Knowledge Is Dangerous to Institutionalized Power | Sojourners

Knowledge Is Dangerous to Institutionalized Power

Understanding Trump's executive order on critical race theory.
Protesters gather at the White House on July 24, 2020.
Protesters gather at the White House on July 24, 2020. Photo: Allison C Bailey /

“Reverse racism” is not a thing.

This was my reaction when I read “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” issued by President Trump on September 22.

I have heard accusations of reverse racism throughout my life, possibly to heightened degrees as someone who trains allies for racial and social justice — work that puts me in a lot of all-white spaces. The claims of reverse racism usually come when I address a racist comment, recount intentional implementations of institutional racism throughout history, or when I ask participants to examine their own complicity in systemic racism. Their assertions of reverse racism often accompany an onslaught of tears, yelling, and cussing, along with claims of not having a racist bone in their bodies, having done anti-racism work for years, having been raised to be kind to everyone, and — my favorite — the fact that they could not possibly do anything racist because of their Black child, partner, or friend. The scene ends by turning the blame on me, this Black woman, for causing them so much racial harm.

These are my everyday experiences in this work and in this body. It is exhausting, infuriating, and hurtful, often leaving me fighting a creeping hopelessness about the possibility of achieving systemic change if individuals cannot even face facts. I have heard similar stories from Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) as they navigate their own workplaces and social environments. I have seen it in news stories where people assert that affirmative action and equity efforts took “spots” to which they felt entitled.

And now, I’ve seen accusations of reverse racism on the official White House  website.

The order claims to “combat offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating” by barring federal contractors from hosting diversity trainings that address systemic racism and sexism. It claims these trainings teach that “some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.” This is a misleading representation of diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings. The core of these trainings use truth and skilled expertise to empower people to drive positive change by recounting history, detailing the complexities of systemic racism, and guiding participants to unpack all the ways they may unintentionally participate in said systems.

The order also claims that “This destructive ideology is grounded in misrepresentations of our country’s history and its role in the world.” The language is intentional and clever, absolving the country of the racist actions that intertwine with its founding. If someone were to read this order without any prior context, they might even be convinced of its necessity.

Possibly most strategic is the executive order’s claim that trainings examining history from this critical lens are not just harmful, but unpatriotic. I have learned how much power the notion of patriotism holds in this country. Particularly when addressing race, patriotism has been weaponized and pulled from the back-pocket as a shield against any reckoning. A false contrast is often made between loving one’s country and seeking justice by acknowledging the truth. I would hope patriotism can mean that one is not forced to choose between a commitment to the country, and a genuine effort to drive repair, healing, equity, and justice through an honest examination of history. How is the pursuit of this unpatriotic?

This executive order is dangerous. Instead of acknowledging that diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings can help work towards the country’s ideals of “liberty and justice for all,” it labels them as reverse racism and sexism. It confuses the discomfort of wrestling with difficult truths — such as the way white supremacy is woven into the very fabric of this society or the truth that men continue to assert their dominance, power, and control throughout institutions — with actual instances of racism and sexism.

But reverse racism is not a thing. While BIPOC can certainly carry prejudice toward white people and act on it, we must be reminded of just how deep-rooted and complicated racism is. Racism was constructed to uphold white supremacy. It manifests on individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels to create its systemic nature. Considering this context, my stance is that there is no possible way to take a system that has been embedded for centuries and flip it so that white people could suddenly experience any related form of its harm.

Furthermore, charging that such harm can come simply from learning and accountability is insulting because, trust me, that does not compare to real racism.

Real racism is the wealth gap that continues to widen because of stolen land, genocide, and slavery from centuries ago, the segregation and redlining from decades ago, and the continued housing and employment discrimination today. Real racism is the disproportionate rate at which Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities are being infected by and dying of COVID-19. Real racism is the microaggressions in everyday spaces that weather away at our mental and physical health with each new symbolic scrape of harmful words and actions. Real racism is the lack of “justice” in the criminal legal system that continues criminalizing us, killing us, and then denying us any form of justice for the harm.

When we come to understand these systems, white people have a responsibility to actively examine their thoughts and actions, in order to prevent their harm and unlearn the ways that they may be complicit. Naming these truths directly is disruptive in the best possible way. In a society that continually disposes of those deeper in the margins, it is a critical disruption to intentionally center them. That type of disruption is critical to liberation. Hence, we must address the harm that is caused and driven by privilege.

Yet people often react badly when confronted with their responsibilities in positions of privilege. It is difficult for many people to give up power — and attempts to do so often result in forceful attempts to eliminate the “threat.” That may be why diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings are being targeted now. The gracious side of me wants to believe that the primary driver of actions like this executive order is fragility — defensiveness that comes with having to address and face these harmful truths.

However, another part of me knows that knowledge is one of the most dangerous enemies of institutionalized power. The more that people are forced to face the truth about white supremacy’s and patriarchy’s manifestations, the more committed they will be to dismantling them; thus, the higher likelihood that power dynamics as they stand will be altered. This is why I fear the additional implications of barring this learning. When trainings that force people to face these truths are forbidden or labeled as “reverse racism,” that power remains unchallenged.

I am positive that knowledge is dangerous to institutionalized power because I have seen incredible transformation take place in people who have entered allyship trainings with a desire to learn and a humble openness to challenging their views and lives. I have seen people wrestle with the discomfort of recognizing their own complicity — and then take responsibility to reconcile the past and change their communities and institutions. Truth can provide knowledge, the basis of radical change; I can see why those who want to keep things the same push so hard against it. I also know that there will always be people amplifying truths and pursuing liberation despite the pushback — and that’s why I continue this work.

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