Before this September, I believed that black people could not be racist because we did not have power to wield racism as a tool. I believed that Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native peoples could not be racist because they, too, did not have power in an American society dominated by white people — in government, in business, in basic opportunity.
In college, my teachers and mentors reinforced this idea, suggesting racism is the product not just of personal prejudice, but also the power to use it for self-benefit. In this view, racism does not come down to individual beliefs and behaviors — it’s a phenomenon that hopelessly disempowers people of color.
But I’ve been inspired to reframe my thinking about racism — both within society and within myself. In How to Be an Antiracist (2019), historian Ibram X. Kendi unpacks how he came to abandon the notion that people of color lacked the power to be racist. He writes that this “powerless defense" wrongly shields people of color from charges of racism even when we back racist policies — including school closures, like the 37 proposed by Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite in late 2012. Even when such closures are framed neutrally as a budgeting solution, the reality is they disproportionately impact black and brown students, in a region with massive funding disparities between white and nonwhite districts.
Kendi suggests that actions that create or worsen racial disparity are racist, no matter the race of the actors. Perhaps most powerfully, he argues there are three patterns of behavior that drive racial dynamics: segregationism, assimilationism, and antiracism. Antiracists believe racial groups are equal and none needs external improvement to be “respectable.” They support policy that reduces racial inequity. Segregationists act as if some groups are permanently inferior and support policy that segregates that group — see, for example, “segregation academies” that opened throughout the South in response to Brown v. Board of Education’s integration mandate.
Assimilationists fall in between, expressing the racist idea that a group is inferior and so supporting cultural or behavioral enrichment programs — like “assimilation” boarding schools for Native children — to “develop” that group.
My experience in New Jersey’s K-12 schools was steeped in assimilationism. We barely talked about race, with “colorblindness” the default perspective. I learned little about the history of black people or other non-dominant groups. Black people only became central figures as enslaved people before the Civil War, which was taught more as a battle over states’ rights than over slavery. We also heard a lot about the 20th-century civil rights movement, depicted as a largely faceless yet vocal body of protesters led by key male voices, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
I could never really place myself in the story. Although my family emigrated from Trinidad to the United States in the 1960s and ’70s, the closest historical narrative I heard in school was the 20th-century journey of European immigrants through Ellis Island. We read no black authors beyond repeated units on the Harlem Renaissance and perhaps an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. We learned absolutely nothing about LGBTQ+ history in the standard curriculum. These silences left me without predecessors or historical mirrors.
I didn’t realize it as a student, but this erasure made it easier for me to buy into the notion of black people and people of color as having no power. This harmful message — a hidden curriculum — got transmitted not only by my white teachers but also by teachers of color who did little to reframe the story.
Once I became a teacher, I resolved to do things differently, even if I didn’t know yet I wanted to be one of Kendi’s antiracists. I began to teach figures who show black agency and expand views of black power, including Octavius Catto, Bayard Rustin, Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Michelle Alexander. I taught moments like Nov. 17, 1967, when 3,500 black students walked out of their Philadelphia schools and converged at the School District’s headquarters. They demanded the right to learn black history as a mandated part of their curricula — a policy it would take nearly 40 years to enact.
After hearing these stories, my students had so many questions, like: Why didn’t we learn this before?
After hearing these stories, my students had so many questions: Why didn’t we learn this before? Why does it matter whether I use enslaved instead of slave when talking about transatlantic slavery? If the Great Migration was a flee from the terrorism of Southern lynchings, why isn’t it called the “Great Escape”? Perhaps, my role is helping students refine their questions to affirm their own sense of empowerment.
Seeing the world through Kendi’s antiracist lens has changed how I imagine my own present and future agency. I now feel that I, as a black person, should do more to disrupt oppression, including racism among white people and communities of color. Antiracist educators of all backgrounds have a collective obligation to confront ideas and policies that harm kids in communities we nurture.
If I hope to empower students with the freedom to revise society and pursue a better future, I must also offer some guidance and moral courage for practicing antiracism.
Brendon Jobs is director of diversity and inclusion at the Haverford School and a social studies methods instructor at Penn GSE. He serves as vice president of the board of directors for the Waldorf School of Philadelphia.