I Am Not Racist vs. I Am Anti-Racist
One of the many lessons that came from the Black Lives Matter movement getting international attention in 2020 is that it isn’t enough to say you are not racist; you need to be actively anti-racist.
I have recently started to better scrutinize the e-newsletters I get from organizations. Whenever I get a marketing piece that has images featuring only white people, I unsubscribe from the mailing list. The unsubscribe feature usually asks for the reason why. I click “Other” and explain in the available space that the marketing materials do not feature any people of color. If the company does not think to include diversity in its promotional materials, I assume that means it isn’t actively doing it with the people it hires, the customers it targets or the businesses it works with in its supply chain, and I do not want to support that kind of company.
I am fortunate to be a member of multiple networking groups, mostly comprised of C-level women from Fortune 500 companies around the world. Every one of my networking groups has recently held member discussions about diversity. These are powerful sessions. People of color, members of the LGBTQ community and people from different religious groups living in the United States have shared their experiences of what it’s like to be a non-white, non-gentile person living in America.
During a few of those discussions on racism, people shared about microaggressions. I reached out to a few of the women to ask if they would talk to me about what makes a comment a microaggression. Their openness in sharing their experiences woke me up to the things I have said in the past that could have made someone feel badly about being different from me and my white friends or coworkers. It also helped me frame many incidents that made me feel like I didn’t belong, or I was being excluded.
As a female, I have had plenty of crushing experiences because of my gender. Growing up in New York City, construction workers used to whistle and yell dirty things at me when I would go to and from school wearing my uniform, which was a kilt with exposed legs (the dress code didn’t allow us to wear sweatpants or leggings under the kilt). The cat calls made my stomach turn and my blood boil. I wanted to scream at and punch these men, but the prevailing teaching at the time was to tell women to ignore the harassment and keep walking.
I later moved to Los Angeles for college. I was told that if an unmarked police car pulled you over, never get off the freeway, because the officers—if they were really law enforcement—would rape you in exchange for not giving you a ticket.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, there had never been a female President of Student Government. One of my sorority sisters was the first women in the Student Senate. This was in the late 1980s and it was my first real look at the glass ceiling. It obviously wouldn’t be my last.
As an executive in the media industry, I have earned less than my male counterparts for decades and, when I once made that point during a salary negotiation, I was told I was being greedy. Years later, when the company I worked at passed me over for a job I wanted, I was told, “The best man got the job.” The male hiring manager added that I also didn’t get the job because the man who got it had a family to support and I was a divorced woman without kids, so I would be okay.
Recently, I was sharing some of these experiences with an Asian friend during a conversation about microaggressions and I asked what we can do to educate people. She said, “Stop using the word educate. Stop teaching. That doesn’t do anything.”
I was surprised. She said, “The best thing you can do is examine your own experiences of feeling like an ‘other.’ Look at how it continues to make you feel decades later. THAT’s what it feels like to be a Black, Brown, Asian, Queer, or Muslim person in America.”
It isn’t enough for me to say I am not racist. And it isn’t enough for me to say that I can relate to how it feels to be discriminated against, subjugated and excluded. I need to take my hurt and what I have learned and use it to make things better today. As Congressman John Lewis said many times, when you see something, say something.
A friend sent me a promotional video for his new business and asked my opinion on it. I think he was expecting a sentence or two. I sent back a full page, single-space email pointing out all of the places (time code included) in which the video SAID that their business was about making a pro-social impact and lifting up its clients, but featured images that showed the exact opposite.
The video was full of white people in the foreground leading big meetings, working at computers and writing notes at conference room tables, while the people of color were shown blurred in the background, pictured from behind with their facial features obscured, and seen smiling and nodding as the white people talked AT them.
The video was assembled by a team of well meaning, socially open white people and it was a good example of unconscious bias at work, which I talk about in my books and workshops. The white people were the doers, the leaders, the ones in power. The people of color were not.
Being anti-racist means different things in different moments. But it is something we get to do every day and in everyday situations.