I've taught racists that no group is a monolith. Anti-racists need the same lesson
It seems like one of the primary motivators for our obsession with “identity” these days is the desire for every human being to know that their life counts for something. A big part of this desire is tied up in feeling like we belong; we want to be able to identify our “tribe” and recognize what makes us a part of it. It seems normal to derive meaning from close relationships with people who are similar to us. Some of these similarities, like taste in music or sports for example, are perfectly healthy. But others are much less so—and some, like forming groups based around shared skin color, are perniciously harmful to society.
I have spent the last twenty-five years working as an assembly speaker and counselor with teenagers from a wide range of cultures, subcultures, and ideological viewpoints. From the beginning, though, my specialty has been speaking to young people who hold racist and prejudicial mindsets rooted in skin color. When I began this work in the late 1990s, there were several ways racist young people would defend their ideas. One was to point out the statistical data that blacks and other people of color were overrepresented in crime, imprisonment, school dropouts, and unemployment. They used these statistics to “prove” that black and brown people are inherently uncivilized and biologically inferior to whites.
I understood these rationalizations because I once held them myself. My foray into this field was sparked by my own personal transformation after a nine-week, thirty-seven-state, 12,000-mile journey across America by Greyhound bus in 1993. My previously race-essentialist perspective was challenged and eventually abandoned as I met people from all walks of life and found myself surprised more by our commonality than our differences. I ended up writing a book about this experience, which eventually allowed me access to the world of middle schools and high schools who were struggling with racial tension and strife.
In the earliest years of my work, one of my primary goals was to get these young people to adjust their thinking from all to some. I wanted to encourage students to adopt a more realistic view in place of the massive assumptions they would make about diverse groups of people. I wanted them to start thinking about how easily dismissable their arguments became if they weren’t careful with their language, which would ultimately lead them to challenge their own beliefs.
One of the ways I would do this is by getting students to think about the diversity within a group of people that was well-represented in the school district. For example, one district in which I worked had a school resource officer who was black. He was highly respected by students of all backgrounds and didn’t fit the typical stereotypes the racist students were presenting. If they said, “All black people are criminals,” I would quickly retort, “What about Officer _________? Not only is he not a criminal, but he’s also a police officer enforcing the law.” The typical response was, “Well, he’s not like normal black people. He doesn’t count.”
Another example is from a junior high school where I consistently met with a group of students who identified as “rednecks”; one of whom even had a connection to organized white supremacy. They would frequently speak of how “all” black people lived in cities, had gang affiliations, and were extremely violent. I pointed out that the president of their school, Future Farmers of America (FFA), was a black female who seemed to share their values of hard work and manual labor. Since I knew her well, I highlighted the fact that she was about as far from an inner-city gang member as one can get. I asked them, “What about her?” They were quick to respond, “She doesn’t count!”
Over the years, I would hear this refrain repeatedly as I presented one example after another of specific individuals who did not fit the popular stereotypes for people of color. In the mind of the racist, the people who don’t fit the stereotype simply don’t “count.” I was always quick to point out that if every example I gave didn’t “count,” then how could we have a reasonable discussion? How could we move on to a more productive conversation about the complexities of human beings and what role nature and nurture play in the development of the individual? I would ask these students how their concept of race could be an accurate description of the world if it required them to ignore all of the many people who didn’t fit their stereotypical idea of what people of a certain race should be like. If there are so many people that “don’t count,” are these racial character traits really valid at all?
After twenty-five years of doing this work, I am more confident than ever that the answer is no. And in 2022, it had certainly seemed to me that most Americans finally agreed on this answer. Most people were more than willing to see others as individuals and embrace the complexities that come from existing as a human being. It obviously didn’t mean racism was completely dead and gone, or that racist students didn’t still use it as a defense for their racism, but there have been dramatic changes in our society and culture that have made racism a fringe worldview. What shocks me, though, is that the “doesn’t count” refrain has been adopted by the “anti-racist” movement. I have been amazed to discover that I now have to make the same arguments against those who call themselves anti-racists that I spent more than two decades making against racists.
Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, presents the idea that there can only be two types of people—racists or anti-racists—the assumption is that black people must be on the side of anti-racism and agree with him. To Kendi and the true believing “anti-racists” of the world, there is no area of life untouched by racist ideology and white supremacy. In order to hold this presumptuous worldview, a lot of important people of color must either be ignored or disparaged.
For example, contemporary anti-racists often bring up the inequality of income between black and white people as an example of systemic racism. But there are many economists who would disagree, including Thomas Sowell, who happens to be black. When this is pointed out, we’re told, “Well, he doesn’t count.” When the state of Virginia makes history by electing Winsome Sears—the first black, female Lieutenant Governor in its 400 years of legislative history—instead of celebrating the progress that this former slave state has made in race relations, we’re told, “She doesn’t count.” Barack Obama was elected as President of the United States twice, a fact that in the times of slavery and Jim Crow seemed impossible, and yet any time this point is made we’re told that “He isn’t really black,” or “He isn’t black enough,” or “He is an exception”—in other words, he doesn’t count. From those who voted for Donald Trump to those who disagree with the 1619 project, black and brown folks who don’t align with the tenets of anti-racism “don’t count.”
A primary objective of the Civil Rights movement was to allow people of color the full amount of ideological freedom that was granted to white people. Through this freedom, the door would be opened for like-minded people with varying shades of melanin to gather together and stand side-by-side to help make America the best it could be for all its people. As the barrier of skin color became the pointless category it always should have been, people of all shades could truly unify through human commonality. Yet here we are, allowing a rigid and simplistic ideology to determine which group we belong to based on our immutable characteristics. Any straying from the predetermined narrative means you “don’t count.”
For years, I have tried to convince racist, white teenagers that black and brown people are complex and multifaceted human beings, that there is extreme diversity within those populations, and they may hold surprising views, diverse skill sets, and a wide-range of interests. I have taught them to recognize how people of all skin colors and backgrounds are remarkably similar in our quest to make the most of life. Now, unfortunately, it seems necessary to teach anti-racists the same thing.
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