Carmen Van Kerkhove: On the Tech-Savvy, Culture-Hip Anti-Racism Revolution
Carmen Van Kerkhove is the co-founder and president of New Demographic, an anti-racism training company that “goes beyond diversity buzzwords to tackle the real issues behind race and racism.” Carmen facilitates anti-racism workshops that put the generic workplace ‘diversity training’ to shame. And she’s established herself as a go-to resource on the strange-but-true manifestations of race and racism in our country along the way.
Building off the same beliefs that feed New Demographic’s workshops, Carmen hosts Addicted to Race, a popular podcast that digs into cultural representations (and non-respresentations) of race via conversations with a guest co-hosts. Carmen also edits a network of blogs, ultimately serving up an in-depth wide-ranging perspective on race and racism. Racialicious spotlights race in pop culture; Anti-Racist Parent supports those who want to raise children from an actively inclusive perspective; and Race in the Workplace focuses on “how diversity, multiculturalism, race and racism influence our working lives.”
The latest offering from New Demographic is the Anti-Racist Action Group, a 13-week course that will take advantage of group phone sessions, rading and writing assignments, and the active discussion among 12 participants to take race analysis to up a notch.
Altogether? Carmen is at the forefront of buiiding an anti-racist movement; one that embraces new media and points to the intersections of culture, politics, and our personal lives. Via New Demographic’s workshops, web prescence, podcasting, and activism, it’s built a strong, engaged community of people who are deepening their vision for a society where racism is dead.
Carmen was kind enough to find some spare time (!) to share her thoughts on her work, the prize she has her eye on, and how her anti-racist work conflates with feminism.
First, tell me about yourself. How have your personal experiences led you to anti-racist work?
My interest in race and racism is very much entwined with my personal identity. I’m of mixed heritage — Chinese and Belgian — and I spent most of my childhood in Asia. I grew up identifying as mixed or “Eurasian” (a common term in Asia for people of mixed Asian and European heritage) and everyone around me identified me as such too.
But when I moved to the United States, I noticed that attitudes towards mixed race identity were very different. Here, people felt uncomfortable when I identified as mixed, and would often recategorize me into a single box: “Oh so you’re really just Asian then.”
After a while I learned about the history of the one-drop rule, which stated that if you had even one drop of black blood in your ancestry, you could not be considered white. I realized that this “you’re just Asian” attitude was very much tied to that historical legacy.
I’m really fascinated by how race and racism are constructed in this country. There are many days when anti-racism work is definitely not fun. I think that my intellectual interest in the subject - apart from just a personal commitment to social justice — keeps me going.
You’ve taken a multimedia approach to wrestle with race and racism—podcasts, several blogs, e-newsletters; not to mention an Anti-Racism Action Group, anti-racism training sessions, and more. Why is it important to take this approach and how do you personally keep up the energy behind it all?
New Demographic’s mission is to facilitate relaxed, authentic, and productive conversations about race and racism. One of the ways I do that is through in-person seminars, but I can only reach so many people using that method, because those usually depend on an organization sponsoring me and bringing me out. But blogging and podcasting allow me to facilitate these conversations on a grassroots level and reach a much wider audience.
The Anti-Racism Action Groupis a new initiative I’m starting, and I’m excited about the potential. It’s a 13-week-long course that takes an in-depth look at race, racism, privilege, and stereotypes. In order to provide people with personal attention, I am limiting each group to just 12 participants. It’s really designed for people who read New Demographic’s blogs on a regular basis, but want to take their understanding of race and racism to the next level.
How can new media be better integrated into progressive movements? How can we build off of traditional media?
I think both new media and traditional media are really important, and from what I’ve seen, they’ve grown increasingly intertwined. For example, many producers and journalists look to blogs for story ideas or for sources who can bring a fresh perspective. I’ve been lucky enough to receive quite a bit of mainstream media attention (CNN, MSNBC, Newsweek, USA Today) and every single one of those media appearances I can trace back to a blog post I wrote. So for activists out there who want to be heard, I would definitely encourage you to blog because it can help you achieve greater visibility for your cause.
New Demographic’s tagline is that it “goes beyond diversity buzzwords to tackle the real issues behind race and racism.” Can you talk about what that means, and how you do it?
