The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘We know how to be racist. We know how to pretend to be not racist. Now let’s know how to be antiracist.’

What schools need to do

A man holds up a antiracism sign during a rally against racism and white nationalism, and in favor of gun laws, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, near the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
“We know how to be racist. We know how to pretend to be not racist. Now let’s know how to be antiracist.”

That comes from the new book, “How To Be An Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi, an American University professor who takes readers on a surprising exploration of what it means to be racist — and what it means not to be.

The youngest recipient of the National Book Award for nonfiction for his 2016 “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” Kendi tells personal stories that show his own evolution about racist ideas — and he makes clear that “racist and antiracist are not fixed identities.

He gets at the heart of his argument with this:

Denial is the heartbeat of racism, beating across ideologies, races and nations. It is beating within us. Many of us who strongly call out [President] Trump’s racist ideas will strongly deny our own. How often do we become reflexively defensive when someone calls something we’ve done or said racist? How many of us would agree with this statement: “‘Racist’ isn’t a descriptive word. It’s a pejorative word. It is the equivalent of saying, ‘I don’t like you.’” Those are actually the words of White supremacist Richard Spencer, who, like Trump, identifies as “not racist.” How many of us who despise the Trumps and White supremacists of the world share their self-definition of “not racist”?
What’s the problem with being “not racist”? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: “I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.” But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is “antiracist.” What’s the difference? One endorses the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist or racial equality as an antiracist. 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. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in between space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist" neutrality is a mask for racism.... This may sound harsh, but it’s important at the outset that we apply one of the core principals of antiracism, which is to return the word “racist” itself back to its proper usage. “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.

Kendi is a professor of history and international relations at American University in Washington D.C., where he moved in 2017 to found the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, the first academic center in the country with the word “antiracist” in it.

He writes in his book that on the September night in 2017 that he unveiled the vision for the center before his peers at AU, “an unidentified, middle-aged, hefty white male, dressed in construction gear, posted copies of Confederate flags with cotton balls inside several buildings.” They were also put on bulletin boards outside his classroom. “The timing did not seem coincidental,” he said.

He ignored his fears, he said, and pressed on with working on the new center. Not long after, at the age of 35, he learned he had Stage 4 colon cancer. Kendi underwent treatment, and now, he says, he is cancer-free. He wrote:

We can survive metastatic racism. Forgive me. I cannot separate the two, and no longer try. . . . What if we treated racism in the way we treat cancer? . . . Saturate the body politic with the chemotherapy or immuno-therapy of antiracist policies that shrink the tumors of racial inequities, 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 inquiry left in the body policy, only the health cells of equity."

In the following version of a conversation I had with Kendi, he explains why he thinks it is possible to create an antiracist society.

Q. You talk about antiracism in your last book. Why did you write a book solely about it?

A. My last book specifically makes that the case that the fundamental contrast was not between being “racist” and “not racist.” The contrast is racist and antiracist. I began speaking about this around the country and it was new to many people. People were striving to be not racist. We should be striving to be antiracist. People were saying: “Tell me more about that. I really want to understand how to be an antiracist.” It continued to be posed to me. I thought I should answer that question in book form.

Q. What’s the difference between being “not racist” and “antiracist?"

A. First and foremost, we should recognize that almost every person in history who has been charged with being racist has responded by saying, “I’m not racist.” Whether that’s eugenicists, pro-segregationists, white supremacists today. . . . So I wanted to figure out what it means to be “not racist.” The more that I studied the concept of “not racist” the more I landed on people basically denying they were racist, and the more I realized that the term “not racist” really had no meaning. In contrast, antiracist, like the term racist, has meaning. So antiracists view the racial groups as equal. Racists view certain racial groups as better or worse. A racist supports policies that create racial inequality, and antiracists support policies that create racial equity. Both of these are very deliberate. There is really no in-between “not racist” neutrality.

Q. Is it enough to declare support for antiracist ideas without taking action? What does it actually mean to be antiracist?

A. The way we support antiracist policies or even racist policies is by supporting the politicians who are enacting or defending those policies. It is by financing those policymakers. It is by joining or financing organizations that are pressing for those types of policies. It is in our daily lives, defending or challenging those policies. . . . If someone is defending and supporting financially a policymaker pushing racist policy, that is a racist. If you are supporting or financially supporting a policymaker making antiracist policies, then we are being antiracist.

