Saturday, July 04, 2020

Ibram X. Kendi's How to Be an Antiracist

Ibram X. Kendi's How to Be an Antiracist is part manifesto, part memoir, and part national history. His discussion is interspersed with personal reflections that repudiate not only his own past words and actions, but also his parents and others. He is unsparing when it comes to becoming antiracist ("I arrived at Temple as a racist, sexist homophobe").

He argues that you can either be racist or antiracist. If you claim neutrality, you are leaving racist structures in place, which is therefore racist. And you can move in and out of the two--it's not a permanent state, but rather a continuous aspiration. For example, if you claim to hire based only on merit, you are failing to understand that you cannot avoid seeing race in ways that society has taught you. Pretending not to see race when you clearly do is a problem--your biases will affect you while you pretend they don't exist. It is such a simple yet powerful argument (and, in fact, so perfectly applicable to academia).

He contrasts antiracists with assimilationists and segregationists. Both of the latter are racist because they both assume a hierarchy of racial value. In one, you try to be like the "best" group and in the other you remain forever separate. And both ignore the fact that what are commonly believed to be inherent characteristics of different racial groups is in fact just the product of policies. Antiracists focus on the policies. Violence comes from poverty, not skin color, and policies can lift people out of poverty.

Each chapter is a theme: body, space, sexuality, and many others. What emerges is the tremendous complexity behind antiracism, which requires constant rethinking of long-held assumptions and beliefs. Further, it is a mistake to think of antiracist progress without considering the accompanying progress of racists, who find ever new ways to subvert antiracist efforts, like ubiquitous use of the term "reverse discrimination" or "all lives matter."

He ends on a positive note, amazingly enough with a comparison to his own battle with cancer. Racism is a cancer, which is nasty and strong but still can be defeated. But it's hard even for the most determined, because it involves pushing back against centuries of racist power structures.


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