The following section contains content including the historical context and current presence of Anti-Blackness rhetoric and prejudice. It may be sensitive or disturbing to those who have experienced Anti-Blackness or are a part of the African Diaspora.
Anti-Blackness is alive and well. From the murders of unarmed Black Americans by police, to the striking difference of treatment of Black racial justice protesters and white insurrectionists upholding white power, to the ways in which COVID-19 is systematically targeting Black communities. Protests have erupted nationally and globally to bring attention to the ways in which Black people are both targeted and neglected by institutions, societies, and people. While some people assert we are in a “post-racial” society, that race no longer plays a significant a role in the quality of people’s lives, data proves otherwise:
- Black people are 3x more likely than white people to be arrested for the same actions
- Black people are 23x more likely to be sentenced to a life sentence without parole than white people for the same crimes
- Black people are 33x more likely to experience health issues while receiving less care and coverage
- Black youth are 3x more likely to be penalized, mistreated, misdiagnosed than white youth
If you find yourself tempted to explain away the statistics above (eg, “That’s because Black people are _______”) this is because we have been taught to localize the blame within people instead of within systems. This tendency makes sense since we have been socialized through history to be anti-Black, from our implicit beliefs to our hiring practices. In the United States, anti-Blackness is so pervasive and foundational to American culture and history that an entire movement was founded simply to affirm that Black lives matter. It is not uncommon for opponents to mischaracterize Black Lives Matter by suggesting that Black Lives Matter advocates are promoting the value of Black lives to the exclusion of other lives. This mischaracterization is an attempt to undermine this movement, which simply intends clarify that Black Lives Matter too, just like the lives of people with other identities. The #BlackLivesMatter movement was created to bring anti-Blackness to the forefront of national consciousness, re-affirming Black humanity, worthiness, and resilience in the face of centuries of oppression.
We must also recognize the history and negative impact that anti-Blackness has on institutions including Stanford. The University's founding president, David Starr Jordan was a eugenicist who promoted the racial hierarchy that laid the foundations for the anti-Blackness that we see today. In October of 2020, Stanford moved to rename campus features that were named after Jordan. The anti-Black systems in place in the United States have also led to Black students historically being underrepresented on Stanford's campus and higher education in general. Even in 2021, only 7% of the undergraduate student population and 2% of university faculty is Black.
How did we get here, to the mass denial of Black people’s humanity? It started with the creation of racism and race itself. Before Europeans enslaved Africans in the 16th century, there were millenia of hierarchies, enslavement, brutality, and genocide- but not along color lines similar to the way we perceive race today. During England’s colonization of Native lands, interracial relationships were common, multiple races were initially working side-by-side on early plantations, and multi-racial communities grew in order to fight off potential enslavers. In order to establish a slave state while simultaneously representing the new ideals of democracy, U.S. colonists and enslavers broke up these potential coalitions of white indentured servants, Black folx, and Native Americans by creating a racial hierarchy. Uniting European identities under a pan-European and Christian idea of “whiteness” allowed everyone else to be lumped together as Other (non-white and non-Christian), and therefore explicitly exempt from human rights such as equality and freedom.
With the development of a racial hierarchy, the enslavement of African people became justified and mutually reinforcing. The idea of “‘race’ explained why Africans were slaves, while slavery’s degradation supplied the evidence for their inferiority”. With the growing ideas of natural selection, evolution, and eventual eugenics spreading throughout European and American society, differences were manufactured to explain why Black people were inclined to, and even needed, enslavement. If Black people were believed to be less intelligent, barbaric, dishonest, lazy, etc., the business of seeing Black people as property could be morally justified, and thus the humanity of Black people was eroded away.
This messaging has only expanded and mutated with time. Even with emancipation of enslaved Black people, there were no systems in place to aid in navigating a world built by and for “white” American cisgender male citizens. For example, modern day policing grew out of early slave patrols and slave militias. Health care and medical institutions were denied to Black Americans; white doctors even purposefully misled and harmed Black folx as seen in the Tuskegee Study in the name of science and medicine. Social security was created for elders, because American society found this more palatable than providing social services for Black people. As these systems grew, anti-Black messages and tropes also proliferated through minstrel shows that depicted Black Americans as lazy and dishonest, while anti-Blackness itself became legitimized in Jim Crow laws.
Jim Crow laws segregated Black and white Americans in a myriad of ways--limited voting access, limited employment opportunities, unending discrimination, and targeted violence. Black Americans hoped that increased employment opportunities and enlisting in armed services during World War II would bring change and reform to this system. As this proved not to be the case upon returning home, the call for grass-roots initiatives aimed at liberation continued to grow. From protesting bus segregation by Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin, to the Greensboro sit-ins protesting segregated lunch counters, to the Freedom Riders’ protest of bus terminal segregation, to the March on Washington, to demonstrations and marches spread across the country, increasing social awareness of racial injustice became calls for change and legislative action. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed in response to this activism, hoping to guarantee equal employment, integration of public facilities, and voting accessibility.
Though legislative changes were made and social awareness grew, the racist foundations of U.S. institutions, media, and society remained. These civil rights victories could not, and did not, eradicate two centuries worth of pervasive anti-Blackness in U.S. institutions, beliefs, and culture. The old, dehumanizing stereotypes of Black people were given new sheen in entertainment tropes, which were even further legitimized in widespread news media portrayals. Just like the mutually enforcing loop of slavery and dehumanization, anti-Black portrayals in media are used to rationalize the financial, educational, and health disparities that continue to grow between Black Americans and the rest of the country: If Black folx are characterized as scary, angry, aggressive (e.g. barbaric), then the argument can be made that increased police brutality and incarceration is warranted. If Black folx are seen as uneducated (e.g. less intelligent), then society can argue that’s why they don’t matriculate through high school or climb leadership levels or why they have poorer health outcomes and are more susceptible to illnesses like COVID. If Black folx are depicted as lazy, then society can argue that’s why Black communities are impoverished and thus undeserving of social and financial support.
