By L.A. Cowden
Recent events in race relationships, such as the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, Ma’Khia Bryant, and countless more, and the publication by Ibram X Kendi’s (2019) best-selling book—How To Be an Antiracist— have renewed an interest and curiosity in antiracism. Kendi (2019) argues people either act in racist or antiracist ways, and, because racism is so prevalent in society, a person cannot remain neutral in this binary choice. In fact, claiming to be “not racist” does not make you antiracist; rather, unless a person is actively working to ensure that their thoughts, actions, policies—or as Kendi (2019) defines them “written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people (p. 18)—are antiracist, any ignorance or acceptance of those thoughts, actions, policies is inherently racist.
By contrast, Kendi (2019) posits, “A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way” (p. 20). According to Kendi, antiracism is defined as “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea” (pg. 12). In other words, antiracists believe that all racial groups are equal. The term antiracist is invariably used as a verb, describing an action, state of being, or occurrence. It focuses on what one is actually doing. Our feelings of indolence toward social equity has become instilled in our political and economic systems.
It is imperative that as teachers and educators we recognize race and accept our country’s racist past and present. Children deserve to know the truth about the construct of race, and how it was and is used to acquire and attain power. The earlier the conversation about race starts the easier it is to understand how it is affecting us, others, and our country as a whole. The finger of who to blame should not be pointed at each other, but at our societal systems and those who constantly and willingly work to uphold it.
We create our reality through our experiences, which is especially important to be aware of this relationship in the classroom to understand how children perceive the world. In fact, according to Singh, 2021, “Preschool children demonstrate an early awareness and understanding of race” (p. 2). Physical differences and entities such as race can form a child’s identity at an early age and they may encounter conversations and experiences involving race throughout their early childhood years. Thus, classroom teachers and curricular experts should be aware of ways in which the curriculum can be used to legitimate white supremacy. Scholar and social activist Joe Flynn (2018) argues that:
Not calling attention to the historic and contemporary ways in which Whiteness is privileged through the curriculum of American public education--and through the public curriculum via media and other institutions--makes both the legitimizing of counter narratives about Whiteness and the amelioration of racism that much more daunting. (pg.109)
Likewise, it is important to foster honest conversations with students of all ages so that they can understand history from multiple perspectives. Weiner (2015) posits:
What kind of disservice do we do to children whose lives have been perverted by violence and degradation when we rewrite history in an effort to protect them and others from reality? How is rewriting history an effort to protect them and others from reality? How is rewriting historical memory not only a privilege of the victors of war, but a further act of aggression? Moreover, how does the whitewashing of history ensure that the “barbarism of civilization” will be repeated, and more often than not, exacted on similar (if not the same) victims? (p. 73).
Rewriting history or ignoring history at the sake of protecting our children, perpetuates inequality by discrediting the lives and experiences of those who struggled for the little progress we see today. Furthermore, it implies contentment with where we are at today. Racism was and is still a problem in the present day. Teachers must do more than just claim to not be racist; our society needs teachers and entire school systems to intentionally work at being antiracist on a consistent basis.
Racism and Antiracism as Verbs
To dismantle racism it is important to understand the binary relationship between racism and anti-racism. According to Kendi (2019), racism and antiracism are verbs— meaning it requires action. Being antiracist does not just happen overnight. In fact, antiracism requires daily questioning in every situation of whether or not your actions and words are harming yourself or others. antiracism is:
like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination. Racist ideas have defined our society since its beginning and can feel so natural and obvious as to be panel, but antiracist ideas remain difficult to comprehend, in part because they go against the flow of this country‘s history. To be an antiracist is a radical choice in the face of this history requiring a radical reorientation of our consciousness (Kendi, 2019, 23).
It is obvious that the lack of social justice and equity between different racial groups is embedded in our nation’s history. Although we cannot change history, we can learn from it...if taught accurately. Learning about racism/antiracism as verbs rather than labels recognizes there is room for change. We have the choice whether or not our actions reflect a racist vs. antiracist effort. The constant debate of racism vs. antiracism is determined by how one thinks, speaks, and behaves. I admire the optimism of an antiracist world. Without hope, we lose. The fight for antiracism is a fight for humanity and freedom—a fight for love and equality.
