Ibram X. Kendi is a black man and an award-winning scholar who’s studied the history of racist ideas. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that Kendi, by virtue of his identity and life experiences, couldn’t be racist himself.
In his 2019 book, How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi doesn’t just upend this assumption — he obliterates it with an unflinching examination of the racist ideas and beliefs he previously held, before embracing antiracist values and views.
He writes about once believing that education and hard work would “uplift” black people, no matter the policies that specifically made such success improbable for many black Americans. He confesses to internalizing racist ideas about black youth behavior as a teen, only to realize that the “mind can never be antiracist” when it thinks there is something wrong with an entire racial group.
Kendi’s surprising, arguably risky self-critical approach illustrates how easily racist thoughts take root and how they’re linked to policies that create harmful social, economic, cultural, and political disparities. One reason racism persists is because most of us cannot see as clearly as Kendi how the mind — and body politic — casually harbors racist ideas.
Kendi argues that without the capacity for honest self-reflection and critical thinking, we’ll remain a nation of Americans who, like President Trump, swear they “don’t have a racist bone” in their body all while racism and white supremacy persist unchecked, destroying communities and lives.
“I wanted to convey that this sort of striving to be antiracist is an ongoing journey.”
As the public searches for fresh answers about how to end institutional racism in the wake of George Floyd‘s death, who died after an officer kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes, it should turn to Kendi’s book for essential insight. Using his own personal evolution as a guide, Kendi lays out the steps we can all take toward confronting the racist ideas we’ve held and what’s required of us to become antiracist instead.
“I think first and foremost I wanted to convey that this sort of striving to be antiracist is an ongoing journey,” says Kendi. “I realized that in many ways my sort of story or journey, tracks the journey that many people have gone through or are going through … I wanted to model for people what each and every one of us can do and should do in terms of how deeply critical we need to be of ourselves.”
Below are six steps you can follow:
1) Understand the definition of racist.
Conversations about racism often suffer when participants can’t define the meaning of the word. Merriam-Webster defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Few people would admit that definition reflects their views but nevertheless consciously or unwittingly believe in or endorse racist ideas.
Kendi goes further, defining the word racist as: “One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” This incisive definition forces the reader to hold themselves accountable for their ideas and actions.
Racism is death. Antiracism is life.
— Ibram X. Kendi (@DrIbram) August 4, 2019
An antiracist, writes Kendi, is “One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”
2) Stop saying “I’m not racist.”
It’s not enough to say, “I’m not racist,” and often it’s a self-serving sentiment. Kendi says people constantly change the definition of what’s racist so it doesn’t apply to them. If you’re a white nationalist who’s not violent, says Kendi, then you might see the Ku Klux Klan as racist. If you’re a Democrat who thinks there’s something culturally wrong with black people, then racists to you might be people who are Republicans.
By reflexively defining yourself as not racist, or beyond racism’s firm grip, you’re making it impossible to see how your own ideas, thoughts, and actions could be indeed racist. Moreover, being antiracist means moving beyond the “not racist” defense and instead embracing and articulating decidedly antiracist views and beliefs.
So, for example, if you’re a white liberal who considers herself “not racist” but you refuse to send your child to a local public school because the population is predominantly African American, that choice is racist. The antiracist position would be to at least consider enrolling your child and/or learning about the disparities and inequities affecting that school in order to fight them.
3) Identify racial inequities and disparities.
Racism yields racial inequities and disparities in every sector of private and public life. That includes in politics, health care, criminal justice, education, income, employment, and home ownership. Being antiracist means learning about and identifying inequities and disparities that give, in particular, white people, or any racial group, material advantages over people of color.
“What an anti-racist does first and foremost is identify racial inequities.”
When Social Security was created in 1935, for example, it excluded domestic and agricultural workers, the majority of whom were black. While the Social Security Administration denies racial bias was a factor in that decision, it still meant that black workers had less opportunity over the course of decades to accumulate savings and wealth compared to white workers. Other policies that disproportionately provided “tax-funded wealth-building opportunities” to white Americans produced similar results for black Americans.
“What an anti-racist does first and foremost is identify racial inequities,” says Kendi.
So a racist analysis would ascribe poor or worse outcomes for black Americans to the group’s behavior or characteristics. An antiracist analysis would make clear that the problem is not the group, but the policies that put racial groups at a distinct disadvantage.
4) Confront the racist ideas you’ve held or continue to hold.
Once you’ve begun identifying racial disparities, examine whether your own views, beliefs, or voting patterns have justified racial inequality.
If you’re the parent who won’t send a child to a predominantly black school, consider how that choice influences your views on discipline policies and charter schools, policy issues that are deeply intertwined with race and racism. Do you vote for school board or city council candidates who don’t want to address educational disparities or actually work against local advocates trying to increase educational equity? Do you know that funding policies affect how resources are allocated to schools and why those practices can create racial disparities? To many people, these realities probably seem disconnected from whether or not they’re racist, but Kendi argues that remaining ignorant about them, or declining to change policies that produce disparities, is not an option for someone who wants to be antiracist.
Kendi’s own journey demonstrates that people can hold racist ideas without realizing they’re biased — and while they embrace ideas that are antiracist. If you don’t know whether your beliefs or views are racist, listen to frontline racial justice advocates, activists, and organizations that have outlined antiracist positions and policies. Let that listening prompt deeper reflection about why you’ve believed in certain ideas.
5) Understand how your antiracism needs to be intersectional.
Kendi argues that racist ideas and policies target many different people within racial groups. A policy that creates inequality between white and Native American people, for example, also yields inequality between white men and Native American women. If one believes that black men are superior to black women, then that person won’t be able to see how certain ideas and policies disproportionately affect black women in harmful ways.
Because race intersects with multiple aspects of people’s identities, including their gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, it’s imperative to use an intersectional approach when being antiracist.
6) Champion antiracist ideas and policies.
One cannot strive to be antiracist without action, and Kendi says that one way to act is by supporting organizations in your community that are fighting policies that create racial disparities. You can volunteer for or fund those organizations. Kendi also recommends using one’s power or getting into a position of power to change racist policies in any setting where they exist — school, work, government, and so on. The point is to commit to some form of action that has the potential to change racist policies.
“If a person does nothing in the face of racial inequities that are pervasive, if they don’t challenge them, what are they doing?” From the @nytimes, a profile of #NBAwards Winner Ibram X. Kendi, whose new book, HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST, comes out 8/13. https://t.co/XExDQ14u6B
— National Book Foundation (@nationalbook) August 8, 2019
Kendi realizes the risk of openly discussing one’s own racist ideas or beliefs, and knows that vulnerability can be weaponized against someone. He also has a unique vantage point on this question.
“As someone who studies racist ideas and upwards of 500 years of people weaponizing racist ideas … no matter what antiracists say or do, racists are going to figure out a way to weaponize their words and their deeds against them,” he says.
When racists criticize America—namely people of color + our spaces—racists call it preaching facts. When antiracists criticize America—namely racist policies and ideas—racists call it preaching hate.
They say, “love it or leave it,” as they refuse to love us or leave us alone.
— Ibram X. Kendi (@DrIbram) July 28, 2019
Given that inevitability, Kendi believes in the power of being vulnerable as an antiracist, because it gives the listener an opportunity to be similarly capable of self-critique.
“There are many Americans who believe sincerely that they’re not racist,” he says.
Kendi’s hope is that they’ll be open to recognizing the ways in which they’re racist if others around them show them what that looks like.
UPDATE: June 2, 2020, 9:30 a.m. PDT This story was originally published in 2019, and updated in 2020.