Doing the work with eyes wide open

Dear President Trump,

A couple of weeks ago the WP ran a long piece about Ibram X. Kendi and his latest book “How to Be an Antiracist.” I’ve kept the tab to the article open on my computer this whole time, returning to the final paragraph every other day or so as something of a touchstone. The article traces Kendi’s development as a scholar and thinker and feeler, moving from a 17-year old who chastised his African American peers for knowing more about Puff Daddy than about MLK to an anti-racist activist who sees the pernicious ways racist systems and institutions militate against self-love, cultural knowledge, and engagement. Much of Kendi’s anti-racist doctrine aligns well with the People’s Institute’s anti-racism workshop I attended last July (and wrote to you about for days) and it’s terrific to see those ideas getting serious exposure.

As compelling as the rest of Kendi’s story is, including his frightening Stage IV colon cancer diagnosis 20 months ago (incredibly, he’s NED right now – no evidence of disease), it’s final few sentences that I really want to unpack:

“In order to bring about change, you literally have to believe in the possibility of change…..You have people who do not want to take America, or even themselves, through the pain of healing because they’re convinced that it’s not going to work. Which makes sense if they’re convinced it’s not going to work. But once we convince ourselves that America can never heal itself from racism, then racism will persist and, I suspect, eventually destroy this country.”

I so agree with his premise that if we don’t deal with racism, we will eventually destroy the country. I think this could be pushed further to the whole world because as long as we have groups looking down on other groups, looking for groups to exploit or to literally dump on, we can’t co-exist in ways that have any real future for humankind.

I also agree that if one is convinced something is utterly hopeless, one is highly unlikely to engage in the work unless driven by some very lofty set of principles or by masochism (or both).

Maybe it was an editing issue, but the piece that I think Kendi leaves out is that there are millions of people who don’t want to do the anti-racist (or sexist or homophobic, etc.) work that’s needs doing because they want to hold onto their sociocultural positions. It’s not that they don’t think it will work – they actively don’t want it to work. Maybe the idea is that if everyone wanted the US (and the world) to no longer be racist we wouldn’t have to worry about the work not being effective since there would be common cause and full support for making it happen. However, it feels like a huge elephant in the room not to acknowledge that not only are we not all on the same page with this, but some of us want to tear the page up and piss on it.

Pointing this out doesn’t at all mean I think racism is inevitable and there’s no hope for change, but rather that in addition to believing in the possibility of change and doing the needed personal and cultural work to eradicate racism, we have to be clear that there are some who carry a virulent and stubborn strain of racism that is not going to go quietly.

May we be safe to be our whole selves.
May we be willing to do righteous, if uncertain, work.
May we believe in the possibility of healthy change.
May we believe in the power of community and the salve of peace.

Tracy Simpson

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