What It (Really) Means to be Anti-Racist

A few years ago the mantra “It’s not enough to not be racist. You should be anti-racist,” cropped up. Whether you agree with the exact phrasing or not, there is truth to it. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

I grew up with a dad who was abusive. We had to escape him. We moved back to my mom’s native Italy, where we were homeless. We didn’t live on the street, but we did move from relative to relative sleeping on couches and spare beds. From the age of 6 to about 14, I lived in poverty.

Life with my mom was dysfunctional. She probably had a mental illness. She left this world in 2021 and left my sister and me an inheritance of about $16,000. She wasn’t rich by this world’s standards, but she did leave us a rich heritage. She had a strong faith in the God of the Bible and of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and redemption. She had a strong belief in justice. She had a strong belief that every man, woman, and child is equal.

Growing up, my sister and I had these little stuffed animal monkeys. We named them Little Boy Big One and Little Girl Big One. Mom had a guy friend over for dinner. While waiting for the meatballs to cook, he was playing with me and my sister. He held up one of our monkeys and said, “This is where black people come from.” In an instant, mom kicked him out of the house. As he begged, pleaded, and apologized, she made it clear in no uncertain terms that he was never welcome in her home again. Mom taught us about anti-racism –  through her actions and through her words.

I was friends with people of all shades of skin color and at least a half dozen nationalities growing up. I lived in Norfolk, Virginia – a military town. As these military people lived and traveled throughout the world, many brought back spouses. I had white friends, black friends, Filipino friends, Korean friends, Vietnamese friends (and a girlfriend or two), Chinese friends, Italian friends, French friends, Native American friends, friends from India, Mexican friends and more!

It never mattered to me if someone had a different skin tone or was from a different country. What mattered was how they treated me and how they treated other people. I have Mom to thank for this. Where did she get this from? Right out of the Bible.

Fast forward to 2020, when we as a country witnessed a white man tragically kill a black man. This stirred a level of outrage in most of us. Speaking as a man, when you see an injustice take place, you want to take action, you feel you must take action, but when it’s occurring on media there isn’t much you can do. In the days following this event my heart was torn in shreds. The sight of this on television tore open some old wounds, especially for many of my black friends who had been victims of racial hatred at some point in their lives. I could see the pain in their eyes. I could hear the depth of emotion in their voices as they shared their stories.

But then some in the media went too far in their message. It was a false message aimed to pit people against each other. Many of our leaders at the local, state, and national levels perpetuated this message. It seemed to be the false message was coming mostly from white people.

The message was sent that – since the abuser was white and the abused was a black man, and since there have been many atrocities committed by other white men – you, James, because you are white, are just as guilty as the murderers. In fact, you are racist. And if you try to deny it, that proves you’re racist.

Oh the pain of that accusation. I have never felt a hint of hatred or even dislike for anyone because of their race. Neither has my wife. And neither have any of my 4 children. Did these people know about the hundreds of times I have stood up for the downtrodden? The downtrodden of all colors – white, black, brown. Did these accusers even know me? Not at all. They were out for their own agenda.

Many of our leaders in government and media led impressionable young people down the wrong path. Two teenage girls at the middle school I taught at were arguing about who was more oppressed. They held their arms together to compare shades of brown. The darker one stated, “I’m more oppressed than you because I’m darker.” Another boy stated that if you were part-black, you were oppressed, but no white people were oppressed.. Since we found out my wife has some African heritage, I asked him if there was a qualifying percentage, since my wife should qualify. He stated that my wife didn’t qualify, you had to be at least 50%. I asked him, “How do you know you’re at least 50% black?” He said he didn’t know. 

All these assumptions were based on one thing only – someone’s skin tone.

The Oxford language dictionary defines anti-racism as a person who opposes racism and promotes racial equality. That has been me – and most of my friends – our entire lives. What I found out in 2020 was that there truly are many people who were not racist themselves but they allowed – or laughed at – or tolerated racist behavior from their friends and family. When they realized this, it created guilt and shame in them. Guilt and shame are good things if they lead you to change, which it did for many, but they can also be bad. For many it led them to pulling me into their guilt and shame. I am guilty of many sins in my life, but not of racism.

The Bible makes it clear that we are created in God’s image. In a vision of the future, the apostle John describes what he sees…Speaking of Jesus, he says “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’” (Revelations 5:9-10 emphasis added).

My hope and desire is that everyone reading this will be a bold anti-racist.

(James is an educator, author, public speaker, and musician. He has written 5 books – including Jimmy: A True Story of Abuse, Poverty, Forgiveness, and Redemption. Fine out more about him at www.jamesdivine.net