What does it mean to be Anti-racist?

Written for Diversity Practice by Coach Dumi (Dumi Senda)

The term Anti-racist and its close cousin Anti-racism have recently shot into public discourse with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Both terms are regularly invoked in the debate about whether it is enough to be ‘not racist’ or we should be doing more.

As uncomfortable as the renewed (not necessarily new) debate may be to some among us, it is both necessary and worthwhile to have, as having clarity on what we mean by what we say makes what we commit to doing to combat racism in the workplace and in wider society clearer. It can also reveal gaps in our current thinking and practices and position us to make the necessary changes to be more effective.

What does it mean to be Anti-racist?

Therefore, the call to action on Anti-racism is to be comfortable with being uncomfortable – to learn how we can (all) be and do better on workplace and broader racial equality, diversity, and inclusion.

In the spirit of doing-change-together, this article presents some key insights and pointers for our individual and shared marches towards having the necessary awareness and know-how to create meaningfully equitable, diverse, and inclusive workplaces and communities. It will particularly focus on the following 3 questions:

  1. What does being Anti-racist entail?
  2. What does being Anti-racist {not} involve?
  3. What (practical) steps can we take to create Anti-racist workplaces and communities?

What it entails to be Anti-racist

To be Anti-racist entails operating from the premise that all races and ethnicities are equal, and acknowledging that, despite this truth, the prevailing status quo undermines equity through racist practices, systems, structures, and cultures. It involves exercising our individual and collective agency against the oppression, marginalisation, undermining, demeaning, or any other injurious act visited upon people based on racial profiling.

Think about it as being like removing cancer from a body. First, you diagnose the cancer, then you either kill or remove the carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) and stop them spreading to the rest of the body. Finally, you treat the body from the negative effects of the cancer and take the necessary precautionary measures to minimize or remove the risk of the cancer recurring and to spot it and stop it quickly before it spreads, if it returns.

More than standing back and ‘minding your own business,’ to be Anti-racist regards making the safeguarding of the dignity of others your business. As the seminal phrase “I am because we are” suggests, which is associated with Ubuntu, a southern African philosophy or way of being, our humanity is incomplete when the humanity of others is endangered or undermined.

To be Anti-racist is to be committed to push back against racist behavior, systems, structures, and cultures whenever and wherever they express themselves. It goes beyond simply treating others well and fighting against their marginalisation; it is just as important to desist from benefitting from practices, systems, structures, and cultures that proffer selective advantage to some while simultaneously disadvantaging others based on the colour of their skin or ethnicity. This is particularly challenging and can seem like self-sabotaging behavior as it involves questioning practices and systems that benefit us directly or indirectly. However, the true cost of living in a society where human dignity is a special reserve for some and routinely denied others is human dignity itself.

What being Anti-racist does not involve

Like knowing what to be Anti-racist means, having clarity on what to be Anti-racist does not encompass can help us to operate with the necessary awareness and knowhow to drive meaningful change in the workplace and wider society. Sticking with the analogy of fighting cancer; subjecting the body to ‘treatment’ that is neither targeted enough nor proportionate to the carcinogenic levels is unlikely to rid the body of the cancer and may cause unintended damage to the body. The key is to not be crippled by fear of getting it wrong. Some common misconceptions about what to be Anti-racist is about are debunked below:

  1. To be Anti-racist does not mean that you will never act in a racist manner – we are all fallible humans who get a foot out of step with the ideals that reflect and uphold human integrity. Our socialised and normalised biases can influence our decision-making and how we perceive and treat people that look different to us. The key is to take responsibility for the impact of our practices and not hide behind ‘unconscious bias’ to excuse them.
  2. To be Anti-racist is not a moral status we achieve or an identity we wear and never take off, rather it is an ongoing fight against the urges that society has instilled in our mindsets through our education, employment, housing, legal systems etc. that are built on and sustained by racist foundations. That does not make any of us inherent racists nor does being racist in a moment in time make us an eternal racist. However, being complicit in the perpetration of racist practices, systems, structures, and cultures is to embody and uphold racism. The opposite of that is Anti-racism.
  3. To be Anti-racist is not to be charitable or altruistic – viewing Anti-racism as charity or an act of altruism implies that human dignity is partial, and it is up to those who have it in their grasp to extend it to those who do not, if they so wish. Such an approach can lead to companies confining the important work of ensuring workplace equality, diversity, and inclusion to marginal and poorly resourced sections of the business such as employee resource networks. Thereby devolving the responsibility to tackle racism to groups of employees who already suffer the brunt of racism in the workplace. Such responsibility unmatched with material and ideational support compounds the disadvantages matted against Black and other ethnic minority employees, who in addition of having to contend with their core responsibilities must take on more tasks to justify their value and explain away their own poor treatment in the company.
  4. Being an Anti-racist is not about having ‘good intentions’ – Let us imagine a house in a neighborhood is burning; one neighbor intends to help put out the fire but does not do so for whatever reason, and a second neighbor, for whatever reason, is indifferent to helping and chooses to watch the house burn to ashes. Was the neighbor who intended to help any more effective at putting out the fire than the neighbor who chose not to? The answer is no – both neighbors did not help put out the fire even though their motivations were different. It is tempting to view the actions of both neighbors through a moralistic lens. However, what will save the house, in the end, are the actions not intentions of the people involved. Similarly, having good intentions on racism may make you sympathetic, but being Anti-racist takes more than sympathy. The word Anti-racist is a verb or doing word. Intentions, however well-meaning, are not a form of action. As pointed out earlier, to be Anti-racist requires us all to exercise our individual and collective agency against racist practices, systems, structures, and cultures.

Steps we can take to create Anti-racist workplaces and communities

Consider the analogy of a flower meadow whose biodiversity is endangered; to save the meadow would you sustain the conditions that suit one type of flower and threatens the rest or would you do your best to alter the conditions so that all the flowers thrive? Enabling one type of flower to thrive and the rest to perish undermines the survival of the thriving flower too because in time it will miss out on the nutrients that the other flowers added to the soil. A flower meadow is a flower meadow because of all the flowers of different species and colours that contribute towards its vibrancy. Similarly, creating Anti-racist workplaces and communities is about ridding the environment of the impurities (racist practices, systems, structures, and cultures) that threaten the vibrancy equity brings. Below are some practical steps/considerations, or 3 Bs’ to help you on your way towards achieving meaningfully Anti-racist workplaces and communities:

  1. Benchmark – like the tenderer of the flower meadow, you may notice some of the effects of overt or ingrained racism in the workplace or community, but hasting to ‘solve the problems’ without understanding the underlying causes is likely to undermine your efforts, waste resources, and frustrate your employees who may view your Anti-racist initiatives as being a mere tick-box exercise. Draw on the support of experts to have a research and data-driven examination of where you are on racial equality, diversity, and inclusion. An external expert may be more helpful here, as insiders in your organisation may not readily spot some gaps in practice due to being customised to ‘how things work around here.’
  2. Bridge the gap between your desired outcomes and level of investment; change is not simply a set of outcomes but rather a spectrum or journey from where you are currently to where you want to end up. A lot of initiatives falter from the get-go because of the misalignment between the input and the desired output. If you plant half a field of sunflower seeds, you are likely to reap half a field’s worth of sunflowers. Taking an incremental approach to change is understandable and even necessary in some instances, however, commitment must always be at 100% for change (not just a set of outcomes) to occur.
  3. Bring your team along at every stage: racial inclusion is not the sole business of the racially excluded or disenfranchised employees or members of society. A them versus us approach to achieving racial equality, diversity, and inclusion is counterproductive. Research shows that people are more likely to support change initiatives that they helped to shape. Therefore, it is necessary to make the inclusion and involvement of all the segments of your company or community across racial/ethnic, hierarchical and any other divides a core component of your change strategy. This way, collective ownership, and accountability are not an afterthought or add-on which you have to figure how to bolt on to the change after it is already underway.

And now… a thought to end on

Notice that Anti-racism emphasizes what we should stand up against in order to stand for something better and more enriching to us all in our workplaces and communities. Anti-racism is therefore a necessary means to a necessary end. We can think of Anti-racism as being a pathway to greater enlightenment or a code of conduct that challenges us to go further than ‘good enough’ all the way to enough is enough. We become one another’s brother’s and sister’s keepers across racial or ethnic or any other filter used to define our identity. We become the true embodiment of I am because we are through our deeds, not just our words.