How to Be an Antiracist: A Conversation With Ibram X. Kendi

In his new book, the professor challenges traditional definitions of racism, and who can be racist.
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Ibram X. Kendi’s conversation and book signing in Detroit was at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on Oct. 22. Kendi appeared in conversation with Dr. Stephen Ward, associate professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at University of Michigan.

Photo by Zenobia Jeffries Warfield

A universal understanding, particularly in academia and among racial justice advocates and activists, has been that race and racism are based on a concept of whiteness as superior over other racial constructions (such as Black, Brown, or Indigenous). Whole bodies of scholarship under the Critical Race Theory framework have discussed this power dynamic inherent in racism, which also yields to classism, sexism, and most other forms of social injustice. In fact, the term is often substituted with a more specific descriptor: “white supremacy.” Gender scholar bell hooks eventually coined the term “imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy,” to capture the intersecting societal structures affected by this racist power dynamic.

Still, the discourse around race and racism continues to evolve, with new terms emerging alongside new definitions to old terms.

In his new book How to be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center and professor of history and international relations at American University, includes both. He provides new terms (like antiracist), and new definitions (racism: a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities).

I was looking forward to reading Kendi’s new book, although I had not yet read his previous, more exhaustive one, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which fleshes out a lot of the nuances in the conversation on race and racism. More than wanting to know how to be an antiracist—because surely, I already was—I wanted to read his 1-2 steps, or suggestions to White people, because surely they’re who he was talking to. So I was quite surprised when I found Kendi challenging the scholarship that’s preceded him, and even more so when I read these words: “Malcolm X faced a fact many admirers of Malcolm X still refuse to face: Black people can be racist toward White people!”

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I immediately recalled definitions grounded in Critical Race Theory. For example: “Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism involves one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of the society and by shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices.”

Sure, Black people and people of color can be prejudiced or bigoted, but racist? Critical Race Theory taught me that isn’t possible, because Black people and other people of color lack the institutional power that has been historically reserved for White people.

Kendi’s definition and some of his examples and narratives—such as his discussion of self-hate and colorism—to me, was an “All Lives Matter,” “both sides,” description. In my opinion, Kendi’s definition gave racially illiterate racists and race-neutral people ammunition to cast blame and absolve themselves of the racist power structures from which they benefit. The logical conclusion of Kendi’s definition seems to be, “See, Black people are racist, too.”

I became eager to speak with him. I needed answers. And judging by some of the conversations I was having and seeing online, I was sure that others did, too.

I’m glad Kendi agreed to speak with me. Our conversation has helped me to go even deeper, and I hope it does the same for our readers.

This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: What was the impetus for the book?

Ibram X. Kendi: So my last book [Stamped From the Beginning] was in a sense, the beginning, a history of racist ideas. And in that book, I didn’t just want to chronicle the history of racist ideas, I wanted to chronicle the history of ideas that were challenging those racist ideas. And I found that, historically, people who have been producing racist ideas have been classifying their own ideas as not racist. And so, I couldn’t necessarily use that term to categorize the types of ideas that were challenging racist ideas. And so, I decided to use the term antiracist.

In traveling and speaking about my last book, I would urge people to be antiracist, to adopt antiracist ideas. And the more I urged people to be antiracist, the more people asked me, tell me a little bit more about being antiracist, because I’ve been taught to be not racist, and I want to know how can I be an antiracist. And the more people asked me that question, the more I realized, I should probably answer it in book form.

The term non-racist, has really historically been a term of denial.

Warfield: Can you explain the difference? Is being antiracist a more active approach, whereas being non-racist is more of a passive approach?

Kendi: The term non-racist, has really historically been a term of denial. Meaning, it’s someone who is expressing racist ideas, or supporting racist policies, and when charged with being racist, they typically say, “No, I’m not racist.” While antiracist has a very clear conception of what it is—meaning if racist ideas suggest racial hierarchy, antiracist ideas suggest racial equality. And if racist policies lead to racial inequity, antiracist policy leads to racial equity.

When you have a society with racial inequity as the norm, to do nothing in the face of that norm is to allow that norm to persist, is to essentially be racist. And so yes, indeed, people who are antiracist are people who are literally challenging the norm. And you can’t challenge the norm by doing nothing.

