Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Anti-Racist
New York: One World, 2019
There is a curriculum emerging of literature aimed for popular appeal on race awareness in the United States. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow bridged the gap for me between the rigor of academic studies on race and the relevant subject matter and public reasoning necessary for broad audiences. Since then (and I am speaking here about my own progression, not necessarily historical chronology) authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Carol Anderson, Michael Erik Dyson, Austin Channing Brown, Robin DiAngelo, and Ijeoma Oluo have all written best-sellers on the subject of race. Any person wanting to seriously grasp the ideas and issues involved in the subject of race today instead of just pontificating on social media based on personal intuition, experience, skimmed internet articles, and twenty minutes of selective reasoning should read at least two or three of these books, if not the ever-expanding roster of worthy academic studies (in my arena it would be authors like James Cone, Willie Jennings, Eboni Marshall Turman, Jennifer Harvey, M. Shawn Copeland and many others). Ibram X. Kendi’s name was added to that list arguably with the success of his book Stamped From the Beginning, but definitively with the publication of How to Be an Anti-Racist. The clarity of reason, honesty, and autobiographical format of the book place it among the first I recommend.
This book is part auto-biography, part analysis of racism in terms of interrelated subjects like power, biology, body, color, class, gender, etc. This is how the chapters are divided. Kendi weaves his own life story into the story of racism in our country in the present day. Each progressive vignette sets up a key insight. The unique feature of this book is that most of these insights are gained through self-reflection. Kendi does not just castigate the world around him, but remains methodologically open to the way racism has pervaded his own life and consciousness.
I think it is this particular method of writing about race, in a posture that is simultaneous confessional and reflective and prophetic, that sets this book apart from others and opens Kendi up to uncommon insight even among the other quality books listed above. Weaving autobiography into analysis helps to maintain the attention of the reader, alternating between heavier analysis and more naturally interesting narrative. His willingness to see himself not just as an object of racism, but as a person who has had to wrestle with his own version of racist ideas and impulses especially disarms white readers—even (especially) the liberal ones—who are not inclined toward self-examination. It’s not a necessary tactic, but it is likely more effective than full-on invective. But it is these two elements together that I think allow Kendi to resist ideological definition, which is something the world always needs. There is no sense in which this book is a capitulation to a racist society; a kind of “both sides have a point” middle ground that we often mistake these days for objectivity. Rather, even the insights that don’t fit easily into progressive narratives about race, ultimately serve to illuminate, resist, and disassemble racist power.
At the outset of each chapter Kendi provides a dictionary definition for the terms the chapter discusses. He argues in the introduction that straightforward definitions are vital for the antiracist project. Consider the opening of the first chapter:
Racist: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.
Antiracist: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. (13)
Further on he will define racist and antiracists ideas and policies. This isn’t a dry logic textbook, but a simple yet effective way of explaining what racism and antiracism is. It is through these definitions that Kendi is able to speak clearly about racism in every facet of our society, including, controversially, his claim that he has himself (a Black man) been a racist in certain respects. Or that racism is not primarily a matter of individual hate or ignorance, but of the consolidation and protection of power and power hierarchies through systematic policies. Or that the view of marginal people (of themselves or by others) as victims or otherwise powerless is demeaning and overlooks their innate dignity and ability. Or that ‘racist’ is not a state of being or permanent writ of cancellation, but a judgment of behaviors and invitation to rectify them.
These and other insights are not just a product of Kendi’s natural genius, but of the simple and clear method of establishing definitions and following them where they logically lead.
This is the consistent function of racist ideas—and of any kind of bigotry more broadly: to manipulate us into seeing people as the problem, instead of the policies that ensnare them. (8)
“Racist” is not—as Richard Spencer argues—a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction. (9)
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. The construct of race neutrality actually feeds White nationalist victimhood by positing the notion that any policy protecting or advancing non-White Americans toward equity is “reverse discrimination.” (20)
These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other. We can unknowingly strive to be a racist. We can knowingly strive to be an antiracist. Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination. (23)
The history of the racialized world is a three-way fight between assimilationists, segregationists, and antiracists. Antiracist ideas are based in the truth that racial groups are equals in all the ways they are different, assimilationist ideas are rooted in the notion that certain racial groups are culturally or behaviorally inferior, and segregationist ideas spring from a belief in genetic racial distinction and fixed hierarchy. (31)
I still identify as Black. Not because I believe Blackness, or race, is a meaningful scientific category but because our societies, our policies, our ideas, our histories, and our cultures have rendered race and made it matter. I am among those who have been degraded by racist ideas, suffered under racist policies, and who have nevertheless endured and built movements and cultures to resist or at least persist through this madness. (38)
But generalizing the behavior of racist White individuals to all White people is as perilous as generalizing the individual faults of people of color to entire races. “He acted this way because he is black. She acted that way because she is Asian.” We often see and remember the race and not the individual. This is racist categorizing, this stuffing of our experiences with individuals into color-marked racial closets. An antiracist treats and remembers individuals as individuals. “She acted that way,” we should say, “because she is racist.” (44)
How can I critique their ethnic racism and ignore my ethnic racism? That is the central double standard in ethnic racism: loving one’s position on the ladder above other ethnic groups and hating one’s position below that of other ethnic groups. It is angrily trashing the racist ideas about one’s own group but happily consuming the racist ideas about other ethnic groups. It is failing to recognize that racist ideas we consume about others came from the same restaurant and the same cook who used the same ingredients to make different degrading dishes for us all. (66)
But there is a thin line between an antiracist saying individual Blacks have suffered trauma and a racist saying Blacks are a traumatized people. There is a similarly thin line between an antiracist saying slavery was debilitating and a racist saying Blacks are a debilitated people. (97)
Like every other racist idea, the powerless defense underestimates Black people and overestimates White people. It erases the small amount of Black power and expands the already expansive reach of White power. (140)
Whenever Black people voluntarily gather among themselves, integrationists do not se spaces of Black solidarity created to separate Black people from racism. They see spaces of White hate. They do not see spaces of cultural solidarity, of solidarity against racism. They see spaces of segregation against White people. Integrationists do not see these spaces as the movement of Black people toward Black people. Integrationists think about them as a movement away from White people. They then equate that movement away from White people with the White segregationist movement away from Black people. Integrationists equate spaces for the survival of Black bodies with spaces for the survival of White supremacy. (175)
The most effective protests create an environment whereby changing the racist policy becomes in power’s self-interest, like desegregating businesses because the sit-ins are driving away customers, like increasing wages to restart production, like giving teachers raises to resume schooling, like passing a law to attract a well-organized force of donors and voters. But it is difficult to create that environment, since racist power makes laws that illegalize most protest threats. Organizing and protesting are much harder and more impactful than mobilizing and demonstrating. Seizing power is much harder than protesting power and demonstrating its excesses. (216)