Antiracism, Revisited: Considerations for Antiracist Frameworks from BIPOC Thinkers
The Resolution to Condemn White Supremacy and Fascism as Antithetical to Library Work was adopted by ALA Council in an overwhelming majority vote during ALA Midwinter 2021. Among other actions, the resolution calls on ALA to “commit to explicitly incorporating existing and developing antiracist and antifascist frameworks, in internal and external communications, advocacy, events, and organizational design efforts moving forward.”
In her opening remarks, resolution mover Lindsay Cronk made direct references to two well-known leaders in antiracism efforts: Ibram X. Kendi, Boston University professor, founder of the Center for Antiracist Research, and best-selling author of How to Be An Antiracist and Antiracist Baby; and Robin DiAngelo, diversity and antiracist educator, and best-selling author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.
But are Kendi’s approach to antiracism and DiAngelo’s concept of white fragility the only methods to inform ALA’s antiracist frameworks?
Not if these BIPOC thinkers can help it.
Glenn Loury has studied racial inequity in America for more than forty years. Linguist John McWhorter, a regular guest on Loury’s Bloggingheads.tv: The Glenn Show podcast, has investigated the histories of Native American, immigrant, and creole languages along with Black English, and published on the history of disparities between Black and White America. Rhetorician Erec Smith advocates an antiracism grounded in empowerment. Coleman Hughes puts forth a vision of antiracism inspired by a common human experience. And Chloé Valdary and Irshad Manji deliver evidence-based antiracism education frameworks that inspire common understanding based on compassionate listening.
Here’s why they think prevailing approaches to antiracism work might not work – and what they propose instead.
Through the course of his research, Glenn Loury has come to differentiate between systemic racism and social stigma as different, though often mutually reinforcing, causes of racial inequity. What makes this difficult, from an antiracist perspective, is that social stigma does not rest entirely within the majoritarian group – it also manifests in the self-understanding of the stigmatized and marginalized community:
“If we consider these interactions, it becomes easier to see the many intimate connections between the antiblack ‘racial bias’ that liberals emphasize and the ‘behavioral pathology’ of (some) blacks that (some) conservatives are so keen to focus on.”
Loury also speaks directly to the chilling effect that the prevailing over-emphasis on structural inequality can impose:
“My theory of political correctness: a cognitive and intellectual dead end where too many people are motivated to remain silent on critical questions, to voice empty platitudes, or even to say things that they don’t believe, all by their need to avoid appearing as though they’re on the wrong side of history.”
This chilling effect impedes what he proposes is a necessary approach to solving racial inequity: open and candid engagements in which we “discuss and react to those problems as if we were talking about our own children, neighbors, and friends.”
While Glenn Loury’s critique of mainstream antiracism approaches is scholarly, John McWhorter’s is, well, scathing. In a book he is serializing for free online, The Elect: The Threat to A Progressive American from Anti-Black Antiracists, McWhorter analyzes what he terms Third Wave Antiracism. He characterizes Third Wave Antiracism as an emergent religious orthodoxy, espousing that “because racism is baked into the structure of society, whites’ ‘complicity’ in living within it constitutes racism itself, while for black people, grappling with the racism surrounding them is the totality of experience.” Like Loury, McWhorter addresses head-on the chilling effect inhibiting any questioning of this prevailing central premise of antiracism, which results in increasingly common, casual accusations of white supremacy:
“A key part of [the Third Wave Antiractist] toolkit is that they call those who disagree with them racists, or the more potent term of art of our moment, ‘white supremacists.’ That kind of charge has a way of sticking…. And to all but a very few, being called a racist is so intolerable today that one would rather tolerate some cognitive dissonance and fold up.”
And, similarly to Loury, McWhorter argues that certain antiracism frameworks can actually do more harm than good to the very people they are intended to help.
This is what inspires Erec Simth’s approach to antiracism as empowerment:
“I just want an anti-racism that does not require a feeling of victimization or, at times, infantilization and learned helplessness in people of color. I want an empowering anti-racism that provides and maintains racial dignity while encouraging deliberative engagement with the social and material realities of American society.”
Smith’s empowerment theory framework for antiracism invokes three components: self-talk, social engagement, and collaborative action. Smith argues that the first component, intrapersonal self-talk, is often overlooked in existing approaches to antiracism, but accounts for the success of empowerment-based alternatives. This self-awareness is prerequisite to meaningful social engagement and impactful collaborative action which characterize antiracism efforts framed by shared human experience.
An antiracism based in common humanity is what commentator Coleman Hughes promotes:
“It is time to restore Martin Luther King’s dream for American race relations—a dream that, even as it refuses to flinch from the injustices we still need to overcome, defiantly holds onto the idea that what we have in common is ultimately more important than what divides us.”
Two antiracism frameworks for diversity, equity, and inclusion education, Chloé Valdary’s Theory of Enchantment and Irshad Manji’s Moral Courage College, promise just that. Taking a nod from Smith and Hughes, Valdary’s Theory of Enchantment program employs popular culture in cultivating participants’ appreciation of complexity in themselves and others, in order to inform constructive criticism rooted in love and compassion. Steeped in research on group psychology, social labeling, and fear of judgment, Manji’s Moral Courage College delivers diversity training through story-telling and listening.
Self-awareness, genuine dialogue, resisting labeling, empowerment, collaborative action, and common humanity – according to BIPOC thinkers Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Erec Smith, Coleman Hughes, Chloe Valdary, and Irshad Manji, these are the ingredients to a successful antiracism framework. May we consider them as the ALA community’s antiracism work progresses.
Sarah Hartman-Caverly, MS(LIS), MSIS, is a reference and instruction librarian at Penn State Berks, where she liaises with Engineering, Business and Computing programs. Prior to her current appointment, Sarah was a reference and instruction librarian at a community college, and was an electronic resources manager and library system administrator in both community and small liberal arts college settings. Sarah’s research examines the compatibility of human and machine autonomy from the perspective of intellectual freedom. Recent contributions include “Version Control” (ACRL 2017), “Our ‘Special Obligation’: Library Assessment, Learning Analytics, and Intellectual Freedom” (ACRL 2018), and “Human Nature is Not a Machine: On Liberty, Attention Engineering, and Learning Analytics” (Library Trends, forthcoming). She earned her MS(LIS) and MSIS from Drexel University in 2011.