What Does Antiracist Literacy Do?

It’s easy to assume that literacy means the ability to read and write words in a specific language.  But in this case, common sense is not really practical.  A more useful definition?  Literacy means the capacity to use knowledge and skills to interpret (read) situations and participate in ways that make sense to others who share a stake in those situations (write oneself and others into them).  (For an academic take on this, see J.P. Gee, “What is Literacy?” which is at the base of my definition). For example, knowing how to decode the word “riff” and supply its literal meaning is not the same at all as knowing how a riff works (let alone how to play one) in and in the context(s) of a given piece of music. In this sense, “writing into” coordinates language with practice in a scene of consequence to people.

I’ve been listening for occasions that call for antiracist literacy — knowledge and skills that allow people to interpret the dynamics of race and racism at work in a situation and participate in order to challenge and change them.  The following elements of antiracist literacy, then, are suggested by recent experience.

  1. Decode patterns of excusing, normalizing, and obscuring white power and a normative white center.  For example, “It wasn’t intentional” is a way of putting the breaks on.  It wasn’t intentional when faculty kept assigning mostly white researchers/writers/texts, that’s how they learned and it’s what they’ve done for many years.  That doesn’t matter.  It’s still happening and it’s past time for it to stop.  No more evidence needed.  The question isn’t, “Was it intentional?” The question is, “What needs to change now for this to be rectified?”
  2. Read/listen for techniques of framing racism as the problem of people it targets, rather than of structures and systems that target those people.  For example, Should Black people be allowed to write in Black language in school?  the wrong question.  It locates agency, and dignity, in those doing the “allowing,” not in those whose language is under threat.  It posits Black language as in need of policing, as something for which allowances might or might not be made.  Reading the words of this question without an antiracist literacy that glosses it as racist is retrograde.  The visionary aspect of antiracist literacy calls in a much better question: “What needs to change now for people to be able to use their language to learn and share their learning in schools?”
  3. Guard against discourses of gradualism and, paradoxically, also of “fix-it and be done with it.”  The situation is urgent.  And it demands ongoing work.  But this is not the same as a gradual or a checklist approach.  Overwork is already a terrible problem.  A lot goes into keeping white supremacy in place; it won’t be taken down with small tweaks, voluntary committees, or special days.  Example: I’m sorry to send academic warning notes during a pandemic and this time of uprisings for Black liberation, especially to BIPOC students, but I have do. Consider how to stop doing business as usual that harms BIPOC and thereby also gain time to do work that benefits BIPOC.  In the words of the draft antiracist framework at Bryn Mawr College, where I teach, “We need to look at the work that we are doing with a critical eye and ask who benefits from it.  If BIPOC are not the answer, then we need to ask if it can be streamlined, reduced, or put on hold in some way.”
  4. Read/listen for the tendency within yourself, if you are white, to minimize, personalize or forget words of BIPOC when they speak of racist harm.
  5. Please add.
  6. And question.