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Racial Justice in America: Substantive or Symbolic? Part Two

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

In the first part of this two-part blog antiracism educator and advocate, A. Adar Ayira shared her thoughts about whether the current state of racial justice in the United States is experiencing truly transformative change, or whether the recent changes we have seen are purely symbolic. Please click here to watch the interview. The second part of the interview begins at 19:09.


Wendy

It's so interesting, though, you know, some people would say, just hearing the description of white supremacy, like what's wrong with professionalism, or what's wrong with showing up a certain way? I mean, how do institutions survive if there aren't some protocols for how people do things? I hear that all the time.


Adar

Yeah. And this isn't a protocol conversation. This isn't a conversation about professionalism, you know, in itself. This is a conversation about whose standards, and who gets to decide. And what it is within institutions. And the way in which in white supremacy those standards have been set by white people, and if people of color don't want to meet those standards, because we have our own standards that are just as professional. That are of excellence…but if those are our standards, and you reject them, that you have final say, and that your word is law for everything, and that is something that advantages you and yours. There is no wide space where we can talk about a multitude of standards that are just as professional in the United States of America, there has only been one space, and one standard set by one group of people. And that is the problem.


Wendy

Yes. Thank you for that. And, you know, I always like to say in these conversations that white supremacy is not based on race, and that, you know, in the sense of who struggles with it, right, so as a Black woman, I am every day trying to root the white supremacy out of me, because I've been socialized into whiteness, both in Jamaica and in this country, right? I've been socialized into Eurocentric standards.


Adar

All of us have. And that's the thing, Wendy, that it doesn't take a white person to uphold white supremacy. And this is why diversity is like this, this false progress thing, right? As a Black person I could, anywhere I go, uphold white supremacist practices, we both can name a whole bunch of Black people who do right off the top of our heads. But this isn’t about that, so we won't go that deep.


We can hold up white supremacy, just as there are white people who can work against white supremacy. And again, I get back to, that's why the whole diversity frame does not work. Because in the diversity frame, we just want a “cheek in a seat.” And so, you can get people who are of color who come in more than ready and willing to uphold white supremacist practices. And we know that there are plenty of organizations that are Black-led organizations that hold up those practices.


So, we have to move beyond talking about diversity, and really talk about the analysis that people who are the “cheeks in those seats” hold. Is the analysis a liberation analysis, or is it not? And that is the question even more than the question of what race they are. What is their analysis? Is it Black liberation, is it liberation, or is it diversity, and I'm here to uphold the status quo, the way things are.


Wendy

I always say diversity is a really low bar, but we keep reaching for it as a society.


Adar

No, you know what, we don't keep reaching up for it, we keep reaching down to pick it up. And carry it with us. It is the lowest bar that you can have. And it's a transactional bar. It's not a transformative bar. Diversity is not about transformative change. Diversity is about comfort. You know, it is about taking out and ignoring the power equation, and just concentrating on race, which is why you can have, you know, a company with 100 employees. And you can have the president or CEO say, “Oh, but we're really diverse. our workforce is pretty much 50/50.” And then when you look at the people who were in the suites, it's still all white, like a White Citizens Council meeting. And then you have people who are the frontline workers, you know, who are the people of color, and that is diversity if you're just going by numbers, but that is white supremacy if you are going by who holds power, who manages power, who wields power, who does or does not share power. So, the diversity bar, you really have to reach down for it, pick it up, and intentionally pack it, and carry it wherever you are going.


Wendy

I love that and I would love to have a later conversation with you about the eight types of power, because you taught me about that.


Adar

I would love to do that. Yes. Because we know that if we can identify the tables where we sit, and if we can identify the forms of power that we hold, then we know how we can resist in any given situation, and what is my motto, Wendy? We can resist, that doesn't mean we have to lose our job because we all have bills to pay. But it does mean that wherever we are privileged to be, we cannot just be there for ourselves in our own comfort, we have to act for justice, and for our people. Because if we don't, then we are just a wasted cheek in the seat. We're not doing the work that we should be there to do for justice.


Wendy

I agree. And there are lots of wasted cheeks in seats. But so, okay, but so do you think it is possible for this country to overcome its legacy of racial oppression? And if it is, what's it going to take to achieve that? I know – a $6 million question.


Adar

I am not hopeful. I'm not. And I'm not hopeful because we've been trying for more than 400 years here. And so, I often ask myself, good God Almighty, what does it take? I'm not hopeful because we continue to do the same things. We do continue to prize the symbolism, you know, over the substance of change. We do continue to prioritize the comfort of white people, we do continue to deliberately ignore how power operates, we want to pretend that it doesn't exist. We continue to deliberately do the false equivalencies.


