Ending Racism Together: Committing to a Body of Work On and For Ourselves

Racism had a beginning. And it can have an end. What if I told you we could end racism, right now?

I founded the Luna Jiménez Institute for Social Transformation with the mission to end racism through personal healing and transformation—and to live long enough to see racism end. The theories, frameworks, and practices that Lillian Roybal Rose introduced to me 26 years ago inspired me to do this as my life’s work. These theories, frameworks, and practices are as radical today as they were then. Maybe more so…

Over the past quarter century, I have witnessed trends in this field come and go. I usually learn about the latest fad by listening to what new clients are calling for—often with some urgency because they won’t get funding if they don’t check this or that box for this or that foundation. Sometimes we have been able to help these clients understand the goal is to end racism through healing: not crafting an equity lens or implementing an implicit bias training. Sometimes we couldn’t. Perhaps pressures from foundations, boards, or constituents were too immediate. Or perhaps the goal seemed too lofty.

Until now, I have avoided commenting on these trends and focused on quietly sharing our approach with the people we can reach through our work. If you attend one of our workshops, you’ll learn why I think the “privilege” narrative actually reifies supremacy and keeps dominance in place, rather than dismantling it, or why I question the use of “microaggressions” to describe acts of oppression (“micro” to who?), or my cautions of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program built around “implicit bias,” which denies or minimizes the role of institutional power and dominance (not all “implicit biases” have the same impact). Perhaps because the current moment is asking more of each of us, or perhaps because I’m hopeful that we in this struggle for racial, economic, and social justice can avoid some traps I see emerging in the current “anti-racism” trend, I’ve decided to share some of my thinking with you today.

I understand the significant shift from denying being “racist” or claiming “non-racist” to actively affirming being “anti-racist.” (I won’t restate the arguments Ibram X. Kendi makes in his book How to Be an Anti-Racist.) Yet, I would argue (and do so in our workshops) that neither people nor our actions neatly divide into two discreet, dualistic, and dueling camps. While it is tempting and even comforting to know which camp you are in and who’s in the other camp, it’s not as simple as this. People can’t be summed up as “bad” racists or non-racists and “good” anti-racists. The need to create, perpetuate, and defend “anti” or “us/them” paradigms is rooted in fear. And fear, while ever-present, has arguably reached new heights in 2020.

Not unlike “privilege,” I’ve witnessed the weaponizing of “anti-racist” and its dualistic other—“racist.” From this frame, our energy and efforts turn to being against the “bad” or “racist” people—rather than working to end racism. “Anti-racist” has been worn as a badge or marker and used to dismiss, demonize, and cancel people. Think about that. In our fear of being labeled “racist,” of being put into the “wrong” camp, we use “anti-racist” to justify our judgments of people’s worth or commitment to social justice. And conversely, to assert our own value and commitment to social justice. The trap of this framing? None of us will ever measure up.

It only takes one “racist” move, mistake, or misstatement and we can lose our status, be written off instantly, forcibly, and sometimes publicly moved into the other camp. Yet, if we really think about it: how could we not make these mistakes and misstatements? All of us carry the misinformation of the system we’ve been immersed in. The goal can’t be to never let that show. It’s in there. Let’s admit that much. In addition to fear, this frame breeds an environment of pretense.

This “anti-racist” framework has well-meaning people and organizations trying to “perform anti-racism.” One workshop participant likened it to a dog who cycles through a range of tricks in hopes they happen on the trick that’s the “right” one, the one that garners approval and maybe a treat or an extra pat on the head. These lists of “anti-racist tricks” proliferate on social media almost as fast as they are consumed. (Some “anti-racist” list going around encouraged White people to check in on their Black friends. I can’t tell you how awkward that was. First, our friends, White or otherwise, were already checking in with us and us with them. Second, there was a whole lot of presuming and performing of friendship.)

“Performing anti-racism” both assuages guilt and garners social capital. At its root, though, it lacks substance and is not a substitute for the ongoing engagement of healing from the effects of racism.

This environment of increased fear, pretense, defensiveness, and judgment does not create the conditions needed to support the deep, vulnerable, and necessary work to bring an end to racism. In fact, they nurture the very terrain in which patterns of dominance take root and flourish. The very patterns we need and want to eliminate.

Ending racism requires active engagement in a body of work on and for ourselves.

This work is doable and ongoing, and cannot be summarized on an Instagram slide or checked off a checklist. In our approach to ending racism, I offer a different starting point: What if we never again confused people with their patterns? What if we assumed each of us is good, like inherently that way—not based on how many “anti-racist” actions we take or how “woke” our world looks to others—but rather as a birthright, simply by being born? What if we assumed that no one came out of the womb wanting to collude with or perpetuate racism—and regardless of how it shows up in our adult behavior today: all of us actively fought against internalizing any of the misinformation from racism for as long and as hard as we could?

In the end, all of us—yes, me and you and all of us socialized in a system of White supremacy, a system that dehumanizes Blackness—internalized these messages. All. Of. Us. The question is no longer who is or who isn’t an “anti-racist.” In my heart and in my work, it’s clear that racism doesn’t serve or benefit any one: oppression is not in any human’s best interest. Oppressive systems dehumanize us all. The question for me and that is the foundation of our work is: how do we create the conditions for all of us to heal from the dehumanizing effects of racism?

All White people have racist patterns. In a system where White people are, through an accident of birth, made part of the Non-Target group of racism, White people will act out racist patterns when they feel scared, threatened, or defensive. That doesn’t make them “good” or “bad.” It makes them hurt humans living in an oppressive system. All Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) have internalized racist patterns. In a system where BIPOC are, by accident of birth, made part of the Target group of racism, BIPOC will act out patterns of internalized racism against themselves and other BIPOC folks when they feel scared, threatened, or defensive. That doesn’t make them “good” or “bad.” It makes them hurt humans living in an oppressive system.

A popular “anti-racist” slogan asserts that “silence is violence.” The implication is that anyone not speaking up in the face of racism is not only colluding with but also perpetuating an act of violence. This dualistic statement misunderstands the range of both motivations and impacts of silence: which depend on and are informed by the context. I don’t need so-called “anti-racists” simply speaking up as a performative act while not understanding why they are speaking up; not internalizing they are speaking up in solidarity (not for me—I have my own voice for that); not assessing that sometimes what is required is silence.

We need to think and act contextually. What we do (or don’t do) can’t become a litmus test for our commitment. The racial healing framing I’m offering here: how did we come to the decision to be silent or not? What assessment informed our action or inaction? Let’s say, upon reflection, you can acknowledge you went silent because of fear (in other words, it wasn’t a decision, it was a reaction or protection). Your silence makes you scared—not a “racist.” Yes, depending on the context, your silence could have colluded with racism or internalized racism. You’ll need to face that, feel that, be accountable for that. It doesn’t make you a “racist.” Calling your fear-based response “racist,” only increases fear. More fear will beget more silence or reactive speaking up—not thoughtful, intentional, or informed speaking up.

As you, me, all of us, heal from what scares us, fear won’t continue to drive or define our actions or inactions.

As we heal from what scares us, we can be in greater integrity with our values next time. And, yes, there will be a next time. If we end up internalizing the shame of not speaking up or if others label us as “racist” because our fear-based reaction kept us silent, it won’t help any of us do the necessary work of healing, in community and connection, from fear. At best, the only gain is a temporary feeling of “superiority” in judging silence as “racist.” If it doesn’t move us closer to having a more just world, why would we do that?

We can and must be more nuanced in understanding our motivations as well as the impacts of racism on us all. And the more we come to acknowledge and embrace that all of us have been impacted, the more we can reach for each other in this defining moment for us as humans.

Like never before, we need each other. We need to come together and, I would argue, cannot effectively end racism without each other. Racism is a system passed on from White people to White people. We can make visible the ways we have been terrorized over centuries to uphold this system of White supremacy. We can’t end racism without White people healing the internalized dominance of White supremacy as the Non-Target group. We can’t end racism without BIPOC people healing the internalized racism of White supremacy as the Target group.

All of us took on patterns to survive—patterns installed through violence and over centuries. These patterns are not who we are. What if we could decide to reach for each other’s humanity even as we acknowledge the existence and impacts of these patterns? What if we could create sanctioned spaces for healing in community to come clean about how racism has hurt us and each other? What if we knew that the radical act of refusing divisions, of coming together to heal, would be an essential part of ending racism? Would you be willing to take that step?