Can We Ask Inelegant Questions about Antiracism©? (Pt.2 of 7)
Updated: Jun 17, 2021
Author's note: The is the second post in a 7-part series in which I respond to questions raised about Antiracism© written in an opinion piece by Robert Pondiscio and published by the Fordham Institute titled: I believe “antiracism” is misguided. Can I still teach Black children? My goal in composing this series of opinion essays is to flesh out my own thinking. My goal in posting this series of opinion essays is to encourage others to push past any constraints they may be encountering to also consider issues thoughtfully and with the dutiful embrace of nuance. If you are interested in answering these questions, you are invited to do so by recording your thoughts on a survey which can be accessed at bit.ly/InelegantQuestions.
Is a professed commitment to the tenets of "Antiracism" now non-negotiable in the teaching profession? Are those who hold different views and ideals (e.g. colorblindness) about student expectations, pedagogical practice, and school culture no longer welcome to lead classrooms with Black and Brown children?
I am an antiracist with concerns about Antiracism©, and as I consider the above questions, it occurs to me that I have my own fundamental question which is: Is there only one way to be an antiracist (i.e. to consciously act toward bringing greater awareness to one's own racial biases and to work toward broader social justice and racial reconciliation and the redress of historical and current racial inequities)?
One might ask in this current environment, How can any self-respecting Black man take any position which even remotely places him in opposition to antiracism? Wouldn't that make him pro-racism? How could that possibly be?
Like many who may be reading this, I am a person who seeks to understand myself in relation to the world in which I live. I see this as a kind of philosophizing; or said differently, I consciously try to live in a way that my view of the world—my beliefs and core values—are something more than mere abstractions but rather an operationalized expression of my being. I am not an ant driven by mere instinct and group membership. I can and do think for myself, though often in err, but always in pursuit of that which I can reliably claim to be justified beliefs based on some measure of epistemological demand.
To be clear, I think of it as a privilege to be Black... not in the same historical and material way that American citizenship is privileged by having white skin. Rather, I am in love with the culture, history, and sense of comradery that I experience as an African American. I could say much about this: from our cuisine to our music to our communication styles to our quest for liberation to our swag…. I am not a self-loathing Black person. I love being Black, and I love Black people.
In different ways both formally and informally, I've been a student of what W.E.B. DuBois and others called "The Negro Problem" for decades. I believe that race and racism are defining concepts in the American opportunity story, and that the denial of equal protections for non-White persons can be argued to be the greatest blemish on this nation's record.
I am an antiracist, but Antiracism© in today's education lexicon denotes a specific paradigm—a kind of copyrighted brand if you will—for the eradication of racism in Western society. In his book How to be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi defines what it means to be an antiracist:
“To be antiracist is to think nothing is behaviorally wrong or right—inferior or superior—with any of the racial groups. Whenever the antiracist sees individuals behaving positively or negatively, the antiracist sees exactly that: individuals behaving positively or negatively, not representatives of whole races. To be antiracist is to de-racialize behavior, to remove the tattooed stereotype from every racialized body. Behavior is something humans do, not races do.” (Kendi, 2019, p4-5)
This definition (which I appreciate and regularly reference) asks us to confront those stereotypes and assumptions we might make about others based merely on race. In fact, Kendi's definition of an antiracist strikes me as thematically similar to what might also be termed as colorblindness—a concept born out of the 1950s & 60s Civil Rights movement... about which I will say more in the fourth installment of this blog series. This definition, however, is presented differently in many of the educational training spaces which is the basis of my own immediate concern here. My concerns with Antiracism© in many of the school trainings and PD models stem from some of the central arguments that I find to be semantic boobytraps disconnected from the essential tasks of teaching. Antiracism© argues, for example, that the pervasiveness of structural and systemic racism in America renders the discussion of interpersonal racism as a kind of distraction from the broader manifestations of anti-Black prejudices that have been foundational to the development of infrastructure of the United States. Antiracism© argues that there is either antiracism or racism and no such thing as "not racist." Antiracism© argues that White people's reluctance to accept their own personal complicity in anti-Black prejudice is an indicator of the privilege that Whites fiercely protect as a matter of a kind of American birthright. To resist in the discourse, argue Robin DiAngelo and others (*1 see note), is an illustration of the fragility of White people unwilling to hold themselves and the nation accountable for its crimes against Black people.
Antiracism© (as opposed to antiracism) is a kind of executive ideology for much of the race-focused professional development in schools. Whether this is or is not the intent of Antiracism© trainers and professional developers, my concern as an antiracist is that the impact has been hugely problematic and counterproductive in practice. I see many aspects of Antiracism© as lacking cohesion and trafficking in cognitive distortions which are potentially harmful to both individuals and antiracist work alike.
I am an antiracist—meaning that I consciously seek to contribute to racial justice with my thoughts, words, and deeds in both my personal and professional life. As an antiracist, I believe that it is important to isolate race as a contributing factor to patterns of inequity particularly when investigating the differential outcomes and trends of school achievement. As an antiracist, I do believe that we must leave space to pursue these critical conversations about race and inequity as an exercise in American patriotism precisely because I believe in the American ethos of freedom, fairness, and equal protection under the law—but I do not believe that we have achieved a kind of post-racial utopia where we no longer need to confront and talk honestly about how interpersonal, systemic, and institutional racism continue to disproportionally disadvantage some to the advantage of others based on race, ethnicity, and language-background.
But the truth is I could write an entire volume of manuscripts proclaiming my present and life-long commitment to antiracism and still be dismissed by proponents of Antiracism© for having even the slightest measure of objection to its premises or practices... which is what gives me the greatest pause—because anything that can't be questioned and subjected to good-faith debate is dogma; and I'm personally allergic to dogma.
My Problems with Antiracism©
I first became familiar with the term "antiracism" in 2009 when I read the book Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real about Race in School (2008) edited by Mica Pollock. I thought that book was a brilliant presentation of insightful and digestible perspectives on the actions educators can take in order to counteract racial inequities in schools. I've read and assigned many of the essays therein and have regularly found it useful in promoting thoughtful discourse aimed at supporting the teaching and wellbeing of students. The essential work of antiracism in schools is that which seeks to remove the barriers of racism to the performance and achievement of students and to prepare students from participation in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, linguistically and culturally diverse society. The highest goals of teaching are to educate and empower students with the tools and experiences to create happy, healthy, and productive lives for themselves, their families, and their communities. These are, in my opinion, the goals of a truly antiracist agenda. As such, however, I have found that the practice of Antiracism© has presented conceptual obstacles to these goals, and these are the basis of my concerns (*2 see note).
Antiracism© is perilously disconnected from the social and material realities of the classroom in a way that promotes the essentializing of identities according to preferred narratives of racial/ethnic/social group experiences. By social realities, I mean the range of identity and experience diversity both in the classroom and also within the groups represented within the learning community. By material realities, I mean the tasks and challenges of teaching.
Antiracism© encourages teachers to look at students as groups rather than individuals, and it inadequately frames the specific context and tasks of schools in general replacing it within a broader narrative of racial injustice. I work primarily with teachers, and as a teacher, the focus of practice is on students, all of whom are individuals and not miniature representations of populations. To treat individuals as a sample size of some population is to stereotype (regardless of intent) and further reduces the likelihood of any individual's success because when one is seen merely as a fractal member of a group, one is less likely to be seen for their own unique assets, interests, and ambitions. A group isn't an individual, and an individual isn't a group. This way of thinking leads to the pigeonholing of the Black experience and restricts the expression of Blackness into stereotypes and tropes. Black people, like every social group, are not a monolith. In much of the Antiracism© PD, though, a particular BIPOC perspective is held to be a kind of authoritative and authenticated proof of argument. As such, Antiracism© encourages a narcissistic embrace of lived-experience for a particular perspective of non-White people toward race and racial equity as a primary ethos and epistemology. As an antiracist and qualitative researcher, I find tremendous value in the accounts of lived experience; but I also recognize the limitations of these kind of data. Whenever possible, individual accounts should be presented alongside empirical data so as to seek objectivity in the report of patterns and conditions in schools and society. I find the practice of essentializing people based on race (i.e. the isolation of race as a predominate self-identifier and the association of that racial identity with a particular package of beliefs and experiences) to be shortsighted and lacking rigor. It is a kind of remedial simplification of identity, a reductionist approach that isolates race to the exclusion of other social factors. Further, it authorizes a sort of "authentifying" of racial expression, a policing of BIPOC identities which I reject outright. No one has permission to declare when another is being appropriately [fill in the racial/ethnic/national designation]. My identity (and yours) is not to be toyed with for the advancement of any agenda. Further, I'm concerned with any ideology or approach to racial justice that centers (i.e. defines) the identity of Black people relative to oppression as opposed to their own agency. Identities predominantly defined by injuries and enemies and also disconnected from pragmatic and empowering change-efforts bear little potential for cohesive antiracist pedagogy.
Antiracism© discourages most critical inquiry as a tool of white supremacy, including the refusal to entertain good-faith questions and opposing viewpoints, and it summarily dismisses any possibility for full-on debate and disagreement. This is largely embodied in the claims that any resistance to the precepts of Antiracism© are evidence of fragility (or a defense or white supremacy)—a premise that wouldn't pass the bar of any methodological standard in any undergraduate social science program.
Antiracism© in practice is often characterized by a number of multiplicitous precepts that discourage productive dialogue resulting in a contempt for any who would disagree. I am less inspired by initiatives which build an ethos around that to which it is opposed, and this is why my work generally pursues the goal of Equity and the pedagogical principles of Culturally Responsive Education (CRE).
My concerns about the dearth of critical inquiry loop back to my pause regarding the disconnect from the social and material realities of classroom teaching because Antiracism© neglects the careful consideration of the unique and complex context in which specific instances of teaching occur and ignores the range of individual identities, needs, and assets of the students whom teachers are charged to support. The shunning of critical thinking in subjugation to preferred identity narratives limits the capacities of teachers to tailor the fit of rigorous and cognitively engaging learning experiences to the needs of the students they teach. This defeats the purposes of Equity work, and should be challenged.
