Friday, November 08, 2019

Kendi - How to be an antiracist

Ibram Kendi's How to be an antiracist (2019) challenges numerous ideas and terms that are typical to discourse and writing on racism. After establishing the foundation for why antiracism should be the goal, he provides ideas about how we can get there and how we can change the way our society functions so that the disease of racism is eradicated. After reading his book, I dedicate myself to questioning my assumptions, changing my language, and striving to do all I can to be antiracist and to share this commitment with others.

Kendi asserted that racist ideas can be harbored by anyone, a point that I have not previously thought was possible, primarily because I related racism to exercising power over others based on race. Kendi indicated that when racist ideas are held by people of color, they think less of themselves, and when held by White people, they think more of themselves. Racist ideas also have layers that can perpetuate racist beliefs within groups or extend them to intersectional identities such as gender, sexual orientation, class, and more. Kendi asserted that the opposite of racist is not "not racist" but "antiracist." A person who claims to be "not racist" still "believes problems are rooted in groups of people" rather than the antiracist who "locates the roots of problems in power and policies" (locator 149 in Kindle version). Kendi also rejects terms such as institutional, structural or systemic racism, because the adjectives are redundant - each is simply a way racism is expressed. He challenges the idea that anyone can be race neutral or doesn't see race; the reality is too persuasive that race is seen and Kendi believes it should be transparently recognized as a dynamic that impacts all of our lives. Kendi dismisses the idea of "microaggressions," rejecting the idea that any denigration is minor by any reasonable measure.

A common thought expressed by many White and people of color from the 1950s through 1990s, and advocated by W.E.B. Du Bois as early as 1903, was that people of color needed to be uplifted through hard work, aspiration, and right conduct. As an African American youth, Kendi recognized that he bought into this idea but that he now recognizes the racist implications of seeing groups of people as needing to be fixed rather than the policies and practices that guarantee inequity. The idea of uplift is part of the narrative of temporary inferiority that justifies assimilation which is almost as bad as the permanent inferiority embraced by segregationists. Whether segregationist or assimilationist, Kendi asserts that the root problem is self-interest that drives racist power, which includes hoarding wealth and resources in ways that perpetuate an inequitable society.

Kendi spends several chapters exploring racism through lenses of biology, ethnicity, body, culture, behavior, color, class, space, gender, and sexuality, exposing the pervasive influence of racism in all these forms and in their intersections. In "Failure," Kendi indicts those who blame racists for being unaware, belligerent, and hateful by turning the spotlight on the processes of those who seek to be antiracist. He advocates that if the attempts to change minds and hearts are not working, take a critical look at what's not working and find a better way to create change. Creating this change likely includes a long-term commitment to personal and group protests that force racists to change their policies and practices.

"Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas" (locator 308) and requires those dedicated to being antiracist to seek self-awareness, self-criticism, and self-examination. The idea that anyone, regardless of identity, is powerless "underestimates Black people and overestimates White people" (locator 2195), an idea proposed in other language by Dr. Martin Luther Kind, Jr. in 1967 when he said, "As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free" (locator 1636). Kendi comments "...but our generation ignores King's words about the 'problem of power, a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to the preserving of the status quo'" (locator 3257).

Kendi continued with, "The problem of race has always been at its core the problem of power, not the problem of immorality or ignorance" (locator 3257). In order to confront power, he identifies what must be done by antiracists in order to confront and reverse racism in Chapter 17, "Success." He said that, "Racism has always been terminal and curable" (locator 3490). Confronting ignorance and hate and expecting it to shrink is like treating only the symptoms of cancer, rather than the cause. The steps Kendi advocates in order to become an antiracist include (locator 3540 to 3551):

  • Stop using "I'm not racist" or "I can't be racist" as a denial.
  • Admit the definition of racists - someone who supports racist policies and expresses racist ideas.
  • Confess the racist policies you support and racist ideas you express.
  • Accept the source of your racism.
  • Acknowledge the definition of antiracist - someone who is supporting antiracist policies or expressing antiracist ideas.
  • Struggle for antiracist power and policy in your spaces.
  • Struggle to remain at the antiracist intersections where racism is mixed with other bigotries.
  • Struggle to think antiracist ideas.
Antiracist teams should start at the local level and the national and international change will follow. The steps Kendi recommends for teams include (locator 3624 to 3635):
  • Admit racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people.
  • Identify racial inequity in all its intersections and manifestations.
  • Investigate and uncover the racist policies causing racial inequity. Invent or find antiracist policy that can eliminate racial inequity.
  • Figure out who or what group has the power to institute antiracist policy.
  • Disseminate and educate about the uncovered racist policy and antiracist policy correctives.
  • Work with sympathetic antiracist policymakers to institute the antiracist policy.
  • Deploy antiracist power to compel or drive from power the unsympathetic racist policymakers in order to institute the antiracist policy.
  • Monitor closely to ensure the antiracist policy reduces and eliminates racial inequity.
  • When policies fail, do not blame the people. Start over and seek out new and more effective antiracist treatments until they work.
  • Monitor closely to prevent new racist policies from being instituted.
These are the steps Kendi proposes will be effective in arresting the metastatic cancer of racism that impacts everyone. By offering recommendations for personal and collective action, Kendi helps us see a way forward toward an antiracist world where opportunity truly is equitable. While Kendi's ideas have been controversial in some circles, editorial reviews are positive with the Washington Post and Time endorsing Kendi's new take on racism and how to eliminate it as a cancer on our culture.

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