A fine turkey day to one and all, Decipher Fans. This month, while chewing through some festive pumpkin bread, we are reviewing Ibram X. Kendi’s latest book, How to Be an AntiRacist, published by Random House in August 2019. Below is our discussion, filled to the brim with both our usual quips and some (albeit sarcastic) seasonal merriment. In a Nut-cracker-shell (haha): We highly recommend this book. This season, deck the halls with boughs of black liberation literature, starting with this seminal update on racism in America and what we can do about it:
This book contains multitudes, both about Kendi’s personal journey and about the state of racism on America. Kendi posits that racism is both created and upheld by policies that stretch across almost every arena of life, including space, culture, education, politics, and health. Racist laws block opportunities for black people, drain their resources, and create an unequal playing field perpetually through time. The first three chapters, which are a review of the history of racism and racist thinking in the western world from the time of the slave trade through the present day, set the reader up to understand the full weight of the white supremacist system that runs our country. It is a weight we all carry and the waters we swim in daily; thus, none of us are exempt from participation in it. Whether we push against the current or go with the flow of our racial caste system and its obscure rules and agendas is the subject of this book.
A few key concepts emerge. First, Ibram Kendi teaches us that there is no such thing as ‘non-racist’; a policy or behavior is either racist (supporting the dominant narrative, even if simply by not challenging it) or anti-racist. Kendi states squarely that defining something as racist is not a personal atack or a character judgement–it is merely a description of an outcome. We know, for example, that standardized testing produces racist outcomes for students of color. Whether the test companies meant to is ultimately besides the point. The policy itself can be called racist because it has racist effects, and should be judged on those effects.
Second, Kendi spends a great deal of time talking about the intersection of racial oppression with other types of oppression–specifically class and gender. He uses the term ‘race-class’ to talk about the way in which different members of a class are perceived based on race, or vice versa. This fine grained discussion across several chapters, ranging from a look at the mortality of trans black women and the hidden violence of white cis women (Kendi notes that no fragility is as powerful as that of a white woman) Kendi shows the ways in which expectations–of femininity and masculinity, of power and and deference–shape both the harms we do others and to ourselves.
Finally, Kendi reminds us that becoming an anti-racist is hard and is . a tall order, and that the process of change is accompanied by discomfort and even pain, as we shed ideas that may have propped up our sense of selves or our sense of community, but at the expense of others. Kendi shows us his own scars from battles with himself, as he sheds colorism, misogyny and homophobia in his journey as an educator. He mentions along the way those friends who pushed back against his assumptions about others and tested him to think harder and be kinder. He demonstrates how friendship and love can lift up and transform a person, and how these relationships are in many ways integral to navigating the complexities of racial oppression.
Cover Image: Black Bottom Memorial Wall: Andrea Zemel, 1999. For more information, check out: https://collaborativehistory.gse.upenn.edu/media/black-bottom-memorial-mosaic