I finally finished reading How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. A friend loaned me her copy, but it took a while for me to warm up to the book because its approach was jarring to what I previously had held to be important about antiracism. However, by the time I finished it, my understanding was deepened and changed in profound ways.
I had spent much of my activist life trying to get folks to understand that racism is systemic–it is more than just direct prejudice against people of another race, or hatred toward people of other races. Rather, it was a whole institutionalization of that prejudice by those in power. Thus, while individual people of any race could hold prejudice, only white people and white systems could be racist. Even if individual white people did not harbor direct prejudice, we benefited from these structural systems that kept racism in place. Thus, there was no way for us to be “non-racist.” Rather we must commit to being “antiracist,” and to use the privilege that structural racism had conferred on us to work against racism.
During and After:
So right off, Kendi used examples of how he had been racist in various ways throughout his youth and young adulthood. He brought it back to a personal level, and did not agree that only white people could be racist. So that threw me off a bit. Later he explained it more directly. He wrote:
I thought only White people could be racist and that Black people could not be racist, because Black people did not have power…. This powerless defense, as I call it, emerged in the wake of racist Whites dismissing antiracist policies and ideas as racist in the late 1960s. …Black voices critical of White racism defended themselves from these charges by saying, “Black people can’t be racist, because Black people don’t have power.”
Like every other racist idea, the powerless defense underestimates Black people and overestimates White people. …[It] does not consider people at all levels of power, from policymakers like politicians and executives who have the power to institute and eliminate racist and antiracist policies, to policy managers like officers and middle managers, empowered to execute or withhold racist and antiracist policies. Every single person actually has the power to protest racist and antiracist policies, to advance them, or, in some small ways, to stall them. …”Institutional power” or “systemic power” or “structural power” is the policy-making and managing power of people, in groups or individually. … The truth is: Black people can be racist because Black people do have power, even if limited.
Note that I say limited Black power rather than no power. White power controls the United States. But not absolutely. [p. 140-142] [He then shared multiple examples of Black men in various government positions who advanced policies that were detrimental to people of color, and says:] These were men who used the power they’d been given–no matter how limited and conditional–in inarguably racist ways. [p. 149]
He does not negate structural and institutional racism–but he makes it less covert and more identifiable, by shifting our attention to “policy.” He uses the term “racist policies” instead of “institutional racism.”
Policymakers and policies make societies and institutions, not the other way around. The United States is a racist nation because its policymakers and policies have been racist from the beginning. [p. 223]
Another major shift he articulates is that racist ideas are created by racist policies, and not the other way around.
The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policy makers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume those racist ideas, which in turn sparks ignorance and hate. [p. 230]
So if we want to eradicate racism, we cannot merely use education and persuasion to try to get rid of people’s ignorance and hate, but we must work primarily to change racist policies.
I am pulling out these particular ideas in the book because they changed my own way of thinking about antiracism. Kendi speaks about how if we have incorrect understandings of the problem of racism, that inhibits our ability to be successful in our desire to create an antiracist society.
I would encourage everyone who cares about the problems of racism or other oppressions to get this book and explore all of his ideas, to see which ones might challenge and transform you. It is powerful and essential.
Racist: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.
Antiracist: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. [p. 13]