And we have now white people who insist upon a concept of anti-whiteness, which is not and never has been a thing in America. Yet they feel very victimized because of the move toward racial justice. And because of the re-entrenchment that we see. Seventy-seven plus million people voted in the last election for a white supremacist or a white nationalist. I mean, it is amazing to think of that. And it is amazing to think of the risk that that puts all of us in every day. I mean, we know what is out there. And, you know, again, with this white insurrection, that has not been punished, we have seen America's appetite for the same things happening again, and again. When we see the murderer of George Floyd going on trial. When we look at all of the people who have been let off, who have gotten off from killing innocent Black people. I mean, those are indicators of where we are. When we look at economic outcomes, when we look at social outcomes, when we look at health outcomes, we look at wealth outcomes, when we when we look at access and opportunity,


Wendy, I am not going based on what I feel. I'm going based on the data that I see. As well as the societal attitudes that I see. And as well as the policies that I see are being put forward, and the support that I see around them and, support that I don't see. Not only that, but I also realize that in order for the United States of America, to move toward racial justice, it would have to let go of the mythology that it has had about itself for 400 plus years.


Wendy

What's that mythology?


Adar

Some of it is that everyone has a fair and equal chance, that if only you work hard and pull yourselves up by your bootstraps, then you too can have a shot at the American dream. The mythology is that, you know, if you are shot in the back, but by someone in authority, and when I say in authority, I'm not just talking about policemen and women, I'm talking about anybody with a gun, who was willing to use a ‘stand your ground’ defense and get away with it…


Or anybody who can walk into Walmart, take off their mask, and, you know, throw things on the floor. when store managers or employees say, “Put on your mask, we don't want you to endanger us.” And then they're just escorted from the store to go on their merry way. Those are the things that I'm talking about. And there is a tolerance for that. And so, when we look at what the United States of America is willing to tolerate, and from whom because that tolerance is not equal…


Wendy

It's not universal?


Adar

It is not universal.


Wendy

You and I don't get the same tolerance?


Adar

We do not get that. So, when we look at that, you know, it tells us something. When we look at the way that the United States of America still is not ready to face up to the enormity of its crime against humanity. I mean, we see that with all of the pushback of the 1619 report. And when people are still ready to say, “No, we're not going to look at that. We are going to put forward legislation that says that we have to have patriotic curriculum.” It's a thing.


So, when we look at things like that, Wendy, that tells us something about this country, and the people in this country, their willingness to go along with the myths. As long as they can remain comfortable with that mythology. And as long as they do not have to look at the crimes against humanity, and those continuing impacts of the crimes against humanity. Because it's not just that the crimes against humanity are against black people, but there are Native Americans in there, you know, there are Asian Americans in here. Right? And so, we are not willing to hold up the mirror and to look at the bad, in the same way that we're willing to hold up the mirror and say, “Well, here are some things that we did right.” And as long as we're not willing to do that, there is no way that we can step forward in the fullness of measure that we need to in order to become transformed as a society.


When you look at the unwillingness to acknowledge that there is repair that needs to be made, to acknowledge that that the wealth of this country was built on the backs of, not only the people who were enslaved, but everyday people who have been working, whose tax dollars have gone in the public till and that public till was used to make investments in majority white communities, while disinvesting in the communities of the people where a lot of that money came from. When we're not willing to look at everyday things that go on like that, continuing even now. It says something about where we are willing to stay, as opposed to where we are willing to go.


Wendy

Do you find that even people who are interested in being allies and accomplices are also very quick to accept and believe that we are making changes? What do you think that does to us as a society if we take every transactional symbolic policy or action as a sign of transformative change?


Adar

I think that it upholds white supremacy. One thing that I continue to hear is, “Well, I wasn't an ally, but now I'm not because you did whatever, whatever, you know, you didn't affirm me. You made me feel uncomfortable. You did this and this and because you did this, Wendy, because you did this, Adar, I'm no longer an ally. Now you push me into the other camp.” And it's like, okay, then you weren't an ally before. I mean, let's just not front.


And the reality is, even when we look at voting, right, we often want to say, Oh, yes, it's just that the older generation needs to die out. And then there will be racial equity, because the younger generation is not like that. But, while it is true that younger generations have a greater percentage of friendships across racial lines, but when it comes to conversations of power, their attitudes are similar to the attitudes of the generations before them.


So, again, it gets back to, not justice, but, “we will ride with you, as long as we're comfortable and as long as we don't have to lose something that makes us uncomfortable. But when we do, then we have to jump off this train.”


