I grew up believing that racism was a relic of the past; something that my grandparents witnessed; something that I wouldn’t have to concern myself with as a grown-up. A major part of this was the “color-blind” narrative.
My generation received encouragement from families and teachers to not “see color.” But, this only worked to subdue me into blinding ignorance.
“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.’”Kendi 20
“I don’t think it’s coincidental that the term ‘microaggression’ emerged in popularity during the so-called post-racial election of the first Black president. The word ‘racism’ went out of fashion in the liberal haze of racial progress — Obama’s political brand — and conservatives started to treat racism as the equivalent to the N-word, a vicious pejorative rather than a descriptive term. With the word itself becoming radioactive to some, passé to others, some well-meaning Americans started consciously and perhaps unconsciously looking for other terms to identify racism. ‘Microaggression became part of a whole vocabulary of old and new words — like ‘cultural wars’ and ‘stereotype’ and ‘implicit bias’ and ‘economic anxiety’ and ‘tribalism’ — that made it easier to talk about or around the R-word.”Kendi 46-7
Then, I went to high school. I started reading books where racist characters behaved the same way I saw classmates behave. I heard the “N-word” for the first time in real life, not part of a film, TV show, or a rap song. It wasn’t used by black people trying to reclaim language to heal.
A white person said it. Maliciously. They said it with spitting hatred toward a friend. And, then I knew. I knew that racism was alive and well.
I chose the side of “no racism.” But, it wasn’t until the summer after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbury that I realized it isn’t enough to be “not racist.”
We have to be antiracist.
I admit that I never heard the term antiracism until then; I read it first in Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds, a young adult book based on Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: a History of Racism in the United States. After that, I needed to know more.
Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist is a perfect place to start your antiracist journey.
Kendi presents a framework to explain racism and antiracism. It is easy to understand and highlights areas of racism that we do not always think about. Part of dismantling racism means defining it. One of the most helpful parts about How to Be an Antiracist is Kendi’s definitions to understand his framework.
|RACIST = “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inactions or expressing a racist idea” (Kendi 13)|
|ASSIMILATIONIST = “one who expresses the racist idea that racial group is culturally or behaviorally inferior and is supporting cultural or behavioral enrichment programs to develop that racial group” (Kendi 24)|
|SEGREGATIONIST = “one who is expressing the racist idea that a permanently inferior racial group can never be developed and is supporting policy that segregates away that racial group” (Kendi 24)|
|BIOLOGICAL RACIST = “one who is expressing the idea that races are meaningfully different in their biology and that these differences create a hierarchy of value” (Kendi 43)|
|ETHNIC RACISM = “a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to inequity between racialized ethnic groups and are substantiated by racist ideas about racialized ethnic groups” (Kendi 57)|
|BODILY RACIST = “one who is perceiving certain racialized bodies as more animal-like and violent than others” (Kendi 71)|
|CULTURAL RACIST = “one who is creating a cultural standard and imposing a cultural hierarchy among racial groups” (Kendi 81)|
|BEHAVIORAL RACIST = “one who is making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and making racial groups responsible for the behavior of individuals” (Kendi 92)|
|COLORISM = “a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to inequities between Light people and Dark people, supported by racist ideas about Light and Dark people” (Kendi 107)|
|POWERLESS DEFENSE = the illusory, canceling, disempowering, and racist idea that Black people can’t be racist because Black people don’t have power.|
|CLASS RACIST = “one who is racializing the classes, supporting policies of racial capitalism against those race-classes, and justifying them by racist ideas about those race classes” (Kendi 151).|
|SPACE RACISM = “a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to resource inequity between racialized spaces or the elimination of certain racialized spaces, which are substantiated b racist ideas about racialized spaces” (Kendi 167)|
|GENDER RACISM = “a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to inequity between race-genders and are substantiated by racist ideas about race-genders” (Kendi 181)|
|QUEER RACISM = “a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to inequity between race-sexualities and are substantiated by racist ideas about race sexualities” (Kendi 192)|
|ANTIRACIST = “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing a racist idea”; . . . “one who is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity” (Kendi 13, 24)|
|BIOLOGICAL ANTIRACIST = “one who is expressing the idea that the races are meaningfully the same in their biology and there are no genetic racial differences” (Kendi 43)|
|ETHNIC ANTIRACISM = “a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to equity between racialized ethnic groups and are substantiated by antiracist ideas about racialized ethnic groups” (Kendi 57)|
|BODILY ANTIRACIST = “one who is humanizing, deracializing, and individualizing nonviolent and violent behavior” (Kendi 71)|
|CULTURAL ANTIRACIST = “one who is rejecting cultural standards and equalizing cultural differences among racial groups” (Kendi 81)|
|BEHAVIORAL ANTIRACIST = “one who is making racial group behavior fictional and individual behavior real” (Kendi 92).|
|COLOR ANTIRACISM = “a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to equity between Light people and Dark people, supported by antiracist ideas about Light and Dark people” (Kendi 107).|
|ANTIRACIST ANTICAPITALIST = “one who is opposing racial capitalism” (Kendi 151)|
|SPACE ANTIRACISM = “a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity between integrated and protected racialized spaces, which are substantiated by antiracist ideas about racialized spaces” (Kendi 167).|
|GENDER ANTIRACISM = “a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to equity between race-genders and are substantiated by antiracist ideas about race-genders” (Kendi 181).|
|QUEER ANTIRACISM = “a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to equity between race-sexualities and are substantiated by antiracist ideas about race-sexualities” (Kendi 192)|
|ACTIVIST = “One who has a record of power or policy change” (Kendi 201)|
The framework extracts the truth about racism and antiracism. It presents a complicated topic in a way that we can understand better.
“Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.”Kendi 17-8
“To be an antiracist is to set lucid definitions of racism/antiracism, racist/antiracist policies, racist/antiracist ideas, racist/antiracist people. To be a racist is to constantly redefine racist isn’t a way that exonerates one’s changing policies, ideas, and personhood.”Kendi 17
Furthermore, Kendi uses his own journey towards racism in memoir style to help readers understand how to reflect on their own lives to find their way towards an antiracism mindset. Growing up, Kendi struggled to love himself as a black man and to love humanity as a whole — one of the many consequences of racism: it destroys love.
“Even now I wonder if it was my poor sense of self that first generated my poor sense of my people. Or was it my poor sense of my people that inflamed a poor sense of myself? Like the famous question about the chicken and the egg, the answer is less important than the cycle it describes”Kendi 6
Racism, an illogical and manipulative mindset, distorts reality.
“Racist ideas make people of color think less of themselves, which makes them vulnerable to racist ideas. Racist ideas make white people think more of themselves, which further attracts them to racist ideas.”Kendi 6
It’s tempting for people to believe there are a “few bad apples,” a few racists out there making the world a worse place. This is a distraction technique to redirect people’s attention away from racist policies and systems. Kendi provides many examples demonstrating how this works.
“Americans have long been trained to see the deficiencies of people rather than policy. It’s a pretty easy mistake to make: People are in our faces. Policies are distant. We are particularly poor at seeing the policies lurking behind the struggles of people.”Kendi 28
The overarching narrative all our lives suggests:
“Racist ideas cause racist policies. That ignorance and hate cause racist ideas. That the root problem of racism is ignorance and hate. But that gets the chain of events exactly wrong. The root problem . . . has always been the self interest of racist power. Powerful economic, political, and cultural, and cultural self- interest — the primitive accumulation of capital in the case of royal Portugal and subsequent slave trades — has been behind racist policies.”Kendi 32-3
Ignorance and hate are, in fact, symptoms of self-interest. Racist ideas are the illness that results from the infecting virus of misguided power.
What is so magnificent about this book is how it lays out how racism hurts both the oppressed and the oppressor.
“The duel within Black consciousness seems to usually be between antiracist and assimilationist ideas . . . . This developing consciousness nourished Black pride by insisting that there was nothing wrong with Black people, but it also cultivated shame with its implication that there was something behaviorally wrong with Black people . . . well, at least those other Black people.”Kendi 29-31
“White people have their own dueling consciousness, between the segregationist and the assimilationist: the slave trader and the missionary, the proslavery exploiter, and the antislavery civilizer, the eugenicist and the melting pot-er, the mass incarcerator and the mass developer, the Blue lives matter and the All Lives Matter, the non-racist nationalist and the non-racist American”Kendi 31
“To be antiracist is to conquer the assimilationist consciousness and the segregationist consciousness. The White body no longer presents itself as the American body; the Black body no longer strives to be the American body, knowing there is no such thing as the American body, only American bodies, racialized by power.”Kendi 33
To be an antiracist means that we must consistently stay cognizant of racism in our daily lives. One thing antiracists have tuned into recently is “microaggressions,” or “‘brief everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership’” (Kendi 46). For example, when you hear “You speak good English for a Black person,” “you are a credit to your race,” “There is only one race, the human race,” “I’m not racist, I have several Black friends,” — you hear a microaggression against a person of color. These aggressions build up over time and ultimately limit their possibilities, damage their sense of self, and perpetuate misinformation. To Kendi, microaggressions are not “micro.”
