As I yearned to find my voice and a different path in my life, I was constantly influenced by the family and community around me. When I found my own voice, I paid a price. When I did not find my voice, others paid a worse price. Today I wonder what makes that counter cultural behavior so difficult, particularly around race in America. Race has been a significant factor in the institutions I have encountered. I have seen blatant racism and subtle racism in both the arenas where I have operated over these years: the school and the church. These institutions are pillars of our society. I have had status in both and, sadly, know very well they have not fundamentally changed because of whatever efforts I have made. Ibram Kendi provides insight into the construct of race that is important to understand in combating racism. It has opened my mind to a new understanding.
Kendi describes race as a power construct. An image of a ladder has developed in my mind as I read. Race has been used to construct a ladder in the psyche of our country. At birth we take our place on that ladder according to our race. White people occupy the upper rungs and set the angle of the ladder. Whiteness is considered normal, standard, the way things should be. Nonwhite or people of color assume their rungs at birth as well. They occupy the lower ones. As we navigate our lives we go up and down on the rungs and frequently our race intersects with other constructs such as gender, sexuality, and income, but race determined where we started.
The origin of the ladder lies in the self-interest of those in power across Europe in the 1400s. According to Kendi’s extensive research, Prince Henry of Portugal was fascinated by stories of riches to be had in Africa. Eventually he saw a market for African slaves and Portugal began their slave trade by way of the sea. Because the slave trade for the Slavs of Eastern Europe dried up, the market for African Slaves began to boom. “Slavs” became slaves and slaves became Black. Ultimately 12.5 million Africans would be brought to the Americas. 596,000 of them would arrive in the United States between 1451 and 1870. From 1805-1860 the number of slaves grew to 4 million and 23% of the United States’ population.
Kendi maintains that this enslavement of Africans produced racist ideas. The ideas did not come first. Therefore, slavery was not started by racist people or racist ideas. It began because of the self-interest of Europeans. Racist ideas grew up around a justification for slavery. Racist ideas like “lost souls”, “beasts”, “ignorant”, “evil”, and “lazy” were propagated by men who wanted to convince others to buy their slaves and enrich the sellers. This backwards design of racism developed by Kendi is much different that I had ever considered. I have always believed that racist people created racist policies, laws, and customs. Kendi has shown me a different way to think of it.
The ladder I envision is constructed by policies, laws, and rules that have been created over the years. The ladder itself has set in motion the social-emotional factors, the attitudes and values that have kept the ladder in place. These factors are the forces that make it very difficult for individuals to abandon the ladder. Those on the bottom rungs face significant fears and losses if they climb toward the top rungs. Kendi described his awareness of the ladder this way:
On the day when his parents took him to visit a parochial school for upwardly mobile black students, this seven-year-old challenged the teacher “Why are you the only black teacher?” Kendi describes what had happened to him. “In that classroom, on the April day in 1980, my parents discovered that I had entered racial puberty. At seven years old, I began to feel the encroaching fog of racism overtaking my body. It felt big, bigger than me, bigger than my parents or anything in my world, and threatening. What a powerful construction race is-powerful enough to consume us. And it comes for us early.”
Therefore, letting go of the ladder sends one out in a space that seems without support, but trying to climb toward whiteness means turning your back on your own culture. On the other hand, those on the top rungs know they will sacrifice their connection to normality, to the standard, and even people they love. The ladder, as James Baldwin says with eloquence, damages everyone on it.