How to be Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi (Review)

Who Should Read this book – People who want to learn what it means to be antiracist.

What’s the Big Takeaway – All persons are capable of being racist and being antiracist at the same time so we must constantly ask ourselves, examine our lives and actions and beliefs, as to which one we are being at the moment.

And a Quote – “The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what — not who — we are.”

This is a book, an author and a topic that has been talked about probably more than actually read or charitably engaged with. I came into reading this having read Kendi’s prior book (Stamped from the Beginning) and having heard a lot of people comment on Kendi and anti-racism. Apart from anything else this book has to offer, as I read I realized that many of Kendi’s critics either have not read the book or are intentionally being disingenuous.

As school boards across the country, confused parents and fear-mongering blowhards on television are discussing and debating critical race theory (CRT) and everything that goes with it, Kendi is often lumped in as someone who teaches CRT. Technically though, he is not a critical race theorist as CRT is a legal theory and Kendi is a historian. Yet everything from anti-racism to talk of equity and a more accurate and balanced telling of American history is becoming, in popular parlance, part of the CRT umbrella. The fear, if you read the interviews with people after these debates at school board meetings or (god forbid) the comments on social media is that schools are going to teach all the little Timmy’s and Tammy’s out there that they’re awful racist people who should be ashamed of being white.

Wherever this idea is coming from (I think mostly from those red-faced blowhards on cable news who peddle in fear), it is not coming from Kendi (nor is it coming from the actual legal theorists who write about and teach CRT, though that’s another story).

Kendi’s argument in this book is that racist and anti-racist are not static categories, as if some people are in one and some people are in the other. Instead, he argues all persons can be both. Sometimes we act, think, vote, believe or talk in racist ways and other times we (hopefully) act, think, vote, believe and talk in ways that are anti-racist. Weaving his own personal story into each chapter, Kendi argues that people of any race can be racist at times. There’s no sort of anti-white people attitude in here, though part of Kendi’s personal story is him talking of when he did group all white people together as racist which he now sees as a racist position itself. This is due to his definition of racism as the belief that any racial group is inferior or exterior to any other in any way.

Kendi’s argument that racism is not some category out there that some are in and some are not reminded of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous words from The Gulag Archipelago that the line between good and evil cuts through each one of us. We’re all, to put it in Christian terms, a little broken and sinful which includes everything from greed to hate to lust to, if we’re honest, racism. The solution is not to ignore our sin but to confess and repent…but this is a book review and not a sermon so let’s get back to it…

What Kendi does argue is that it is impossible to be neutral in terms of race. Along with that, he argues that any policy or attitude that elevates one race or ethnic group above another is racist. This is the idea of “uplift suasion” and assimilation which he went into much more deeply in Stamped, the idea that there is one race/group that is better and it would be good for other races/ethnicities to develop the ways of being of that group. Examples come up throughout the book from dress to language and Kendi’s point is that to tell black people to learn to speak a certain form of English or dress in a certain style of clothes to fit in with white culture is telling to assimilate to what is thought to be a better culture, and this is what is racist. To say any racial group is inferior or superior to any other in any way is, by Kendi’s definition, racist.

Kendi’s argument then, in terms of policy, is that racist policies must be remedied by anti-racist policies. I suppose if a person thinks our (USA) policies are already neutral and we’ve “solved racism” or something then arguing for antiracist policies may sound like some sort of reverse racism. I guess the question is, if you think America is post-racial and our laws (and their enforcement) is neutral, then why does such disparity of outcome remain (and this is one of the questions that did lead to the beginnings of CRT as a legal theory). If white people posses exponentially more wealth on average than black people, or rates of incarceration continue to be tremendously different (despite rates of, for example, drug use being equal), we have to have some reason why such disparities continue. Is it all on individuals and some people have just worked harder? Yet that idea, combined with continuing inequalities, leads to pretty clearly racist places (Is the wealth gap because black people don’t work as hard? Is the incarceration gap because black people commit more crime? How are such beliefs not blatantly racist?). Contrast this with the view that there are policies in place that have continued to contribute to inequality.

Kendi’s book is a long argument that racism remains powerful and the remedy to this, from individuals to communities to government, is to replace racism with anti racism. Throughout the book Kendi recognizes how difficult this is, for racism is powerful, yet he does ends on a hopeful note:

“Believe all is not lost for you and me and our society. Believe in the possibility that we can strive to be antiracist form this day forward. Believe int eh possibility that we can transform our societies to be antiracist from this day forward. Racist power is not godly. Racist policies are not indestructible. Racist inequities are not inevitable. Racist ideas are not natural to the human mind. Race and racism are power constructs of the modern world. . . WHat gives me hope is a simple truism. Once we lose hop, we are guaranteed to lose. But if we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive, a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free” (238).

Overall this book is a wide-ranging and practical work on how to be anti-racist, working towards a future of equity and equality. It is a book that, if you want to speak of Kendi and antiracism (not to mention CRT) you should probably read it. Too many people are saying too many things about people like Kendi without a fair reading (without any reading at all) which is to bear false witness (to lie!). It is especially sad when the people bearing false witness are professing Christians. Rather than buying into the fear and worry, my prayer is for humility, curiosity and confession.

That said, if you want to start reading on the subject of anti-racism from a Christian perspective, I’d suggest reading Jemar Tisby’s book How to Fight Racism first may be a better start. Both these books are ones I believe I will return to often and will continue to think about and wrestle with.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s