Before a packed audience last Monday evening, Professor Ibram X. Kendi, one of the most influential historians and antiracist thinkers of our time, had a conversation about racism with a seemingly unlikely moderator — former white supremacist Derek Black.
The topic was Kendi’s newest critically acclaimed bestseller, How to Be an Antiracist. The New York Times described it as “the most courageous book to date on the problem of race in the Western mind.” In a powerful, hour-long conversation followed by an audience Q&A in the School of International Service Founders Room, the men discussed racism’s hold on our society, their own personal struggles to overcome racist beliefs, and ways people can work together to dismantle racist ideas and build a truly equitable society.
“Racism is like a metastatic cancer,” Kendi said. “Its prognosis is dire, but it’s simultaneously curable. We are at a most serious stage as a people, as a nation, even as humanity. But it’s important for us to recognize that we actually can cure this county and its people of these ideas and policies.”
A Bit of Honesty
Kendi is the founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, a joint endeavor of the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of International Service at AU. The Center produces research to support the innovation and enactment of antiracist public policies at the local, state, and national level. Kendi is also a professor of history and international relations in both schools.
Kendi writes an ideas column for The Atlantic, and he is the author of The Black Campus Movement, which won the W.E.B. Du Bois Book Prize, and Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. At just 34 years old, Kendi was the youngest-ever winner of the NBA for nonfiction.
Black began his conversation with Kendi “with a bit of honesty,” describing his own journey in recent years to embracing antiracism. Before that, he grew up immersed in the white supremacist movement. His father ran the white supremacist website Stormfront and was a grand wizard in the KKK, and his mother was once married to David Duke. But in 2013, after much soul-searching, Black renounced white nationalism in an article published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. His story is documented in Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow's book, Rising Out Of Hatred.
The Writing of a National Bestseller
How to Be an Antiracist was published in August to rave reviews about its importance and timeliness. “Kendi has gifted us with a book that is not only an essential instruction manual but also a memoir of the author’s own path from anti-black racism to anti-white racism and, finally, to antiracism,” said NPR. TIME magazine wrote, “How to Be an Antiracist punctures the myths of a post-racial America, examining what racism really is — and what we should do about it.”
When Kendi first started thinking about undertaking such an ambitious project, he knew the book would need to incorporate history and a “tremendous amount” of empirical data. But he also used the genre of rhetoric, carefully considering language throughout the book — in fact, he starts each chapter with definitions, ranging from segregationist to class racist. And he blended social commentary and memoir into the narrative, making it both timely and deeply personal.
“I felt that I needed to personalize the book and show how important it is for us to confess the ways in which we were raised to think that there is something wrong with a particular racial group. In my case, I was raised to think there was something wrong with black people,” he explained. “Then we can begin to undermine those ideas. And I realized that the only way to show that was through personal narrative.”
Kendi acknowledged that this was a difficult task, much harder than writing straight history like Stamped From the Beginning. “This issue of racism is not just an historical issue, not just an empirical issue, not just a rhetorical issue, not just a political issue. It’s all of these things simultaneously.”
Racism: People or Policy?
Black asked Kendi about racism: Is it someone who wears a wearing a Klan robe or uses racial epithets? Or is racism really not about hearts and minds, but about the system that promotes it?
Kendi answered that it is critical for us to realize the differences between people and policy.
Someone might believe that certain racial groups are inferior, and that inferior racial groups are the cause for racial inequity in our society. In other words, Kendi said, they might believe that “forty percent incarcerated people should be black, because black people are so dangerous.” Or that all people living in poverty are lazy. Racist ideas like these make racial inequities seem normal.
However, Kendi said, once people realize that there is nothing wrong with any of these racial groups, they realize that the only other alternative for those inequities is policy — unfair and unjust policies. “Then they begin to see that the problem isn’t people. It’s policy and power,” he explained. “And then they begin as individuals to join that struggle to change policy.”
A Man on a Mission
Kendi sees his job as a scholar is to understand and uncover and analyze the complexities of racism through serious research. But he takes it one step further. He passionately believes it’s also his job to share and clarify this complex and scholarly research for general audiences.
“We are in an intellectual battle with people who aren’t doing the research and who are putting out misleading statistics and putting out simple explanations for those misleading statistics that are then widely and easily consumed,” he said.
Black said this statement rung true to him as he thought back to his white supremacist past. “I come from a background that thrives on ambiguity, confusion, having it both ways. I think about a line in your book, ‘Racism thrives on believers not thinkers,’ and this is very true that they frame everything in pseudoscientific terms because they want to be the rational people, but it is never real, it is never good evidence.”
He quoted a line from Kendi’s book: “We don’t use ideology to create the world but to justify what we are already doing.”
The Future for All of Us
Kendi is not sitting around relaxing after the publication of How to Be an Antiracist. He is already working on a different type of book — an antiracism book for toddlers. He believes that it is never too early to start talking to children about race, and that it is critically important for parents to model antiracist behavior for their own children. “Study after study shows that the number one indicator of a child’s ideology is their parents’ ideology,” he said. “One of the most important tasks we have is how we instruct our children.”
Kendi is a father himself, and a cancer survivor, which has inspired him to describe racism as a terrible cancer with a dire prognosis. But he does have hope that we actually can cure this county and its people of these ideas and policies. After all, racism is not natural, he points out. “People are not born categorizing people by race based on skin color, and then ranking them. This is not natural to humankind. And certainly, racist policies are not natural to humankind. Racial inequity is not natural to humankind.
“In a way, racist ideas make people believe that it’s natural, that’s it’s always been this way and will always be this way. That’s not the case. Racism, as a case is only about 500 years old. Humans have lived a long time before that.”