On teaching, learning and practicing anti-racism

by Kendralin Freeman
Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology

Academics, white academics specifically — and I’m writing as a white academic — have a threefold responsibility in combating structural racism in the U.S., and I think this responsibility should be both active and visible in all of its parts. The first is understanding the manifestation of structural racism, both historically and contemporarily, through the voices and experiences of people of color. For most disciplines, this means the active deconstruction of the principles that we built our knowledge bases upon for, in some cases, hundreds of years. This often means shifting our methods, or at least exploring how our methodology has historically erased the voices or experiences (sometimes the lives) of people of color, and re-creating our bodies of knowledge with different methods, with different scholars, and different voices. Scholars of color and some disciplines have been doing this for a very long time. It is time for the rest of us to follow their lead.

Secondly, and more important than just understanding the manifestation of structural racism, is the active countering of the consequences of structural racism in the academy. White academics often emphasize the importance of acknowledging the existence of structural racism (I just did, right?), but I think we would be hard pressed to find an academic who doesn’t already understand that the majority of higher education institutions in the United States and the majority of academic disciplines are rooted in racism or, at the very least, a racist history. We now have to do something about that. That means that we have the responsibility to redesign our institutions to counter the racism that produced them. That could take a number of forms: financial restructuring (how do our dollars support equity initiatives?), recruitment and retaining of staff and faculty (who do we hire? how can we attract people of color to our institution? How can we make it a place where they want to stay?), curricular reform (if we know our disciplines are rooted in racism, how are we countering that knowledge? How are we teaching it?), community building (how are we involved in our communities? What is the relationship between the cities we live and learn in and our campus?), strategic plans (what are the public priorities of the institution? How are these priorities promoting anti-racism? What are the evidentiary pieces in play to provide accountability?), amongst many others. This is much, much more difficult than the first responsibility and this is often the place where institutions get stuck. It is much simpler for an institution to make a statement about structural racism. It is much harder to take steps to repair the monstrous damage it has done — and no less importantly — to counter the corresponding benefits it has created.

The last responsibility, of course, is that academics must, they must, teach anti-racism. Here again, I don’t just mean teaching about the existence of structural racism or teaching a message of tolerance and assimilation. I mean that, because we are positioned as “leaders” in the knowledge building business, in my view, it is necessary that we teach, in every discipline, that racist ideas are ubiquitous. It means that we must teach that racist ideas are political constructions, created to justify the unequal treatment of one group of people by another and to justify inequalities in power, opportunities, and resources. Our bases of knowledge are a series of decisions that were (and continue to be) made in the logics of one group of people such that the existing social order (which privileged that group of people) was not disturbed. (This is loosely paraphrasing work of such antiracist scholars as Zeus Leonardo, bell hooks, Kimberle Crenshaw, Ibram X. Kendi, Bowker and Star, and many others). Understanding that, acknowledging it, isn’t enough. I encourage readers to seek out the work of scholars such as bell hooks, Kimberle Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Zeus Leonardo, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Ibram X. Kendi for additional reading.