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The Book Show #1664 - Ibram X. Kendi

Book Cover for How to be an Antiracist and photo of Ibram X. Kendi
Author photo by Jeff Watts

Joe Donahue: Racism intersects with class and culture and geography and even changes the way we see and value ourselves. In his new book “How to Be an Antiracist”, Professor Ibram X. Kendi takes readers through a widening circle of antiracist ideas that look to help us see all forms of racism clearly understand their poisonous consequences and work to oppose them in our systems, in ourselves. Ibram X. Kendi is the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. He's also a columnist at the Atlantic and author of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America”, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction. His latest is “How to Be an Antiracist”. 

And it's a pleasure to welcome Ibram X. Kendi to this week's Book Show.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi: I'm happy to be on the show.

You have been working on this topic for a while in this book, what did you set out to do?

In my last book “Stamped from the Beginning” I distinguish this long historical clash between racist and antiracist ideas, between ideas suggesting that there was something wrong or even right with certain racial groups, racist ideas, and antiracist ideas suggesting that there was nothing wrong or even right with any racial groups that were that we were all equals. And so the more I talked about “Stamped from the Beginning”, the more I talked about being antiracist. And the more I talked about being antiracist, the more people were like, tell me more about that antiracism stuff because I've been taught, many Americans have been taught, to be not racist. So I want to learn more about how to be antiracist, which ultimately led me to write this book and, and I specifically wanted to demonstrate that really, the opposite of racist is not not racist, the opposite of racist is indeed antiracist.

So, let us begin there with two definitions because you argue in the book, that for us to do this and to fully understand it, we have to go back to a proper usage of the term “racism”. So let us talk about that. And then ultimately, a definition for “antiracist”.

We've been debating the term racism for quite some time and, and many people have been led to believe that it is a tattoo that it's a fixed category. Worried that it's in one's bones or even in one heart. But in fact, I define the term racist based on one's actions, if they're expressing racist ideas, or if they're supporting racist policies by doing nothing or by actively campaigning for them, then they're being racist. But in the next moment, human beings can say something that's antiracist, they can express notions of racial equality. And so in that next moment, they're being antiracist. It's not fixed. It's literally a reflection of what we're doing. In the moment. It is indeed a descriptive term, not a racial slur, not an attack describes what we're doing.

The clearest lines in the book is “denial is the heartbeat of racism”. Let us focus on that and ask why denial is so quick. I mean, I guess that's obvious, because we don't want to think of ourselves in that way. But then how does it become the heartbeat of racism?

First and foremost, in our time when someone is charged with saying something that is racist or even doing something that is racist, the flippant response is, I am not racist. And what we do now, what many Americans do now, is indicative of what Americans have always done. And so slaveholders made the case that slavery was not a racist system. They didn't use the term racist then. But Jim Crow segregationists made the same case. White supremacists today who even go into Walmart and mass murder dozens of people claim that they are not racist. In order for racism to live, in order for racism to harm, people must deny that their ideas are racist and that their policies are racist. And that has essentially been its history from the beginning.

You say something very early in the book. You say it's possible if we overcome our cynicism about the permanence of racism? And you're talking about taking this grueling journey to do away with it. I just am interested in that cynicism. How did we become so cynical?

First and foremost, the persistence, the pervasiveness of racism, the power of racist ideas and policies. It's very difficult for even the most well-meaning people to imagine a day in which America is not still infected with racism. We literally, for instance, have as I talked about in the book, as somebody who's dealt with metastatic cancer, we have a metastatic racism problem that's really touched every part of the body politic. And I think it's very difficult for people to believe that we can survive it.

Does that cancer go into remission occasionally, because it's not in the headlines every day as it is now? Or is it always there?

I think historically it has always been there. I think at times, what we've done is we've treated symptoms, as opposed to attacked the tumor cells themselves, attacked the source of racial inequities themselves. And so obviously, if we're fundamentally attacking or treating the symptoms, America, the body politic, the people are going to feel better. But what's going to happen when you don't treat it when you only treat the symptoms, the cells are going to grow and it's going to come back even worse.

We've been talking a little bit just so far in our conversation about definitions. How important are those definitions and understanding those as we move forward?

