I picked up How to Be an Antiracist almost immediately after I finished Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. They are very different in approach. Stamped from the beginning is more academic, much longer, and more historical. How to be an Antiracist is much shorter, more personal and, in a helpful way, not academic.
Despite it being shorter and less academic, I think this is a book I am going to need to read again, while I doubt I will re-read Stamped from the Beginning. How to be an Antiracist is making subtle changes to the recent Critical Race Theory informed definitions of racism. And while I think I mostly agree with Kendi’s critiques, I also think I need to both re-read this book to be sure I understand what he is doing, and read some others responding to him to make sure I am not missing some of the implications of his critiques.
At the most basic, Kendi is rejecting the prejudice plus power definition of racism. At the same time, he is rejecting racist as a descriptor of a person. He wants racist to be the descriptor of the idea or action. “A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” Similarly, “A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups.” In another place, “What is racism? Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities…Racial inequity is when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing.”
Kendi uses the metaphor of racism not as an identity (or tattoo), you either are or are not racist, but a sticky name tag that you put on and take off. He is unequivocal that anyone can express racist ideas or perform racist actions. And he is not at all rejecting the concept of racism as a systemic reality. He does not like the term systemic racism (because it is too vague). He wants to concentrate on ‘racist policies.’
A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. By policy, I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people. There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.
There will, I think, be several White people that are opposed to the Critical Race Theory line of thinking about racism that wants to embrace a part of Kendi’s point. They will like that anyone can express racist ideas or actions. But will not understand Kendi’s more significant point that the movement to antiracism is rooted in the empowerment of Black and other minorities. Kendi’s position is not that Blacks can be racist against Whites, but that Blacks can be racist against other Black people. Kendi is not empowering the idea of ‘reverse racism’ but expanding racism to included Black people being racist against other Black people or other minorities.
Throughout How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi talks about three approaches. In general, people are or have been, segregationists, assimilationists, or antiracists. Segregationists want to maintain separate racial hierarchies. Assimilationists wish to break down legal segregation, but also do not go far enough in breaking down the internal understanding of racial superiority. Assimilationists want acceptance and often are willing to have either partial approval or behavior-based acceptance of some, as opposed to all. In Kendi’s approach, segregationists and assimilationists are both forms of racism. It is only antiracists that are focused not just on legal segregation and discrimination, but also on internal feelings of superiority or inferiority that move society beyond racism.
Antiracism, like feminism in its ideals, is not about reversing the patriarchy or racial hierarchy, but about equality. To be antiracist in Kendi’s ideal means to not only be opposed to racism and for racial equality, but also to be against division based on, “gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, skin color, nationality, and culture, among a series of other identifiers.” To be antiracist means that you are also an antisexist, against religious discrimination, against xenophobia, etc.
Kendi is also not interested in suasion.
The original problem of racism has not been solved by suasion. Knowledge is only power if knowledge is put to the struggle for power. Changing minds is not a movement. Critiquing racism is not activism. Changing minds is not activism. An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change. If a person has no record of power or policy change, then that person is not an activist.
When I say this book is personal, I mean that. Kendi uses his own life primarily as an example of moving from racism to antiracism. He talks about how he, at one point, had adopted the racist ideas against other Black people that were common at the time and won a speech competition by reciting them. He talks about anger and hatred against White people for both the historical harm and the continued indifference to racism. He talks about his own internalized sexism and homophobia. In each of these areas and more, he came to realized that a sense of superiority or alienation, no matter how large or small, perpetuates differences and violates the antiracist ideal.
The end of the book is the most personal. Kendi recounts how soon after they were married, his wife developed breast cancer. Together they walked through that cancer and instead of being newlyweds and she starting her medical career after 12 years of preparation to become a doctor, she became a cancer patient. And then not long after his wife was cancer-free, he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.
Cancer becomes the metaphor for racism at the end. Racism has embedded itself in our society. It is spreading and distorting culture and if it is not rooted out, not just in the racial aspects, but the sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc., it will continue to metastasize and transform. According to an interview on NPR I heard last week, his cancer is in remission for now, but he has a very high likelihood of reoccurrence, and he is not fooling around because he is not sure how long he will be alive to oppose racism.