Review of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist
Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist achieved widespread critical notice when it appeared in 2019, and its fame and notoriety have increased during the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
Published three years after Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi’s widely acclaimed history of the development of the concept of race and racist ideas in the United States, How to Be an Antiracist is difficult and disturbing to read because of the openness and vulnerability of Kendi’s narrative reflection on his own racism and the uncompromising, honest analysis that he develops on the basis of his self-examination. Kendi forces the reader to critically confront his/her own racial beliefs and attitudes. He beckons us to begin a journey to undo our own racist beliefs and practices, and to become engaged in the struggle to eliminate the societal and cultural racism that surrounds us.
How to Be an Antiracist is in part a memoir that traces the transition that Kendi underwent as he has journeyed from a basketball-loving, low-achieving childhood in Queens, via the predominantly White Stonewall Jackson High School in Prince William County, VA., an undergraduate education in journalism at the historically-Black Florida A&M University, and the successful completion of a PhD in African Studies at Philadelphia’s Temple University, to marriage and the early stages of professional life. This narrative is focused on Kendi’s own evolving experience with and understanding of US racism. His reflection on his individual racialized experience leads to a critical analysis of the nature of contemporary American racism that deals simultaneously with individual racist beliefs and actions and with collective racist thoughts and policies that have been institutionalized at the local, state and national levels. Kendi reflects throughout on his individual racist beliefs and practices, but it is important to note that his analysis is ultimately focused on collective racist beliefs and institutionalized racist practices “that produce and normalize racial inequities.”
The conceptual framework of How to Be an Antiracist depends on a set of binary opposition such as:
RACIST: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.
ANTIRACIST: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions expressing an anti-racist idea.
Kendi argues that all American citizens are, at any particular moment, either racist or antiracist, and that the tendency of most of us to identify ourselves as “ not racist,” “nonracist,” or “color blind” is a strategy that we use to “mask” our own racism. In making this claim, he asserts that all Americans should be held accountable for undoing racism and achieving social justice.
While most antiracist authors and social justice strategists appear to agree with Kendi that it is impossible for Americans to occupy a non-racist, color blind position, many add the proviso that all White Americans are racist by definition because they are members of the dominant race that systematically exploits and oppresses subordinate races, and that Black Americans who do not belong to dominant race cannot be considered racists because they are the victims of white racism.
Kendi rejects the idea that Black Americans cannot be racist, and that White Americans are always racist. He argues that Black Americans who are judges, attorney generals, and in upper level jobs in police and criminal justice departments have the institutional power to oppress members of their own and other racial populations, and that Black Americans in general, and particularly those who have achieved higher status, often share the racist beliefs and practices of the wider (white) society.
Kendi argues that we should not consider the term “racist” as a pejorative condemnation and encourages us instead to realize that “racist” and “antiracist” are descriptive terms that should be applied to what individuals think and do at different times. “THE GOOD NEWS is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities,” he says. “We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist in the next. What we say about race, what we do about race in each moment determines what—not who—we are.” Elsewhere he writes “I used to be a racist most of the time. I am changing. I am no longer identifying with racists by claiming to be ‘not racist.’”
How to Be an Antiracist presents the relationship of Black Americans to American (white) culture and the interaction of Black Americans with White Americans in terms of dueling consciousnesses, a concept that he borrows with slight modification from W. E. B. Dubois’s concept of double consciousness. Dubois argued in 1903 that Black Americans are always inhabited by two consciousnesses, one of which wants to compete with the standards of the greater society, and the other of which feels solidarity and comfort in their own racial or ethnic group. Kendi refers to these consciousnesses as “dueling consciousnesses” because he sees them in the contemporary United States as a competition between the desire to assimilate and the desire to segregate; he maintains that White Americans have dueling consciousnesses as well. Ultimately, Kendi creates a classification of four types of dueling consciousness in the United States: Black Segregationist, Black Assimilationist, White Segregationist, and White Assimilationist. He argues that all four of these types of consciousness are racist in nature because they are based on the false assumption that society consists of separate populations, one of which is culturally and intellectually less worthy than the other.
When he was in the later stages of writing How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi was diagnosed with and treated for fourth stage metastatic cancer. In the book’s concluding chapter, he describes how this experience led him to think about racism and antiracism in terms of a disease metaphor, and he introduces the term “metastatic racism.” (p. 325)
Kendi’s autobiographical narrative and the analytical framework that he develops to explain contemporary American racism demonstrate that the disease of racism has indeed metastasized and spread throughout our cultural and social system. This book explores many of the areas and domains of our national culture and society through which it has diffused, and demonstrates that throughout our national history, most, if not all of the problems that we have faced are tinged, if not permeated with racist thought and policy. At the beginning of this review I described How to Be an Antiracist as a difficult and unpleasant reading experience for most readers. As an “elderly” White Episcopalian who is an aspiring antiracist, reading this book convinces me that it is possible to ameliorate and ultimately eradicate the disease of metastatic racism and that achieving the “Beloved Community” is possible.
This is a profound, hopeful book that should be read by all socially concerned Christians.