How To Be An AntiRacist
Updated: Sep 6, 2020
You can count me in on the huge (I hope) number of readers checking out recent anti-racist titles such as this one. Maybe reading a book isn’t the same as ‘doing’ something, but it certainly could put a person on the path to action which, if you ask me, is what the world always needs.
Kendi frames this book using key elements of racism as chapter subjects and titles (‘power’, ‘biology’, ‘body’, ‘culture’ for example), exploring each one through historical and social contexts. He also examines, through anecdotes related to each topic, his own race consciousness as it has grown over the course of his life so far. These are essential, because they effectively track how racism can be internalized and serve as a destructive force from within racialized communities. And that the most successful power grab is the one that trains people to police themselves according to standards of dominant culture without knowing (how) to interrogate the validity or origin of these standards. So when a seventeen-year-old Kendi wins a Martin Luther King speech contest, his key message is essentially racist. He uses King’s tone and pacing to make statements such as, “[Black youth] think it’s okay to climb the high tree of pregnancy!...They think it’s okay to confine their dreams to sports and music!” Years later Kendi winces at the memory of this speech: “I was calling Black youth “they”? Who on earth did I think I was?” He recognizes that the speech was borne of internalized racist thinking, which he identifies as the popular fiction of the 1990s and early 2000s and which posited that Black Americans had all they needed to lift themselves from inferior status, except, as he calls it in the speech, “intestinal fortitude”.
Kendi’s journey to activism from this point is an impressive representation of and reflection on his own learning, which is achieved via thorough review and re-review of his own dearly held beliefs. He challenges the idea that Black people cannot be racist, for example. He asserts, “there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not-racist”. It is “anti-racist.” What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiractist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist…There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism…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.” And so, from the outset, the gauntlet is thrown to each reader: How are you building a world where racism is challenged?
I thought frequently of James Baldwin while I was reading, a writer who similarly had no time for people who wished to equivocate over what racism looks like. Kendi is exacting in his work, clearly defining relevant terms at the beginning of each chapter, and identifying the relationships between intersectional identities and the multiple forms of oppression applied to individuals who are rarely ever “just” Black or White, but rather identify as Black and female; White and poor; Black, male and gay; and so on. Each form of oppression must be called out and actively fought against. None is more singularly destructive than any other, but multiple forms of oppression have a cumulatively destructive effect. Kendi illustrates this so well when he recalls, “My parents did not raise me to be a Black patriarch. I became a Black patriarch because my parents and the world around me did not strictly raise me to be a Black feminist.” (my emphasis) There can be no neutrality in the fight for social justice. “We cannot be antiracist if we are homophobic or transphobic.”
One of the most arresting observations I encountered in the book occurred when Kendi broke down the irony of the White person who identifies as a white supremacist: “They wave Confederate flags and defend Confederate monuments, even though the Confederacy started a civil war that ended with more than five hundred thousand White American lives lost…White supremacists blame non-White people for the struggles of White people when any objective analysis of their plight primarily implicates the rich White Trumps they support.” Why have I never thought about this before? I guess the thing is, White supremacy has never made any sense, despite the many philosophical, biological and cultural structures created to maintain it. But this example so clearly shows that powerful White-centred policies and institutions serve not only to oppress people of colour, but they are destructive to many of their own White supporters.
It is Kendi’s humility and his ongoing willingness to interrogate his own beliefs and actions that make this such a compelling read. He does not pretend that becoming antiracist is a) easy or b) ever really “finished”, but he does provide a list of definitions, comprehensive and clearly explained research and a road map of his own experiences to guide us. This book is well worth your time.