July 11, 2020

Be the change … with your individual antiracism work

Our HKS proclivity

As Kennedy School alumni, we are inclined to get right down to business, solve problems, and create change. Our passion to get right to work on creating a better world leans toward action plans, strategy, tangible results, and measurable outcomes.

The brutal killing of George Floyd pulled back the curtain of systemic racism in mournfully dramatic fashion. So, it’s no wonder, many of us are ready to report for duty ASAP and start the long overdue work of dismantling racist systems where we live, work, and play. Others—if you are honest—are unsure of how to navigate the changes needed in society, much less in our own communities, clubs, and social circles. And still others are grappling with the basic meaning of “systemic racism” and what it actually means to be an “antiracist.”

So where can we all start? What can we all do that takes us out of the observation role and brings us down to life’s playing field for real work?

Our New Work

Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist (2019) and Guggenheim Fellow, makes it plain. “The heartbeat of racism is denial, and the heartbeat of antiracism is confession,” Kendi said in a 2020 TED talk. Pure and simple. We are all either denying our part and thereby perpetually re-creating racist systems, or we are confessing our role in that drama and making the tough choices to do better.

This is work for all of us—Caucasians and People of Color.

IF YOU ARE WHITE/CAUCASION/MAJORITY CULTURE: Your work is to take those tough initial steps and understand how you inadvertently participate in cultures (wherever in the world you live) tainted by white supremacy and white privilege. You may then be ready for next steps and to learn what it means to be an ally. Then you might even start speaking up and out when you experience, witness, or find yourself partaking in racist practices right where you live, work and play.

IF YOU ARE A PERSON OF COLOR: Your work is to examine your own internalized racism (I.R.). That nasty little I.R. virus takes multiple forms. My own confession is since I came to the Kennedy School, I found myself packaging and repackaging my truth more often, to make it as comfortable as possible for my white classmates and colleagues. Far too much of the time now, I wait to hear how much of my reality is palatable or translatable and edit myself accordingly.

What I Confess and What I Am Learning

I confess I’m working on unbridling myself of the burden of “whitewashing” my conversations until they become devoid of inconvenient truths I and many black women face in America: being stopped by the police; followed by security guards in department stores; assumed to be the assistant while standing next to our white assistants; ignored; grossly underestimated, and called out of our names.

I am learning that when I modulate the truth of my everyday lived racist experiences, then I experience, I too, contribute to the contamination that keeps on poisoning us.

As I write this final letter as Harvard Kennedy School’s Alumni Board chair for 2019–2020, I challenge you to join me in engaging some of the toughest work you will do in life—eliminating racism. I hope the resources of HKS will continue to partner in this intentional effort long after video replays of George Floyd’s final moments are part of our daily conversation.

Eliminating racism: This simply can’t be a “one and done.” It’s shedding our second skin. Yet, it is the only way any of us, can get this old knee off our necks and finally . . . breathe.

Deborah Bailey MC/MPA 2015 headshot with a blue backgroundDeb!

Deborah Bailey MC/MPA 2015
Chair, HKS Alumni Board 2019–2020