Why you can’t get an “A” in anti-racism

Stop doing anti-racist work, and start being anti-racist. There’s a difference.

By Connor Wertz

Pia Contreras

This past summer, the Movement for Black Lives inspired conversations on race and white supremacy to a larger extent that the United States has experienced in decades. Many individuals and institutions asked themselves seriously for the first time: what actions do we have to take to combat racism? Although this question is well-meaning, it is fundamentally flawed.

To fixate on “doing” anti-racist work is wrong because dismantling white supremacy requires foundational changes in the way we navigate being. How do we live out our values? How do we conduct relationships between friends and colleagues? What is the vibe of the spaces we create and navigate? How does your presence make a space feel, from the classroom to the dinner line at Proc? Living uncomfortably with these questions will change the type of people — and the type of college — we are. 

Doing anti-racist work, on the other hand, encourages performative activism because it prioritizes one-off actions over systemic shifts. It enables those in power — both at the institutional and individual level — to “prove” they are anti-racist without requiring that they actually change who they are. There are intuitive examples that make sense to us; the trend of posting black squares on Instagram to “black out” our social media feeds, for example, quickly drew backlash as a tactic that encouraged public performativity of “wokeness” without actually encouraging transformative change. 

Yet incentives for performative anti-racism are present in more than just social media “slacktivism”; they are deeply incorporated in how we are taught to behave. We’ve unconsciously internalized the notion that our self-worth is defined by our productivity — a concept rooted in capitalism that plays out in our daily lives. The competitive nature of academia at a school like Middlebury is an example of this. We don’t pass college by demonstrating to our professors the person we’ve become (even though that is, surprisingly for some, actually the point of a liberal arts education). We graduate by proving we’ve done what it takes, syllabus by syllabus, essay by essay, test by test. This is equally true for faculty, whose admittance into the esteemed category of tenure relies more on producing research and favorable reviews from students than from proving any commitment or background to critical pedagogy.

It’s not your fault if your first instinct when addressing racism is wanting to “do something” — it’s the way we survive at Middlebury. But if we transfer this checklist mentality to our anti-racist work, the dynamic process of becoming different people — and, ultimately, a different institution — is subsumed by the individual acts we do. 

Chances are you might be a bit frustrated by now; the idea that acting on our desire to change the world for the better can be problematic seems paralyzing and counterintuitive. You might be wondering: How do we dismantle white supremacy if we can’t do anything? Are you saying that attending a protest doesn’t matter? What about Middlebury’s anti-racist taskforce that “does” stuff all the time?

As any good organizer will tell you, however, actions are only as valuable as the intent behind them. If we don’t have a deliberate conversation about our goals, about what we as individuals and as a college want to become, then everything we do is aimless at best, and dangerously insincere at worst. When anti-racist work is seen as a requirement, doing anti-racist work becomes the goal itself, and we become so busy counting our steps that we lose track of why we’re walking in the first place (a trap that Middlebury should be keenly aware of as it continues its impressive strides with its five-year action plan).

Engaging in anti-racist work, therefore, is totally fine — as long as your intentions are rooted in the desire to enact systemic cultural change in the way we live, work, play, and support one another, rather than in some vague idea that putting on a protest or attending a training is what you “should” be doing. This is as true of clubs as it is of individuals. Ask yourselves not “what we need to do” to get more BIPOC students involved, but “how do we need to change as a group”. 

Being anti-racist is deeply reflective, and centered on self. It means cultivating empathy and solidarity. It entails a reorientation of values towards interdependence and cooperation, instead of competition and “success”. For those with privilege, it will require more listening than we have probably ever done, and accepting accountability for the harm we have already perpetuated. And, perhaps least satisfyingly for those of us who love our check-lists, it will never truly be finished (perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to fathom). 

The Movement for Black Lives has sparked genuine interest in engaging anti-racism. But anti-racism is, at its core, transformative — it requires that we change who we are as individuals and as institutions. If you want to “do anti-racist work”, then, it’s time to internalize this idea and plan accordingly.

Connor Wertz is a member of the class of 2022.