“The book is ultimately about the basic struggle we’re all in,” writes Ibram X. Kendi in “How to Be An Antiracist” (One World, $27), “the struggle to be fully human and to see that others are fully human.” To say that Kendi’s new book is timely may be the understatement of the year.
Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C., advocates for, among many other things, a fundamental change in the kind of language we employ to think and talk about racism. In some ways, the seeds of the book began to take shape when 17-year-old Kendi competed in a Martin Luther King Jr. oratorical contest. He delivered the speech to much acclaim, but years later, recalls it with shame. The speech, he says, was racist against Black people. The book explains why and in doing so, offers an insightful, expansive and more practical definition of racism.
In a recent phone conversation with Newsday, Kendi talked about the book.
Too many people who call out racism deny their own. Is this getting any better?
We do have more people acknowledging and admitting that they have consumed and expressed racist ideas over the course of their lives. Some are beginning to realize that when we use the word “racist,” we’re not attacking them, we’re describing them. I think that distinction is crucial. People connect being a racist with being a bad person — a Klansman or a killer, all these negative things. It’s crucial to recognize what racism is, to be able look in the mirror to see whether one is acting racism out in any way.
What’s the difference between someone who is “not racist” versus someone who is antiracist?
When someone says to me that they’re “not racist,” my typical response, is — what does it mean to be “not racist”? I know what it means to be a racist — it’s someone who is expressing racist ideas, who is supporting racist policies. I know what it means to be an antiracist — it’s someone who is supporting antiracist policies and expressing antiracist ideas. I don’t know what a “not racist” is, other than someone who is denying their own racism. This denial is the heartbeat of racism itself.
What does antiracism looks like?
A person who is a middle manager and antiracist is someone who is refusing to carry out policies that are creating racial inequities in their company or in society. They are looking for another job. They are resisting those policies. They are pushing back and trying to get new policies put in place. Then you have people who are not middle managers but who are more or less the victims of these policies. If they have the time, they can join organizations that are resisting these policies. Or if they don’t have the time but have the money, they can financially support these organizations that are challenging those racist policies.
Why do you prefer the term “racist policy” to institutional, structural or systemic racism?
Institutional, structural and systemic — these are words that I’ve long used. This is, in many ways, my first vocabulary of racism. But for people who don’t read books on racism or go to the lectures on racism — those terms are not exacting enough for them. “Racist policy” is much more accessible to everyday people. It allows them to truly understand what’s affecting their lives because it prompts the question “What racist policy?” It opens up the conversation. From there, we can talk about issues like voter suppression and education policies.
And this more expansive term, “racist policy,” then allows us to think of climate change denial, which may seem like a racially neutral position, on its face, as a racist policy?
Yes. Climate scientists have found that the effects of climate change are harsher on the Global South, which is primarily populated by people of color. So to do nothing about climate change, or to support policies that are driving climate change, is to be racist and supporting racist policies. To fight climate change is to be anti-racist.
Has social media been a help or a hindrance for understanding anti-racism?
You certainly have people who have used their social media accounts to double down on notions that certain people need to go back to their countries, or certain people are superior or inferior, or inherently American. While others have used their social media accounts to challenge racist policies. And there are people who have learned from those feeds and posts. So I think it’s probably both.