Kendi was not the first antiracist; there were many political figures and activists that claimed the antiracist label throughout history (i.e., Fredrick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Dubois, Angela Davis, etc.). Kendi is notable, however, for addressing the value of an antiracism framework in present day society. Understanding that some may have seen racism/antiracism, and some have not (or only have seen it on a superficial level) provides context of the existence and prevalence of antiracism or lack thereof. I have seen and experienced how racism is expressed in various ways throughout my life, including my time as an NCAA student athlete and now as a graduate student. More specifically, my institution’s athletics has also had unconscious racist tendencies by a lack of diverse athletic and coaching staff. There have also been issues raised where teams have suffered a loss of African-American athletes because they did not feel included. It is not a secret that the issue of racism is still prevalent at my institution and throughout the local community.
Conversely, I have also experienced antiracism in the academic and student life realms at my institution. For example, faculty, students, and community members have organized several panel discussions to dialogue about ways they can be antiracist. Students have also joined together to create the MSU Equality club. The club has immediately induced change on campus. As a club we revisited campus policy regarding hate speech and racial discrimination and rewritten these to make the policy and repercussions more explicit.
I admire the optimism of an antiracist world. Without hope, we lose. The fight for antiracism is a fight for humanity and freedom—a fight for love and equality.
Antiracism can be an empowering lens because it sheds light and truth on our past and liberates present society to think of ways to dismantle the racist ideas and discredit them. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that people were identified as indistinguishable despite the color of their skin (Kendi & Reynolds, 2020). It was only twenty years ago, scientists brought forth evidence that left racists speechless. The evidence was clear, “Science says the races are biologically equal. So, if they’re not equal in society, the only reason why is racism” (Kendi, & Reynolds, 2020, p. 229). Recognizing a problem is the first step to solving it. Humans are not perfect, but we are fully capable. The sooner we can accept that change is inevitable and necessary for growth, the sooner we can implement change. According to Kendi (2019), “Racial history does not repeat harmlessly. Instead, its devastation multiplies when generation after generation repeats the same failed strategies and solutions and ideologies, rather than burying past failures in the caskets of past generations” (p. 202). Likewise, history is not a recollection of blame, but a series of events that is associated with the production, communication, and teaching of recorded knowledge.
Antiracism and Education
It is important to implement antiracism into schools and curricula. Flynn (2018) argues:
The issue is if ideals like antiracism, anti-oppression, and social justice are not explicitly encouraged through educational standards then there is no systemic and institutional pressure to make sure the teachers and administrators engage their students in learning about these issues. There is also no pressure to ensure that there is effective teacher education and professional development to aid preservice teachers, teachers, and administrators in understanding of how systemic and institutional racial oppression works and how our various silos can engage these issues in our curricula (p. 162).
I believe adding antiracism to curriculum and schools will benefit the entire school system. It will allow for teachers and students to be more understanding, empathetic, and conscious of others besides themselves.
When to start talking about race and antiracism has no age requirement. In fact, the earlier we introduce the realities and accurate, historical accounts around race and antiracism the better it is for children to take part making their world more equal and just. Teaching and talking about race with children is a process because of the complexities. For example, race intersects with other characteristics such as socio-economics, culture, gender, and political power. Introducing antiracism in early childhood education is critical especially during the time of development. It is important to contextualize our histories and holidays so that children can appreciate multiple perspectives and avoid learning white-suprematism narratives as real history.
Children are noticing and experiencing race and racial dynamics especially in school. It is important as educators to explicitly include race and antiracism within their curriculum and classrooms in order to fully accept our nation’s past and how it is affecting our present realities. In fact, Kendi has written a children’s book called The Antiracist Baby (2020), that introduces nine easy steps for building an equitable environment. Kendi is intentional with his word choice and offers a pure perspective. It is important to initiate conversation about antiracism in a way children can understand. In fact, children notice race whether they are informed about it or not. They deserve to understand the concept and power behind race/antiracism. Being intentional with implementing antiracism in our classroom or curricula is a good starting point. There are an abundance of children’s books in addition to Kendi’s such as: Malcom Little, Let it Shine, Young Water Protectors, We Are Grateful, I am Not a Number, etc. Starting the race conversation early benefits students and teachers in a way that connects and appreciates humanity.
L. A. Cowden is graduating this May with her Masters in Education at Minot State University and currently seeking opportunities to engage in social justice work and pursue a doctorate degree. Further communications with L. A. Cowden should be directed to email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Flynn Jr, J. E. (2018) White fatigue: Rethinking resistance for social justice. Peter Lang Publishing.
Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. One world.
Kendi, I. X., & Lukashevsky, A. (2020). Antiracist Baby. Kokila.
Singh, L., Moh, Y., Ding, X., Lee, K., & Quinn, P. C. (2021). Cognitive flexibility and parental education differentially predict implicit and explicit racial biases in bilingual children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 204, 105059.
Weiner, E. J. (2015). Deschooling the imagination: Critical thought as social practice. Routledge.