In its fourth edition, Paul Kivel's ‘Uprooting Racism’ is still a useful tool for change
“Uprooting Racism” is not a pleasant read for a White person. But stick with it, because the book provides a clearly written analysis of the institutional racism in our society and the damage it creates, then gives a series of simple exercises and practical strategies for dealing with it. Author Paul Kivel acknowledges that many White people find it difficult to read about racism, saying that we need to keep going back to the task of confronting and uprooting it, no matter how uncomfortable, angry or frustrated we become in the process. He cautions White people, “Don’t take it too personally. You did not create racism.” And he says we must ask ourselves a few important questions:
• What do I stand for?
• Who do I stand with?
• Do I stand for racial justice, the end of discrimination and racial violence and a society truly based on equal opportunity?
• Do I stand with people of color and White allies in the struggle to uproot racism?
Kivel’s book moves through easily understood examples: He describes a possible TV sitcom about a middle-aged, middle-class couple with three teenage children. There are no references to the color of the people involved. He then asks—are all these people White?
There are some intriguing explorations: In a caucus of White people, several said, “ You have to be straight to have the privileges of being White,” or, “But I’m not White — I’m Jewish!” Kivel, who is himself Jewish, says that when he’s in a workshop, when participants are told to break into a White group and a group for people of color, he thinks, “Wait a minute! I’m not White!” largely because of European and American societies’ long history of discrimination against Jews. Still, he acknowledges, he’s White and he’s Jewish — and White people are often uncomfortable being designated White. Also, many White people will protest, “I’m not racist—I don’t belong to the Klan. I have friends who are people of color. I do anti-racism work.” Kivel defines racism as “pervasive, deep-rooted, and long-standing exploitation, control and violence directed at people of color, Native Americans and immigrants of color,” and points out that the benefits and entitlements of this system accrue to White people. This is hardly news, but Kivel explores in detail how racism and Whiteness operate in our language, our artistic images, our daily lives, at school, at work, voting, dealing with the police and the justice system — the list goes on and on. Readers will likely feel worn down just reading about it, and make the obvious realization that if it’s hard reading about it, how much more demoralizing it is to live with it.
He offers chapters on different groups of non-Whites, each with questions and actions. About Native Americans: “What people lived on the land you presently inhabit? How were they removed?” And, as an action, “Strengthen Indigenous-led efforts for the return of land and resources from illegitimate settler states and corporations.” On African Americans: “List ways you or other members of your family have downplayed, minimized or denied the effects of slavery and Jim Crow segregation on the African American community.” There are similar chapters for Asian Americans, Latinx, Arab Americans, Muslims and Jews. The first edition of “Uprooting Racism” won the Gustavus Myers Award for the best book on human rights in 1996. Kivel has been a leader in anti-violence work for more than 35 years. He also leads the Christian Hegemony Project, which aims to “help people recognize, analyze, and resist all forms of Christian hegemony, which we define as: the everyday, pervasive, deep-seated, and institutionalized dominance of Christian institutions, Christian values, Christian leaders and Christians as a group.”He has written a humane, sensible and sensitive book, one that clearly exposes the violence a system must use to favor one group of people over others.
This is not to say a reader won’t find things to quibble about. His list of racially charged words includes not only such obvious choices as to gyp (from gypsy), to Jew down, Indian giver, Chinese fire drill and squaw, but also the phrase “to be in the dark.” Doesn’t that just mean you can’t see? He also labels the word “assassin” as racist. Maybe. The word was originally applied to a secretive Muslim murder cult, and came from a derogatory Arabic term implying that they were high on hashish. But the word as it’s used now means a killer of important people — and killing important people was exactly what that group was trained to do. Also, he writes that granting voting rights only to White Christian men of property was enshrined in the Constitution. Not quite. Voting rights were left up to the states, some of which did, it’s true, prevent Jews from voting (as well as African-Americans, Native Americans and women) but they also prevented some Christians — some states prevented Catholics, others Quakers. So that’s a little misleading. Still, in a book this size and this far-ranging, such quibbles are not very damaging.
He sets up discussions and ways to approach people in almost every chapter. One of the most useful and detailed is probably “Tips for Talking with White People about Racism.” He notes that one of the taboos White people often observe in maintaining racism is “Don’t talk about race explicitly with other White people,” and emphasizes that it is crucial to talk about race with other White people.
He lays out a few tips:
• Ask yourself, “Am I coming from a place of respect, caring and compassion?”
• Remind yourself that conversations aren’t about proving yourself right, they are about changing hearts and minds
• Drop shaming, blaming and stereotypes.
In a list of questions and actions about land and housing, there are these:
• Whose land are you on and how did White people gain control of it?
• How was White ownership maintained?
• How is where you live different, in environmental quality, safety, infrastructure or beauty, than places where people of color live?
“Uprooting Racism” is not a book to be read lightly, and maybe not as a solo reader but as a member of a workshop, class or group.
There’s a lot of work outlined in this book, but then there’s a lot of work to do. And it’s work that must be done.
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