Media and Reviews September 2019

Book Review: How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi's much-anticipated second book, How to Be An Antiracist, hit shelves across the world last month.

When I sat down to write this book review, I originally intended to write a straight-forward, academic-style book review, like the ones so many of us have written for a graduate seminar. As I began writing and brainstorming, I realized this would not be the sincerest approach. I did not read this book like that- this book felt different. It felt different, one, because of Dr. Kendi’s always personal, self-reflective writing-style, (one many of us were introduced to in Stamped From the Beginning),[1] but also because this book was written by a mentor, colleague, and friend.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is an award-winning author, professor, and the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. This semester, I will be entering my fourth year working for Dr. Kendi as his research and teaching assistant. In this capacity, I have witnessed Dr. Kendi’s personal strength as well as his unrelenting dedication to building an antiracist America. Always generous with his time, resources, and knowledge, Dr. Kendi is not just a National Book Award-winning author, but also a tireless educator.

As I reflected on How to Be An Antiracist, I couldn’t help but think of how this book came to be and how many hours he poured into his latest work. How, while writing, he continued to be there for his students like myself, and how he continued to provide thought-provoking courses at American University. After reading How to Be An Antiracist, his efforts in this regard become even more impressive.

Image 1: Dr. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist hit shelves around the world last month.

In the book’s later chapters, Dr. Kendi reveals that in the early months of 2018 he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.[2] While writing How to Be An Antiracist, Dr. Kendi continued to teach, give speeches across the country, run the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, and ultimately defeat stage 4 colon and liver cancer. Dr. Kendi is a modest man, so I’ll say it: that’s pretty damn impressive, and inspiring. But what may be most inspiring, actually, is what fills the pages of How to Be An Antiracist.

One of the most moving portions of Kendi’s new work comes in the form of a metaphor. A metaphor where he draws parallels between his, and all of our, battle with cancer and our battle with racism. Kendi says, “our World is suffering metastatic cancer. Stage 4. Racism has spread to nearly every part of the body politic, intersecting, with bigotry of all kinds, justifying all kinds of inequities.”[3] Dr. Kendi goes onto explain that in both cancer and racism there is denial. Denial is the heartbeat of both struggles.[4]

Dr. Kendi argues we must not take the easy route in ignoring racism or cancer. We must admit. We must confess. We must look upon ourselves and say, “I have cancer. The most serious stage. Cancer is likely to kill me. I can survive cancer against all odds. My society has racism. The most serious stage. Racism is likely to kill my society. My society can survive racism against all odds.”[5] If the heartbeat of racism is denial, the heartbeat of antiracism is confession.[6]

In How to Be An Antiracist, Kendi outlines how all willing Americans can overcome this denial and reach a point of confession and truth. Specifically, he challenges us to reflect on what it truly means to be “racist,” what it means to be “not racist,” and what it means to be “antiracist.”[7] Kendi demonstrates how, in America, when individuals are accused of racism or being racist, their knee-jerk reaction is often “I am not racist” or “that was not racist,” or even more vehemently, “I’m the least racist person in the world.” Kendi questions this response, asking us to consider: is there really such thing as being “not racist?” Is “not racist” the true opposite of “racist”?

He concludes that not only is there no such thing as “not racist,” there is only “racist,” and its true opposite, “antiracist.” Kendi deems the “not racist” argument one of “neutrality.” Essentially, individuals are saying, “I am not racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.”[8] Here, Kendi makes an important distinction: there is no room for neutrality in the struggle against racism, therefore, there can be no “not racist” argument.

Kendi goes onto to describe many similar arguments of neutrality, like colorblindness or post-racialism which rose to prominence in the Obama and post-Obama eras. These arguments obscure and hide the realities of racism from the American public. Many individuals in the United States have come to see “racist” as a slur because of these arguments of neutrality. Therefore, they don’t talk about race or won’t speak up against racism. These individuals believe “in the post-racial myth that talking about race constitutes racism, or that if we stop identifying by race, then racism will miraculously go away.”[9]

Kendi refutes this in stating, “They fail to realize that if we stop using racial categories then we will not be able to identity racial inequality. If we cannot identity racial inequity, then we will not be able to identify racist policies. If we cannot identify racist policies, then we cannot challenge racist policies. If we cannot challenge racist policies, then racist power’s final solution will be achieved:  a world of inequity none of us can see, let alone resist. Terminating racial categories is potentially the last not the first step in the antiracist struggle.”[10]

Here, Kendi implores us to speak openly on racism as true antiracists. He shows us we must not be hesitant or in denial. Racist is not a slur. In its proper usage, it is a descriptor. In order to eradicate racism, we must utilize this descriptor to identify actions, words, and people who are racist at a particular moment. In other words, in order to confess and move past denial, we must utilize the correct, accurate vocabulary.

