It is Not Enough to be Non-racist
In the last week, as these events have unfolded, I’ve been going through a range of emotions including feelings of anger, distress, sadness, and at times, helplessness. Aside from taking action, I’ve found myself often letting thoughts race through my mind for long periods of time. They often weigh me down with angst and stress, but I’ve begun to find ease in just voicing them. With the support and platform provided to me here by Scholars of Finance as a black member of the organization, I’m able to further do that. One of these thoughts has been tied with the increased circulation of the Angela Davis quote: “It is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” This powerful and truly poignant quote is extremely relevant to the moment we are in, but I’ve begun to inexplicably see negative sentiments from white people arising towards the quote, questioning it and seeing it as almost “too pressured”, that’s it “unnecessary” to be making such distinction almost as if it’s petty in the wider scope of the movement. It’s pained me to see and read such reactions to the quote and expression, and to see that some people aren’t understanding the interpretation or meaning behind it.
In voicing my thoughts I want to shed some of my own light and personal perspective on the quote. In channeling my experience, I want to show there is entire validity to that expression, and for people to truly understand why it’s meaning is important within this movement.
I want you to put yourself in my shoes. You have a young niece living on the east coast. Your sister and her family are expecting a second child due this year. That’s two close, immediate young relatives who you wish the best and would do anything for. Whether it’s for them to have the best opportunity in life, be treated fairly, be able to live their lives without fear, go about their lives doing the things that everyone should be able to do without any worry, judgment, or prejudice against them; that’s what I want you to imagine. For someone that was of your family, looked like you, that was of not just your blood but of your ethnicity and you just wanted what was fair for them, but that the world around you just isn’t a place where that is possible. You have a friend aware of the situation you face, that they are aware that you are fighting for someone who is of your family, who you care deeply about, who you want to see treated the same as everyone else, just as you wish you were, but you want to fight for them. I want you to imagine that you ask your friend, “where do you stand on this topic?”
Of course, you would hope that people would stand on your side where they are with you, they support you, they are there willing to fight alongside you for something as evidently important as this, for something as basic and fundamental as this, in terms of treatment, in terms of how one should be able to justly and equally live their life. That is the true ally.
On the other side of the scale of responses, there is the response of someone who explicitly doesn’t believe that. They believe they shouldn’t fight for you, they explicitly reject your cause, they hold firm that you are wrong, they are on the complete, evident opposite end. That is the obvious bigot, the racist, the oppressor. Hopefully, I don’t need to say too much to shed light on that. We’re aware of what that looks like, especially when expressed in an overt manner.
I then want you to imagine with this same scenario, same instance, you approach a friend and they say “I understand your cause, I understand where you’re coming from, I hate to see it but I’m not going to actively help you, I’m not willing to actively be there for you, I’m not willing to actively do something to help you, in ensuring that your family member, that your younger relative, that someone close to you, that someone who looks like you is treated the same way, is able to live a fair life, is treated in a manner that isn’t oppressive and unjust, is able to go about their life equally as everyone should.” I want you to imagine that a friend or someone you approached or was aware of your situation and took this neutral stance, that they weren’t showing they would be there with you fighting, actively pushing your cause on your side. They’re not saying they’re against you (oh no they wouldn’t say they’re against you), they say they’re not racist, but at the same time they are just going to stay where they are, enabled to do so by the position of their privilege (even if ignorantly unbeknownst to them) and wish you well, but they will not actively support you.
I want you to imagine that you’re in this situation and that it’s your family member, that it’s someone who’s life is at a constant risk just because of the way they look, the way you both look, and a friend or someone you know read a message you’d sent out, has seen the plight, the injustice, the cause, and the situation you yourself, or your family, or someone close to you, or someone who looks like you faces as I’ve described, and yet they’re not ready to actively step forward and actively fight with you for the position you’ve been subjected to. They may be “happy” with the motive of your cause, but they’re not ready to actively champion it with you.
Do you not see how in this situation you’d feel betrayed, upset, angry. You’d feel that their silence, their reluctance to act is just as good to you and to the fight for your cause, as someone who IS the oppressor on the other end of the divide. That is what Angela Davis means when she says “it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” It is not enough to just say that you observe the injustice and you don’t support it. You must actively fight against it, you must actively be there to support those suffering the injustice.
Once again imagine that is was a cause a close to home as your family, yourself, your future descendants, your children, your brothers, your sisters, your nieces, your nephews, your people that were in this position and being treated in such a way, and you saw that someone, a friend wasn’t there to support you, that they weren’t there to stand up for your cause with you, to fight alongside you, to actively be out there making a change, making a difference. You would not feel that it’s okay in any regard for them to sit there in silent acceptance, agreeing with your cause only in name. This is what it feels like to be in my shoes. This situation I face and the stance I see so many resided to. That neutral reaction is what in this day and age it means to be “non-racist” instead of being “anti-racist”, and that is not good enough.
You need to be actively against the oppression and police brutality that black people have been facing, against racism that still is prevalent in the lives of so many black people both in the United States and further afield in the Black Lives Matter movement.
A few weeks ago before George Floyd was brutally murdered, I was watching the black comedian Michael Che’s stand-up special on Netflix where he addresses the phrase“Black Lives Matter” itself. He points to how the phrase to some still seems controversial. “Matters.” I repeat “matters.” That it is not an understood aspect of our society that the life of a black person is equal, that we should be treated the same as others, that Black Lives matter and have always mattered. This is where we are at and people seemingly still struggle to openly get behind it, but that is where we as black people are left: marching, protesting and calling for our voices to be heard, and we will continue to do so until the actions and world we see around us reflect that Black Lives do indeed MATTER. As we continue in this movement, please realize non-black people that there is no middle ground. Non-racism is not good enough. People must take action and be actively anti-racist.