The tagline really emerged as a reaction to the traditional attitudes that organizations take towards diversity.
It seems like many organizations just want to engage in feel-good, uncritical celebrations of diversity and multiculturalism. But focusing on “celebrating diversity” only encourages people to turn a blind eye to racism, and promotes the myth that we live in a happy-go-lucky, color-blind world.
I also think that the diversity training that happens in many organizations leaves much to be desired. Many diversity trainers don’t push people to challenge their own racist beliefs. Instead, the seminars teach people to be more aware of the non-verbal cues (the fancy word is “microinequities”) they send out that may tip others off to their racism. The philosophy is: hide your racism in order to create a more harmonious workplace.
People are tired of euphemisms, they’re tired of talking around issues of race and racism. I want to show folks that talking about race doesn’t have to be scary.
How do you break into new audiences? How do resist the limits of “preaching to the converted?”
Racialicious, my blog on race and pop culture, has been a tremendous vehicle to reach out to the “uncoverted,” so to speak. A lot of people stumble across the blog by accident. They may be searching for something totally unrelated (“Bill Maher likes black women?” or “what is Nicole Richie’s race?”), stumble across it, and then stick around and keep reading. I’m a firm believer in sucking people in with entertainment, and then educating them without them even realizing it.
I definitely struggle with balancing the needs of long-time readers vs. those of new readers. Often, people new to Racialicious or just new to anti-racism in general, will ask a lot of questions or make a lot of statements that are frustrating to people who have been thinking about these issues for a long time. It’s tough to strike that balance.
On the Addicted to Race podcast, there have been a lot of conversations about the relationship between feminism and women of color. Where are you on your thinking about that relationship, both historically and today?
Those conversations have been really eye-opening for me. I think the thing that strikes me the most is that so many women of color lead lives that really epitomize feminism — they are independent, choose to do things the way they want, don’t see themselves as limited by gender roles. And yet many of those same women would balk at the label “feminist.” Unfortunately the term “feminism” still has a lot of negative connotations to many people, who see it as too white, too militant, too un-feminine.
How do feminist sensibilities infuse the work of New Demographic and its related projects?
On a personal level, I’ve never felt constrained by ideas of what I should or shouldn’t do as a woman. My approach is very much about getting it done. Things don’t have to be perfect. It’s fine to get things to “very good” or even “good.” I’ve always thought that it’s better to put stuff out there and keep moving forward than it is to spend too much time obsessing over every little detail.
In terms of my work, I’m very conscious about the ways in which racist and sexist ideas intersect. One of the seminars I do is on interracial relationships, and I spend a lot of time discussing sexual stereotypes that exist about different racial or ethnic groups. It’s amazing how women of every ethnicity are sexualized and dehumanized in different, specific ways. It’s important to me to recognize how all the different “isms” are intertwined.
One of New Demographic’s core beliefs is: “We go beyond the concerns of the specific community to which we belong and recognize that when one group is discriminated against, it is an affront to us all.” How does this relate to the relationship between feminist and anti-racist activism?
All of us need to be more aware of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc. and not focus only on our individual oppression. It’s natural to pay more attention to things that affect you personally. But if you’re serious about creating change in the world, you need to train yourself to take a wider view.
I also think that we need to get more honest about the privileges—wanted or unwanted—that we each possess. As a woman, I experience certain disadvantages in the workplace relative to men. But as an Asian-American, I benefit from positive stereotypes about Asians being good workers. And it’s important that I acknowledge that privilege.
In a way, it’s easier to talk about the ways in which you’re oppressed, because unlike talking about privilege, there isn’t any guilt involved.
In all your varied, creative work, what is your underlying vision? What sort of world do you hope to help create?
I want to create a world where people realize that race is not a biological reality, and understand that making assumptions about people’s physical, intellectual, or emotional traits based on their race is absurd.
What are you working on now?
I’m really fascinated by how race plays out in the workplace, so I’m planning to do more thinking and writing on that topics, mostly via my blog Race in the Workplace.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to invite everyone to join in the conversation on New Demographic’s podcast and blogs:
Addicted to Race
A podcast about America’s obsession with race
A blog about race and pop culture
A blog for parents committed to raising children with an anti-racist outlook
Race in the Workplace
A blog that explores how race and racism influence our working lives