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My Turn, Jeffrey Sharp: Racism describes actions, not character traits of people

By Jeffrey Sharp

Thanks to the Salisbury Post for printing “What’s the Charge in Accusations of Racism” by D. G. Martin on Sept. 12. In it, Mr. Martin explores the scornful and increasingly common use of the term “racist”, and he examines his own thoughts about racism.

Ultimately, Martin comes up short as he draws the column to a close, stating, “Insights are important, but not so helpful in defining the term. Neither can I give a satisfactory definition of racism.”

Professor and author Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist,” referenced in Martin’s editorial, gives useful guidance about the meaning of the term “racist.” Kendi identifies “racism” as an active principle, not a state of being.

He writes, “A racist is someone who is supporting a racist policy by their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.”

Kendi locates racism, not in individuals, but in their actions related to social practices and institutional policies. Actions that consciously or unconsciously support policies to privilege or oppress any group on the basis of race are racist. Actions that oppose such policies are antiracist.

Individuals can either explicitly support racially unfair policies, implicitly support them through inaction or act to eliminate them. This contrasts racist actions or deliberate inaction with antiracist actions. In other words, racism is socially engaged action or expression, not a trait of the individual. And because people are complex, each of us is capable of acting in a racist manner in one circumstance and in an antiracist manner in another.

In regard to the often-cited defense of “not being a racist,” Kendi has this observation: “It is a claim that signifies neutrality. But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and politics, as an antiracist.”

Opposing racism is not a matter of labeling persons as “being racist.”

It is a matter of accurately identifying racist policies and acting as an antiracist to eliminate them. To do this we must constantly reflect on our own actions, inactions and expressions.

Kendi cautions that, “Racist ideas have defined our society since its beginning and can feel so natural and obvious as to be banal, but antiracist ideas remain difficult to comprehend.”

As individuals, we are capable of adopting racist views and acting upon them at any time. The same is true for antiracist views.

So, it is required of us all to continuously examine our own attitudes as Martin does when he writes, “I recognize it (racism) in myself.”

Jeffrey Sharp lives in Salisbury.

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