When we support a powerful person who is expressing racist ideas and supports racist policies, even if you are someone who has a problem with those ideas and those policies, if you are supporting that person and putting that person in power, then you are being racist.

Q. Does that include people who voted for Donald Trump?

A. Yes. . . . But antiracist and racist are not fixed tattoos and identities. They’re descriptive terms that we can change — from being a racist to antiracist — by doing and saying things in the moment. We strive to be antiracist no matter what we say in the past.

Q. There are a lot of people who support Trump over his stance on trade and other policies who will be greatly offended that you’re calling them racists. What’s your response?

A. My response is people are typically offended if you call someone they support anything they believe that person not to be. We need to clearly define racist — someone who is expressing a racist idea or supporting a racist policy with their action or inaction — and then apply the definition to Trump’s ideas and policies. Whether on trade or something else, any stance or policy he is taking that is leading to racial inequity is racist. Any stance or policy he is taking that is leading to racial equity is antiracist.

Q. Calling people racist generally shuts down the conversation. How do you get people to be antiracist when the response is to go on the defensive?

A. We must realize why calling someone racist causes the person to shut down the conversation. Because the denial of racism is the heartbeat of racism. To be racist is to deny one is racist. When a racist is called racist, they deny it, they refuse to talk about their own racism, they shut down the conversation, feeling offended as if they were personally attacked — when in fact they were described. When an antiracist is called racist, they assess whether what they said or did or did not do was racist based on clear definitions, and if they did say something was wrong with a racial group, if they did support a policy that was leading to racial inequity, then they admit they were being racist. They are willing to talk about their own racism and open up the conversation, feeling thankful someone pointed out what they were being so they can change. Being a racist is like being an alcoholic — no one can get someone to recognize their own addiction. They must recognize it for themselves.

Q. How have people reacted to these ideas?

A. People hearing that, as well as other aspects of the book, actually call it liberating. It liberates them to recognize their faults . . . to strive to be different and strive to be antiracist. People have been saying that these ideas are extremely clear. Oftentimes, the way we talk about race is very convoluted, but if there is a topic currently on which we have to be clear, it’s race, so that everybody can understand it. That is what I strive to do with “How To Be An Antiracist."

Q. Sometimes you hear people say that they are “colorblind.” Is anybody really colorblind in this context?

A. No, you can’t be colorblind. If we strive to be colorblind, then we are actually going to be passing on racial inequality to the next generation. The reason that would be so is that people who typically say they are colorblind also say they don’t see race. And if we can’t see racial inequity, we can’t see racist policies, how can we eliminate racist policies and eliminate racial inequity? In the book, I identify and categorize race as a mirage. It exists, but then again it doesn’t exist. But it is absolutely critical that we see the mirage, because if we don’t see the mirage, then we are not going to understand why certain things are happening . . . in society.

Q. Is there a role for schools in this?

A. Secondary to our parents and families, we learn ideas from schools. We spend a lot of our time there as kids. The people who are training us and delivering those ideas are teachers. . . . We have to ensure we have a teaching body teaching antiracist ideas. We not only need antiracist teachers, but we have to make sure we have a curriculum that is an expression of antiracism, so that it is not necessarily Eurocentric. It is a curriculum that showcases and represents many different cultures and groups of people that make up the United States. It doesn’t apologize for anything about things that have happened in our racist past. . . . Teachers and principals and other school leaders would be trained to treat misbehavior among different racial groups equally. Black students are much more likely to be suspended and expelled than white students. What we also should do is equalize the resources of schools [between rich and poor] . . . not by taking money from schools that have a lot but giving more to schools that have little.

Q. Do you think Americans can change enough to build an antiracist society?

A. I do. The reason I do is because of my reading of history. Many people considered it impossible for those 13 small colonies to defeat the mighty British Empire in order to form the United States. In 1860, not that many people thought that five years later, slavery would be no more, that the richest and most powerful group, the Southern slave holders, would be stripped of their wealth and power. Also, philosophically, I know that in order to bring about change, we have to believe in the possibility that we can bring about change. That belief gives us the energy to create change.