Stepping Up: Reflections on How to Be an Antiracist

Racist. It’s a word that conjures emotion. Either you are one or you’re not one. And heaven forbid, you don’t want to be called one. But you might just be one if you’re not actively working against racism. That’s a thought several presenters put before approximately 100 participants in a recent virtual workshop on “How to be an Antiracist.” The title and discussion, peppered by personal experiences of the panelists, centered on Ibram Kendi’s New York Times’ best-selling book of the same name.

The difference between being an antiracist and not a racist is, in part, the difference between being active vs. passive in a stand against racial bias. Kendi writes: “Racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas. Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.”

Written as a scholarly memoir, Kendi weaves elements of his own life throughout the text, from how his parents met to his reawakening in his adulthood. He includes reflections on his childhood and how he says he fell victim to believing that blacks are inherently inferior due to race – a racist ideology fed by a history of systemic racism in America.

This is the same racist ideology that led to the killing of George Floyd, remarked Dudley Deshommes-Kohls, one of the five African-Americans who co-facilitated the event with others. 

“To truly understand why the recent events of George Floyd came to be and why what happened to George Floyd was so paramount and affected the black community as a whole, you have to understand the history,” he said. “Whenever I saw a George Floyd space, I thought ‘that could have been me.’ Jews of Color, who are in an already marginalized community, know this could happen to them.”

Aklilu Dunlap was another co-facilitator who shared some of his personal experiences and tied them back to the messages in Kendi’s book. “Ibram X. Kendi’s work resonates with truthfulness in this inflection point where the George Floyd killing compelled us to an awakening unseen for decades,” Dunlap said. “Kendi offers us so many tools with which we can forge a transformative change in our communities toward an antiracist reality.”

Participants from the community opened up during breakout sessions about their own experiences as contributors to racism. One white woman expressed that when she saw a person of color run a stoplight, her first reaction was to think: “Oh, of course, those people will do that.” Another spoke of clutching her purse tighter when walking past an African-American or remembering as a child when parents locked the car door at a stoplight because of an African-American in the intersection. There was one mother who twisted the diamond on her wedding ring to point to the inside of her palm so that it would be less visible when passing a black person on the street.

Genevieve Parker, community engagement manager for Jewfolk Inc., which was one of the many local Jewish organizations co-sponsoring the event, said, “I think the How to Be an Antiracist book discussion was even more important to our Jewish community members than we, as program organizers, anticipated. It certainly drew much higher attendance!” She added, “The book and discussing it in community challenged me by forcing me to reevaluate certain ideas I took for gospel, and — not least potently — in baring my own shortcomings and bearing witness to the vulnerability of others like me. This work isn’t comfortable.”

Deshommes-Kohls said he was initially reluctant to participate as a co-facilitator as he does social justice work nearly every day just by being, black, gay, Jewish, and a nurse in an interracial marriage with his husband, Andrew. But then he realized, “People in the community were yearning for something tangible. They wanted to listen. So, when the opportunity came to do the panel on antiracism and what it is like to be a person of color in Minnesota who also happens to be gay and Jewish and a nurse, it was an opportunity to shed a spotlight. By saying yes to the panel, I thought ‘this is now my social action and I am doing my part.’ When we broke out into our sessions, there were people who poured their souls out and their experiences.”

Dunlap said that he agreed to participate as a panelist because “it was important to me to participate in an amazing discussion with a panel of critical thinkers on the issue of race. It was important to hear and learn from their insightful conclusions born of painful life experiences and to add my voice to that noble discussion in ways, I hope, were meaningful.”  

Beth Gendler, director of the National Coalition of Jewish Women Minnesota, personally invited most of the panelists, who also included Siatta Dunbar and her wife Risa Siegel, Sheree Curry, a Jewfolk board member, and Shahanna McKinney Baldon, director of Edot Midwest, a regional Jewish diversity collaborative .

“What’s really been sticking with me since our community conversation is the generosity, optimism and love that our panelists shared,” said Gendler, whose organization was a co-host of the event. “Their willingness to be honest and vulnerable with their personal experiences of racism within and outside our Minnesota Jewish community was a gift to all of us — one I’ll treasure and trust and come back to as I engage in my personal work on becoming less racist and more antiracist in my life and work. I’m grateful and humbled.”

Milwaukee-based McKinney Baldon, added, “I was very pleased to be a part of this event. One of our key values at Edot Midwest is that of centering Jews of Color in Jewish anti-racism work. I was excited for the large number of participants hailing not only from Minnesota but from around the region. I know there were several participants who lead Jewish community organizations in other cities.”

The program was in such high demand. There were more than a hundred people on the waitlist. To accommodate the community’s thirst for learning and action centered on bringing about equality, a continuation of the conversation is taking place online at 7 p.m. Thursday, August 13. It will be open to 200 registrants. For this event, as with the first, panelists will encourage participants to engage in important conversations “about how racism affects our communities and how we can more deeply understand and dismantle systemic racism,” according to the program synopsis. 

The upcoming virtual event is hosted by Jewish Community Action, Women Repair the World, a project of Minneapolis Jewish Federation and Hadassah Upper Midwest, NCJW Minnesota, TC Jewfolk, and YALA Twin Cities. Erica Solomon, co-chair of NCJW’s Racial Justice Task Force, and Betsy Sitkoff, NCJW Past President and co-convener of Muslim & Jewish Women of Minnesota, will join as panelists.

“It is wonderful that our local Jewish community is taking a lead and that so many of us are interested in learning more,” said Sitkoff. 

Although reading Kendi’s book is not a requirement to attend the event, it is recommended reading for those who join as well as for those who aren’t able to be on the call. 

“For anyone interested in deepening their understanding of race and how it has been shaped in this country, How To Be An Antiracist, is an important book,” added Sitkoff. “For those of us who have lived with little contact or historical understanding of the Black experience, this book is grounding and inspiring — motivating us as we work towards a more equitable and just community.”

Parker added that the book “is, in many respects, the primer I wish I’d had several years back when I was beginning to delve into recognition of Euro-American white supremacist culture and push myself beyond ‘being not racist.’”

As Kendi wrote in the book: “All cultures must be judged in relation to their own history, and all individuals and groups in relation to their cultural history, and definitely not by the arbitrary standard of any single culture.”  

“What this means,” explained Aklilu Dunlap, “is that it is unproductive and harmful to experience another culture and render it inferior because it is not like mainstream American culture.  That same sentiment can be extrapolated to apply to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.   It’s insanity to not embrace antiracism because anything less is a liability. We have to change.”

Sheree R. Curry is a long-time Jewfolk board member and freelance journalist.