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Racial Justice in America: Substantive or Symbolic?


A Two-Part video interview with antiracism educator and advocate, A. Adar Ayira

Part One





This is the first of a two-part interview with antiracism educator and advocate, A. Adar Ayira about about whether the current state of racial justice in the United States is truly transformative or merely symbolic. To watch the interview, click here.


Wendy

Hello everyone, I am really excited to have this conversation with A. Adar Ayira. Adar is an anti-racism/anti-oppression consultant, educator and advocate. I'm really eager to hear from Adar on the current state of race in the US. Particularly, I want to hear Adar talk about whether the current movements we've seen around race are structural or symbolic. So, Adar, welcome. I'm so happy you joined us for this conversation.


Adar

Thank you for inviting me. You know, I always love hanging out with you.


Wendy

Yes, and I will say that I learn from Adar. She is friend, colleague, accountability partner, brainstorm partner, we do all of this together. So, I'm excited to have this conversation today. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?


Adar

So, I will say…just the short take, that I have been so privileged, Wendy, to be able to work with grassroots nonprofits, establishment nonprofits, corporations, foundations, community groups, individuals - to really help them explore and expand their understanding about anti-racism, anti- oppression, and how it manifests. And, also, how we can resist the structural and individual oppressions and assaults in the United States, because my work is primarily in the United States.


But I've also had the privilege and the opportunity to collaborate and to learn with and grow from people in other countries who are working on the same issues in their countries. So, I really enjoy that. Because, while we know that racism and white supremacy is global - is worldwide, it is always so interesting to see how these things manifest in different countries, according to their histories, and what it looks like in those countries. So, I feel like the most privileged person in the world to be able to do this work.


Wendy

Thank you. And so, speaking of the United States, this year has been a really tumultuous one for the entire world. But for us, we've had both this intersection of COVID and this new focus on police brutality towards black people. So, you know, we just elected a woman of color to the Vice President role. And a lot of people are talking really openly about race right now. More than I believe I've heard before, and many people feel that we have turned a corner on racism in this country. So, tell me what you think about that.


Adar

No, we have not. You know, we often do not make the distinction between diversity and inclusion. And God knows we misuse the word equity. You know, diversity is about “cheeks in the seats,” right?


But people of color can promote and advance white supremacy and racism just as much as a white person can. And I'm not speaking ill of the Vice President. Don't get me wrong. But I'm just saying that just looking at a person who is there and divorcing them from the power structure that surrounds them, from their history of policies and positions…that's something that we tend to do, which is something that we should not tend to do because we end up getting disappointed.


So no, I don't think that we have turned the corner. We've seen a re-entrenchment of white supremacy and racism in politics as well as in other areas of life. We can look at who has access to the COVID vaccine and see the disparities there, right? We see a former president who incited an insurrection, and we see that person as well as the people who were around him getting off scot free. And meanwhile, there are plenty of Black and Brown people, you know, in prison for stealing a piece of bread, or smoking a joint. And you're telling me that is more serious than an insurrection?


I don't think so. So, we see a re-entrenchment and what we also see, and just going back to what you're sharing, Wendy, about more conversation? Yeah, I don't think that I've heard the terms white supremacy, or systemic racism being mentioned in one year, as much, you know, as we have heard them this year. In 30 years, I've not heard them mentioned, in the public sphere, as much as we have this year. But the other thing that we have seen is the way in which these terms have been bastardized - the way in which they have been reframed and reshaped, softened, in order to make them palatable to a white population, that we all need to get on the bandwagon for justice. Right? And that has not operated for justice, nor for black liberation, nor for any other liberation, it just hasn't. But what it has done is it has given us a way of saying, “Oh, look at the progress that has been made.” You know, and so that has been more symbolism over transformative actions, transformative policies, and, you know, in softening terms, in reframing terms, we often miss out on the ways in which doing those things still prioritizes the comfort of white people. And still puts their comfort over a sense of fairness, and of justice, of equity, and increasingly, of democracy.


We saw in the last election - just as an example, right now, even as we speak, state legislators, and I think it's, it's like 28 different states have filed over 100 bills that will, if they are successful, suppress the Black and Brown vote. There is a silence around that. I mean, we may hear it once or twice on a news show. But there is not the outrage, there is not the airtime that is given to these bills that will have the impact of suppressing the Black and Brown vote, even when this is being done in plain sight.


Wendy

Hmm.


Adar

But where is the outrage? Where is the call to action? Where is the, “Oh my god, this is going to happen?” Because we know that if this were about suppression of a majority white vote, there would be 24/7 news coverage of it. So, we see this re-entrenchment in terms of policy. But it's not just the policy, it is also the white silence of white citizens that accompany it. So, you know, I'm not I don't want to be like 100%, doom and gloom, because there has been some great movement forward. But if we're talking about progress that is coming in terms of a policy and a transformative change, with a transformative impact for Black people and other non-Black people of color. We're still waiting for that to happen.


Wendy

But the President just signed an equity bill and some new equity legislation.


