An interview with Ibram X. Kendi
DigBoston sat down with Ibram X. Kendi, the author of Stamped from the Beginning, to discuss his new book, How to Be an Antiracist, ahead of his talk at Brookline Booksmith, Aug 28, at 6 pm.
How to Be an Antiracist serves not only as a guide to defining and recognizing racism in our society, but also chronicles Kendi’s own path towards antiracism. The mix of critical self reflection, historical recollection and the precise naming of racist ideas and systems creates a potent call to action for a better, antiracist society.
The title of your book is How to Be an Antiracist—can you define exactly what an antiracist is?
I define an antiracist as someone who is expressing an antiracist idea or supporting an antiracist policy. I believe it is very important to have terminology to define ourselves by what we are, not by what we are not. The ideology behind the saying “I’m not racist’ was popularized first by eugenicists and then Jim Crow-era segregationists and today is still used by white nationalists. I don’t think people realize the term “not racist” has long functioned as a term of denial. It is a defense mechanism that allows people to refuse to recognize the ways in which they are being racist when they are charged with racism.
When someone today says “I’m not racist,” they are connecting themselves to eugenicists, segregationists, and white nationalists. In contrast, antiracism has a very clear definition. An antiracist is someone who believes that no race of people is inferior or superior in anyway—having been raised consuming racist ideas, being antiracist requires constant self-awareness and self-criticism.
You talk about terms like “institutional racism” and “systemic racism” being unconstructive at times because they create a sort of invisible racist boogeyman out of “the system.” What do you think are steps in demystifying these terms?
We first need to define the imbalances in our society and see where the racial inequities exist. In the United States, people in the black community are 25% more likely to be unemployed than white people. This inequity has existed for the last 100 years. So then the question becomes what specific policies have created that inequity? And then the next question comes of who put those policies into play—policy makers. When the conversation centers around what policy is creating racial inequities we can easily pinpoint who created those policies and recognize that policy maker and the effects of their policies make a society and not the other way around.
How do you factor in white fragility when you are thinking about efforts to create an antiracist society as there is such a large portion of the country that has a hard time discussing race?
I am not surprised by white fragility at all. As I’ve stated before, racism is run on a system of denial and the ability of those being racist to not have to recognize their own behavior as racist. By making the term racist a pejorative instead of simply a descriptor—describing when a person is saying something that they think is wrong with a racial group or supporting racist policy—it makes it that much more difficult to have a conversation about race because everyone is on guard trying to avoid being called a racist. I want people to recognize that denial is often a mask for racism and also recognize that confession is the start of a path towards antiracism. Racist is not a fixed identity; it is simply describing what someone is doing in the moment.
On the flip side of that coin, when you talk about your journey towards recognizing your own racism you addressed turning on its head the idea that “black people can’t be racist.” Can you elaborate on that?
A racist idea is believing that there is something wrong with a racial group instead of seeing people as individuals. I myself grew up believing that there was something wrong with black people, that it was laziness that kept us down, and like many in the black middle class it was just more hard work that would uplift us. But that’s racist—the black on black crime of internalized racism is just as harmful to the black community as racism coming from any other community.
The fact of the matter is, there is no color line when it comes to being racist with white people on one side and everyone else on the other. By not seeing each other as individuals, but as part of a racial group with socially constructed characteristics, we lose the ability to recognize behavior as an individual and instead become representatives for our whole race to ourselves and to others.
You centered each chapter around an idea that relates to race, like power, gender, ethnicity, space, etc. and defined that terminology. Do you feel like the terminology we have now to talk about race is comprehensive for the current moment?
Terminology comes from the need to define and understand. When talking about race our terms come from our historical understanding of how the concept was constructed and used to create inequities among different racial groups, which are still present today. My intent with this book is to be as precise as possible when talking about all the intersectionalities of race, so that, for example, when we are talking about the racist ideas that lead to inequalities between white women and black women or Asian women and Latinx women, we can label that for what it is, as gender racism.
Speaking of those intersectionalities, how do you see the movements for feminism and queerness being encompassed in antiracist thought?
Everyone has identity markers like class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and nationality. These different identities intersect to create different racial groups of the same “race.” Black people are not a monolith—you have black women who have a different racial experience than black men. You have the black poor who have a different racial experience than black elites and so on so forth. For a person to truly be antiracist they’re not just saying black people are equal to white people, they’re saying black poor are equal to white poor and black poor are equal to black elites. They’re saying black women are equal to white women and white women are equal to black men and black men are equal to white men and white men are equal to black women.
You also talk about capitalism and racism going hand in hand, having been born with the same self-interest in mind.
I think in order to be truly antiracist you have to be anti-capitalist. The history of capitalism and racism is deeply intertwined—I’m not saying this from a political standpoint; if you look at modern history you can’t separate capitalism from racism in the emergence of the slave trade, in the emergence of slavery and in the reasons why Europe is rich relative to Africa that is poor. You can’t separate the intersection or racism and capitalism from those systems and institutions and from the disparities, both racial and economic, that they brought.
Do you feel like call-out culture and cancelling are effective in trying to educate people about antiracism?
There are two types of people—those who are open-minded to and are willing to learn and those who are stuck in their ways and do not want to learn. So, we should call out the first group because that can potentially lead to progress and a change in thought towards antiracism. But the latter group we should cancel—why should we support someone who is being racist?
In the same vein, you talk about activists being people who have a record of policy change. Would you consider social media social justice warriors to be activists?
I have a very narrow definition of what it means to be an activist, like you said—I believe to be an activist a person who creates an opportunity for power and instigates policy changes. Those who are using their personal and public social media pages to educate people can play an important role in changing people’s minds, but that is not activist. Changing minds is not activist. Changing minds is not a movement.
The closing of your book talked about your family’s struggle with cancer and then subsequently your own with stage four metastatic colon cancer. How did the treatment for cancer and the treatment for racism become intrinsically linked for you?
Typically the way doctors go about treating metastatic cancer is the way in which I think we should go about treating metastatic racism. There is both a local treatment, in which surgeons go in and remove the tumors, which we can understand as racist policies which are causing racial inequities, almost like cancer cells in the body of America. They go in and remove those tumors, but they don’t stop there; they flood the body with chemotherapy, which we can understand as antiracist policy, which we can understand as no lingering cancer cells or racist policy in the body.
They don’t stop there—they watch the body closely to make sure that no cancer cells or tumors reemerge. If there is a recurrence they quickly and aggressively treat. If we were to treat metastatic racism in the way we treat metastatic cancer, we would potentially be able to survive metastatic racism in this country.
IBRAM X. KENDI. BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH, 279 HARVARD ST., BROOKLINE. THU 8. 28, 6PM. UPDATE FROM BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH: This event is now SOLD OUT but a standby line will form at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on the day of the event.
A note from DigBoston Executive Editor Jason Pramas: As the editor responsible for this article, I am writing to personally apologize to Ibram X. Kendi for the appearance of several errors in the text of its print version that were only caught after it went to press. The errors have been corrected here in the digital version and I will endeavor to ensure that such a blunder never happens again on my watch.