An OpEd by Linda Lopata, Director of Interpretation & Visitor Services, The National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House

Almost daily, visitors to the Anthony Museum ask if  Susan B. Anthony was racist. They want to know if they should identify with her or not. The not-so-simple answer is “yes, she was racist,” and, “no, she wasn’t racist,” and “yes, you should identify with her.”

Historian and social critic, Ibram X. Kendi, provides a useful framework for thinking about racism, past and present. He categorizes one’s actions as “racist,” “antiracist,” or what he calls “assimilationist.” [1]

Consider, this diary entry, written by Susan B. Anthony in 1866;

What arrogance…to put the question, what shall we do with a race of men and women who have fed, clothed and supported both themselves and their oppressors for centuries…the only way to solve the race question; {was} to educate blacks to be equal to their opportunities, {and for} whites to be willing to share their privileges. [2] 

Susan B. Anthony’s statement begins antiracist, citing Black agency, but takes an assimilationist tone when she insists that a white education will provide Black people equal opportunities. Her opinion does not consider what Black people knew, what they wanted, nor the racism they faced even after receiving a white education. However her final statement is entirely antiracist, and could have been written today.

Susan B. Anthony saw white privilege embedded into our culture. What she could not foresee in 1866, was how white privilege, racism and sexism would evolve and persevere, finding new ways to obscure oppression.

At the time, Susan B. Anthony was almost universally reviled for her antiracist views. White historians, to prove their antiracist bonafides, have often ignored this fact, by taking her quotes out of context. Other white historians have focused entirely on Susan B. Anthony’s anti-slavery work and close relationships with black women, but ignored her willingness to work with racist suffragists. It is as if she is a proxy for our own struggle with racism.

Judging historical figure’s actions as racist, assimilationist or antiracist, broadens our understanding of them, and by extension ourselves. By thinking about race through this lens, white people can self-assess questions like: Do I push out of my comfort zone to call out racist behavior? Do I judge whiteness to be the only model worth emulating? Do I recognize my own unearned privilege? Do I sometimes build up historical figures only to tear them down to avoid my own racist complicity? In considering these questions, white people can self examine by asking: If Susan B. Anthony was racist, does that mean I am too?

[1]Kendi, Ibram X., How to be an Antiracist, (One World: Random House, 2019) p.13

[2]Sherr, Lynn, Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in her Own Words, (Times Books: Random House) p. 33