In 2020, I earned a grant to buy a class set of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds for the American Studies class that I co-teach. They call it a “remix” of Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi.
I’ve always admired Reynolds’ writing and loved how he used language to make history fun for young people. But, I also wanted to read the original to really know what I was talking about.
It was sort of daunting, not just because race is a challenging topic to learn about, but the book is 582 pages! Luckily, Kendi has a clear writing style that makes his work easy to read.
It feels like Kendi put his heart and soul into writing and researching this book. The amount of research alone is staggering, but he admits in How to Be an Antiracist that he learned that he had stage 4 colon cancer after publishing this book. He miraculously survived and healed, but it just goes to show you how much writers put into their texts. You really feel that when you read this book.
It’s such a long book that I will only quote from the introduction to the book. You’ll just have to read it yourself to dig into the good stuff! It really is a definitive history of racist ideas in the United States, which explains why it’s so long.
He begins the store in the 1500s where racist ideas bred in Europe make their way to the New World through the slave trade, and he takes his research up through the midpoint of President Trump’s administration when the book came out.
Kendi uses the same framework he introduces in How to be an Antiracist regarding definitions of racism and antiracism. I wrote about that framework in a post back in November. I like the framework because it helps me understand a topic that quickly gets messy and complicated. When we have clear definitions, it makes talking about complex issues that much easier.
“My definition of a racist idea is a simple one: it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.”Kendi 5
Stamped focuses on the history of racism and antiracism directed towards Black people; however, the framework he employs throughout to help readers understand racism and antiracism is helpful for understanding racism in general. Dare I say, it helped me better understand discrimination and prejudice in general at a deeper level.
Basically, Kendi believes that a racist idea says someone is inferior or superior because of the color of their skin; on the other hand, an antiracist notion says everyone is equal regardless of what their skin color is.
There are two types of racist ideas: segregationist ideas want to separate people based on their race whereas assimilationists want marginalized people of different races to become more like one, dominant group. Both are problematic types of ideas because they imply that there is something wrong with marginalized people.
“Historically, there have been three sides to this heated argument. A group we can call segregationists has blamed Black people themselves for the racial disparities.”Kendi 2
“A group we can call assimilationists has tried to argue for both, saying that Black people and racial discrimination were to blame for racial disparities.”Kendi 2
“A group we can call antiracists has pointed to racial discrimination.”Kendi 2
“no racial group has ever had a monopoly on any type of human trait or gene — not now, not ever.”Kendi 11
One of Kendi’s objectives is to dispel the myth that after the first Black president of the United States election, the country entered into a “post-racial” era where the country magically solved racism. Indeed, that has not been the case as we find ourselves back at square one in many ways.
Throughout Stamped, Kendi highlights events, people, and movements throughout American history that were racist, segregationist, assimilationist, and antiracist.
“This history could not be made for readers in an easy-to-predict, two-sided Hollywood battle of obvious good versus obvious evil, with good triumphing in the end. From the beginning, it has been a three-sided battle, a battle of antiracist ideas being pitted against two kinds of racist ideas at the same time, with evil and good failing and triumphing in the end.”Kendi 4
He filters each section of his book through key players throughout history: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis.
I appreciated Kendi’s transparency about how these figures — and all of us — can sometimes hold racist and antiracist ideas within us at the same time. It helps us think about racism as something that we can unlearn and solve rather than something we have no control over.
“Segregationist thinking is perhaps easier to identify — and easier to condemn — as obviously racist. And yet so many prominent Americans, many of whom we celebrate for their progressive ideas and activism, many of whom had very good intentions, subscribed to assimilationist thinking that also served up racist beliefs about Black inferiority.”Kendi 3
“Racist ideas are ideas. Anyone can produce them or consume them.”Kendi 10
A common question people often have when they study history is why didn’t marginalized groups fight back? Why didn’t prisoners in concentration camps fight back? Why didn’t slaves fight back? First of all, as Kendi points out, enslaved people did resist their enslavement. He provides several historical examples to illustrate this point.
Secondly, racism itself works to keep people from resisting racism; it’s sort of one of the eerily ingenious design features of how racism works — it keeps people in the dark and incapacitates folks to oppose racism.
“When we look back on our history, we often wonder why so many Americans did not resist slave trading, enslaving, segregating, or now, mass incarcerating. The reason is, again, racist ideas. . . . The principal function of racist ideas in American history has been the suppression of resistance to racial discrimination and its resulting racial disparities. The beneficiaries of slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration have produced racist ideas of Black people being best suited fr or deserving the confines of slavery, segregation, or the jail cell. Consumers of these racist ideas have been led to believe there is something wrong with Black people, and not the policies that have enslaved, oppressed, and confined so many Black people . . . . Racist ideas have done their job on us”Kendi 10
It’s not likely that we can convince other individuals to change their minds about racist ideas. It’s certainly possible, but that is really their work to do.
“The principal producers and defenders of racist ideas will not join us . . . no logic or fact or history book can change them, because logic and facts and scholarship have little to do with why they are expressing racist ideas in the first place. Stamped from the Beginning is about these close-minded, cunning, captivating producers of racist ideas. But it is not for them.”Kendi 11
Each of us needs to take responsibility for the prejudices we consumed throughout our younger years and root them out. Furthermore, we can challenge racist policies and systems, then make way for improved ones. It’s certainly not a hopeless situation!
“Time and again, racist ideas have not been cooked up from the boiling pot of ignorance and hate. Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.”Kendi 9
In other words, racism is not because people are hateful and ignorant; people are wicked and ignorant because they subscribe to racist ideas someone in power designed to keep their power all for themself instead of validating each American’s inalienable right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
However uncomfortable it is, the path to truth, reconciliation, and healing, learning about our history. We can’t eliminate racism, prejudice, discrimination, or injustice until we bravely look it in the face.
A great way to oppose racism is to shop at businesses owned by people of color. If there isn’t a bookstore near you owned by a person of color, there are lots of places online where you can support these businesses! Check this list from Conde Nast out. Additionally, here is an article about how shopping at Black-owned businesses helps fight racism!
Trigger Warnings: drugs; incarceration; lynching; murder; racism; racial slurs; rape; war