Talking about “antiracism” and “white privilege” sounds pretentious for some reason.
People get defensive and put off by antiracism like people get defensive and put off by feminism or LGBTQ rights or another movement for critical education and social justice action. I’ve seen it.
And it functions quite in opposition to my intention of learning and educating about critical race issues, but I catch myself hiding what I do in certain social situations in order not to put people on the defensive or not to sound too pretentious.
Depending on the situation, if someone asks me what I do, I sometimes just say something vague like, “I teach,” or “I plan educational trips.”
Because whether it will be true or not—and as absurd as it sounds—I’m more than aware that people sometimes don’t respond positively to: “I create educational programs engaging adult and college-age learners with issues of race, identity, class, power, and privilege.”
But in couching my language I make a significant mistake—in addition to the cowardly blunder of trying not to upset people.
(Which is dumb because I certainly have upset people before. Upsetting people comes with the territory and, if done with purpose, can even be fun.)
My significant mistake in dumbing down my educational mission and values out of a fear of the possibility of a negative response is that I contribute to the mentality—even in my own head—that antiracism is simply a lifestyle, which I have individually chosen for myself and which I do not intend to impose on others.
But by making antiracism learning and action resemble a personal lifestyle choice—perhaps like veganism is a personal choice—I deeply injure the movement for urgent critical and structural social, political, and economic liberation and transformation.
With this language I very incorrectly present the entire conversation as one of individual feelings and personal responsibilities—very important and very necessary to the conversation, don’t get me wrong… But this cannot be the whole conversation.
Antiracism and social justice are movements far more profoundly structural and political than simple individual lifestyle choices.
It’s interesting. In college I had a side job three mornings a week, rolling and bagging the Kansas City Star newspaper between 1 and 4 AM in the back of a van as it circled neighborhoods and the driver delivered the papers by tossing them from the van window.
We called ourselves Media Distribution Engineers: the joke, I suppose, being that in order to support or justify our service in our own minds, we came up with what we thought was a more impressive title than newspaper deliverers.
We provided a service then. And I hope I help to provide a service now. Only now my self-consciousness wants to work in the opposite direction at times—to come up with language that doesn’t adequately express my intentions, but that I hope will not sound pretentious or put people off.
But this undermines the intent and the impact and the reach of antiracism education.
The fix, then, is for me to work to get over the fear of imposing critical education and antiracism learning onto others.
Because, quite frankly, that’s exactly what I’m aiming to do: to impose critical education onto others.
And certainly there is a line somewhere, a measure of making this education accessible and receivable to various audiences with different expectations and entry points. But to couch antiracism education in vague language—for whatever reason—weakens the integrity and mission of the charge and I mean to cut that out.
What do you call it when you speak and write and teach about structural racism, power, and privilege? Do you call it antiracism? Critical pedagogy? Social justice?
Multicultural education? (It has its problems, but I use that one a lot.)
Antiracism is not merely an individual lifestyle choice, it is a necessary component for the liberation and the preservation of our society. And education that aligns itself with these aims is essential.
And though I’m using the language of privilege here, myself, I think education will only work if we say what we mean and mean what we say and hopefully not worry as much about putting people off.