I was on a hiatus from male authors for a while, but I made an exception for Ibram X. Kendi. I got over Kendi’s gender and read his book How to be an Antiracist because it felt like an important read…and also because it took so frickin long to get it from the library!
(Side note: I put the book on hold again right after I returned it, because I ran out of time to jot down some notes. The second time around, I was able to check it out within a couple of weeks, I think, after having waited months and months and months before. Perhaps all the white people wanted to read books by Black authors last summer amidst all the protests, and our attention spans are short? Yikes.)
Anyhow, I thought How to be an Antiracist was worth reading. I’d love to share a few reflections on it—kind of like a book review, but super informal, and admittedly (or intentionally?) super duper biased, and without any attempt to summarize the book, because I think you should totally read it yourself if you have time.
Here are some things that stood out to me.
1. I thought it was helpful that Kendi made a distinction between being an antiracist and being an assimilationist. There are lots of ways to be an assimilationist, and I think I’ve participated in some programs, volunteer activities, etc. that perhaps bought into that mindset—or at least, maybe I was buying into that mindset while I was participating.
Assimilationism often involves the mindset that, when racial inequity surfaces, Black people just need a little more support—a little more mentoring or tutoring, for example. Things like mentoring and tutoring aren’t necessarily bad, Kendi argues, and they can help individuals have a better shot at their educational and career goals, but they also don’t really deal with the root issues. The root issues are all of the structures and policies that keep things so unequal.
Assimilationist programs operate, sometimes, as if Black individuals are the problem, and, thus, helping Black individuals better integrate into white-dominated society is the solution. And that’s just not true.
An antiracist mindset, on the other hand, looks for the policies that perpetuate inequality, and looks to change these policies. It looks to figure out who is enacting and maintaining these policies, and looks to hold these people accountable.
2. I appreciated Kendi’s distinction between being being “not racist” and being antiracist—the distinction between passively trying to stay out of things, keep the peace, and not make things worse, versus actively being involved in trying to make things better. As Kendi writes, “there is no neutrality in the racism struggle” (p. 9).
This might sound kind of harsh, but it makes sense to me, and I think it’s helpful. Passivity perpetuates the status quo, and the status quo is not good. In order for things to actually change, more and more people need to sincerely challenge and push back against the racial injustice that is the current state of things. It’s not enough to just avoid saying or doing racist things.
3. Kendi describes the history of America as a dueling history of antiracist progress (i.e. things getting better and more equal) and racist progress (i.e. things getting worse and more unequal). On the one hand, he writes, we have “America’s undeniable history of antiracist progress, away from chattel slavery and Jim Crow”; on the other hand, we have “America’s undeniable history of racist progress, from advancing police violence and voter suppression, to widening the racial inequities in areas ranging from health to wealth” (p. 33).
I thought this image of American history as a duel was really helpful.
When I was growing up, I definitely learned the narrative of antiracist progress, and only this narrative. I learned that things have gotten so much better for people of color over the generations, and, in particular, that the Civil Rights movement happened and everything has been just fine ever since.
In college, I learned more about the current realities of racial injustice, and this narrative got more complex. It seemed that antiracist progress was slower, and much less complete, than I had previously thought.
In the years since then, as I continued to try to listen and learn, it began to feel like any idea of antiracist progress was a lie. Things really haven’t changed at all. Racism has just taken on different forms—the current ones harder (for white people) to see, but no better, really, than the older forms.
I like Kendi’s take better. American human rights history—for people of color, and, for that matter, for women, too—is definitely not a triumphant victory march forward. (It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah?) But it’s also not exactly a slow and incomplete march forward, and it’s not exactly a total standstill, either. It’s more like a war between two opposing forces, with different battles and skirmishes in each generation. There really has been lots and lots of antiracist progress—and, at the same time, there has been lots and lots of racist progress. We get to choose where we stand in the ongoing tug of war.
4. I appreciated all the stories Kendi wove in from his own life. I was fascinated to read about his experiences as a Black kid growing up just a few years before I did. I could relate in some ways, and totally not relate in others.
I grew up in a time and place (1990s – early 2000s, Seattle area) where everyone around me seemed to think that a) racism ended a long time ago, and/or b) racism was something only present in the South. Of course, neither of these things is true, but even though I know this intellectually, it’s always helpful for me to hear stories that put names and faces and real experiences to the particular ways in which it’s not true. I appreciate the stories Kendi tells, and his vulnerability in sharing these stories.
5. Relatedly, I appreciated Kendi’s willingness to share his journey over time, in terms of how he’s changed his mind about various things. He gave a lot of insight into some of the things he used to think, and why he no longer thinks these things.
What a great model of humility and willingness to learn—and also a reminder that we’re all on our own different journeys. If Kendi, as a Black person (who had to think about race a lot while growing up), can admit to realizing he was wrong about a lot of race-related things and needed to change his mind, then surely I, as a white person (who grew up not thinking much about race at all, and thus has a lot more to learn) can do the same.
I appreciate Kendi’s courage, openness, and clarity about his own journey. Something to aspire to, for sure.
6. I appreciated Kendi’s attention to intersectionality—for example, exploring the intersections between race and gender, and race and sexuality. Each of these topics gets a whole chapter, and I think that’s great.
For those of us who experience marginalization in one aspect of our identity and privilege in a whole lot of others, it can be easy to overlook a lot of the complexities of how different kinds of marginalizations intersect and interact. As a woman who’s privileged in pretty much every other way except gender, I’m taking notes.
Hope you enjoyed these reflections. Do you have any thoughts of your own—about these things, or about anything else in How to be an Antiracist, if you’ve read it? Feel free to holler in the comments!