Because of its disconnect from the social and material realities of school and its disdain for critical inquiry, the guiding principles and the ways in which Antiracism© play out in trainings are essentially akin to the mass-marketing of cognitive distortions. It promotes the egotistical notion that one's identity is synonymous with the beliefs anchored in their personal experience which encourages people to attack and feel attacked when there is disagreement of beliefs. This is an ultimately unhealthy and unproductive way to dialogue and allows for the demonization, dehumanization, and othering of those with different perspectives which renders good-faith debate to be a near impossibility. This is worth a deeper dive because I see this as the most damaging and dangerous aspect of Antiracism©.
The mass marketing of cognitive distortions...
My greatest concern about Antiracism© is with its tendencies to traffic in cognitive distortions which I believe compromise the integrity of antiracism and Equity work and also the wellbeing of individuals whom enthusiastically subscribe to its tenets. What is a cognitive distortion? A cognitive distortion is an unhealthy alternative to reason and logic which, over time, is a recipe for a kind of intra-personal disaster. Here I have included a brief description of ten types of cognitive distortions, but I encourage you to read up on these for yourself because to be aware of these is quite likely to improve the quality of one's own thought-life and relationships with others. I would argue that Antiracism© in its various implementations, as it is promoted in school professional development spaces, indulges in each and every one of these cognitive distortions. If any one person were to individually engage in all of these cognitive distortions, they are surely headed for a dissociative, psychotic break. These are not the mental habits of well-balanced and productive people.
In concluding this piece, I return to the original question I ask in response to Mr. Pondiscio's questions: Is there only one way to be an antiracist? If the answer to this question is "yes," then that means by definition that Antiracism© is a dogmatic ideological approach to addressing the problems of racism in America; and the problem with dogma is that while it can effectively force compliance, it rarely changes hearts. Further, the argument that to not accept the entirety of the Antiracism© argument without questioning any single aspect is to be in support of white supremacy lacks rigor. In fact, it's profoundly inadequate. It fashions the liberation movement of marginalized people as a kind of children's story between good and evil characters. In my opinion, we should be engaging our antiracism work in more nuanced and complex terms than the way a child might. We should be welcoming qualified and competent teachers of all racial and ethnic stripes to classrooms with the commitment to centering Black and Brown and all children in empowering learning experiences that prepare them for full participation in our imperfect society. The extent to which the requirements for accepting teachers into the profession entail the rigid insistence on a particular racial background or ideological approach to redressing racism is a dangerous step in the direction of a dogmatic reinterpretation of the purpose of schools in our society.
The reduction of antiracism to simple premises serves to shape the discourse for particular purposes, and it has become increasingly clear to me that these purposes have less to do with the efforts to empower students and improve their learning opportunities and more about serving some self-serving motivation of consultant-types (i.e. consultants like me) and educators whose goals seem to be more about activism than education. I find these activist causes are increasingly distanced from the kinds of pedagogical practices that center and empower the lives of BIPOC students and cater more to fulfilling the egoic pursuit of the adults who advocate for them instead. (I say more about this in the sixth installment of this blog post series.) Ultimately, I am concerned that Antiracism© is a narrow-sighted approach to antiracism and Equity work that alienates many who would be competent supporters in the cause which we share.
The work of antiracism provides a kind of philosophizing template for teachers, an opportunity for them to level-set their own values with regard to racial justice in the specific context of their pedagogical practice. A coherent and epistemologically sound approach to antiracism is a powerful tool toward that end. I raise these concerns so that we might be better able to develop our antiracism approaches so as to make a more sustainable progress towards racial justice that honors the integrity of the collective liberation movement of America's marginalized peoples. My goal in my antiracism and Equity work is to be effective in creating fairer and greater opportunities for our students which is different from the goal of being seen as right. I do not contend that I have all the correct answers or even the full range of questions, but the stakes are too high for anything less than a robust, good-faith commitment to reaching deeper and more profound insights, and I am concerned that Antiracism© doesn't allow for that level of thoughtfulness.
*1. I think it’s fair to say that currently the two most prominent spokespeople for Antiracism© are Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. I find the work of Kendi to be more deserving than DiAngelo. While I have many substantive concerns with How to be an Antiracist (2019), I think Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2017) is an unqualified masterpiece. DiAngelo's major work, White Fragility is, in my view, a simplistic reduction of the Black American experience depicting Black people as spineless, helpless, and hopeless infants warranting the paternalistic protection of White people whom, according to DiAngelo, seem to all secretly despise Black people but have been socialized to not admit to such in polite society. Though I don't view Kendi and DiAngelo as having the same stature, it is both of their works that are most frequently cited in school-based trainings and PD.
*2. Another point of reference: I am not voicing here an opposition to Critical Race Theory (CRT) any more than I would be opposed to the use of Formalism, Modernism, or Structuralism or most any other school of thought as an analytical device to focus the investigation of any text. My concerns with what I will refer to as Antiracism© are not one-and-the-same with my thoughts regarding CRT. I believe that CRT has merit as a tool useful for exploring many of the undiscovered and/or overlooked implications of racialized bias in American history and society.