By Jennifer Ho, Director of the Center for Humanities & the Arts at the University of Colorado Boulder and instructor of Anti-Racism I.
The day after the March 16, 2021, Atlanta shooting that killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, I wrote about what it means to be an Asian woman in America for CNN. I was able to write this piece so quickly because I have been living this reality my whole life and thinking about all the ways that being an Asian American woman in the US means that I do not get recognized for who I am: a fully enfranchised human being. That I do not get to experience reality as a fully enfranchised human being has much to do with how I navigate the intersectional oppressions of both racism and sexism, which makes me not just exhausted but angry. Inequity makes me angry, and I want things to be fair. This is the ethos I’ve had since I was ten when I complained to my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Edwards. I told her it wasn’t fair that the boys, who ran faster than most of the girls, got the best tetherballs, and she said, “Life’s not fair Jennifer, get used to it.”
Thankfully, I never did.
The analogy above is an apt one to talk about the inequities of race—in the US as I have experienced it, and around the world. Some have demonstrated this by literalizing racial disparities into an actual race between White and Black runners, showing how White people have had advantages simply because of their racial identity. Another way to say this is that White people experience disadvantages, such as poverty, illness, lack of access to education or stable employment, but their disadvantage rarely occurs because of their whiteness. Whiteness was not a liability codified into US law. The same cannot be said for non-White people. Dispossessed American Indians were forcibly removed from their land. People from Africa were bought and enslaved, working in the US without recourse to their freedom until the 13th Amendment was passed. Immigrants from Asia deemed a threat to white working men were first barred from further entry then denied the right to naturalize as US citizens. After the Mexican-American war, Mexican citizens woke up one morning to find that they were now in US territory and thus subject to having their property stripped from them, despite provisions saying otherwise.
Though these examples are from the past, our present realities are sadly full of the legacies of these systemic racial inequities. To use the race analogy again, American Indians, African Americans, Asian Americans, and people of Latin American descent in the US have been unable to run the race unencumbered by restrictive housing covenants, unequal access to education and health care, and a wealth gap that has only increased over time.
All of this is unfair. But we can do something—all of us. We can choose anti-racism.
Anti-racism is not the same as not engaging in racism. Not engaging in racism means you are being a decent human being. But anti-racism is a choice. It is also not an identity—choosing anti-racism is something anyone and everyone can do, regardless of their racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities. However, choosing anti-racism requires people to act.
If you are new to anti-racism work, here’s how you can start:
- Educate yourself. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, curated reading and viewing lists have proliferated on the internet to help the general public understand the long history of race and racism in the United States. Coursera has several classes on its platform to help, including a free three-week self-paced class that I co-developed, Anti-Racism I. Shawn O’Neal will be releasing Anti-Racism II shortly, and we’ll both be working on Anti-Racism III this summer.
- Talk about what you’ve learned. This can be lonely work, so it’s important to find people you can talk with—to ask questions, to discuss things that you’re confused about, to work through the difficult history of race and racism in the United States and around the world. If you find yourself alone, try starting a or joining a book group dedicated to anti-racism work. And try not to ask your co-workers who are Black, Indigenous, Asian American, and Latino/a/x to answer questions for you or to be the spokespeople for “the” Black, Indigenous, Asian American, Latino/a/x community. Just as there is no singular “White” community there is no singular Black, Indigenous, Asian American, and Latino/a/x community.
- Do something. This can be difficult—reading and talking can keep you in the relative safety of your social bubble. Doing something—acting as an anti-racism advocate, can be scary. You might be afraid that you will say something wrong. You might worry that you will be called racist. But the fear of being called racist should not prevent people from doing anti-racism work. And it is work. It is labor. It requires exercise. So just like you wouldn’t run the Boston marathon without training and taking small steps, similarly in doing anti-racism work, you need to exercise that anti-racism muscle. And if you’ve never exercised that muscle before, it will hurt. You will strain it. You will feel exhausted—because the work of anti-racism is exhausting. But eventually you will get stronger. You will find others who can help you train. And you will be able to become an active bystander who intervenes when you see people saying and doing racist things. Hollaback offers free active bystander trainings—they’re a great first step in exercising your anti-racism muscle.
- Repeat. This is not work that is ever finished—because racism as a systemic social evil has been around for centuries. You have to keep reading and learning and talking and doing because race and racism mutate and morph over time. You will make mistakes. I still make mistakes. But we learn from our mistakes because it’s part of how we grow as anti-racism advocates.
If you truly want to intervene to make society a fair and just place for all people, then there’s really no other choice than to choose anti-racism.
About the author: The daughter of a refugee father from China and an immigrant mother from Jamaica, whose own parents were, themselves, immigrants from Hong Kong, Jennifer Ho is the director of the Center for Humanities & the Arts at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she also holds an appointment as Professor of Ethnic Studies. She is the president of the Association for Asian American Studies and the author of three scholarly monographs, several academic articles and book chapters, and public-facing pieces addressing the intersections of race, sex, and class in Asian America. In addition to her academic work, Ho is active in community engagement around issues of race and intersectionality, leading workshops on anti-racism and how to talk about race in our current social and cultural climate. You can follow her on Twitter @drjenho.