In short- just like during slavery, anti-Black messages uphold that Black people are to blame for the inequities they face, not the white supremacist systems enforcing them. In a society predicated on meritocracy and the “American dream,” the dehumanizing narrative that Black people have brought this upon themselves is used to justify the immense disparities that continue to persist.
These anti-Black beliefs have become so ingrained in our society that to bring attention to them is seen as provocative, even offensive (for example, responses to: kneeling during the national anthem, Beyonce’s “Formation” Super Bowl halftime show). It’s become an affront to identify anti-Blackness in words and actions, when in reality, it is a cornerstone of American society. Being of a non-white race, being an immigrant, being queer, even being Black oneself doesn’t preclude us from learning and absorbing these messages; anti-Blackness pervades all spaces and systems because white supremacy has pervaded all U.S. spaces and systems. It doesn’t end in the United States either; considering the pervasiveness of European colonization across history, anti-Blackness has invaded the cultures of many countries across the world as well.
At this point in reading, you may be feeling and thinking a lot of different things, perhaps including overwhelm, defensiveness, and hopelessness. Particularly, Black folx, you may be feeling fatigued, discouraged, cynical, and alone. These feelings are completely valid. They can also sometimes act as barriers to necessary self-care and further action. In a world that has been built around erasing Blackness, the most radical act you can do is to take care of yourself and prioritize your own well-being. Check out this page to reprioritize your self-preservation and hope.
So, where do we start in fighting anti-Blackness?
Be aware that anti-Blackness intersects with other oppressions like fatphobia and colorism; in fact, modern diet culture and obesity concepts grew out of disdain for Black bodies, and the preference for lighter skin in other communities was bolstered by anti-Blackness. To fight one oppression would be incomplete without learning to fight other interlocking oppressions that impact communities. Fighting anti-Blackness means being in solidarity with all Black Americans- queer and trans Black folx, Black folx with disabilities and mental health journeys, not just the Black folx closest to you and your communities.
Recognize that because the anti-Black conditioning is so pervasive, your unlearning process will be at best uncomfortable and more likely deeply troubling. As you engage at the level of discomfort and distress, both take care of and be compassionate with yourself and also keep yourself engaged. Understand that the conditioning is societal and systemic, but requires deep personal engagement to embark on the journey of unlearning. It is not easy or pleasant. Check yourself to make sure you are going deep enough that you see and are disturbed by your own level of collusion in anti-Blackness. Again, fighting such deeply woven structures is a marathon and requires ongoing vigilance, learning, and humility. To do so, it is important to take care of oneself in order to continue in the fight for liberation.
Build awareness of anti-Black conditioning
As discussed above, U.S. society is built on anti-Blackness. None of us are immune to it. It is internalized by us all in often unconscious ways. Messages (explicitly and implicitly, direct and indirect, covert and overt), images, narratives, policies, laws etc. all work in collusion and manifest both in what we experience as well as what we don’t experience. Two initial steps we can take to address this anti-Black conditioning are:
- Take a posture of humility and learning to acknowledge that we operate from the impact of this anti-Black conditioning and at any given moment we may be acting in ways that perpetuate it.
- Build our awareness of it and all the places in our lives where it exists from societal influences such as media, political rhetoric, scholarship and research, and institutional policies and practices to our personal lives in our families and social circles. If you need a starting point, try Rachel Cargle’s free 30-day #DoTheWork course.
Educate yourself from Black leaders, scholarship & activists
To unlearn the anti-Black conditioning to which we have all been subject, we need to engage in an active and intentional unlearning campaign and learn about the anti-Black roots of our institutions, including Stanford. Intentionally engage with learning that celebrates Blackness for the beauty that it is. This warrants a willingness to engage with Black people, Black culture, Black voices, and Black experiences to challenge and expand pre-existing schemes of what Black represents. Do this by following Black instagram accounts (and not just ones that focus on antiracism either), watching Black entertainment, listening to Black podcasts, and subscribing to Black organizations. This also includes learning the history and current white supremacist practices that continue to silence, distort and co-opt Black voices. Explore Stanford resources like the Black community Services Center, IDEAL Dashboards and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Course Offerings.
Advocate and Center Black voices
Next, fight anti-Blackness and white supremacy in our retelling of history, families, communities, workplaces, and faith spaces. Identify when language and practices are exclusionary. Stand up in solidarity with Black people by confronting anti-Black humor, media, businesses, and rhetoric. Fight other arms of white supremacy, like the Model Minority Myth or the ideas of meritocracy by speaking with others and your parents. Take action towards equity. The following are some examples of how to take action:
- Consider how your choice of words can perpetuate anti-Blackness. A powerful article on this topic can be found here.
- Use your voice, energy, time resources, talents, and unearned privileges to work toward equity of Black people. For example, ask "Are there black people at the table?" "Should I be at this table, or should there be a Black voice?"
- Be conscious of the amount of space you take up and the ways that you may silence or mute Black voices. Join in allyship to champion the causes of Black folks and amplify Black voices.
- As you engage in action, be mindful of ways you can share the burden of emotional labor because you have the capacity to do so.
- Leverage your consumer power by giving your money to Black-owned restaurants, businesses, bookstores, etc.
- Learn about how COVID-19 is targetting Black communities and widely share specific resources for Black folx during COVID-19.
Exercise your vote to change systems.
As the previous section illustrated, change can come from pressure on our legal systems. Vote in leaders who advocate for Black communities. Do your jury duty. Vote for legislation and inform yourself about policies that protect Black communities and their rights. Continue to march, protest, sign petitions until change is made.