Adar

So, remember when I talked about the way that terms are bastardized, we can't talk about equity without talking about repair, reparations. You know, we can't say listen, we're going to have policy that is going to be more just for everybody. And we're going to call that “repair.” That's not repair. That's something that the country should have been doing from Day One. So, the country is just catching up.


Now what will be hopefully transformative about that piece of legislation is the way that it impacts, lessens child poverty. You know, and we'll see whether that happens. But then in that you also have Lindsey Graham, who was on news shows, bemoaning the fact that Black farmers have received “reparations” because there is policy now that acknowledges the harm that was done to them, because of the policy advantages that were given white farmers. So, if we were talking equity, we wouldn't just be talking, okay, Black farmers are now being seen, as you know, as having a fair chance. We would be talking about not just what they are receiving, that mitigates some of the damage done, we would be talking about everything that mitigates all of the damage done, then we can talk about equity. But until then, what we're really talking about is more and fairer inclusion. We have not reached equity yet, because we're not talking about repair, repairing the generations of damage done. And Americans, mostly white Americans, they still are not on board with repair. So, if you're not on board with repair, you can't say to me that you're on board with equity.


Wendy

So, to your point, that there are all these policies right now, and some of them are pretty transactional, I think is what you're saying?


Adar

Absolutely.


Wendy

And that there are ones that are transformative in a very negative way, and they're not getting any attention. So, in some ways, is it that these policies, like the equity policy, are a sort of superficial approach to equity is what is comfortable right now?


Adar

The approach to more fairness. Let's call it that. Because framing, you know, how I feel like framing is everything. Right? So, we can talk about more fairness. And I think that is an accurate characterization. We can talk about the positive impacts of those very specific pieces of legislation that will transform the lives, of people who so desperately need it, those who have been ignored, and deliberately thrown into conditions that are much worse. Right. So, this is meaningful, but let's not call it what it is not. And what it is not, is equity.


Wendy

Thank you for that. You use the term that I have heard people throw around a lot - this term white supremacy. I've heard a lot of people talking about white supremacy now more than I ever have. But sometimes I'm not sure about how people are using this term. Can you talk a little bit about what it means, exactly?


Adar

Yes. So, white supremacy is really a belief that white culture or whiteness culture or whiteness practices, the attitudes, the beliefs, the standards, the history, the values, that is the thing to be reached for, that is the standard by which everything else is weighed and measured.


Wendy

Right, kind of like how the white man's ice is colder?


Adar

Absolutely, absolutely. Like that. Even when it is some mediocre halfway melting ice, we're still gonna look at it and say, “Oooh, that is so much better.” And it costs more than this completely frozen ice, that is sold by a person of color. Yes.

So, that belief, that philosophy is really the foundation of racism in the United States. That this is what people have to aspire to. That this is what is seen as professional, you know, that it is what is seen as our Business Standard.


I mean, in 2020 and 2021 that there has to be, and I know that this is close to our hearts, a Crown Act, that says that businesses cannot discriminate against Black women or Black men because we choose to wear our hair, natural hair. That too is business, that too is professional. So here we are 400 some years in this American experiment, and we have to have that Crown Act, and there will still be people who will take a look at our hair and feel like it is not really professional. Because we are measuring that against this white standard of what is appropriate. So that is part of white supremacy.


And where the confusion comes in, is that a lot of times people will think, Oh, well, for a person to be a white supremacist, it means that they have to have an open hatred of Black people, an active hatred of Black people. No, it doesn't mean that, you know, that is an extreme measure of that. But you know, we can look at, instead of individual actions, which is what people love to look at, right? Like, white men marching through what, Charlottesville, right, or the insurrection of the Capitol, but they didn't even call it white supremacy, when there was a white man holding the Confederate flag walking through the floors of Congress; they would not call it white supremacy even then.


But it's not about only people having this open, virulent hatred. It is also about our policies, our municipal policies, our state policies, our federal policies that have always in this country, whether it was made explicit by naming race or not, served to advantage groups of white people at the expense of groups of people of color. And that's not to say, Wendy, that all white people will gain 100% of the benefits and advantages of whiteness. But it is to say that you never have to fear that the system is working against you. As one person described it as the difference between swimming with the tide, and the advantages of that, or trying to swim against the tide.


And, and the other thing that always comes up that I hear as a facilitator, and trainer and educator, is people saying, but white people saying, but I worked hard. But you know, I didn't do anything to you know, Black people, Brown people. And the reality is that you don't have to do anything. And of course, you worked hard. We worked hard, too. But there were policies in place that supported, that cleared the way for, that rewarded the hard work that you and your family put in. You were swimming with the tide. Whereas for us and for ours, there were policies, there were processes, there was a societal culture, that worked against us. And so, we're caught swimming upstream. And whether you as an individual supported it, it didn't support, it loved it, didn't love it, whatever. You still benefited from it.


And so, when we talk about white supremacy, a lot of people think we're talking about people. And although there are some people who are white supremacist, we're talking about a system of white supremacy, that is in the DNA of this country, as well as in many of our foundational documents.


This two-part video interview with A. Adar Ayira was recorded on March 9, 2021. For the second part of the video, please click here. Please share your comments below!