Racism and sexism are not primal drives themselves but epiphenomena of power dynamics. Each is a construct, in some contexts used by the greedy to gain power (e.g., slavery and coverture), in other contexts by the powerful to protect their gains (e.g., Jim Crow and anti-abortion laws), in still other contexts by those losing power to regain it. The latter describes this moment in America, when white males are desperately trying to hold on to their waning historical privilege of disproportionate power.
To address racism and sexism below the epiphenomenal level on which they present to us, we must plunge into the depths, the dark slow-moving currents of our ways of thinking and relating. There we may explore our mentalities of individuality and insecurity, self and other, identity and difference, superiority and inferiority. There we may realize our alienation from each other, from nature, from our nature, from ourself. Based on this understanding, we can go beyond mere knowledge of history and respond to it. This daring to respond, this wading into the torrent of becoming, requires that we exercise our own power, the intellectual power to critique the entrenched dynamics of domination, and the social power to create new dynamics of equality.
We study history not so much as scholars attempting to understand what happened, but as agents of change trying to influence what is happening. The point is not merely to catalog and chronicle the histories of racism or sexism throughout each period of the past. It is to recognize that history is not past at all. The forces of domination and submission propelling the people and events of the past collide into us every moment of every day. They propel us, too, whether we know it or not. The point is to know it and have a say in it.
We can be passive vessels buoyed by the changing currents of historical power dynamics like so many bottles scattered across the seas, or we can read aloud the message inside each of us, and chart a path forward together.