Well, let's think about it. So if we have a clear definition of a racist idea, and I define a racist ideas, is any idea that suggests a racial group is better or worse, superior or inferior to another racial group? And if we say something that is racist, and we realize it for ourselves because we have a definition of a racist idea, or if someone realizes it for us, we're able to assess ourselves. Like definitions give us the ability to assess whether our ideas are racist or even antiracist. Without definitions, how can we truly assess ourselves? How can we grow? How can we strive to be antiracist? What racists have long done is they have constantly shifted the definition of racist to exclude and exonerate them. We need clear, precise and set definitions in order to really make some change.

You lay this out in such a beautiful, thoughtful way. But the concept is very simple, isn't it? I mean, it's just treating people like human beings.

It is very simple and that's the irony is I think, the problem and the solutions are simple. The problem is you have all of these racial inequities. The problem is you have all these racist ideas that are justifying those inequities. The problem is that people can't see the real problem, which is racist policies, which are indeed causing the racial inequities. The solution then, is for us to essentially shed ourselves of those racist ideas. So we can see that the problem is racist policies, so that we can replace them with antiracist policies so that we can have racial equity, so that we can treat people equitably and see people equitably.

Ibram X. Kendi is the author of “How to Be an Antiracist” the book is published by One World. In your book, you look at how we view this, then it really goes to everything. So racist and antiracist affects power, biology, ethnicity, culture, class behavior, gender, space, sexuality. That idea that it affects everything is really important too, right? That everything that we think of is impacted by both racist and antiracist insights.

And I would actually say just to be even more precise that when it comes to ways in which we understand human beings, particularly human groups, and the ways in which we distinguish human groups, race does affect everything. And so when we think of how we distinguish human groups, we distinguish them by biology, by ethnicity, by class, by gender, by sexuality, by behavior. I wanted to sort of show how an antiracist distinguishes or doesn't distinguish human groups based on those many different frameworks.

When it comes to color. How should we view that to be an antiracist? How do we view color?

so I think to be an antiracist is to look at all of the different shades within humanity from light to dark, and not standardize a particular shade as the most beautiful, to not stereotype particular shades as having a particular set of behavioral characteristics. And so to see that difference as on the same level, to look at our own shade, and understand our shade is beautiful. And to look at other shades and see those other shades is as beautiful too. To look at our own shade and see our shade is ugly. And to look at those other shades and see them as ugly too. You know what truly makes the racial groups in all of their differences equal are the imperfections.

Put even more simply just don't judge right?

Precisely and we can judge individuals my wife, my friends, they'll judge my individual traits and they'll tell you about them all day long. And they'll tell you all of the negative things that I do and all the positive things I would hope they would also tell you about. But when we when it comes to judging groups, that's where we fall into problems. And when we talk about inequities between groups, and when we say that those inequities are not the result of policies, and we say they’re the result of people what we're doing is we're judging a particular group as inferior. What we're doing is expressing racist ideas.

We were talking about denial earlier and this idea of just denying the fact that you're a racist. The other thing that we have seen most recently, and of course it's gone on forever, but most recently is then you call the other person a racist. Okay, well, you called me a racist. You're racist. Where do we even think that gets us? And then how do we start to break that down to a point where there's understanding on both sides?

I think first and foremost, it's a reflection that we are arguing over the definition, right? Because if two people who are saying two completely different things, if both of them are arguing that the other is racist, then that means they have two different definitions of the term racist. And so when someone calls me racist, as people normally do, as somebody who's speaking out against racism, as somebody who's saying that the problem is racist policies, not people, people say I'm racist. So when people do that, I asked them, how do they define the term? And this isn't going on a long soliloquy. I'm saying how do they define the term in a way we can put in a dictionary because I define racist as someone who is expressing a racist idea or someone who's supporting a racist policy by their action or inaction. And I say based on that definition, what you just did was racist. We should sort of understand where this type of thinking comes from. And I think many Americans don't realize that white nationalists in particular have been making the case for decades that when a white person for instance is called a racist, what the person who is calling them racist is doing is attacking them. To give an example, two years ago Richard Spencer helped organize the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which of course lead to violent clashes between protesters, and he's known as coining the term the “alt right”. He once said that racist isn't a descriptive term. Racist is a pejorative term. It is the equivalent of someone saying I don't like you, and many Americans who are opposed to white nationalists agree with that idea that when somebody calls me racist, it's not a descriptive term. They're literally attacking me. No, it is a descriptive term with a very precise definition. Just like saying someone is angry is a descriptive term with a very precise definition.

You write about this, but this is something that you had to deal with too, right? You had to deal with white people with understanding and not hating white people.

