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Panel explains how to be ‘anti-racist’

Nicole Hylton-Patterson

SARANAC LAKE — In the first of a series of anti-racism “listen-in” livestreams Monday, a panel of black activist-scholars talked about what it means to be “anti-racist.”

The sessions are hosted by the Adirondack Diversity Initiative and Adirondack North Country Association, and led by ADI Director Nicky Hylton-Patterson.

The purpose is so white allies in the Adirondacks can learn to be better equipped to fight racism in their communities — and more importantly, Hylton-Patterson said, systemic racism.

Michelle Cromwell, the vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at SUNY Plattsburgh, said it is not good enough to just be non-racist.

“If you’re going to be anti-racist, you have to be anti-, which means you have to act,” she said.

Hylton-Patterson defined anti-racism as “identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems of power, policies, practices and attitudes to redistribute power so it is shared equally.”

“I know that most Americans do not like to hear about redistribution of anything,” Hylton-Patterson said with a laugh, “but you can’t talk about systemic racism without talking about capitalism, neo-liberal capitalism.”

Clifton Harcum, the diversity officer in the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at SUNY Potsdam, said American society and industry was built on the back of slavery and systemic racism. He said for the majority of America’s history, black people were not considered whole people. He said it started in 1619, when some of the first black people came to America as slaves, as property. They faced centuries of enslavement, hate and segregation, but have overcome many injustices, too.

“We’ve accomplished many things in this country that have changed the course of the world, but just because of this,” Harcum said, holding up his black hand up to his camera, “we are considered ‘less than.'”

They discussed several ideologies behind this: white supremacy, anti-blackness and implicit biases.

Implicit biases can be held by anyone, Hylton-Patterson said. They are the assumptions people make about others based on their appearances. She said the goal should be to make these subconscious thoughts conscious and tackle why they exist.

Harcum said having an implicit bias does not make you a bad person, as they are often planted by the society one lives in, but he said they should be removed.

Anti-blackness, Cromwell said, is an inability to engage with black people and black culture, which cultivates in racism and fear. He said overcoming this means being able to see others as yourself, to be empathetic.

Nicole Horsley, an assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College, said she prefers the term “white dominance” over “white supremacy,” since it is about oppression, not supremacy.

Harcum said this dominance is enforced through societal systems such as housing, education and policing.

Hylton-Patterson gave three terms for what people living in these systems can be: actors, who do not disrupt the status quo; allies, who take action to support black people; and accomplices, whose actions “are meant to directly change institutionalized racism, colonization or white supremacy by blocking or impeding racist people, policies and structures.”

Cromwell said she prefers someone be an accomplice over an ally. An accomplice, she said, will stay in a foxhole with a black person when things get tough.

She said accomplices should recognize that white privilege exists, and use their privilege for good.

Hylton-Patterson received a question from the audience asking how to welcome people of color into the outdoors without being a “gatekeeper.”

“You can’t,” Hylton-Patterson answered. “You are a gatekeeper. You show us the beauty.”

She said the outdoors has historically not been a safe place for black people. She asked if white recreators feel constantly aware of being white, as she said many black people feel aware of being black.

“I love this place … it’s gorgeous,” Hylton-Patterson said. “But for we who are black, it is not a safe place. We do not see the outdoors as the same place.”

She said when she goes to enjoy the outdoors, “I carry a white body with me.”

Hylton-Patterson said the next session will focus on the need for people to work through their “white guilt, shame and denial,” saying that feeling bad about systemic racism is not going to stop it and it is immobilizing.

“Stop apologizing,” she said. “We can’t use it.”

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