Are We Antiracist yet?

This Black History Month, we’re taking a closer look at how far we’ve really come as a society to be actively antiracist.

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

Black History Month is a time of celebration but also of reflection. You may have noticed many articles, tweets and talks – including some of our past speakers – both celebrating Black History and using this moment critically to reflect on what antiracist work still needs to be done. Here at TEDxLondon, we wanted to take the opportunity to do the same – to reflect on what antiracist work we are doing and reaffirm our commitment to being an antiracism platform. 

This week alone saw Bernadine Evaristo become the first black woman to win the Man Booker Prize and the launch of the Premier League’s “No Room For Racism” campaign. Such stories suggest that conversations are moving forward, that there is a renewed interrogation of structural racism, particularly in the UK. However, discussing the realities of racial inequality often remains difficult, so we turned to two of our past speakers: Professor in Law,
Iyiola Solanke, and campaigner against toxic masculinity, Ben Hurst, to help us explore race, racism and antiracism in the UK. 

Tackling white privilege and systemic racial discrimination within a society that also declares itself as “post-racial”, “colour blind” or simply “not racist” reveals a clash of often polarised realities. Ben Hurst believes these narratives emerge, in part, because ‘the racism we perpetuate in this country is a lot more insidious – particularly in contrast to the USA’ and that ‘academic definitions of racism and race have moved forward now, and these don’t match what we are taught in schools’. Ben notes racism in schools is taught mainly as ‘prejudice based on race, period’, excluding ‘a whole exploration of racism as something that is systemic and oppresses specific groups of people.’ He argues these disconnects create a breeding ground that ‘allows people to adopt a narrative of “I don’t see race”, or “Does racial oppression really happen?’ This perspective is reminiscent of many others who write on race and racism, including Reni Eddo-Lodge – ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To Write People About Race’ – and US-based writer Ijeoma Oluo – ‘So You Want to Talk About Race’. Both of these writers explore the cognitive dissonance when people of colour’s lived experiences are easily disregarded by those who refuse to recognise the structural nature of racial discrimination. 

Part of the guiding logic of living in a post-racial society centres on a person’s intentions. If they didn’t intend to be racist, can they be called one? Does someone’s good intentions cancel out any negative consequences their behaviour may have unwittingly caused? British author and journalist Afua Hirsch was once told by colleagues on the show she regularly contributes to (The Pledge), that society had moved on from the worst excesses of racial prejudice, and that if good intentions lie behind people’s behaviour, they could not be described as racist. Professor Iyiola Solanke’s explores this very question through a framework which tackles racial discrimination in the same way scientists might tackle a virus. As Iyiola points out: ‘If we consider discrimination to be a virus, then ‘good intentions’ are irrelevant – just as the person who spreads [a virus] has to take responsibility for that, so too does the person who spreads discrimination, regardless of their motives.’ 

“We have tied ourselves in knots attempting to be a post-racial society without ever truly understanding racialised identities. That failure is capable of turning both our individual and our national heritage from a rich and complex asset into an identity crisis of epic proportions.”

Afua Hirsch, journalist and author of Brit (ish)

Focusing on whether it is the consequences of an action that determine whether someone is racist or not is one of the key parts of Ibram X. Kendi’s latest book ‘How To Be An Antiracist’. For Kendi, an idea, policy or action can be racist or antiracist simply depending on whether it dismantles racial inequality. Kendi effectively circumnavigates the intentions or motives behind an idea, policy or action, meaning it is only by the impact and consequences of our behaviours and decisions that we can be judged racist or antiracist. Following this logic, being antiracist is constant work – not a stagnant state of being. As Kendi says in an interview with NPR: ‘I think most Americans, without recognising it, say and believe both racist and antiracist ideas. What I’m seeking to do is get them to recognise those racist ideas, get them to essentially get rid of them and essentially strive to be antiracist, strive to see the racial groups as equals.’

Kendi’s focus on being continuously active in your antiracist work resonated with Iyiola’s public health approach to tackling racism. For her, fighting discrimination centres on constant action, just like the body fighting a virus: ‘In order to become actively antiracist, we need to think of discrimination as a virus and like public health professionals, take action to identify the ‘chain of infection’. One key factor in the chain of infection is the ‘susceptible host’ – this is the location where a virus can fester and grow. We need to recognise that we live in a world where all are susceptible to racial discrimination and so can be hosts to this virus. Acknowledging the risk of becoming a susceptible host, should make individuals become more actively antiracist.’

As a facilitator and educator, Ben’s emphasis on the importance of creating open spaces for conversations around race could be seen as identifying Iyiola’s ‘susceptible host’. ‘What we need to do is create open spaces for conversation. Open spaces where people are able to be honest, particularly white people, about what they feel, how they think and where these things come from.’ As with his TEDxLondon talk, Ben believes changing narratives, even if discussions on race are hard, is part of the process of becoming antiracist. ‘It’s never nice to have your behaviour problematised. It’s never nice to have a mirror held up to yourself and see who you really are or what the effect or impact of your behaviour is on other people.’ Yet again, the message seems clear. Antiracist work starts with becoming conscious of the ways in which your own behaviours and decisions perpetuate racism and taking steps to counter them. 

Having explored antiracism with Iyiola and Ben, we invite you to join us this Black History Month and beyond to consider how you are showing up in your antiracist work and the fight against racism.

“We cannot afford to be color blind. We have to be color brave. We have to be willing, as teachers and parents and entrepreneurs and scientists, we have to be willing to have proactive conversations about race with honesty and understanding and courage, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do, because our businesses and our products and our science, our research, all of that will be better with greater diversity.”

Mellody Hobson “Color blind or color brave?” at TED2014

The Writers to Know

L-R: Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’; Afua Hirsch, author of ‘Brit(ish)’; Ibram X. Kendi, author of ‘How to Be An Antiracist’; Bernadine Evaristo, author of ‘Girl, Woman, Other’

Further Reading: Get Informed, Get Active

If we thought of discrimination as a virus, we might have moved closer to its eradication, says Iyiola Solanke, Professor of Law. Like a virus, discrimination affects the individual and society. So can we learn from public health professionals, and the way they tackle deadly epidemics like Ebola? Iyiola believes that by implementing and adapting the same approach used by public health professionals we can more effectively tackle discrimination in our societies. Iyiola promotes a new way to use law to rid the world of discrimination. Through her work as Professor of Law at the University of Leeds, she primarily researches EU and Anti-Discrimination Law. In her latest book, Discrimination As Stigma, she suggests a new paradigm for anti-discrimination law - proposing discrimination can be compared to and tackled like a virus. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx