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Highlights from Ibram X. Kendi’s presentation

The new Centennial Speaker Series is becoming a highlight of the academic year for UNC School of Social Work students, alumni, faculty, and staff. The series began in September with a presentation from Rev. William Barber. In October, the School welcomed Dr. Ibram X. Kendi for a special conversation, “How To Be An Antiracist,” facilitated by Dr. Travis Albritton, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and Dr. Tonya Van Deinse, clinical associate professor.

These events, and many other educational opportunities for our students, are made possible by unrestricted gifts to UNC School of Social Work. We thank our donors for supporting social work education and helping ensure that our School is one of the nation’s top-ranked schools of social work.

Nearly 2,000 people have joined the audience for our Centennial Speaker Series so far! We invite you to help us continue this new tradition — please consider a gift in support of this series.

If you were not able to attend our Oct. 28 event with Dr. Kendi, here are a few highlights from his remarks:


On antiracism and intersectionality

To be antiracist is to be on a journey. On that journey, it’s likely that we are going to need constant self-reflection, self-awareness, self-criticism. To be raised in this country is to be raised to be racist — our common sense as Americans is to believe the problem is bad people as opposed to bad policy.

There’s no neutral position on racism. When something is the status quo, when you do nothing — the status quo continues and you are complicit in the continuance of that status quo. To do nothing in the face of racism is to allow that racism to persist, and anyone who’s allowing for any injustice to persist is complicit in that injustice.

If we think of intersectionality in a very literal way … we can imagine a road, right outside our homes, as the road of racism. Down that road — half a block, a mile — it’s going to intersect with another road, and that’s the road of homophobia. And at that intersection is where, let’s say, a Latinx queer person sits. So in other words, they’re being affected by the cars on the racism road and they’re also being affected by homophobia and the intersection.

And certainly that operates at a policy level, too. You see, for instance, that the children of Black queer parents are typically poorer than the children of Black heterosexual parents and the children of white queer parents. And that’s due to this intersection of homophobic and racist policies.


Why a theory for Black women is a theory for humanity

Most Black women in the United States are working class. When you’re talking about the prototypical Black woman, you’re talking about a woman who is not only facing racial oppression; she’s also facing a form of gender oppression and she’s facing a form of class oppression.

You have people of all races and genders who are facing class oppression, who are facing sexism and patriarchy and who certainly are facing racism. So, if we were serious about … empowering and freeing that working-class Black woman, what are we going to have to fight simultaneously?

We can’t just fight against the racism; we also must fight against the sexism. In fighting and freeing this world of sexism, we’re not just freeing that Black woman, we’re freeing all women. In eliminating poverty, in ensuring everyone has economic opportunity, we’re not just freeing that working-class Black woman, we’re freeing working-class people of all races around the world.

Fundamentally, because the working-class Black woman sits at so many intersections of oppression, by freeing that woman, we’re freeing humanity.


What it would mean to be an antiracist school of social work

The status quo for too many institutions, for too many communities, is racist policies. The question for the individual is, “Am I upholding that system of racist policies by doing nothing or literally supporting those policies, or am I challenging them?”

An antiracist university would be built on producing antiracist research, meaning antiracist researchers asking the questions, “What’s wrong with power? What’s wrong with policies? What’s wrong with conditions? What’s wrong with practices?” as opposed to racist research, which asks, “What’s wrong with people?”

Obviously, the curriculum, the literature, the examples that professors use in their pedagogy, the authors that are being introduced would be representative of the student body; that student body would be represented racially in the faculty and the administration and the staff.

People who are in policy-making positions would be committed to antiracist policies. There would be data tracking to assess if there are racial disparities that need to be addressed, and there would always be the assumption that a disparity exists — that the institution is the problem, not some racial group. Research and learning would be geared toward the transformation of the community, of the state, of the nation.

Faculty should not just assume because they’ve read two books on race and racism that they are knowledgeable. They should not assume that because they’re, quote, “liberal,” that they somehow are antiracist, that because they’re a person of color that they’re an expert on people of color — none of this matters.

What matters is our own personal self-education. It’s critical for us to realize that racist and antiracist – these are descriptive terms. No one becomes racist or antiracist; it’s only something we can strive to be. A racist is not who a person is; it’s what a person is being.