In need of distinction? “anti-racism” & “anti-race”

The other day I was having a conversation over dinner about racism, The Last Airbender, and the frustrating point of contention among self-identifying anti-racists about the meaning of the word “racism”, and what it means to be anti-racism/anti-racist.

I’ve read plenty of essays out there about the disparities between people’s definitions of racism, and the debate usually centers around the existence of systemic racism. This isn’t that debate, though it inevitably ties to it.

The real issue came down to the part where people, usually white people, (and for all of my experience, usually US American), don’t understand how opposing the casting of white leads in The Last Airbender constitutes anti-racism; isn’t it just the opposite? “It’s reverse-racism,” they say, or, “reverse-discrimination. You’re picking on those actors because they’re not the race you want them to be. How is that not racist?”

This conversation inevitably breached affirmative action, racially focused movements, and the recent “don’t talk about race to kids” ideology that’s attempting to take Texas and Arizona (and who knows what else to follow). We kept chewing over argument, trying to figure out a sharp, cutting way of making a strong basic argument without having to preface everything with explanations of institutional racism, privilege, and all those other subjects which make many bloggers frustrated and tell the ignorant masses to do their Racism 101 homework before coming into the fray. (To be clear, this vocabulary is in no way meant to negate the necessity of learning, or absolve the responsibility for learning, the existing language which we use to talk about these issues. The existing vocabulary is still necessary to discussion.)

At some point I threw up my hands, lead by the discussion to the words I was searching for: anti-racism is not anti-race, and it is a difference that is in need of articulation, at least in my circle. Clarity descended, and my friend and I began to articulate the following.

 

WHAT IS ANTI-RACISM?

To be anti-racism is to be against a social hierarchy built upon concepts of race. It is to be against discrimination, hate, stereotyping, type-casting, language, ideology, bigotry, visual images, action and/or inaction which contribute to that racial hierarchy. It is to be against systems/institutions which support a racial hierarchy, intentionally or unintentionally.

It is also to be against racial invisibility or the death of race. Which brings us to:

 

WHAT IS ANTI-RACE?

To be anti-race is to be against race. It is to be against the real disparities that exist between people, which exist not because of actual biological dictations of superiority and inferiority, but because society and people have brought them into existence. It is to deny that human beings made a reality something that wasn’t. It is to be against talking about race, and by extension to recognize how race permeates many levels of our society. It is to be against, to trivialize, the real histories of peoples who were affected by their designated race. It is to deny modern-day peoples experiences and sufferings which they have regardless of personal wish or volition.

It is to be against affirmative action, which recognizes the racially based social divisions of society and institutional racism, and seeks to combat it.

It is to be against the recognition or analysis of racial imagery, and what actions, decisions, and media may support such imagery. (The Last Airbender, Prince of Persia, and far too many more).

It is to be colorblind. It is to treat human skin as a costume, rather than understand that it means far more than that to many people past and present, even if it shouldn’t, or we wish it wouldn’t.

It is to be privileged, to not have to think about or recognize race because it may not appear to hurt you openly or significantly.

To be anti-race is to be Arizona lawmakers who refuse to admit, recognize, or who truly believe in the triviality, of the racially discriminatory ways in which an anti-illegal immigration law will be carried out, or the racism and xenophobia which made the law possible.

To be anti-race is to be in support of the Texas School Board of Education, which seeks to maximize the white-cultural historical narrative of the U.S., thereby minimizing connections to racial discussions and views in history out of the fear that this encourage racist tensions. It is to fail to recognize that this is a lot white people freaking out over the loss of privilege as the primary national, historical narrative.

To be anti-race is to be Arizona City Councilman Steve Blair, who is against featuring children of color on a school mural because he believe it has a racial agenda.*

To be anti-race is to be in support of racism, intentionally or unintentionally.

 

*On AGENDAS

I am identifying a difference between a racial agenda and a racist agenda. People, such as the city councilman of Arizona, tend find certain activism problematic precisely because they see it as a racist agenda, but I think it better to understand their opposition as an opposition to a racial agenda.

A racial agenda may or may not be a racist agenda. A racial agenda which seeks to equalize/balance/rectify the disparities in racial representations and relations, such as affirmative action or the decision to paint children of color on purpose on a school mural (had they not actually been real children), is not a racist agenda. A racial agenda which gives white people the dominant voice in what is actually a multi-racial history of the United States is a racist agenda (even if “they didn’t mean it that way!!!11!11”).

Mr. Blair, and others, do not distinguish between these two agendas because they subscribe to the colorblind philosophy, and do not make distinctions between “anti-racism” rhetoric and action and “anti-race”. As with many people who are colorblind and unaware of privilege, “race” is a touchy subject because they fail to distinguish it from “racism”. Thus, the infamous “talking about race is racist” square on the B!ngo Card.

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Your suffering is not worth losing sleep over

I have a small balcony to my right. This afternoon I almost ran out there and screamed my head off when I read the following from an article addressing the protesters of The Last Airbender:

You guys need to settle down, because there is no way that Hollywood would have ever, ever cast anyone other than a white kid as Aang. I think your heart is in the right place, and I think this is a discussion worth having, but you guys need to stop losing sleep over this.

I’m sorry–what? You want people to calm down and not lose sleep over this (because clearly, losing sleep is voluntary) because white-preference in Hollywood is just not worth getting all worked up about?

When my little girl comes running home to me one day and tells me she’s being bullied on the playground (whether that means she’s been physically attacked or verbally), am I supposed to simply tell her “That’s life, get over it” and “Don’t lose sleep about it honey!” even though tomorrow she has to worry about going back to school and facing the exact same problems?

It doesn’t just have to be my little girl. It can be my friend, it can be an acquaintance, it can be someone I’ve never met. When somebody tells me that they’re suffering in a social system that pushes them down because they’re not pretty enough, normal enough, able-bodied, not the right gender, etc., what kind of person am I if I say, “I’m sure your heart is in the right place, but this isn’t worth losing sleep over.” What makes you think that people losing sleep over this issues lose sleep because they want to? People feel the social ramifications of racist issues (along with sexism, able-ism, and you name it), every day whether they want to or not.

And for the people who don’t feel these things, for the people that don’t lose sleep on a regular basis because maybe none of these issues touch us in quite a way that makes us suffer–what kind of people are we to simply dismiss the complaints of others because we don’t feel them ourselves?

More and more, I’ve become convinced that the reason these issues still exist and have progressed in their various forms is less because people are purposefully trying to perpetuate them, and more precisely because not enough people take them seriously, not enough people listen when someone is suffering, and because too many people say, “That’s life.” When you tell somebody “That’s life” over something like this, I can’t help but see a self-fulfilling prophecy. It enables these issues to continue in the face of little opposition.

A dead white guy once said, “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing.”*

EDIT: As it turns out, a dead white guy did not say that, but a lot of living people do.