Warfield: Was there anything else that you were not seeing in the discourse on race and racism? For example, the term anti-Black racism [to be more specific and center the harm to Black people amid the growing use of “people of color”] is starting to be used a lot. Was there something you wanted to interject into the conversation?

Kendi: What I really wanted to do, was not only eliminate the term not racist, or race neutral,—all of these type of terms, that imagine this sort of neutrality or sideline to the racial struggle—but I also wanted to express and provide in How to Be an Antiracist very clear definitions of common terms.

So, what is a racist? What is racism? What is a racist policy? What is a racist idea? And on the same token, what is an antiracist? Antiracism? Antiracist policy? What is an antiracist idea? And I wanted the definitions to be clear and consistent, because most people define racism, or racist, in a way that exonerates them. So they’re constantly shifting their definition, and the definition is not clear.

It’s absolutely critical for us to recognize that people have the power to resist.

Warfield: Right. The layperson, so not the scholar, definition of racism or a racist is equal to the KKK or someone who does hateful acts or behaviors to a person of color. But most scholars base their premise on the power dynamic between the races. However, you don’t do that. Your definition of racism—a marriage of policies and ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities—seems a little bit more simplistic. Although, you do talk about the power dynamic that allows it to exist, you don’t include it in your definition.

Kendi: Some people believe that a racist is somebody who is in the Ku Klux Klan. So if they’re not in the Ku Klux Klan, then they imagine that they are…not racist. But there are people who battled the Ku Klux Klan, who also think there’s something wrong with Black people [and] who also support policies that lead to racial inequity. It’s a definition that doesn’t hold in terms of power.

I think with racial terms, people generally do not have a very clear conception of power—power at an interpersonal level, and power at an institutional level. We talk more about the power [that] operates at an institutional level, and not the way power operates at a personal, or interpersonal level. What I mean by that is, we haven’t talked about the ways in which every single individual has the power, as I talk about in How to be an Antiracist, to resist—to resist racist policy, racist policymakers. ... I think that it’s absolutely critical for us to recognize that people have the power to resist.

Ibram X. Kendi shares his thoughts on what it means to be an antiracist. “This book isn’t necessarily preaching to the choir, it’s challenging the choir,” he says.

Photo by Zenobia Jeffries Warfield.

But it’s also critical for us to recognize that some people do not believe that they have the power to resist. Or some people believe that race, racist power, racist policies are not the problem, [and] Black people are the problem. So they spend their time and energy resisting Black people, as opposed to racism. And then they turn around and say, I’m not racist, even though, like anyone else, they’re going after the victims of racism, rather than racism itself.

Warfield : I’m glad you distinguished that for me, because to be honest, when I got to the chapter “White,” I had to put the book down, several times. I’m sure you’ve probably heard from others on your position that “Black people can be racist,” [which you write in the book]. This challenges what my and others’, including whole bodies of work on the subject, understanding of racism is. I’m imagining that you fleshed out these nuances in your previous book. But here it seems other terms more aptly describe what you call anti-White racism, for example racial prejudice, or racial bigotry. Can you respond to that for me?

People collectively have the power to resist racism.

Kendi: There are a number of different basic assumptions that I try to establish in How to Be an Antiracist that are distinct from both the White right, that will say, “Black people are the real racist,” and traditional sort of scholars who defend Black people by saying, “Black people can’t be racist.” And they either say, because Black people don’t have power, or they say, because Black people do not benefit from racism.

My basic assumption is, first and foremost, that there’re three levels of power, and I sort of talk about this in How to Be an Antiracist. There’s the power to resist—and let me just say, when I say Black people can be racist, I’m talking about that in two different ways. People collectively have the power to resist racism, and historically use that power to undermine chattel slavery, Jim Crow, police violence. To not recognize protest and resistance as a form of power is to essentially erase African American history.

Secondly, I think individuals have the ability to not only resist, but then there are individual Black people, policymakers, who manage policies, institute policies or defend policies, execute policies, or deem constitutional policies that are leading to racial inequity and injustice, let’s say against Black people, for their own personal and professional gain. And then you have people who refuse racist policies for their own personal and professional gain, and are only pushing policies that actually aid Black people.

And so those individuals within a policymaking or managing position using their power as policymakers and managers to essentially execute antiracist policies and institute antiracist policies, they’re being antiracist. Did they use their policymaking position or managing position to support racist policies, typically, out of their own professional and personal gain, they’re being racist in the same way, individual White people are doing the same thing for their own personal and professional gain.

