Learning the differences between anti-racism versus being ‘not racist’

The issues of systemic racism can be combatted by proactively being anti-racist rather than “not racist.”

Claire Hoppe

According to folks in the Iowa State and Ames community, it has never been enough to just be ‘not racist.’ 

“’Not racist’ people think because they have decided to not use the N-word or accepted minorities as their friends that they’ve done their part to eliminate racism,” said Martin Stennis Jr., an Ames Black Lives Matter activist. “While those are steps toward progress, they barely scratch the surface of what is needed to rid our country of racism.” 

According to Monic Behnken, associate professor of sociology and director of the leadership studies program, people should instead strive to be anti-racist. She said the difference between being “not racist” and “anti-racist” is about 75 years.

“What I mean by that is that this idea of being ‘not racist’ is just a very dated way to think about the way in which race functions in our society and the definitions of what it means to be racist,” Behnken said.

To illustrate, Behnken uses the analogy of being funny. For example, Behnken explained how sometimes people are funny while othertimes they are not, but to call someone funny isn’t 100 percent true because it’s not possible to be funny all the time.

”For someone to say ‘I am not racist’ is to deny the reality of the ways in which we engage in conversations around race and ethnicity and other forms of identity,” Behnken said. 

When discussing the difference between “not racist” and “anti racist,” Reginald Stewart, vice president of diversity and inclusion, also made use of an analogy. 

“If you are ‘not’ a drunk driver, that means you don’t drive while under the influence,” Stewart said. “If you are ‘anti-drunk driving,’ the conversation becomes bigger than you and requires you to actively campaign against and educate others on the dangers to society … of the behavior of driving while drunk.”

Stewart turned to acclaimed author Ibram X. Kendi, who is credited with coining the term.

“[An anti-racist is] one who is supporting an anti-racist policy through their actions or expressing an anti-racist idea,” Stewart said.

Stennis also looked to Kendi when describing what it means to be anti-racist. 

“The thing with anti-racism is that it’s something you must continuously strive to be,” Stennis said. “Dr. Kendi writes, it ‘requires self-awareness, constant self-criticism and regular self-examination.’ You either work toward that mindset or you ignore those critical steps and refuse to thoroughly acknowledge the oppression faced by some in this country.”

According to Stennis, by practicing self-awareness and criticism, anti-racists will gain an understanding of racial inequities so they can help make the appropriate decisions with votes, policy change and awareness to create equity among racial groups in all aspects.  

“Anti-racists also continuously strive to express anti-racist ideas, which believe there is nothing right or wrong with either racial group, but rather racial inequities stem from racist policy,” Stennis said. 

According to Behnken, the first step in becoming an anti-racist is to review how your own thoughts and actions may lead to oppression of marginalized communities.

Stennis also said in order to be a true anti-racist, you must strongly believe in the cause.

“We must believe that the change we seek in our societies is attainable,” Stennis said. “If you are having trouble believing, history provides more than enough proof that we can destroy inequity.”

Stennis also urges people to engage in self-criticism and constant self-examination.  

“We examine ourselves in this situation for the same reason we get a medical examination: to make sure everything is working as it should, and if not, we adjust for the better and continue with the other healthy habits we have,” Stennis said. 

As for ways to take active steps to becoming an anti-racist, Behnken, Stennis and Stewart all agree people should begin by educating themselves on the racist roots in the United States’ society and democracy, particularly by reading “How to Be an Antiracist” by Kendi.  

“People can practice being anti-racist by actually learning the history of this country and the way racist ideas shape our consciousness,” Stennis said. “It is impossible to dismantle something when you don’t know its origins or can’t comprehend it.”

Behnken urges white folks who are new to the anti-racist conversation to not only study what it means to be anti-racist but to also study what it means to be white in order to gain a better understanding of race and its ideas.

Stennis says the next step in becoming anti-racist is to share what you’re learning with others, no matter how difficult the conversation may be.

“While it can be an uncomfortable discussion for all who may be involved, those painful conversations must happen in order to normalize discussing racist policy and ideas so we aren’t frozen into inaction because we’re afraid to talk about said subjects,” Stennis said. 

After learning about the topic and sharing it with others, according to Behken and Stennis, another way to actively practice being anti-racist is by advocating for positive racial policy change.

“One can practice being an anti-racist in a bigger way by helping drive out racist policy makers so there’s a better chance at eliminating such policy,” Stennis said. “We need only politicians who want to produce equitable policy.” 

Stennis also said donating time and money to anti-racist organizations and policy makers is another way to practice being anti-racist, and Behnken said potentially running for office could be a great way to create policy change. 

Ultimately, Stennis reminds folks that bringing equality and equity to all races and marginalized communities is a positive step into the future, not a power tactic from the past.

“First, understand that we are not trying to recreate the caste system or hierarchy with minorities on top, but rather dismantle a system that keeps minorities, marginalized folks and underprivileged white people from important and/or equal resources,” Stennis said.

Behnken echoed Stennis by saying not only will being anti-racist benefit members of other races, but it will benefit you, your family and your community, but this will take time.

“Knowing that destroying the racist components of a country with such embedded racist history will not happen overnight,” Stennis said. “We will make mistakes on our journey … but that does not mean we cannot acknowledge our mistakes, correct them then proceed to strive for better self-awareness.”

Stennis said pursuing anti-racism simply boils down to determination and passion. According to him, people must push past every roadblock and keep our gaze fixed on the ultimate goal — to live in a world where we refuse to believe the only way we can succeed is by continued oppression of fellow Americans.