Becoming an Antiracist…me, Ibram X. Kendi, James Baldwin and more…

by Connie Madden

Connie Madden

So it seems BLACK LIVES MATTER had its day? NO!  My people (White) haven’t made real inroads into what being a Person of Color (POC) even means in our culture, let alone how to solve economic and social inequities in our laws.  Getting a handle on how very unjust our system has been from the start is hard enough; getting real change toward equal treatment is very hard indeed.

First, we need to see the truth of our own, personal racism before we can imagine and then create just laws.  As if I, alone, will create laws?  Our ego gets in the way from the beginning of the discussion.  Easy to think if we just get the ideas straight, a problem goes away.  Sorry, Charlie!

Not that there have been no great efforts toward reform of the police.  I look to Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and other “woke” cities to lead the way to actual police reform, taking money away from people with guns and giving more to trained counselors.  It’s a puzzle; some people will figure it out (I hope!). I’ll help if I can.

I look to Berkeley because I was part of Community Control of the Police there in the 1960’s,  fair minded people determined to oversee overreach by police, a project started by now deceased but always missed, Tom Hayden, our long-time California Assemblyman and author who I felt was the most inspiring Anti-Vietnam War guy in Berkeley in the ’60s.  He could inspire from the back of a large room!  YOU can do it he would say! And we did.  Not long before his death, Georgia Kelly, Praxis Peace, Sonoma, had Tom as a speaker and I had a chance to remind him of my participation in Community Control of the Police and later his Campaign for Economic Democracy, the San Francisco chapter attempting to clean up the badly polluted SuperFund site at Hunters Point. He gave me extra books and said “you may feel that nothing can change, but it can if you just keep at it.”  He surely did that for a lot of years. Maybe we ARE making small inroads toward equality.

Reading Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to Become an Anti-Racist, I wonder how on earth can one accomplish that. I thought I WAS an anti-racist since childhood, a child of  liberal coop-inspired sculptors in Chicago, I’ve known racism as wrong-headed and mean.

WE ARE ONE, read the rubber stamp I prominently displayed on my desk at the AIDS agency where I supported the Director, noting the entirely Black lesbian nurse staff seemed to feel my job should be held by a Black lesbian nurse, not a white woman who’s son attended Waldorf School, which they considered a fancy school for rich kids, though I was a single mom on reduced fees.

Couldn’t quite connect with the nurses until I had to tell them if they didn’t complete reporting to the State Office of AIDS, they wouldn’t get paid!  Glad I could help out, writing grants and reestablishing funding for the agency, then garnering another $100,000 subcontract for services from the San Francisco Health Department after getting my boss on TV.  I was proud but that was then.  Now, I find racism is still going strong, there is still death by cop, still unnerving and damaging comments slung at POC, disabling them by taking confidence away.  Ibram X. Kendi calls this racial abuse, causing a great many dreams to be abandoned.  Much like sexism!

All my life, I’ve lived next to a gorgeous bust of a black guy we call Jim, the name of the model at Chicago Art Institute my Dad sculpted, a fine figure of a man that has lived near me since I left my Illinois family home to move to Berkeley in 1965.

So I THOUGHT I was an antiracist, but there is so much more than knowing wrongdoing when you come to understand the higher bar. It is not enough to say “tisk tisk!” To be an antiracist, one must actively work to overcome the wrongdoing leveled on the heads and hearts of POC.  First, you need to absorb WHEN and HOW you may still be insulting, undermining, contributing to racism.  Do you take your privilege for granted?  If you see no POC in a public park, were they somehow not welcomed?

When we know POC are most likely to die of COVID, how can we help make good health practices available for our poorest of the poor, our undereducated, our POC who for one reason or another have not made it to our safe, boring  “middle class”?

Just now, the works of James Baldwin and a recent New Yorker piece, Homecoming, are running around in my head. The fire of Baldwin’s prose, his tender poetry and the nearly impossible task of getting past the pain of humiliation and poverty we still tolerate for POC across the country are fully explored in Baldwin’s writing. Showing now on Netflix: I Am Not Your Negro, his essay of the same name narrated by  Samuel L. Jackson. Wow; powerful.  Will watch again and again.

In The New Yorker article, Homecoming, Hilton Als begins:

She longed for black people in America not to be forever refugees—confined by borders that they did not create and by a penal system that killed them before they died.  He goes on to describe being not only Black but Gay and haunted by riots that followed his family even as they moved into better housing, better neighborhoods, but never got free from racist remarks.  Some racist remarks are subtile, words you might use without thinking that cause pain and humiliation.

As for Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Become an Antiracist, the cover claims it “Re-energizes and reshapes the conversation about racial justice in America–but even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. Instead of working with the policies and system we have in place, Kendi asks us to think about what an antiracist society might look like, and how we can play an active role in building that…How to Be an Antiracist promises to become an essential book for anyone who wants to go beyond an awareness of racism to the next step of contributing to the formation of a truly just and equitable society. (from his site)

I see that there is some fear in me around becoming an antiracist.  And a whole lot of love.
I WANT to be useful, make a bump in the road, actually come closer to being color blind.
And I see it’s tough believing there will not be huge backlash WHEN blacks get more power.
But I accept James Baldwin’s notion that Blacks don’t hate Whites; they just want (us) to get out of their way.

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