Ibram X Kendi is the director of the Centre for Antiracist Research at Boston University, and a leading thinker on race in the United States. His book, How to Be an Antiracist, released in 2019, detailed his thoughts on how we think about race, and introduced a new term – antiracist – into the public debate about diversity, representation and race relations.
Its follow-up, Be Antiracist: A Journal for Awareness, Reflection and Action, provides prompts for those who want to more proactively consider their own attitudes to race. In this interview, presented in full, he talks about antiracism, the current state of race relations in the United States, and his hopes for the future.
For those who haven't yet read the book, what is it to be antiracist, versus 'not racist?
"In the book, I argue that the opposite of 'racist' isn't 'not racist'. The opposite of racist is antiracist. And the reason why it's important to understand that is because, what's the opposite of racial hierarchy? Racial equality. What's the opposite of racial inequity? Racial equity. What's the opposite of racial injustice? Racial justice. Racist ideas connote racial hierarchy, while antiracist ideas connote racial equality. Racist policies lead to racial inequity and injustice, while antiracist policies lead to racial equity, and justice.
"Then you have individuals who are either expressing racist or antiracist ideas of hierarchy or equality, or are supporting policies that are either racist or antiracist, that are either leading to inequity or equity and justice. And so when you understand that antiracist is the opposite of racist, and then you also understand that in many ways, we are not supporting policies that are leading to equity and justice. In many ways, we aren't thinking that the racial groups are equal, and that allows you to really begin to assess yourself. And it also allows you to stop just flippantly and reflexively, saying, 'I'm not racist'."
Is it that this is such an important issue that you almost cannot be passive in it? Or is it that it's people like Donald Trump, and as you put in your first book, [white supremacist] Richard Spencer, who have co-opted this idea of 'not racist'?
I think it's both. When you claim you're not racist, you're claiming the same conception of Donald Trump or of Richard Spencer, or a slave trader, or slave holder, or a coloniser or a segregationist, or someone who was ruling in apartheid South Africa. In other words, they were constantly claiming, “I'm not racist. I'm not doing anything wrong. If anything, the problem are those people of colour.” But secondly, I think it's important for us to recognise that the status quo is racism. The status quo is inequality. The status quo is believing in some sort of racial hierarchy. And so when you do nothing in the face of the status quo, what happens to the status quo? It stays the same, right? So to do nothing in the face of racism is to be racist, is to allow racism to persist. Because the only way that racism will be eliminated is if we challenge it."
And we've seen people challenging it more and more. You wrote the second book in April. Lots of stuff has happened since then in the United States. Have your thoughts on this changed over the summer with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd?
"I've just been pleasantly excited to see so many people who are seemingly becoming aware of racism, or even the ways in which they have been racist, for the first time. That is certainly something that's exciting.
"I wrote my book so people can become aware of racism in society and of the ways in which they are being racist. But at this point, we're at a period in which there's a critical mass of people who are aware, and so now the next step, the harder step in many ways, is actually to transform our country. The hardest step is to support the big policies that can lead that transformation."
You say in your first book: “We must continuously strive to be antiracist so we can build an antiracist society. An antiracist society of equity and justice and truth. An antiracist society not governed by fear and hate and cynicism.” How do we do that in this present moment? Because it seems like we are the complete polar opposite of that.
"In this current moment we're in a very public struggle between the forces of racism and the forces of antiracism, and these forces are opposing. And so there's really no way in which these forces can come together. You can't bring up racial hierarchy and equality together, you can't bring injustice and justice together. I think what's actually been the case is the forces of antiracism have gotten stronger around the world and certainly in the West, and certainly in the United States over the last few years. And then I think the forces of racism have gotten more brazen in their attempts to maintain power, exclude, denigrate, radicalise white supremacist, domestic terrorists."
Do you worry about that brazenness? Or is it just that they are shouting louder? Because I guess, you know, if you consume a news diet, then it can seem like we're going to hell in a handbasket here.
"I guess what I mean, by “brazen” is, there was an attempt – so let me compare phrasing. In a way a Trump is brazen and a Pence is not brazen, but they're saying the same thing. And they're engaged in the same type of policy work. So when you have someone shouting. or someone extremely bold and without shame and being aggressive, it calls more attention to what they're saying and what they're doing than someone who is calm and collected, but still harmful."
One of the prompts in the book is to ask people to describe a white ethnostate, and you then ask: “How would it be any different from society right now?” Is it any different? How do you think it's different?
"I think the similarities would obviously be there's a limited number of people of colour in powerful positions, and obviously, that limited number would be eliminated. So there's similarities in that the society would still overwhelmingly be governed by white people.
