In the current debate over race, people are quick to defend themselves by declaring that they are “not racist.”
That’s not good enough for historian Ibram X. Kendi, who argues that the phrase has little meaning. After all, even white nationalists such as Richard Spencer and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, insist that they are not racist.
The goal for those who believe in equal opportunity and justice should be to be “antiracist,” says Kendi, who has written a new book to help guide the way.
“How to Be an Antiracist,” which came out last week, is a follow-up to Kendi’s 2016 bestseller, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” Kendi, 37, is a professor and the director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.
In “Stamped from the Beginning,” which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, Kendi challenges the widely held belief that racism is the product of ignorance or hatred. Instead, he argues, people in power enact policies to further their financial or political goals, then create racist ideas to justify them. For example, whites in need of free labor to build their empires declared that Africans were inferior and fed the idea to the masses to defend slavery.
In his new book, Kendi argues that it’s not enough to say you’re not a racist. “What’s the problem with being ‘not racist?’ ” Kendi writes in the introduction. “It is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ ”
He adds: “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.”
Kendi is just as hard on himself in the book, sharing his own conversion from a middle-class teenager who believed black people trapped in struggling communities had only themselves to blame to a scholar who now believes, as he writes, that “internalized racism is the real Black on Black crime.”
He also talks about the period of his life when he engaged in “anti-white racism,” before he learned to “discern the difference between racist power (racist policymakers) and White people.”
“I used to be racist most of the time,” he writes. “I am changing.”
Kendi talked with About US on what he hopes people take from his work. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
“Stamped from the Beginning” was quite a thorough examination of racism in America. What do we learn in the new book?
“Stamped” was largely a history of racist and antiracist ideas, and from what people told me, it really did not give them a very clear path forward as to how they as individuals can strive to change themselves and change society to be antiracist. So the more I spoke about “Stamped from the Beginning,” and the more I urged people to express antiracist ideas, the more people were like, “Tell me more about being an antiracist. I’ve only been taught to be not racist.” The more people asked me how to be antiracist, the more I felt I needed to write a book that systematically walked people through that.
When we think about the term “not racist,” that really stems from the statement “I am not racist,” which people say when charged with being racist. Everyone says, “I’m not a racist,” no matter what racist idea they’ve said, no matter what racist policy they support. “I’m not a racist” is a term of denial; it doesn’t have any other meaning. The term “antiracist” has a very clear meaning. It’s someone who has expressed ideas of racial equality or supports antiracist policy that leads to racial equity.
The book is part memoir, because you talk about the work you did and continue to do, on yourself to become antiracist. Why did you decide to open up?
I thought that it would help people if they saw me constantly critiquing myself and looking in the mirror. If I opened up, it would open them up to essentially do the same thing to themselves and for themselves. I didn’t want to lecture down to anyone as much as I wanted to explain what I have sought to do and hope that it could serve as a model for other people.
Talk about how black people have absorbed anti-black racist ideas and why you call internalized racism “the real Black on Black crime.”
Black people have power. I have power, and every single black person on earth has the power to resist [racist ideas], but they don’t resist because they think the problem is black people. I think that you also have black people who are in positions of power who use their power to support policies that reproduce racial inequity. Do black people have the same amount of power as white people? Of course not, and it’s not even close. But to suggest black people don’t have the power to resist believing something is wrong with black people is also to live an alternative reality.
Often people think that racism is about personal relationships, attitudes, behaviors, rather than structures, institutions that perpetuate racism. Where is the call for structural, institutional change in the book, whose title suggests it’s about converting people one by one?
For me, what I realized in researching racist ideas was that the effects of racist ideas on people is that it causes them to see people as the problem. It causes them to see black people as the problem. It does not cause them to see the structures and systems and power and policy as the fundamental problem. An antiracist — someone who really strives to be antiracist and essentially frees themselves of racist ideas — then realizes that the fundamental problem isn’t people, it’s power and policy. And then, of course, they become a part of the movement to dismantle those racist policies and racist policymakers, and that’s ultimately the goal for the individual. You’re either going to, as an individual, continue to reinforce the notion that something is wrong with a particular racial group and allow those policies and power and structures to stay in place or be part of a force to dismantle those policies and powers and structures.
You’re a former journalist. How do you think journalism as an institution has helped or hindered society grapple with racism?
It’s been a mixed bag. When journalists have hindered the struggle against racism, one of the ways they’ve done so has simply been to be unwilling to use the r-word. There’s a term, “racism” and “racist” — they’re in the dictionary. The job of journalists is to use words appropriately based on their definition. Words give us the ability to formulate reality, and if the reality is that something is racist, it’s absolutely critical for journalist to call that reality racist, and when they choose not to and use some other term, like “racially insensitive,” they are not doing their jobs of documenting and reporting reality.
President Trump’s rhetoric and policies seem to have forced the country to address racism in a way that didn’t happen during the tenure of the nation’s first black president. Is this helpful or healthy, the way the conversation is happening, which often seems to be in response to his outbursts?
I do think that whenever we’re talking about racism, it’s a good thing. Because at least we’re talking about it and not acting as if it doesn’t exist. I do think we could talk about it in a better way. We can be consistently defining what a racist is, what racism is and changing our conversations on those definitions. Instead of people saying, “I’m not racist because I’m not like Donald Trump,” people can ask themselves, “How, actually, do I share ideas with Donald Trump? Maybe I need to give up those ideas because I’m really opposed to him.” Or it may be that people are taking the charges against President Trump personally. In other words, when people call Trump racist, it’s like calling them racist, so of course they’re going to defend him by saying, “He’s not racist.” In defending him, they’re defending themselves because they share his ideas.
Are those people reachable?
I think they are reachable. I think the way we reach those people is to build relationships with them, such that they can feel comfortable being self-critical and vulnerable, and simultaneously, we figure out what is harming them and ailing them and stressing them. Chances are they have explained the source of that stress as, let’s say, people of color. When we can prove to them that Trump or someone else they support is actually the very source of what is stressing them out, then we can prove to them that they have been misled to believe the source is people of color.
Are you hopeful that we can have an antiracist country?
I don’t think we have any reason to be hopeful, but at the same time, I know that in order to bring about an antiracist America, we have to believe that it is possible. In order to bring about change, we have to believe that change can come. Philosophically, I know that, and philosophically that gives me hope.
What I want people to take away [from the book] is that, first and foremost, all of us can and should be striving to be antiracist, because ultimately we have to be able to create a better nation for ourselves and our children, who won’t be able to be manipulated by racists who have the power to create policies that harm us. Only antiracists truly have the power to heal the country of its racism. I’m encouraging people to self-reflect and self-critique and to grow, like I am continuing to do.