Combating Everyday Anti-blackness

I spent the first sixteen years of my life in the Philippines, Hong Kong, and China. My first experience with anti-blackness was in the form of not-so-subtle racism. I was little and my family pastored a church in the Philippines. My local friends used the word negro to describe the very dark-skinned northern Filipinos. Even at a young age, I picked up the negative tone in which that word was used. Simultaneously, I received messages that Black Americans were “cool”, especially if they were rappers or athletes. And that’s basically all I knew. Despite having close friends from over 15 different countries, I had only one Black friend in high school. Although my history books discussed slavery, I watched hours of Patrick Swayze in North & South, I sobbed while reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and my first celebrity crush was Will Smith, I really didn’t get it. Not unlike many white people today, I believed that racism was mostly a thing of the past and anti-blackness was mayhaps exaggerated. I’ll admit that it wasn't until college, when I came to the US, that I really saw, with my own eyes, the way that Black students were treated on a predominately white campus in wealthy Orange County.

Being aware of racism and being aware of anti-blackness are entirely different things.

In retrospect, I think I often conflated anti-blackness and all anti-people of color activities. You know, racism is racism. My life experience growing up in Asia exposed me to racist, anti-brown and anti-black language, but I really think it wasn’t until I started reading more about American history, married into a Black family, and worked with Black youth in public schools that the subtle and not-so subtle ways anti-blackness manifests in our society became real.

It’s in the way educators discuss Black student behaviors in contrast to white student behaviors, or the way they accept Black gregariousness on a football field but not in a classroom. It’s in the surprise that Black males are earning As & Bs in AP classes or the expectation that a Black boy doesn’t like reading. It’s in the way Black boys are perceived as older or Black girls are seen as less innocent than their white peers. It’s also in the way that white people say the word Black awkwardly. It's in the way that white athletes get away with behaviors while Black athletes are chastised and berated for the same thing. It's in the presumed innocence of a white middle aged shopper and the guilt of a Black teen buying a snack for the walk home.

Anti-blackness is both on the surface and embedded in our infrastructure.  If you've never noticed it, it's probably because you haven't had to. As white people we have the privilege to downplay or straight up ignore the ways racism manifests towards Black people in the United States.

In her book, White Fragility, Robin Diangelo explains it this way. “Anti-blackness is rooted in misinformation, fables, perversions, projections, and lies. It is also rooted in a lack of historical knowledge and an inability or unwillingness to trace the effect of history into the present.” If I were to speak for all white people out there, I’d say it is the former that drives our ongoing “othering” of Black people and the latter as to why we continue to allow such horrific actions as the killing of unarmed Black men and women by police officers. Our ignorance and apathy towards our racial history is an integral part of our white identity.

I recently read Carol Anderson’s White Rage: An Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide which challenged me to see our racial divide as a timeline—one large story. For white people, it’s far too easy to see history in pockets, isolated events that really don’t add up to anything. Seeing it as pieces allow us to ignore the larger puzzle. We stay divorced from our own history and blissful in our blindness, making excuses for systemic racism.

As I write this, I’m reminded of when Angela Davis’ said, “in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.” It’s not  enough to not be anti-black, I need to actively work against anti-blackness. I need to proactively combat my internalized anti-blackness and actively speak out about the ways our society shapes the narrative against Black people.

So how do I do this?  I certainly don't have all the answers and this is a long journey I’m on, but here are a handful of things I’m trying to do.

First, I’m trying to unequivocally believe Black people. In the same way we’re calling on society to “believe women”, if a Black person tells you what they have experienced, believe them. I know I've dismissed the experiences and stories of anti-blackness (even from people I love). I want to believe it was always done unconsciously, but I'm not sure. As much as it shames and hurts me to reflect back on this, it's not as painful as the impact of my doubt on those relationships.

Second, I’m trying to be better it to interrogate my own thinking and internalized racism about Black people. Since anti-blackness is part of the fabric of this society, it's also part of me. I think the biggest ways I've combated my unconscious bias it to face it. I'm trying to reflect more. Listen more. Read more. I think one of the quickest ways to deal with our biases is to be in community with someone we don’t understand or don’t have a shared lived experience---be it someone of a different religion, race, etc. You can’t continue to think of someone as “other” or “less than” when you are face to face and in the world together.

Third, actually care about Black lives. It’s not enough to wear my Black Lives Matter earrings. I need to actually care about Black lives all around me. One way to do that is to take time to learn Black history...which is also our history. My niece is a young Black girl who is just starting to attend school. I’ve been buying books for her about smart women that look like her. I always skim the books before I wrap them up. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much I’ve learned. But, at this point, I’m making up for lost time. It’s 2019. I can no longer make excuses or justify my lack of knowledge about our racial history.

Fourth, another way to fight feelings or attitudes of anti-blackness is to immerse yourself in Black excellence. We need to surround ourselves with narratives about Black people that aren’t centered in whiteness and fear of “the other”. I don’t mean pretending you’re woke because you listen to Childish Gambino or read Becoming. And I’d also caution against buying into Black exceptionalism. As a child, I learned about George Washington Carver and Frederick Douglass but their stories were told in a way that I later learned was “white washed”. We need to find, collect, and share counter-narratives about Blackness. A pro-black stance doesn’t mean you will rid yourself of your anti-blackness, but I do think exposure can help usher in authentic paradigm shifts.

Lastly, publicly address anti-blackness when you see or hear it. This might be when you hear a passive aggressive comment about the Black family laughing loudly at the restaurant, when your  your colleague say something weird about their Black students, or when someone is trying to steal black joy at the movie theater. It might be responding to someone’s nonsense on Twitter or challenging your teacher friend about the way their voice changes when they talk about their Black students.

I think the biggest hurdle in fighting anti-blackness is getting white people to realize it exists. I’ll end on a final thought from Diangelo “Our need to deny the bewildering manifestations of anti-blackness that resides so close to the surface makes us irrational, and that irrationality is at the heart of white fragility and the pain it causes people of color.”