In light of the BLM movement, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi is a book I have seen being recommended on many reading lists so I decided to take the time out to read it. This blog post is by no means an attempt to address every single idea discussed in the book. My main aim is to explore a few topics that I found particularly engaging.
This book provides a lot of information on the history of race and racism, and explains how racism can manifest in many forms. Kendi differentiates between the terms 'racist' and 'antiracist'. He defines a racist as “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea”. An antiracist is defined as “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea”. Initially, I thought this was a very polarising idea, however this book made it clear to me that there is no room for passivity in the fight against racism. This makes ‘antiracist’ a much better term for those that are actively rejecting racist policies and ideas because ‘not racist’ gives people an excuse to be complicit and pretend that racism does not really exist. Fundamentally, Kendi argues that every policy is either racist or antiracist and there is no spectrum.
“There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy.”
Can Black People Be Racist?
One argument that stood out to me was the idea that Black people can also be racist. I am aware that this is still a controversial topic as I have often witnessed people debate this. Kendi argues that stating that Black people cannot be racist removes the responsibility from Black people in positions of power who have enough power to make contributions towards antiracism, yet still promote the same racist policies as their White counterparts. Kendi shares stories of emancipated slaves such as Peter Prioleau, who later went on to own seven slaves, which solidifies the idea that Black people can indeed be racist. This quote from the book summarises it best:
“By this theory, Black people can hate them niggers, value Light people over Dark people, support anti-Latinx immigration policies, defend the anti-Native team mascots, back bans against Middle Eastern Muslims, and still escape charges of racism”
Unfortunately, I do think Kendi fails to address some of the reasoning behind this. For example, maybe the few Black people with enough power to make changes reached their positions through assimilating to Whiteness, as this can often be the case. Alternatively, they may have fears that speaking out against racism could result in them losing their positions. I am not saying that this is right as there have been many people in the public eye that have removed themselves from racist organisations - a well known example being John Boyega who recently withdrew his affiliation with Jo Malone, a company that stole his idea and used it in a campaign. I am simply saying that I can empathise just a little bit. Perhaps we could say that some Black people are being complicit rather than being actively racist - but then some would argue that these are all the same thing.
“To say Black people can't be racist is to say all Black people are being antiracist at all times”
History tells us that this is not true.
Assimilation and Black Excellence
Kendi makes it a point to address past theories on how to eradicate racism. He compares the idea of segregation/separation against integration/assimilation. The integrationist strategy involves White and non-White people operating in the same spaces. However, for many people, “integration (into Whiteness) became racial progress.” It appears that rather than simply co-existing, Black people are often expected to assimilate to Whiteness. An alternative strategy to eradicate racism has been separation, such as separate Black schools and other institutions. However this has not been successful as:
“Whenever Black people gather among themselves, integrationists do not see spaces of Black solidarity created to separate Black people from racism. They see spaces of White hate.”
Following the idea of integration, let's talk about 'Black Excellence'.
In the words of W.E.B Du Bois, “the Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men”. I really wished that by 'exceptional' he meant activists and policy makers, however Du Bois is referring to the ‘Talented Tenth’ of Black men becoming leaders through higher education and academia. This concept suggests that only a fraction of Black men were destined for greatness and they could only reach this potential through traditional education, rather than industrial or manual labour. Not only is Du Bois’ ideology classist, it also displays elements of gender racism - why exactly was exceptionalism only focused on men? It was also believed that the ‘Talented Tenth’ would be granted special privileges as they were contributing to “developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.” These are the ideas of Black exceptionalism that we continue to perpetuate which often have harmful consequences. Du Bois is referring to assimilation and what we now often refer to as Black Excellence.
Despite the fact that Black Excellence can sometimes be positive and uplifting, I often find myself dwelling on the negative aspects of this concept. Firstly, it creates this unnecessary pressure for all of us to be amazing at everything which is just not healthy. Additionally, Black Excellence has this very serious underlying tone of being respectable to the white gaze. It is as if being excellent will somehow persuade racists to stop being racist which is very laughable. Kendi nicely touches on this concept and I must admit the direct nature of this quote did make me laugh just a little bit:
“I may not be White, but at least I am not them niggers”
This line is a perfect summary of what Black Excellence conveys. By defying the stereotypes of Black people being lazy and uneducated, it appears that you are just trying to distance yourself from what the White man would have referred to as "them ni**ers" back in those days (and even presently if I am being completely honest). This thought pattern often reflects self-hate, a topic that Kendi briefly touches on when he explains his past racist thoughts.
Being excellent does absolutely nothing in terms of dismantling racial stereotypes, except maybe occasionally getting the odd comment that you are not like the "others" within your race. If you cannot see the problem with this elitist view, then I genuinely do not know what to tell you at this point. I will allow Kendi's words to explain it instead:
“Every time I say something is wrong with Black people, I am simultaneously separating myself from them, essentially saying "them niggers." When I do this, I am being a racist.”
I do have a minor critique of this book. The title does make it seem like it would be a very practical guide on how to be an antiracist in your everyday life. Instead, it has a more informational tone with nothing that is particularly actionable. I did enjoy the examples used as well as the anecdotes but I feel that the overall solution was that you should be “eliminating racist policies if we ever hope to eliminate racist ideas”. Actively dismantling racist policies in order to be an antiracist sounds great in theory but I do wish the book broke that down into smaller, practical examples of what being an antiracist may look like on a day to day basis.
Overall, I believe Kendi made a very good attempt at simplifying racism. He discussed a lot of historical events and even addressed his own past racism. This book covers so many other areas such as gender racism (the idea of the 'hyperdangerous Black man' and the aggressive Black woman) and class racism (‘ghetto Blacks’ and ‘White trash’) that are worth reading about. I can confidently say that this book does allow for introspection, so if you are trying to evaluate how you may be contributing to racist ideas then I would definitely recommend starting with this book.
If you have read How to Be an Antiracist, let me know your thoughts either in the comments under this blog post or in our DM's!
Let’s end with a quote:
"All forms of racism are overt if our antiracist eyes are open to seeing racist policy in racial inequity." - Ibram X Kendi
Written by: Honey Ajisefini (Co-founder of The Black & Forth Platform)
If you would like to read more about the Talented Tenth and W.E.B Du Bois here are a couple of links: