Being anti-racist means more than ridding yourself of racist attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. It means you’re also actively fighting that reprehensible trinity as it manifests in your life on a daily basis.
Donating to activist organizations and protesting injustices are definitely good starts to becoming an ally. But that’s not enough. Actively rebutting prejudices in your own circles is key to lasting change, as those ideas and beliefs — unless challenged — are what our children absorb and are woven into the fabric of our culture.
“In order to interrupt systemic racism, we have to be working all the time,” said Beverly Tatum, a psychologist, former Spelman College president and author of the classic books “Can We Talk About Race?” and “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”
What that means for you depends on who you are, where you live and who you’re interacting with.
Everyone has particular spheres of influence, in which we help shape the mindsets, and thus the behaviors, of others. Ask yourself what messages you’re sending to your family, friends, workplace, places of worship and outside activities. What leadership are you providing or are you silent in the face of racism?
“Unless I’m really being intentional and thinking about how to interrupt the racist policies and practices that are surrounding me, then my silence is supporting that,” Tatum added.
“People sometimes think, ‘Well, I’m not calling anyone names or doing anything hateful, [so] I have no responsibility,’” she said. “But the system of this web that surrounds all of us is reinforced by silence. So you have to speak up against it in the places where you are.”
Individual actions equal collective impact
It’s easy to think the decisions you make are limited to how they affect your life. But individual decisions sparked by racism and prejudice have historically morphed into the collective psyches of many nations.
How do everyday decisions lead to calling the police on black people for no reason, hate crimes and police brutality incidents?
Every time you leave a smaller form of racism unchallenged, that bolsters your tolerance for racism, said Jennifer Harvey, a religion professor at Drake University in Iowa and author of “Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America.”
It’s not only active white supremacy, racism and police brutality ending black and brown lives, said Harvey, who recently wrote “How to not raise a racist white kid” for CNN.
“Collectively, white America has this really high capacity to tolerate racism,” she added. “That grows from all of those many aggressions and hostilities that we allow to go unchecked in our environments.”
Many would never sanction what police officers did to George Floyd, Harvey said, but violence happens after tolerance builds up to lesser forms of racism. Failing to challenge racism and prejudice equals participation in a version of violence, she said, and it eventually leads to these devastating events.
“Every time we fail to interrupt racism, we under-do our own capacity to sort of grow the kind of flourishing anti-racist world that everybody deserves to live in,” she added.
Shift your mindset
Becoming anti-racist starts with shifting your own mindset, these experts said. This means, for example, that when you have a prejudiced or racist thought, you hold that thought and reassess it before acting it out.
Dislodging prejudice in your mind can be hard because it’s usually an unconscious bias, Tatum said. You can’t filter out biases unless you’re aware of them.
Tatum likened stereotype exposure to breathing in smog in the air: “They’re so pervasive in our environment that we’re constantly breathing them in. And as a consequence of breathing them in, we should not be surprised that sometimes we breathe that out.”
Address the problem by asking yourself what you’re leaking into the air, whether it’s stereotypes or discriminatory behavior. Awareness is the first step.
Educate yourself about racism
It’s time to start reading about race. Tatum’s book can explain why black students find relief in hanging out together amid all the racism they experience at school. Harvey’s book can help parents of white children talk to their children about race and racism.
“So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo relays how race and racism affect every aspect of American life and how to talk about it with your loved ones. “The Souls of Black Folk,” by late sociologist and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, highlights the experiences of black people in American society. It was published in 1903, but it still holds relevance.
Learn about microaggressions
Some white people know that to become anti-racist, they must start to listen and brush up on the history of racism in their countries.
Some people are describing obviously racist behavior as the the tip of the iceberg – calling people racist names or threatening people on the basis of race. Then there’s the part of the iceberg that’s not easily visible to people if they’re not looking. This includes a range of subtle but insidious attitudes, behaviors and policies.
Among these are microaggressions. They are brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, Tatum said.
Microaggressions can be intentional, unintentional or even well-meaning, but they communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial assumptions to the receiver. And they have an insidious effect on a black person’s psyche and continuing racist assumptions.
“These racist tendencies are obvious to the person of color, but they are so ingrained in the non-person of color that they are believed to be socially acceptable,” said Justice Horn, a social justice activist and protest organizer from Kansas City, Missouri.
A list of common microaggressions
Here are some common microaggressions, which you can avoid by not saying them.
“You’re so well spoken/articulate” or “You don’t sound black.” This remark sounds like a compliment, but it’s offensive to a lot of black people because they usually don’t have to be that articulate for someone to say that to them, Tatum said.
When a white person says it, it usually implies they wouldn’t expect to hear coherence from a black person. The black person didn’t fit the white person’s offensive stereotype, so the white person complimented them for not fitting the mold.
“Don’t blame me. I never owned slaves.” This statement assumes that racism ended with the conclusion of the US Civil War, Tatum said, when really it has continued in new forms. Read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stephenson or “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander to learn more about modern slavery, racism and how white people still benefit from discrimination.
“White privilege doesn’t exist.” Differences in racial privilege occur on a personal basis, too. White privilege also means not having to worry about whether your hairstyle will cost you a job or even an interview. It’s not having to worry if someone is following you around a store because they think you might steal something because of your skin color.
“All lives matter.” Yes, all lives matter, but in this context it’s black lives that are not being treated with respect, Tatum said. Hence the Black Lives Matter movement.
Those who say “all lives matter” may be interpreting “only black lives matter,” which isn’t the case. The latter phrase means “black lives matter, too.” So when someone says “all lives matter” without acknowledging the movement, they’re ignoring the anti-black racism that there are so many examples of regarding police interactions, Tatum said.
“I’m not racist; I have a black friend.” People who say this might be equating racism with prejudice, Tatum said. Prejudice is an attitude based on stereotypes. Racism entails the policies and practices that perpetrate notions of white superiority and inferiority of people of color.
You may not harbor racial prejudice or hate in your heart, but ties with black people don’t keep you from engaging in discriminatory behavior and/or failing to challenge racist practices.
“Can I touch your hair?” Curiosity is OK, but crossing boundaries is not. The question may not be intentionally offensive, but it can make a black person feel as if she’s an animal on display — since you likely wouldn’t ask that of any other race. It also continues the antiquated idea of black people as “other” or scientific novelty.
“We’re all one human race/big happy family.” This statement seeks to alleviate racism or complaints of it. The phrase is biologically correct given genetic similarities. But in terms of social interactions, we don’t behave as if we were all one race, Tatum said.
“I’m colorblind; I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow, green or purple.” The intention is inclusive, but people of color are saying their color and identity matter and affect how they experience the world. Saying this is offensive because it could imply you aren’t listening to or don’t care about what other groups of people are telling you.
Clutching your purse or dodging while passing a black man. This behavior implies that black men are dangerous. It’s based on a fear that responds to a stereotype that categorizes black men as threats.
Reading this list of microaggressions, maybe you’ll think, “Aren’t they being oversensitive?” If they were isolated incidents, maybe.
However, microaggressions are so common “that it’s like death by a thousand cuts,” Tatum said. “Research has shown that microaggressions do contribute to increased blood pressure, physical reactions [and] lower feelings of well-being.”
They wear people down, and they need to be taken seriously.
Speak up in your own circles
You might have friends, family and colleagues with varying degrees of complicity with racism. If they make a racist remark, it’s easier to ignore it so you don’t make waves. Challenging racist comments requires effort; it might make you uncomfortable or even result in conflict or lost opportunities.
You need to be willing, committed and able to rebut problematic remarks and engage people in informative conversations about race at the dinner table and over board games or ball games. (If you have children, they are watching how you respond to racist Uncle Larry — or not.)
It benefits people of color and everyone else. Racism harms people of color, but it also shrinks the lives and damages the psyche of its perpetrators, Harvey said.
When these instances occur, say you’re uncomfortable with what someone said because it sounded racist to you. That person will decide whether to ask why. If not, try having a later conversation with that person and ask if you can share what you’ve learned and the history that made his comment offensive. Maybe that person will want to talk more. If not, how far you push depends on your relationship.
The goal isn’t to win the argument, Harvey said. It’s enough if you came prepared and tried hard to interrupt complicity with racism. But silence is never better.
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
“The most important thing a white ally can do [is] fight our battles when there are no people of color around,” Horn said. “The problem is that too many people claim to fight against the system, but do not speak out against prejudice and racism when there are no people of color around.”
This advice can be applied to efforts to understand any other group suffering from a history of oppression, such as Latinx people, Spanish or Hispanic people or indigenous peoples.
To be a better ally, educating yourself is of utmost importance, Tatum said.
“And build your stamina, because this is not [just] one conversation [and] then it’s fixed,” she added. “This is a long-term effort. It’s like running a marathon, you have to train for it. Educate yourself and then make a commitment to being in it for the long haul.”