After Ibram X. Kendi published his award-winning history of racist ideas, Stamped from the Beginning, he found readers curious and engaged. But when giving book talks or Q&As, a variation of the same question surfaced again and again: What can we do?
As detailed in a recent Vox piece called “The Great Awokening,” white progressives are increasingly concerned about discrimination and racial inequality. But without broader agreement on what constitutes a racist idea, and what can be done to combat that idea, activists and citizens may be lost. That’s where Kendi saw a need, and he’s filled that need with a brilliant new book, How to Be an Antiracist.
Part memoir-part manifesto, How to Be an Antiracist has something to teach us all. And that does mean everyone, with Kendi detailing how people of any race can hold racist and antiracist views.
“People would ask me, in a very concrete way, how to be antiracist,” he says in an interview. “Eventually I realized that it was a question that I could answer. It was a question that I should answer.”
Kendi is the director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, and he holds a joint appointment with the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of International Service. Kendi is expected to speak about the book at an AU event on September 23.
You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train
Kendi explicitly defines what we mean by “racism,” essentially a marriage of racist ideas and racist policies. “A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way,” he writes. A racist policy is “any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups.” A key component of Kendi’s argument is that you cannot have a “race-neutral” policy.
“The most threatening racist movement is not the alt-right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a ‘race-neutral’ one,” he writes.
President Donald Trump sometimes defensively calls himself the “least racist person” ever. Despite what one thinks about Trump’s language and policies, Kendi expands on why that’s a false claim for anyone to make.
“There’s no such thing as ‘least racist’ or ‘more racist.’ There are ideas that express hierarchy and inequality. There are policies that create equity and inequity,” he says. “The other aspect of it that is troubling is that there’s no such thing as a ‘not racist.’ There is only racist and antiracist.”
So, if all Americans are on a continuum, what can people do to subvert racism and promote antiracism? Quite a lot, according to Kendi.
“An individual citizen can donate funds to policymakers or organizations that are advocating for antiracist policies. They could join one of those advocacy organizations and volunteer their time to those advocacy organizations,” he explains. “They literally can run for office or strive to get into a position of power where they can, as an individual, shape policy.”
Antiracist policy advocacy runs the gamut, he says, from fighting voter suppression to fighting climate change.
Even the proverbial “Thanksgiving dinner” discussions can be a time to refute racist ideas and stereotypes. “The people you’re regularly interacting with can be challenging racist ideas. They can be ensuring that they’re having conversations that are built on antiracist ideas. They can be challenging themselves,” he says.
This is Kendi’s third book, but the first time he’s really delved into his personal story. By tracing his own intellectual and real-world struggles, he’s giving readers a window into the role race plays in everyday life.
“I’m hoping that people will be encouraged to embark on their own journey to be antiracist, and that reading the book will allow them to see the journey that I took. To recognize that it’s a journey that we all must take. If we take that journey then we can make a better life for ourselves, and a better society for everyone,” he says.
In the book, Kendi recounts a story from elementary school, when he felt his white teacher refused to call on and disrespected a black girl in his class. Kendi—just a third grader—took a stand and later refused to leave his seat.
“I was not going to move until I recited my first dissertation on racism, until I had a chance to defend our Blackness,” he writes.
The teacher called in the principal, and Kendi explained his frustration over the unfair treatment. And Kendi did notice that the white teacher subsequently eased up on the black students. Just as that teacher treated black and white students differently, he drew the contemporary parallel that in 2013-2014, black students were four times more likely than white students to be suspended from public schools.
“I think children already struggle with communicating complex emotions and complex feelings and complex ideas. And when you add on the layer of complexity that racism brings, it only compounds a problem that already exists,” he reflects in the interview.
He interlaced this story with historical context about biological racism. Alleged biological racial differences—predicated on lies, often for the purpose of preserving a racial hierarchy—are internalized by racial minorities, he notes.
Kendi doesn’t absolve himself, mentioning a high school oratory competition that now makes him cringe. He revved up the crowd by attacking black youth, spouting unfounded ideas about blacks not valuing education. Kendi says this kind of rhetoric—amplified in Bill Cosby’s infamous “pound cake speech”—mistakenly puts the problems of black people on black people, instead of the racist policies that created racial inequality.
“When I came of age in the 1990s, some of the most powerful Democrats and Republicans, black and white, were all saying that at least part of the racial problem is black behavior. So for me as a young person, it was hard not to consume and believe those things,” he says.
Early in his professorial career, Kendi used antiracism to help a Ghanaian student. (Kendi writes about tensions between African immigrants and native-born blacks, subtly depicted in the classic comedy Coming to America.) The young man espoused the oft-repeated notion that American blacks were “lazy” and welfare dependent. Kendi countered with data that the majority of Americans on welfare are not African American, and the majority of African Americans eligible for welfare refuse it. Kendi patiently talked with the student, who left the room receptive to Kendi’s larger message.
That begs the question of how equanimous and patient antiracists should be. Some critics decry Twitter “call-out” culture and recommend a softer, empathic touch, while others feel racist ideas must be strongly denounced and marginalized immediately.
Kendi believes it generally depends on who’s voicing the racist ideas. “I think we antiracists should distinguish between people who are open-minded and people who are close-minded. In the case of people who are close-minded, I think those are not people we should waste our time and energy on. But with people who are open-minded, but just don’t know certain things, we should be extremely patient.”
Searching for the Cure
Kendi closes the book with a moving chapter about his battles with cancer. It was a three-headed monster, affecting his wife, mother, and Kendi himself. He was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, which usually has a roughly 12 percent chance of survival, he writes. After surgery, his prospects were suddenly much better.
He poetically draws a parallel between metastatic cancer and metastatic racism, wondering what might happen if we treated them the same way. “Saturate the body politic with the chemotherapy or immunotherapy of antiracist policies that shrink the tumors of racial inequities, that kill undetectable cancer cells,” he writes.
What inspired this comparison? Aside from how Kendi’s life has been dominated by both, he wanted to convey a metaphorical truth: The United States has stage 4 cancer.
“But just because racism has metastasized, just because it’s everywhere, doesn’t necessarily mean that America is going to die,” he says in the interview. “We could and shall believe in miracles. We should strive to, essentially, save the life of America.”