"Each snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty"

Neil Bergeson
BOOK REVIEW

In our house, perhaps yours as well, our refrigerator door is decorated with a variety of things—daily calendar pages containing pictures of cats (Bekki’s favorite animal); photos of family members, past or current pets, or of places we’ve been that we particularly enjoyed; catchy or thought-provoking quotes. Bekki is the door decorator, not me. It’s not that she would object, it just seems not to be my thing. She uses small, magnetized, scrabble-like letters to write messages like 'The obstacle in your path is your path' or (after being self-quarantined a while) 'ain’t misbehavin’'.  Even one time 'I love Neil'. I particularly liked that one.

The quotation that’s up there as I write this is one from J. Lec Stanislaw, "Each snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty". He has another one that carries a similar, more pointed message, "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible". How timely! There could hardly be a more relevant metaphor for the events of the last few weeks. The deaths, the protests, the violence, the mindless response from the White House. An avalanche, indeed. While the last snowflake started the avalanche, just as the last straw led to the breaking of the camel’s back, neither event would have occurred had the other snowflakes and straws not been there. In the same way, the demonstrations in Minneapolis and, subsequently, all round the world, began with a single event, the death of George Floyd. They would not have happened without the prior existence of so many other similar and related events.

If the analogy holds, we are faced with the question of how those other similar and related events got there? Where did they come from? Why did they happen? Who was responsible? 'Not me', says the snowflake. 'I didn’t do it', says the straw. The truth is it took all the snowflakes and all the straws working together to bring about the avalanche and to result in the camel’s back being broken. So, we could conclude, as the Black Lives Matter folks tell us, the responsibility belongs to all of us who support racist behavior and racist policies. Whether we realize it or not. Whether we believe or not. Or we could look elsewhere to find blame and to search for solutions.

For those of us who might agree that racism lies at the root of the problem, our goal needs be to understand what that means, how it works, how we might or might not be complicit, and how to bring change. How to not be racist. How to become an antiracist. Otherwise, we’re just another snowflake or another straw. We’re part of the problem and will be responsible, whether we realize it or not or believe it or not, for the next avalanche and the one after and the one after that.

While I’m not convinced what I do will matter or if I will have the energy or the will to follow through on whatever I discover, I just randomly started looking for helpful books. One of the first ones I found was titled, surprisingly, How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi. That sounded perfect. Who wouldn’t want to be an antiracist? Unless, of course, you already thought you were one. Kendi tells me, however, that’s almost a sure sign of being a racist—thinking you weren’t. Especially if you were a white male, like me, having lived in America all your life. I thought I needed to know more.

So I downloaded a sample version and started reading. One of the first things I learn is that Kendi didn’t start out as an antiracist, despite his being African-American. One of the threads of the book is his telling of his journey from being a crazy racist child to learning how to slowly put aside the various aspects of racism he discovered as he grew into adulthood, became a teacher, a writer, and, eventually, an antiracist. And he is very hard on himself. He is horrified remembering winning a Martin Luther King speech contest by giving a seriously racist speech; the racist language he and his friends used during junior high school; and falling in line with Black Racist thinking.

In an early section called Dueling Consciousness, p. 24 in my Kindle version, Kendi distinguishes among assimilationist, segregationist, and antiracist. An assimilationist is "One who is expressing the racist idea that a racial group is culturally or behaviorally inferior and is supporting cultural or behavioral enrichment programs to develop that racial group." A segregationist is "One who is expressing the racist idea that a permanently inferior racial group can never be developed and is supporting policy that segregates away that racial group." An antiracist is "One who is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity."

The remainder of the book discusses, chapter by chapter, various aspects of racism that exist, how racism shows itself, and how to distinguish it from antiracist behavior. That’s where we learn about our personal racist thinking and behavior. And through anecdotes Kendi tells us of his personal racist thinking and behavior. The hope is that once distinguished that’s the first step toward it being extinguished. Some of the aspects of racism center around power, biology, ethnicity, culture, class, sexuality, to name a few.

This is a book that is personal, readable, well written and organized, and forces the reader to confront aspects of her/himself that are uncomfortable but important to examine. It also has some references at the end that can add many more hours of fruitful exploration of this very timely topic.

I can’t imagine that I’ll be an antiracist by the time I finish this book, but I’ll at least have a better idea of what one looks like and how to get there. A better idea than I have now.