This was a book that I probably should have written on daily since picking it up for this Zoom Book Club that I was involved in, but there were so many “aha” moments it was hard. I’m grateful to the person who invited me to join though because what it did, rather than give me writing fodder, was provide me a framework for reflection. It turned out to be much needed reflection. It gave me the opportunity to ask myself, “How woke is woke? Is there a scale, and if so, where am I on the scale? How do I stand in terms of where I want to be as a human being?”
Dave Chappelle, who has continually come under fire for having no sacred cows or third rail topics in his performances, said recently that he can’t even pretend to understand some things but he believes that every person regardless to should be able to live with respect and dignity. It’s very easy to say that. Who but the most adamantly ignorant is going to deny that simple truth. What is given by the person speaking those words though is often a very different story. It’s not for me to judge Chappelle or anyone else. It’s hard enough keeping my own side of the street clean, but his words really opened me up to ask myself, “What do I give to the world and everyone in it in terms of dignity and respect?” It’s an interesting answer and it comes down to, more than some and less than others and there is a lot of room for improvement. So within the sphere of my own power, what can be done to change that for the better? The framework, or ladder, that Kendi provides goes thusly:
- “I stop using the “I’m not a racist” or “I can’t be racist” defense of denial.
- I admit the definition of racist (someone who is supporting racist policies or expressing racist ideas).
- I confess the racist policies I support and racist ideas I express.
- I accept their source (my upbringing inside a nation making us racist).
- I acknowledge the definition of antiracist (someone who is supporting antiracist policies or expressing antiracist ideas).
- I struggle for antiracist power and policy in my spaces. (Seizing a policymaking position. Joining an antiracist organization or protest. Publicly donating my time or privately donating my funds to antiracist policymakers, organizations, and protests fixated on changing power and policy.)
- I struggle to remain at the antiracist intersections where racism is mixed with other bigotries. (Eliminating racial distinctions in biology and behavior. Equalizing racial distinctions in ethnicities, bodies, cultures, colors, classes, spaces, genders, and sexualities.)
- I struggle to think with antiracist ideas. (Seeing racist policy in racial inequity. Leveling group differences. Not being fooled into generalizing individual negativity. Not being fooled by misleading statistics or theories that blame people for racial inequity.)”
Reading it again now, I see that it’s very much like the recovery framework of the 12 Steps world. It’s possible to be on most of the steps all at once, at least after considering all of them and starting with that first one. I would add one:
I remain open to learning and especially correction.
It also opened me to how much of my time on these topics has been more virtue signaling than action. Also, to how much has been demonstration for self-gratification, and not goal-driven protest.
How much was for show?
It reminded me that there are ways to argue and ways to teach, proper ways that rarely begin with browbeating and moralization which is really demoralization. Self-righteous people very rarely change minds, even when they are right beyond any question. Demonizing people for wrong ideas or misguided actions isn’t teaching. I would have told you that if we were talking on the topic of our unjust “corrections” system. I would have told you that if you were just degrading me personally for some of my bad ideas. There are ways to offer alternatives to bad ideas or bad education. It could even be started by removing the word bad and replacing it with something less judgmental. Even “incorrect” might work better.
One day I might come back and copy and paste the quotes I pulled for discussion that rang my bell. Not tonight though. It’s better to just simply and briefly consider why the book worked for me. It was part confessional, part history lesson… it was the author’s own story of personal growth. That’s why it worked. It was in parts a window into his experiences and education, and in parts a mirror that he held up and challenged me to look at myself.
It was in part a gratitude list though, and not just in the acknowledgements but the body of the book, to the people that taught him and helped him along. He was so thankful for everyone, including and especially the people who called him out on his own nonsense. That’s a lesson I’ve heard spoken of before. Thank the people who took you out of your comfort zone, those who took you out of your tiny clay pot and gave you room to grow.
But I have work to do, and that doesn’t start with the people around me, or anyone else but me. I needed the experience of reading this book with other people too, so I’m grateful for the chance to be part of a group of good people trying to be better and trying to grow. That of course is something not entirely alien to a veteran of the 12 Steps world, but new frontiers and contexts are always welcome. In the 12 Steps world there is an anagram for GOD: Grow Or Die. The god thing can be a bit much sometimes but it makes it no less true for an atheist or agnostic. If you’re not growing, then you are really just sitting around waiting to die.