Last evening our anti-racism book study group finished our discussion of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-racist. Several of us were struck by the connections between Kendi’s final chapters and what we know of a variety of recovery processes (12-step and otherwise). I find it helpful to think about my anti-racist living as a daily and lifelong process of recovery from the disease of racism – or more properly, I think, “white-ism.” I found a great deal of hope at the end of Kendi’s book, coupled with a daunting and stirring call to continuing repentance, repair and renewal.
Kendi connects his own process of recovery from stage 4 colon cancer and his/our recovery from racism. “Racism,” he writes, “has always been terminal and curable. Racism has always been recognizable and mortal” (page 223). On a personal level, Kendi describes “successive steps” in the process of being an antiracist (pages 225 – 226).
- 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.)
- I struggle to remain at the antiracist intersections where racism is mixed with other bigotries.
- I struggle to think with antiracist ideas.
He uses verbs which make a strong connection between his steps and other recovery disciplines: admit, confess, accept, acknowledge, and struggle.
I know that recovery is a daily as well as a lifelong reality. As a Lutheran Christian, I can’t help but think of Luther’s description of baptism as a daily discipline. Baptism, Luther writes, “signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Luther’s Small Catechism, page 44).
Of course, I tend to find connections everywhere. This morning I listened to the final installment of an excellent podcast series called Future Perfect. Here is a description from the front page of the website. Future Perfect “explores provocative ideas with the potential to radically improve the world. We tackle big questions about the most effective ways to save lives, fight global warming, and end world poverty to create a more perfect future.”
The current season has shared “stories about how the meat we eat affects us all, from the non-human animals to the farmers and factory workers who raise those animals and slaughter them to the environment.” One of the goals of the program is to help up “learn about some potential changes, big and small, that could make the food we eat more sustainable and more humane.”
My spouse and I have lived with a vegan diet and have pursued a “cruelty-free” lifestyle for almost two years. We are mere novices, so I’m glad for all the encouragement and guidance I can get. The final episode of the podcast took me into another arena of my recovery, what could be called “carnism.” I am a recovering meat-eater (and quite happy about the cuisine, the health benefits, and the decreased moral dissonance in my life). I think I could insert “carnist” in the place of “racist” in Kendi’s list, and it would work just as well for me.
Then I got my regular fix of Brene Brown on her podcast, Unlocking Us. In order to help listeners make it through the election week emotional vise, she reviewed her basic life mantra: “strong back, soft front, wild heart.” I’ve liked that since she shared it in her book, Braving the Wilderness. But I was particularly impacted by it today.
Brown’s words connected me to my third recovery process of the moment. I am in daily recovery from I have to call “protectionism.” It’s not perfectionism. It’s not power or control or domination -ism. I am addicted to simply protecting myself from emotional vulnerability. That’s my default, and to work in any other way is, well, work.
Protectionism requires what Brown calls a strong back and an armored front. So, the price of protection is an expressionless impenetrable wall of rigid rationality that masks a terrified and lonely child. I’m a lot better than I once was (well, at least some of the time). But the recover verbs are the same: admit, confess, accept, acknowledge, and struggle.
What is most telling and challenging for me is that all these toxic -isms come from much the same place: the urge to manage and control the world and everyone in it so that I can feel safe, strong, and certain. The recovery process is the move from defensive fear to vulnerability – what we, in baptismal terms, call the daily dying to self and rising in Christ.
White-ism, Carnism, Protectionism: And today is another day.
Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist. Published by One World, Aug 13, 2019. ISBN 9780525509288.
Future Perfect podcast: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect-podcast.
Brene Brown, Unlocking Us podcast: https://brenebrown.com/unlockingus/.
Luther’s Small Catechism, Fortress Press, 2008.