My Turn: Being antiracist, a new vision

For the Monitor
Published: 4/7/2021 10:00:17 AM

As the trail of Derek Chauvin begins, I’m brought back to the death of George Floyd last summer. The horror and despair that people experienced on seeing, or even just hearing about, the video of George Floyd’s death as he was pinned under Derek Chauvin’s knee inspired more people than ever before in our country to challenge racism. More white people in particular. An estimated 15 to 26 million people protested police violence against Black people last June, the largest such movement in the history of the United States.

Books about racism and how white people can confront it topped best seller lists for weeks. “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo and “How to Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi are two excellent examples. White people wanted to explore their role in perpetuating a system that treats Black people as less important than whites, and they wanted a guide for action.

While there aren’t Black Lives Matter rallies every weekend and anti-racism books aren’t headlining best seller lists, there are still white people across the country reading, discussing, organizing and thinking about how to address racism in our country. There are signs of hope.

We now have a presidential administration that has openly expressed its intention to confront systemic racism and an excellent beginning to those efforts is the diversity of Biden’s cabinet and staff. The funding in the American Rescue Plan for Black farmers, who were routinely undermined by discriminatory government lending practices, is another hopeful sign.

Still, many of us continue to ask, what can I do? Here’s a story from activist Holiday Phillips that may help you think about your answers in a new way. (All credit for this story goes to Phillips, and I encourage you to listen to her yourself at holidayphillips.com.)

Bayo Akomolafe is a Nigerian philosopher and organizer, who speaks around the world on topics of race, power and re-framing. Giving a guest lecture at a college in England, he recounted how often he gets stopped and searched when he flies, because he’s a Black man.

At the end of the class a student approached him and apologized profusely for the discrimination Akomolafe described. The young man, who is white, was dismayed to think that Akomolafe faced difficulties that the young man never had to experience. He apologized for any ways in which his privilege as a white man played into Akomolafe’s oppression.

Akomolafe stopped the young man and said he rejected the apology. The young man became even more apologetic, expressing how sorry he was if he’d said something that was offensive. Akomolafe explained that he rejected the student’s apology because accepting it would bind him to the story that there is only one way to have power in the world.

Akomolafe asked the young man if he could talk to plants. He asked, “Do you hear the wisdom of your ancestors in your dreams? Do you feel the power of your spirit animals?”

Akomolafe introduced a radical re-framing of power. Not having been taught indigenous wisdom through his upbringing as a white man, the student missed out on experiences of life that bring strength and connection to people. Perhaps the student didn’t get stopped when going through security to board a plane, but did he benefit from the power of indigenous knowledge?

In most antiracist efforts, white people seek to open up more opportunities for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). Phillips uses the metaphor of a mountain to illustrate how we think about power in our hierarchical society. We envision a mountain with primarily white people at the top and BIPOC on the bottom. We focus on how to get more BIPOC mixed in on every level of the mountain in order to make our society more equal.

But that’s a model based on seeing the mountain of power as the inevitable structure for our world. What if instead of trying to mix up the layers of white people and BIPOC on the current mountain, we try to create a new mountain built on a vision of shared power? What if what we need is a meadow and not a mountain?

At one point in the conversation between the student and Akomolafe, the young man apologized for his access to “room at the table,” based entirely on unearned privilege. Akomolafe replied by saying he may not have a seat at the student’s table, but there might be ten other tables in ten other rooms that he could join.

Holiday Phillips tells this story to help all of us who want to make a difference by confronting racism and promoting equity see that there are many ways to help. She wants to broaden and deepen the possibilities for change. There is certainly work to be done to integrate the mountain more fully. Working to give BIPOC equal access to traditional sources of cultural, governmental and economic power is a necessary and worthy goal. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to be antiracist.

Studying indigenous wisdom and living and spreading any integrated and holistic ways of thinking and being that we learn is meaningful work. Promoting peace and healing in interpersonal relationships can be as important as attending a march. Joining with others to work towards equity on any issue is a way to model “power with” rather than “power over” relationships. Recognizing and making visible the connections between all oppressions is antiracism work.

When asking yourself how you can help to overturn the racial power imbalance in our society, dream about how you would like to see our world shift and recalibrate. Fix on that vision and work towards it. Bring your own dreams and wisdom to the task, whether that’s creating a more equitable mountain or cultivating a diverse meadow.

(Grace Mattern lives in Northwood)




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