My story that I that I share and “How to Be an Antiracist”, is largely a story in which I was taught, particularly as a teenager, that the racial problem was not racist power and policy, that the racial problem was black people. And then ultimately, when I was in college, I was led to believe that the racial problem is actually both black people and white people. And so I felt that there was something wrong with both white people and black people. And then ultimately, I realized that there was nothing wrong with any racial group of people. If there was something wrong with racial groups it was that they were racist. And so to give an example, the only thing wrong with black people is that we think something is wrong with black people. And the only thing extraordinary about white people is that they think something is extraordinary about white people. And ultimately, I realized that I wanted to join the struggle where I wanted to be an antiracist, and to be an antiracist I needed to stop trying to figure out what was wrong with particular racial groups and start figuring out what was wrong with our policies.

And when you say policies, this gets cultural too, right? I mean, this goes to what we watch, what we read, what we see. It's everything.

It is I mean, so we can think of a policy as any measure that governs people, whether written or unwritten. So we have policies in our homes and our neighborhoods and our institutions, in our states in our nations, and when we think of why there are inequities between groups, that's the source. Because policies govern groups. It governs large numbers of people, even small numbers of people. And if we truly believe that these groups of people are truly equal, and there's all these inequities between them, then the source must be policy, some of which we can't see. But that ultimately should be our job of trying to sort of see them and eliminate them.

Feel free to tell me this is a silly question. But if you look at a television show, like Friends, you have six white people sitting around in a cafe talking. It's a funny show. It was a successful program. And yet you can look at it and say, why are there no characters of color in that program? Is that racist? How should I feel about that? If I want to be antiracist? How should I feel about having enjoyed that program that is predominantly about white affluent young people?

Not to get too complex, but it really has to do with if there was a presence of people of color would you have enjoyed the show as much? That's the first question. Another question is, is this part of a larger pattern of shows on TV, where it's pretty much lily white? And so I think those are the types of questions that I would be asking. And I think obviously, the second answer is yes, there's so many shows, particularly during the time in which that that show was airing, in which it was pretty much everyone was white. And so it sort of normalized whiteness. It didn't recognize really the diversity of our country.

Especially when it's taking place in a major city. So when you think about how we then should consume that, when it comes to these cultural moments, what is our responsibility?

I mean, I think we're living in a time Now obviously, in which we have so many people and so many voices and so many movements, who are not standing for this continuing maintenance of not only white supremacy, but even standardizing whiteness, even a show or a place or even a conference in which it's only sort of white people speaking, it's only sort of white people in that space. And so what we're seeking to do, I think what antiracists are seeking to do is to get the media networks, is to get everyday people to desegregate, to recognize and appreciate difference and diversity and to normalize that, right? Because what has been the norm for so long has been white people in white cultures, and not necessarily the inclusion of other peoples and other cultures in this country.

In the release of this book, you've made headlines saying that the president of the United States embodies nearly every aspect of a racist. I don't think there are many people that would, you know, find no surprise in that, but as we talk about culture and we talk about our responsibilities, how do we move away from that moment and to embrace what you're talking about and to more fully understand, to fully understand those definitions in a way that we see this bully pulpit not being accepted.

So as you know, I opened the book, talking about the term “not racist”. Right. And I specifically talk about the president who has said that I am the least racist person anywhere in the world who said I'm not racist, repeatedly. And the reason why I talk about that is because for Americans who have a problem with him, saying despite what he has said and did as president and even before being president, the question for me is, are you doing the same thing? Are you using the same terminology to define yourself as not racist? Whenever someone is charging you with saying or doing something that's racist? How are you responding? Because what an antiracist will do is take the very simple definition, apply it to that idea, and ask the question, well, is what I said racist? And if it is, then admit it, and then after admitting it, seeking to change, seeking to figure out, okay, where did that come from? Seeking to be a different person, because really being an antiracist is a constant struggle. It is an ongoing process, and it's very difficult to do. It's much easier to sit here and be racist and constantly deny it.

So then that brings us to and that's why I keep coming back to this how we are to navigate this. If we look at someone and have a friend who is a Trump supporter, how broad a brush should we paint them? If they are a fervent supporter of the president, do we say, Okay, if we are saying that the president is racist, does that make that supporter racist?