"I think the drastic difference would be all of the things that people of colour bring to this country that even white people who may even hate those people of colour take for granted would no longer exist. I really wanted people who are imagining that it's better to ensure that this nation remains or even becomes all white – if people only think about what they're going to gain, they don't necessarily think about what they're going to lose. I wanted people to really think through what they would lose, because this would be a very different country. And I suspect some of the people who are calling for a white ethnostate, or who don't really know whether that would be horrific, if they actually created one, they would view it as such."
And that's always been the case, right? We under-appreciate the contribution of ethnic minorities to our society.
"Without question, and that's one of the reasons why I encourage people to think about that, because it then forces them to. It's one thing to ask a person: 'What are the contributions of people of colour to society?' It's another thing to say, 'OK, what would a white ethnostate look like?' So people can see that in no way should be the goal."
You seem relatively positive about the future. There are some massive caveats to that, but there seems to be hope there. But do you think that we've been here before? In 2012, there were some people saying that this was the moment that the United States became post-racial. And we've learned that was far from the truth. Do we run the risk of making that mistake again?
"Oh, without question. I think that you have people who imagine that racism is embodied in Donald Trump. They believe that if you get rid of Donald Trump, you get rid of racism, and therefore they believe Donald Trump is not re-elected, that racism is not real. And that's just not true.
"We're certainly speaking out against it. The racist ideas that Trump leveraged to win an election obviously existed before him. He wouldn't have been able to leverage them. The inequity that existed in this country before Donald Trump existed before Donald Trump. He certainly is more brazen, and he certainly has made things worse. But to say he is the originator is just blatantly not true."
You draw that analogy between racism and cancer and your battles and your wife’s battles with it. Are we saying here that Donald Trump is essentially the tumour and that you can cut out, but we still need the chemo? And if so, what is that treatment?
"The chemo here is antiracist policies that can or have been proven to basically kill the tumour cells of racial inequity wherever they find that – and even prevent the reoccurrence. That's what we need in this country."
Is Joe Biden antiracist?
"To me, no-one is racist or antiracist. They can only strive to be. He certainly has expressed, during the campaign, antiracist ideas. He certainly is supporting, in many cases, antiracist policies. But I wouldn't say he is an antiracist or racist because no one is. These are descriptive terms that describe what a person is saying or doing or not doing in any given moment."
If it's not like a Platonic ideal, can you live your life in a mostly antiracist way? Can you get 99 per cent of the way, or is it not that kind of perspective?
"Anything is possible, I suspect. Let's say if everyone says 100 ideas a day. And there are certainly some people for whom 90 per cent of them are antiracist, and others 90 per cent of them are racist. But the goal is in each of the things that we're saying and doing and policies and policymakers are supporting, is trying to ensure that we're supporting antiracist policies and expressing antiracist ideas."
How do policies and politics and racism and antiracism kind of intertwine? Can they be distinguished from each other, or are they just constantly connected?
"I think the way we can distinguish them is to look at the racial impact of policies. Is this policy leading to racial inequity? Or equity? And if it's leading to equity, it’s an antiracist policy. If it’s leading to inequity, it’s a racist policy."
Who do you look up to on race? I've been looking at your Twitter feed and seeing all these people that you are talking about and promoting. Why are you drawn to those people? And who is it that you're really keen on in terms of thinking about race and society?
"Anyone who sees the problem as this system of racism. People who I admire, whether it's a Dorothy Roberts or Kimberly Crenshaw, or an Imani Perry. You know, there's so many great thinkers and writers who I’m following and learning from."
And how has your own work in producing these two books helped figure out your own approach to race?
"I know that my expertise as a scholar is both around defining terms and using the lens of history. I use the lessons of history to define terms historically and currently. That's the contribution that I certainly have tried to make, especially with How to be an Antiracist, and I tried to even allow people to do that for themselves. And in Be Antiracist, trying to encourage people to really express themselves based on clear and consistent definitions. If we have clear and consistent, but most important, common definitions, that allows us to make more productive dialogue and make a greater impact."
Every person talks to every other person differently. I'm consciously aware of my race here. And I'm a white guy in the UK who’s middle class. On any of the questions that I've asked, would you have answered those differently if I were a different race? Do you think this interview would have gone differently were I not white?
"I think my answers would have been the same. Potentially some of the examples I may have used, may have been different. Different groups have a different set of experiences. So to me a better way is to meet people where they are so that they can understand."
And do you hope that next week, we can maybe meet each other a little bit closer as a society, as a nation, in the United States?
"That’s the hope."
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