“Antiracism,” as a term, has become ubiquitous. It is wide-ranging, used not only in academic settings but also as part of modern-day discourse. The term is a successor of the workhorses “diversity and inclusion,” which have become familiar keywords everywhere from corporate marketing to university administration. “Diversity and inclusion” are twinned concepts that imagine tackling the legacies of racism by making room for underrepresented individuals, without necessarily changing much of anything else.
Antiracism takes a stronger position. The term suggests not only a stance against racism but a commitment to making that stance active. In these ways, antiracism is a content area: what ideas constitute antiracism? what are its histories? its politics? its aesthetics? its archives?
But antiracism is also a praxis. Every situation makes opportunities available that in turn reflect and perpetuate privilege and inequity: Who gets opportunities? Who does not? In what ways do these moments of interaction—daily life is made up of thousands of these—correlate to and support ongoing systemic power relations? In what ways do they reimagine what those relations can and ought be?
In 2020–21, the University of Maryland’s Center for Literary and Comparative Studies sponsored a year-long linked series of events, Antiracism: Research • Teaching • Public Engagement, to support and act upon the statements of solidarity for Black Lives Matter issued by the department, college, and university. Here, we collect three contributions from that project.
These pieces employ, respectively, the genres of an essay, a conversation, a manifesto. Together, they demonstrate that antiracism is fundamentally inextricable from humanistic inquiry (and, arguably, all inquiry).
That is, antiracism challenges us to wholly reimagine what it means to study the human and inhuman conditions in their various forms, and with the various disciplinary tools we have available and are in the process of remaking. Antiracism demands we center, study, and learn from the voices and knowledges of those who have been historically marginalized. We must likewise abide—without rushing to resolve—the discomfort of those whose voices and knowledges have been, to varying degrees, historically valued. We must remember that a dominant group’s feeling of discomfort with these histories of marginalization is not the same as being harmed by them, and that this feeling of discomfort can, in turn, open up an ethical space for learning.
Who’s Afraid of Antiracism?
Antiracism is a collective responsibility. It is not merely about representation, though it is; it is not merely about thematics, though it is; it is not merely about practice, though it is. As these writings enact, antiracism is about the questions we ask and answer. It is about how we recognize or inquire deeply into our inherited, embedded histories (what they reveal, what they occlude), the stories we tell, and how we use these moments to imagine, and make possible a more just community—in the classroom as well as in our civic relations. And antiracism is a useful term but only for as long as it can open up ethical, intellectual spaces for dissent and disagreement, and meaningful contradictions and inconsistencies.
Soon enough, antiracism will be as inadequate as diversity and inclusion. Perhaps it is already. Yet, the term’s qualities, as these essays collectively demonstrate, together point to the complexity and urgency of our collective responsibility to create a just community.