May We All Be Antiracist

By Julye Williams, First Book’s director for resource and program development. First Book proudly co-sponsored the first annual National Antiracist Book Festival on April 27th.

Julye Williams, First Book's director of resource and program development, with author Robin Diangelo at the first annual National Antiracist Book Festival.
Julye Williams, First Book’s director of resource and program development, with author Robin Diangelo at the first annual National Antiracist Book Festival.

On Saturday, First Book partnered with American University’s Antiracist Research & Policy Center for their inaugural National Antiracist Book Festival. It was an opportunity to learn, connect, and honestly, to rally with others on creating a society that values everyone; one that has space for everyone – no matter your race, gender, religion, or ability. With more than 20 workshops and a “Who’s Who” slate of best-selling authors sharing their perspectives, research, and insight, there is no wonder why over 3,000 tickets were sold, and nearly every seat was filled. Topics ranged from the impact racism has on youth, democracy, poverty, whiteness, incarceration and more. And educators from across the U.S. were well-represented in the crowd.

Being an antiracist – quite simply, one who opposes racism in all of its manifestations – is the goal. And according to Dr. Ibram Kendi, the founder of the Center, and author of the 2016 National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Race in America, being an antiracist isn’t a static title. It’s ongoing activism. It is continuing to identify the ways in which racism is built into policy, practice, law, and more, and actively working to remove it. Both history and the present day show that racism is alive and well in this country, and around the world.

If you seek to become an antiracist, here are some key takeaways from this first of its kind event:

An antiracist acknowledges there is a difference between intent and impact.

While it is difficult to prove racist intent, the impact is quite clear. Often, when we learn someone is harmed by our words or actions, we instantly say, “Oh, well that wasn’t my intention,” or “I didn’t mean it that way,” in an attempt to excuse the comment or action and protect ourselves from being labeled the awful word: Racist.

An antiracist takes the focus off of intention and looks at the impact. Focusing on impact creates room to address inequity and develop solutions that honor everyone. For more discussion about intent and impact, watch On Democracy with Dr. Ibram Kendi and Carol Anderson, bestselling author of One Person, No Vote and White Rage.

An antiracist focuses on policies and not people.

Throughout history, people in power have blamed the oppressed or marginalized for their situation. It’s a harmful mind trick that doesn’t ever seem to get old: the lie that you are in a disadvantaged state because of your personal actions and structural systems (access to quality education, affordable housing, healthcare, credit, safety, and more) have nothing to do with it. In the U.S., this is especially true for people of color.

How is it that an entire race of people faces such consistent challenges (e.g. extremely disproportionate representation in the prison population)? Is it the individuals? Or is it sweeping policies that create inequality, and thereby creating a disadvantage for people in a particular group? The antiracist – one who opposes racism in all of its manifestations – will focus on the policies and not blame the people.

As educators, we know there are distinct advantages afforded to kids who attend well-resourced schools versus those whose schools are under-resourced. Key to this issue is not the people but instead the policies that facilitate this type of disparity. The book festival session On Poverty provides insight into how structural policies across our communities lead to inequitable outcomes across races.

An antiracist creates space for everyone.

A woman wearing an orange baseball hat that reads, "Deconstruct race.  Reconstruct space."Dr. Kendi recently said, “If you want to be an antiracist, don’t judge other cultures by the standards of your own culture — that only creates a hierarchy in which other cultures can’t prevail.I met a woman wearing a hat with the slogan, “Deconstruct race. Reconstruct space.” and instantly loved her message. Children especially need space to become fully who they are. They need to see themselves in books, in movies, and that others that look like them are great contributors to society.

The antiracist acknowledges the value in everyone and seeks to create space for all students to thrive. On Youth, the session with award-winning authors Jason Reynolds and Jacqueline Woodson, explored the topic of how racist attitudes, policies, and bias harm children, and how to create space. An antiracist values people for who they are and creates space for everyone.

I got into education because I believe every child deserves a high-quality education – regardless of their parents’ income, their race, their geographic location, or any other factor. For me, this is the social justice issue of our time. Racism, in its many overt and covert forms, maintains disparities that value some people over others and continues to set some people on paths where they realize less than their highest potential. This weekend left me with a lot to ponder, many more books to read, and a fire in my spirit.

May we all be antiracists.