The descriptors of “racist” and “antiracist” are not stagnant though. They are fluid, everchanging, as we change. Kendi states, “The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be racist one minute and an antiracist the next.”[11] Just like his previous work, Stamped From the Beginning, Kendi reiterates this essential point through his own life experience and self-examination. He states:

What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what- not who- we are. I used to be racist most of the time. I am changing. I am no longer identifying with racists by claiming to be “not racist.” I am no longer speaking through the mask of racial neutrality…And I’ve come to see that the movement from racist to antiracist is always ongoing…”[12]

Here, Dr. Kendi illustrates one of his greatest strengths as a writer. In How to Be An Antiracist, Kendi ventures into often unchartered and disputed territory in the historical craft. Historians are frequently taught to detach their personal lives, politics, and experiences from their works. Kendi is not detached from his work. In fact, quite the opposite, he is deeply embedded in his own work. He lives his work.

Many “traditional” historians may take issue with this approach, but as an individual who believes the detachment of the historian from their work is nearly impossible, I find it refreshing and authentic. All individuals and historians have their own experiences and backgrounds. Kendi does not shy away from these experiences. Instead, he embraces them and channels them into his work, seamlessly integrating the most intimate moments of his life with history, politics, and current events.

Kendi says, “this book is ultimately about the basic struggle we’re all in, the struggle to be fully human and to see that others are fully human.”[13] This is what make Kendi’s words so captivating, moving, and real: their shared, unfiltered humanity, guided by stories from Dr. Kendi’s own life. This humanist spirit brings Kendi closer to his audience. There is a sense of a community in Kendi’s work, an eventual antiracist community.

Dr. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist is not just a call to action, or a guide to action, but also a history of his own actions. He shows us being antiracist is a life-long journey, one filled with highs and lows, successes and failures, and deep, extensive self-critique. A true activist history. If all of us can take the same time and effort in our own self-reflection on race, maybe the antiracist future Kendi outlines can one day be possible.

Michael T. Barry Jr., Executive Editor, is currently a doctoral candidate at American University in Washington, DC. He studies African American and Muslim American history and is writing his dissertation on the history of Islamophobic ideas and anti-Islamophobic resistance in America. Barry has contributed writings to outlets like Black Perspectives, The Gainesville Sun, Truthout, Sport in American History, The Blackprint, and The Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Michael is also a documentary filmmaker, specializing in oral history. His films “U Street Contested” and “The Universal Soldier: Vietnam” have won and been nominated for numerous awards, as they have screened at film festivals and historic venues across the country.  He teaches modern American history at Montgomery College in Silver Spring, MD. Follow him on Twitter at @MTBarryJr.

[1] In Stamped From the Beginning Kendi explores the history and origins of racist ideas in America. Kendi reconsiders the causal relationship ungirding racist ideas in America, tracing their origins to systematic racist policies. Kendi argues, “I was taught the popular folktale of racism: that ignorant and hateful people had produced racist ideas, and that these racist people had instituted racist policies. But when I learned the motives behind the production of many of America’s most influentially racist ideas, its became quite obvious that this folktale, though sensible, was not based on a firm footing of historical evidence. Ignorance/hate->racist idea->discrimination: this causal relationship is largely ahistorical. It has actually been the inverse relationship-racial discrimination led to racist ideas which led to ignorance and hate.” (Kendi, 9). For more of Kendi’s work on racism in America see Stamped From the Beginning.

[2] Kendi, How to Be An Antiracist, 234.

[3] Kendi, 234.

[4] Kendi, 235.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Antiracist” is not necessarily a new term, but one Dr. Kendi is working to clarify, emphasize, and popularize. Scholars, especially women of color, like Angela Davis, who Kendi references, have long used the term in their various works.

[8] Kendi, 9.

[9] Kendi, 54.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kendi, 10.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kendi, 11.

Michael T. Barry Jr., Editor, is a doctoral candidate in history at American University in Washington, DC. Michael is also a documentary filmmaker, specializing in oral history. His films “U Street Contested” and “The Universal Soldier: Vietnam” have won and been nominated for numerous awards, as they have screened at film festivals and historic venues across the country. He teaches American history at Montgomery College in Maryland. Follow him on Twitter at @MTBarryJr.

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