And then finally, another major element of my book that I think is not talked about in this discussion, when I sort of talk about racist ideas and policies. I’m not talking about Black people, in general, and White people in general. I’m talking about [the Black core] for Black women, Black lesbians, Black transgender women, many different sort of Black racial groups that let’s say make up the Black race. And to say that Black men have no power over Black women, to say that Black male serial rapists do not benefit from the ways in which society do not care about Black women victims of rape is to simply not live in reality.

Anytime you’re not focusing on the true source of Black harm, you’re essentially allowing Black harm to persist.

And so I think we need to basically figure out ways to simultaneously recognize how there are certain Black racial groups because of the way in which racism reinforces other forms of bigotry actually benefit from racism, while others don’t. So it’s very, very complex. And if we just made it Black and White, and it’s much more complex than that?

Warfield: I agree [that it’s more complex]. So when I got to that point [in the book], I’m like, I wonder how many people who…would read this and say, “See, Black people can be racist.” And I understand [with Black people and Brown people] the internal racism angle or self-hate, [but] you use the Nation of Islam (NOI) as an example of anti-White racism. I don’t think that example is comparable to that of the structure of, white supremacy racism. The NOI impacts no [structure of] White people’s [lives]really. Isn’t it more of a racial prejudice or bigotry? As a scholar you know the significance of language and how it’s used. And I’m just wondering if that conflation confuses people and kind of gets in the way of the work that needs to be done toward dismantling racism?

Kendi: I think there’s some basic assumptions, I’m sort of making the case that the reason I don’t use the term prejudice, even bias is, because these are essentially dysfunctions of ideas. In other words, when a person has, let’s say, bigoted ideas, the way that they carry those out is through what’s called bias or prejudice. And we spend a lot of time sort of talking about the show, and not talk about the sort of inner mind, which actually causes people to be bias or prejudice.

The other side of this is that ...people think it’s all about benefits. In other words, like, as you stated, how is this analyzed theory harming, in a material way, White people. And in my text, I actually don’t make the case that it’s harming White people in a material way. I actually make the case that it’s harming Black people in a material way. And in the way that I make that case is when you as a Black person believe that there is something genetically or fundamentally wrong with White people and that essentially your enemy is every White person that you see, you’re not going to see as your fundamental problem racist policymakers. Because for you, that poor White person and Donald Trump are pretty much the same. And so, you’re not going to basically challenge and focus your activism on racist policymakers. Anytime you’re not focusing on the true source of Black harm, which is racist policymakers and policies, you’re essentially allowing Black harm to persist.

There’s just no way we’re going to survive racism as a society without pain.

So that’s why I talk about how actually hating White people actually leads to hating Black people. So, I think that’s absolutely critical, I think, for people to sort of understand that when people think that the problem is people, in this case, White people, they’re not going to go after policy, they’ll go after people. And when Black people are not going after policy, they are not going after the true source of their harm.

Warfield: I’ve gone through my own evolution from “Oh, God, White people!!” to understanding that it’s…what I refer to as “whiteness,” right, that construct of whiteness that some White folks buy into and benefit from, and perpetuate. But I know you gotta go, so I want to wrap up with two things. First, the takeaways: Is there a separate takeaway you’d hope for Black/Brown and White readers? Or is it all the same? And secondly, in your last chapter, “Survival,” you compare your and your family’s experiences with cancer to racism. Can you talk about that comparison?

Kendi: I’m hoping that people take away from the book, that there’s only racist and antiracist. Most White people would say, “I’m not racist,” and if they’re saying, and they’re swearing that they’re not racist, then chances are they’re being racist. Black people commonly say, “I can’t be racist.” And that’s another sort of form of denial. I do not believe all Black people are being antiracist at all times. And Black people too have created this sort of construction between an antiracist and a racist. And so we too must be striving to be antiracist. I think obviously, it’s specifically in our own self-interest, to be antiracist, to be focused on changing power and policy, to be focused on creating racial equity and opportunity for us and for all people.

In terms of the conclusion, I just thought it was important for people to sort of see the scale and depth of damage that racism has wrought on individuals in society the same way that cancer sort of is an unbelievably difficult thing for people to experience and even overcome. And typically, to survive cancer, people must go through a tremendous amount of pain. And it’s going to be the same thing for metastatic racism. There’s just no way we’re going to survive racism as a society and even as individuals without pain.