Dr. Kaye Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)

By Dr. Kaye Whitehead

Now that we are at the end of Donald Trump’s reign and we can feel the collective temperature of our nation begin to drop, we should probably take a moment to look back at what we have learned before the whitewashing of history begins. It is becoming increasingly apparent that every conversation in Trump’s America was about race, even when it was not. It is simply because every conversation about race in this country was (and is) a conversation about people in this country. Race is not a biological concept; it is a social construct that either extends or denies a person’s access to privileges and benefits. Conversations about race are messy and emotional, unsettling and frightening and where you stand on the question of race is an easy barometer to finding out where you stand on just about everything else. 

I was seven years old when I had my first conversation about race. Growing up, I was raised between my parents’ home in Washington, D.C., and my grandparents’ homes in South Carolina. My parents would drop me off, and I would spend the entire summer moving between my Nana’s middle-class home in Columbia and my grandmother’s dirt floor farm in Lexington. Both of these places answered questions in my soul that I did not know that I had. There was something to be said about running around my grandmother’s land that had a barn full of animals, trees, a lake, and where the only neighbors were family. In contrast, my Nana’s house was in the city, and my best friend was a little white boy who lived four houses down on the right. As soon as I got out of the car, before I unpacked my bag or changed my clothes, I would run down to his house to let him know that I was back, and we could play. I remember that summer and that day when he was upset, kicking rocks, with his hands in his pockets. He said his daddy was angry about those “Yankee n-words” always coming down from the north, acting uppity, and trying to take over. His daddy said the south was going to rise again and put those “Yankee n-words” in their place. My friend said he hated them and wanted them dead. And I said “me too!” When I told my Nana later that evening, two things happened: that was my first conversation about race and my last time playing with him. Over time, I learned that conversations about race are really just conversations about people and about bigotry and who has the inalienable right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. It is about who has access and who does not.

America is tragically flawed because our foundation is built upon the oppression and servitude of Black people. It is built upon racism, the parent of race, which means that it is woven into every facet of our lives from the womb to the grave. It shows up in the mass industrial prison complex, in our schools, in the redlining of mortgages by banks in our communities, through voter suppression, racial profiling, and racist police practices. It is the backbone of our economy and even shows up in our medical field, where Black people are more likely to die first and die more.

Conversations about race are not about race, they are about people and the only way to change the conversation is to confront it, address it and challenge it. In a racist society, Angela Davis said it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be antiracist. Ibram Kendi picking up on this idea, wrote that to be antiracist, you must first learn what racism is and how it has evolved. You need to study history to understand how race works in America. Once you do that, you then need to figure out where you sit with the question of race: Who are you? How do you define yourself? Where are you in your racial identity awareness? You must be honest with yourself and become painfully aware of your own racist beliefs and stereotypes. You must be prepared to do the hard work to change and to confront others to change as well. You need to be bold in confronting racism, you have to speak up, seek it out and then call it out. You cannot be quietly antiracist. 

We have the advantage of the long eye of racial American history, and we know that racism was written into our Constitution by the so-called founding fathers, and it has been codified into law. We know that racism has ramifications and that it is an old seed that was planted, watered, and nurtured. It is embedded into the foundation of our country. Antiracist work is the ax that we take to the root. We also know and what we have learned in Trump’s America is that we are the hunters, and either we are swinging that ax to the root, or we are swinging at others to keep them away from it. In Trump’s America, it was easy for people to talk about doing the hard work. In Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ America, say less and do more. Every conversation in this country is a conversation about race because it is a conversation about people. Your job now is to change the conversation, answer the most persistent questions and challenge yourselves and everyone around you to be antiracist.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead (todaywithdrkaye@gmail.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is an associate professor of African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the Founding Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, and Social Justice and the award-winning host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons. Her book, Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America, was just re-released.

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