Wendy

You know, it's so interesting, it almost feels sometimes as though the last year…all the pressure of the police, the protests against the police. It seems as though some people were so anxious for it to be resolved. And then after the election, they're like, “See, it's all over. It's all done, we've moved on…very, very quick and happy to grasp at those solutions and claim them as real as opposed to symbolic.


Adar

So, I want you to remember back to some conversations we had about this. I said this very thing. When I talked about, you know, my concern about a Biden/Harris win would be that white people would then say, “Okay, we’re good now.” And move on to the next flavor of the month. Because for them, they're good now, right? Because when the former president was in office, or the former resident was in office, their futures and the futures of their children were being threatened in a way that they had not seen before. But now that this administration is in office, there has been a re-stabilization for them.


Wendy

For white people.


Adar

For white people. Whereas for people of color, and African descendants, African Americans, Black people, we have gone back to a similar status quo as before the last resident. It has not been that things have changed so drastically. It has been that there has been a leveling, and a balance back to some of the way things were. And so maybe we will get, you know, another thing here or there, I'm not discounting that. But again, it's the difference between transactional and transformative, and I am very sure that we will get some transactional. We have to…as big of a base, as you know, African American women in particular, and men too…as big of a base as we were for Biden/Harris, we have to get some transactional, right? Other groups who supported, that ticket in huge percentages, will have to get some transactional. But if we're talking justice, and if we're talking racial justice, and if we're talking liberation, which those things are my conversation, then we cannot have a transactional conversation. If we're not talking about transformation of this society, then we might as well not be talking. Because we're just talking about the same old thing.


Wendy

So, then Adar in light of that, how do you maintain hope? How do you maintain hope and focus and continuing continue doing this work…knowing what you know?


Adar

I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors. I am so clear about that. There were so many people who got us to this point. We are the beneficiaries of their lives, of the lynchings, of the rapes, of the murders, of the lands lost. We are the beneficiaries of all of those things, when they had absolutely no protections, legal protections at all. We’re the beneficiaries, we’re the legacies. And so, I often think, Wendy, that for them to do so much with so little, who are we to do a little with so much in comparison, you know what I mean?


So, you know, I always think of the freedom fighters. Before we began, I showed you, my grandmother’s grandmother, my great aunt, my grandfather. I share with you some of my family history, which I keep around me, because it reminds me that, that it's not just the names that we know, that it is the everyday people, because my people are everyday people who got up in the face of white supremacy, and who kept it moving.


They faced a country who hated them, not that it doesn't hate us, but hated them without the protections that we have, that were built on their backs and in their blood. So, I remember those people, and I also remember the people who could no longer face it, who self-medicated, who checked out, who knew that they would be murdered, and maybe just laid it down, because they were so tired.


We all owe them a debt. And my doing this work, the privilege that I have of doing this work is not so much that that I believe in this country; it is that I believe in my people. I believe in the debt I owe them. I believe in their resilience. I believe in their sense of justice. And I believe that they made a promise to us through their lives and sacrifices. So, I always have that on my mind, but not just looking past because I am like a Sankofa bird, Wendy. I look in the past, but I also look to the future.


Because the same legacy that that we have from them is a legacy that I hope that my small, insignificant life, and my small, insignificant work, you know, can help build for my niece, who I just love to bits and pieces, and other people's nieces and sons and daughters. I mean, all of our family, because the debt that we owe to the people who came before is a promise that we owe to those who come after us.


So that is the thing that keeps me going I don't pin my hopes on this country. I pin my hopes on my people, and their hunger for justice, and their sense of justice, and their hunger for liberation. And that is, all of those things, is what keeps me going. It is worth waking up for in the morning. And it is worth continuing to work for. And I will continue to do this work until the day I die. Because that is the debt that I owe not only to those who come before, but to those who will come after.


Wendy

I can't add anything to that. That was beautiful. Thank you so much for taking this time to talk to us, Adar.


Adar

Thank you! It's always fun hanging out with you. You always have something new and different. I never know what you're going to come up with and love it.


Wendy

I love it! And I learn from you every day, and I just I'm really grateful for this community of people who are doing this work. Because I know that I wouldn't still be doing it if it weren't for all of my community - people that I know are in the work, that I know I can go to. I have lots of questions. I struggle with my own white supremacy. I always need accountability. And it's people like you that I go to. So, I thank you for that.


Adar

I feel the same way. And I just want to leave everybody with one word that you will be familiar with: Ubuntu.


Wendy

Ubuntu! And what does Ubuntu mean?


Adar

I am because we are. And that is our community. And I am so grateful that you are a part of mine.


Wendy

Likewise. Thank you so much Adar.


Adar

My pleasure!



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


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