So, as I stated, based on the definition, it’s somebody who is expressing racist ideas or supporting racist policies through their actions or inactions. And so somebody who is supporting any politician who is pushing policies that are recreating or reproducing racial inequity, as they're supporting that person, they're being racist. If they are repeating that person's racist ideas, as they repeat those ideas they’re being racist. And so you know, I again, I'm taking the definition in public to that person and saying yes, if they're doing those things that they're being racist too.

Is that inaction in and of itself an action?

Yes. Just like somebody who doesn't vote. That's an action.

Right. Right.

Oh, there, there are political movements. There are campaigns right now. There are organizations right now that are being organized in finance to try to get people to not vote because they recognize how it's going to impact the presidential election next year. It's the same thing too what racist ideas do to people in the face of racial inequity, is it causes them to do nothing. If I feel like slavery should be should exist, because I believe that black people are the cursed descendants of Ham, I'm going to do nothing. If I believe that black neighborhoods are dangerous, black people are dangerous. And I see that black people are 40% of the incarcerated population. I'm going to do nothing.

The thing I'm left with after reading your book is that I want to be so understanding and careful. And I guess, to bring it to the next step. And you've said it several times during our conversation of, of keep asking yourself those questions. Are you still asking yourself questions?

Oh, without? Yes.

Without question.

Yes. And I suspect, I will be asking myself questions for the rest of my life. And because one of the ways I compare it to is, you know, in the book, in “How to Be an Antiracist”, it's almost like an addiction. We're addicted to racist ideas. It is America's common sense. It's almost like a personality construct, you know, that we realized in adulthood, I don't want to be that way anymore. And with those types of things, we don't just wake up and decide that we've overcame it. Like we literally have to actively seek to be different every day of our lives.

Being different and taking those actions and always questioning, it puts it into a conversation, that if we can't agree on that definition, right, then we're never going to find that common ground. And I guess, which is a long way of asking of how optimistic are you that we can find that common ground?

Well, I'm optimistic, partly because I feel like we have to be optimistic in order to do the work to find that common ground, in order to build an antiracist America. But at the same time, it's going to be an uphill battle, because so many people are obviously in denial, and refused to strive to be a different type of person. And part of the reason why they have succumbed to racist ideas, is because they actually think it is in their own self-interest. And I think that's one of the greatest misnomers about racism, particularly members of the white middle class, and white working class, and white impoverished people is that they somehow think a racist society is better for them. And indeed a racist society is better for them than for people of color. But the question is, is a racist society better for them than an antiracist society, a society in which we not only have eliminated racism, but we've also eliminated all of the bigotries that constantly feed racism. And we have been able to truly create a society with equal opportunity across the board. And that's a very different type of society. And it's a society where I suspect most people would gain as opposed to lose, but people have been misled into believing that it is better for them. So like in 1860, when there were 5 million poor white people in the south who were taught that slavery was better for them, was it really better for them? It wasn't

If, in reading your book, we look to those definitions, and as you, as you said a moment ago, you ask yourself that question, and you come up with the answer of Yes. Okay, what I just did, or what I'm doing is racist. What's the next step besides improving in apology and reconciliation in making that right?

So it really depends if we're walking down the street. And we feel fear from an unknown young black male, that is essentially as being racist. And so obviously, we can acknowledge that. If we didn't do anything to that young black male, I don't necessarily think we have to walk up to him and say, oh, excuse me, I'm sorry for you know, stereotyping you. But of course when that next young black male walks down the street, we can be different, and we can struggle and strive to be different each day. Obviously, if we say something to someone that that person charges as being racist, or we recognize it is racist of course, it's important for us to apologize for them to acknowledge our fault, and to strive to be different with that person. Just as if we realize we've supported a political candidate, we supported a policy that is engineering racial inequity. Once we realize that we obviously need to give up our support for that policy or even that powerful person, and then be a part of the movement against that policy, or powerful person.

Abraham x. Kennedy's new book is “How to Be an Antiracist” the book is published by One World. We enjoy hearing from our listeners about our shows. You can email us at book@wamc.org. You can listen again to this or find past Book Shows via podcast or on wamc.org. Bookmark us for next week, and thanks for listening. For the Book Show, I'm Joe Donahue.

Originally aired as The Book Show #1624.

Joe talks to people on the radio for a living. In addition to countless impressive human "gets" - he has talked to a lot of Muppets. Joe grew up in Philadelphia, has been on the area airwaves for more than 25 years and currently lives in Washington County, NY with his wife, Kelly, and their dog, Brady. And yes, he reads every single book.
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