Super chill book review: How to be an Antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi)

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!

Kimberly Latrice Jones’ video, black anger, and white discomfort

This video by black author and activist Kimberly Latrice Jones has been making the rounds on the interwebs. It’s entitled “How can we win?”, and it’s worth watching.

I’m sure white people are saying all sorts of things about it, and it probably doesn’t need any more white person commentary.

On the other hand, if I can help fellow white people see this video and learn from Jones’ perspective, that seems like a good thing. 

So here are some thoughts―about black rage, and white discomfort, and what building a healthier kind of community together actually entails.

Jones expresses her anger, and there is a part of me that feels uncomfortable with that. There is a part of me that asks the questions white people often tend to ask: is this the most helpful and effective way for Jones to express the ideas she wants to express? Wouldn’t she be better off making her language and tone more palatable to white people, so that we would feel less attacked and defensive and be more open to listening to her? 

I realize that the fact that these sorts of questions form in my mind exposes in me the stubbornness of my tendency as a white person to center my own experience―which is a big part of what white supremacy is in the first place. 

Black people are systematically targeted, humiliated, terrorized, and killed by state-sanctioned violence. There’s clearly something very wrong here if I’m more concerned about white people’s feelings of discomfort when black people speak up about these death-dealing systems than I am about the death-dealing systems themselves. I realize there are things I need to reflect on here, and things I would invite fellow white people to reflect on as well.

I also realize that the bigger-picture goal in all of this, as far as I see things, is Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of beloved community, the kinship of all humankind. 

For those who put stake in the Christian scriptures, the end goal is the vision of Revelation 7:9, where people of all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages come together before God as equals, honored and received by God in the specificity of their ethnicities, cultures, and experiences.

In light of these kinds of visions of loving, multiethnic community, it feels worth saying that the community that would rather appear to be at peace than actually be at peace is a sham community. The community in which some people consistently inflict gaping wounds on others and then tell the wounded to speak more nicely about these wounds so that the inflictors will not feel uncomfortable is no community at all.

In the kind of community that I long for―on every level, from church, to city, to region, to nation, to world―no one is willing to settle for the kind of false peace that depends on some people keeping silent about the wrongs being done to them. No one is interested in coercing anyone else into downplaying or minimizing the things that keep them up at night and make them angry every day.

Injustices are addressed honestly and openly, not swept under the rug to keep some people comfortable. Angry voices speak up and are heard, because this kind of honesty is the only way to healing; because everybody recognizes that people on the receiving end of injustice are the ones best equipped to speak about it, to see it clearly, to name it for what it is. 

In the kind of community I want to be a part of, anger itself is seen as a normal, legitimate, important human emotion. It is something to pay attention to―both in ourselves and in others―as a sign that all is not how it should be, an invitation to reflect more deeply and to be open to change. It may be uncomfortable, but it is also crucial.

I do not want to be part of a community that is not willing to see, embrace, and receive all of who I am―my full, authentic self, including my sorrow, anger, and rage. And I do not want to be part of a community that does not offer this same seeing, embracing, and receiving to others, especially those who are hurting most, who have been most abused and terrorized.

The point is not for myself or other white people to feel comfortable. It’s to learn to see injustices that we have been blind to, and to learn to long for justice. It’s to learn how to build more equitable and healthy communities together. I am grateful for the gift of Kimberly Latrice Jones’ words as part of this process.