How to Be an Antiracist

By Ibram X. Kendi. One World, 2019. 320 pages. $27/hardcover; $13.99/eBook.

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As the only Black girl in the public school I attended, I thought racism was my problem. I didn’t have the words to identify the racism I experienced. Oh sure, I knew that the other kids were being mean when they made fun of my hair. But I didn’t know why they were being mean. I thought there was something wrong with my hair. I carried these feelings of inferiority with me to high school and college, where I slowly began to unravel the mystery of why those kids were mean to me. I started reading books about racism and learned what the actual problem was.

Those books saved my soul; for learning about racism, I found, is a spiritual process. Racism crushes your soul, tells you not to talk back and just take it. Anti-racism is a spiritual process that helps you find your spirit and say, “No!” Since humans have answered many of the questions of the universe (for example, why the earth revolves around the sun or why the sky is blue), many people claim we have no more use for spirituality. But now the biggest mystery is how humans relate to one another. This is what we need spirituality for. And spirituality will give us the courage for this work. And we’ll need it because we have to start this work within ourselves.

As Black poet Audre Lorde says in Sister Outsider:

The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors’ tactics, the oppressors’ relationships.

Quakers refer to “holding in the light,” not “holding in the dark.” Maybe we need to rethink this, or at least add to our thinking. Because we miss so much by focusing on the light and not the shadow that it creates. In the shadows, we can find the oppressor within. In my own way, I tried to fit in with the oppressor: for example, straightening my hair.

Instead I could have been fighting back against the racist behavior I was experiencing by behaving in an anti-racist way. And that is the crux of this book. We are either racist or anti-racist. The place to examine this dichotomy is within ourselves, according to Kendi. Only then will we be equipped to cope with the racism of the outside world. 

To that end, I asked two White Friends to read this book and share their reactions with me. Here is what they said.

So many unchallenged societal assumptions are discussed: the weak deadbeat Black man, the single Black mother as incompetent parent, Black children as underachieving, Black space as dangerous, inequality resulting from problematic Black people. It is anti-racist to see that loud Black people should be in a group with loud people, not in a group with all Blacks as if that is an inherent flaw of a whole race. He sees racism as a cancer that cannot be cured by . . . assimilation, moral persuasion, or education. Present approaches boil down to the anti-racist idea that racial groups are equal and the only thing inferior about Black people is their opportunities.

The second Friend, also a White woman and a lesbian, responded this way:

Professor Kendi blew up my definition of racism by calling himself a racist. Isn’t racism prejudice plus power? And don’t White people have control and power? So how can a Black man be a racist?

For all my life, I have worked for racial justice, and for some of the most recent years, I kept a journal of every racist thought that wandered through my mind, allowing myself to let them rise, instead of slamming my brain shut.

Kendi talks about his battle with cancer, which can be a metaphor for combating racism. We can look at racism as a problem much the same as a cancer that needs to be gotten rid of at its source. And that source is within us all. That source allows us to enact laws that block the progress of Black and Brown people in this country. That source determines how we vote and how we treat each other. The question is how do we use Spirit to be courageous, so that we become not just “not racist” but actively anti-racist?

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