make the world better for everyone.