“I detest its component parts — ‘micro’ and ‘aggression.’ A persistent daily low hum of racist abuse is not minor. I use the term abuse because aggression is not and exacting term. Abuse accurately describes the action and its effects on people: distress, anger, worry, depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, and suicide.”Kendi 47
I loved his investigation of how racism and antiracism intersect with gender, class, sexuality, and other marginalized groups. This process is called intersectionality. We need intersectionality, developed by lawyer, scholar, and philosopher Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Originally, intersectionality was a process scholars used to investigate how society carved out limited means for black women to operate throughout their lives. Now, we use intersectionality to analyze how any two or more political and/or social identities intersect and affect people who possess those identities.
“When a policy exploits poor people, it is an elitist policy. When a policy exploits Black people, it is a racist policy. When a policy exploits Black poor people, the policy exploits at the intersection of elitist and racist policies — a policy intersection of class racism. When we racialize classes, support racist policies against those race-classes, and justify them by racist ideas, we are engaging in class racism. To be antiracist is to equalize the race-classes. To be antiracist is to root the economic disparities between equal race-classes in policies, not people.”Kendi 152-3
“A sexist policy produces inequities between women and men. A racist policy, produces inequities between racial groups. When a policy produces inequities between race-genders, it is gendered racism, or gender racism for short.”Kendi 189
“Racist (and homophobic) power distinguishes race-sexualities, racial (or sexuality) groups at the intersection of race and sexuality”Kendi 192
We need intersectionality like a fish needs water if we understand how to be an antiracist. Kendi asserts, on no uncertain terms, that intersectionality is a vital component of the antiracist journey.
Kendi believes that anyone of any race is vulnerable to consuming racist ideas. Often, we don’t think about racism infecting people of color. Still, Kendi thinks that, like a virus or like cancer, racism can infect anyone, make anyone ill.
“Internalized racism is the real Black on Black crime.”Kendi 8
“Black people can’t be racist is to say all Black people are being antiracist at all times. My own story tells me that is not true. History agrees.”Kendi 144
“What if we treated racism in the way we treat cancer? What has historically been effective at combating racism is analogous to what has been effective at combating cancer. . . . Saturate the body politic with the chemotherapy or immunotherapy of antiracist policies that shrink the tumors of social inequalities, that kill undetectable cancer cells. Remove any remaining racist policies, the way surgeons remove the tumors. Ensure there are clear margins, meaning no cancer cells of inequity left in the body politic, only the healthy cells of equity. Encourage the consumption of healthy foods for thought the regular exercising of antiracist ideas, to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence. Monitor the body politic, especially where the tumors of racial inequity previously existed. Detect and treat a recurrence early, before it can grow and threaten the body politic.”Kendi 237
Racism works like a paralyzing, venomous bite; it distorts our reality so that we cannot tear down racist systems and policies that pop up like mushrooms after a rain.
“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.”Kendi 8
I wish everyone would read and seriously consider this book. If readers give it their time, we could begin solving the problems we see every day but don’t always know how to handle. Racism often seems like a behemoth monolith from a science fiction movie that is impossible to overcome.
It’s not an easy read in the sense that it requires us to examine our own biases and racist beliefs. But, this is part of the antiracism journey that everyone has to go to. If we grow up in a system that upholds racist ideas and policies, we inevitably have racist threads in us. To eliminate racism, we have to identify those threads to unravel them.
“‘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 their usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction.”Kendi 9
“We are surrounded by racial inequity, as visible as the law, as hidden as our private thoughts. The question for each of us is: What side of history will we stand on? A racist is someone who is supporting a racist policy by their actions or inaction or expression a racist idea. An antiracist is someone who is supporting an antiracist policy by their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. . . ‘Racist’ and ‘antiracist’ are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other.”Kendi 22-3
But, as Kendi points out in this book, that’s simply not true. In fact, an antiracist society starts within ourselves. We start the work with a reflection about our own lives and selves. From there, we branch out, learning the experiences of others. Finally, someday, we can heal. Healing is slow but so incredibly worth it. We need it now more than ever.
“There is nothing I see in our world today, in our history, giving me hope that one day antiracists will win the fight, that one day the flag of antiracism will fly over a world of equity. What gives me hope is a simple truism. Once we lose hope, we are guaranteed to lose. But if we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive, a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free.”Kendi 238
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Trigger Warnings: cancer; homophobia; racism