Got distracted by antiracism

A month ago, if we were to talk about race in this country, I would have said something like: “The U.S. is systematically racist and has been since its founding, and it’s a tragedy.” And then I would have shrugged, because that tragedy was also seemingly — to me! — insurmountable. And that shrug would have been racist.  

I’ve always disagreed with the saying, “You’re either part of the solution, or part of the problem.” Because it’s possible, I have thought, to be a part of a “third thing” — not hurting anyone, not saving anyone, just a person doing the best they can. This felt to me the natural place to be on most issues, the natural place for most people without power to be.

I’ve since learned that the origin of the phrase “You’re either part of the solution, or part of the problem,” was that it was a Black Panthers slogan in the sixties. Maybe if I’d known before, I’d have gotten to the truth of it sooner. It’s not just some motivational aphorism. It’s the truth about racism in America — and there is no “third thing.” 

Here’s how Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University and author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” describes that same truth:  “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of 'not racist.’”

You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. You’re either actively antiracist or racist. There is no in-between safe space.

What a revelation. I was so sure I was not part of the problem, that I did not contribute to or uphold racism in America. I believed this, but I was wrong.  

Two weeks ago I read an anecdote on Twitter about a 2014 Dave Chappelle show. In the set, Mr. Chappelle spoke about systemic racism in the United States, about police brutality, about how people just don’t care. He said he’d asked a South African friend about the end of apartheid. His friend told him that the amount of people caring had hit critical mass. The people had momentum, and apartheid ended. 

“Critical mass,” Mr. Chappelle said. “That’s what we have to hit. Once enough of you care, there will be nothing they can do to stop the change.” 

Critical mass. I keep thinking about that phrase. Being part of the critical mass is being part of the solution is being antiracist. It’s all the same thing.

And so these weeks, for me, have been trying on ways to change that: How can I ensure that I am part of the critical mass that will end systemic racism in the United States? How can I be part of the solution? How can I be actively antiracist? 

Big questions. But luckily ones that people have been thinking about and working on for a very long time. I’ve been seeking out those people, reading what they are saying to do. I’ve found them easily, on Twitter, in other newsletters, in my own home.  

Matt works on social justice campaigns. When we met, he was an investigative reporter writing primarily about police brutality, violence and death in jails, and systemic public corruption. Since moving out of journalism and into communications, he has worked alongside Latino farmworkers fighting for clean water in rural California, Black people fighting for healthcare equity in the Bronx, and Black, Indigenous and People of Color fighting for rights for people caught in the school-to-prison pipeline across the country.  He is part of the solution, always has been. I’ve always admired him for it, but I also viewed his work as a Sisyphean fight against impossible systems. I wished him well and felt proud of his work, but I also found it overwhelming.

I asked him to break down elements of his work as if to a child. I asked, if I wanted to help dismantle the prison industrial complex, how could I do that? He said I already did one very important thing: voting. That I shouldn’t discount the value in doing that. I said it was the only thing I did that felt consistently part of the solution. He said it was. He said writing to officials, especially local officials, was important. He sent me an article Barack Obama had just written, echoing the same thing. Beyond voting in elections, politics is another thing I’ve been overwhelmed by. He said, you cannot do everything — but you can do something. 

Doing something in the past weeks has looked like this, for me: waving a small flag by posting on Instagram that “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” waving another by writing this email. Donating to bail funds, and then to mutual aid funds, and then to established organizations that are doing the work of criminal justice reform. Reading and rereading articles about criminal justice reform (they are how I found the work of Mr. Kendi, how I learned the phrase “white silence is white violence,” how I learned about campaigns to defund the police.) 

I made a list of all my representatives and how to contact them, and I’ve joined mailing lists of progressive organizations that send out calls to contact your representatives and demand specific actions. I have put 30 minutes on my calendar each week to write these emails. The emails feel clunky, “Dear Bill de Blasio, I support defunding the NYPD budget.” But they feel good, too. 

So that’s where I’m starting. I’m also committing to continue this work, little and often, throughout my life. I’m grateful to have been given a glorious shake to my worldview of impotence, of paraysis, of the racist false comfort of the “third place.” I commit to avoid distraction, from this one thing, at least.

Love From Logan xx

Illustration by Matt Davis (full version here)

Referenced and not referenced 

• The story of the “critical mass” Dave Chappelle set, by Kenny DeForest

• “8:46,” Dave Chappelle’s short special on systemic racism and police brutality 

• The origin of the “solution/problem” slogan

• How to make this moment a real turning point for change, by Barack Obama 

• More on Matt’s work

• A profile of prison aboliton activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore. I read it last year and found it ovewhelming. I read it this week and found it incredibly motivating.