Thinking (and Reading) About Cultural Politics

When I was an intern at the Dallas Museum of Art, the museum attempted to buy at auction A Grand View of the Seashore, a large seascape painted around 1774 by the French artist Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789). This wasn’t any ordinary art purchase. A Grand View of the Seashore is actually the companion piece to another Vernet painting, Landscape with Approaching Storm, which is part of the DMA collection. The paintings meditate on the interactions between humanity and nature. A Grand View of the Seashore offers a peaceful scene conducive to human commerce and other activities, with its warm palette of peach, yellow, and pale blue underscoring its sense of calm. Landscape with Approaching Storm, by contrast, explores the more tempestuous side of nature, with craggy mountains, a darker palette of blues and grays, and diagonal rainclouds bringing a foreboding, energetic quality to the scene and sending its tiny humans running for shelter. Commissioned by Lord Lansdowne, the paintings had been separated since 1806 after being sold to separate private collections. The upcoming auction represented a rare opportunity to reunite the paintings for the first time in over two hundred years.

I was there when the bidding for A Grand View of the Seashore took place. I remember crowding into my supervisor’s office with my fellow interns in the European and American art departments to watch the auction online. We were excited because we thought the museum had a good chance of getting the painting, which would be a boon to scholars and art enthusiasts alike. To have these paintings reunited in a public collection; how art historically significant!

The DMA’s bidding limit was two million dollars. Think about that for a minute. Two million dollars for one painting. For comparison, that was double the entire annual budget of the Roswell Museum and Art Center when I was working there. Despite our optimism, the DMA never stood a chance. Within a minute of the opening bid, private collectors annihilated our prospects, and the painting ended up going for about 8 million dollars. While the painting was loaned for a temporary exhibition, that day was one of the most disheartening of my museum career up to that point, and it underscored the significance of money to the art world for me. While museums and other institutions often downplay the monetary value of their collections to the public, the truth is, money is key to their success as cultural institutions. Whoever controls the purse strings arguably controls the culture, or at least the ones considered mainstream or normative.

I’ve been thinking about that day a lot as I’ve been working through the final section of my art history reading list, which focuses on cultural politics. Several of these readings focus outright on the significance of money to the art world, and the influence that private and government donors alike exert over culture when they’re the ones funding it. Mark Rectanus’s Culture Incorporated looks at corporate sponsorship as a significant means of cultural production in globalization. He examines how corporate sponsorship influences culture through a variety of media, including museum exhibitions, advertising campaigns with artists, supporting cultural events, globalizing museums, or advocating for technology. In Artwash, artist and activist Mel Evans considers the connection between big oil and the art world as articulated through the various branches of the Tate Museum in the UK. In the wake of declining government support, big oil has stepped in to provide funding to museums and other institutions, an act that is ultimately self-serving on the part of the businesses doing philanthropy. Evans argues that BP uses art and museums as a way of legitimizing its business practices by distracting the public from their operations to focus on their art sponsorship, a process she calls artwashing. As a result, art institutions not only implicitly express their support for an ecologically and socially destructive business that reinscribes colonial inequality while destroying ecosystems, but also constrain their ability to speak out against social injustices because they allow such industries to influence their programming through the money they give.

While many of the texts I’ve looked at focus on private sponsorship, others consider government funding. In Federalizing the Muse, Donna M. Binkiewicz looks at the history of the National Endowment for the Arts and its antecedents. Her overarching argument is that the arts benefited from federal involvement, and that while much-maligned today, the NEA actually accomplished quite a bit given the constraints it experienced. She also complicates our understanding of both the NEA and the politicians who supported it. For example, she posits that the NEA was a more moderate institution than conventionally portrayed by neoconservatives. She notes that it often supported projects aligned with Abstract Expressionism, an art form that by the 1960s was no longer avant-garde in the way that say Pop Art, Feminist art, Black art, and other postmodern forms were. Instead, the NEA took an uplifting approach that aimed to educate viewers in the forms of high art rather than popular culture, while simultaneously espousing such supposedly American ideals as individual liberty and freedom, qualities that were believed to be best encapsulated by the individuality and seeming apolitical nature of Abstract Expressionism.

I’ve also been reading about the so-called culture wars, or the debates over arts funding that took place in the 1980s and 1990s in response to backlash over exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography or Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. Art Matters offers an anthology of essays from artists, activists, as well as scholars. Each of the chapters explores the culture wars from a different vantage point, including the AIDS crisis, race, or the privatization of culture. While there is no singular argument underpinning this text other than the culture wars changed art funding in America, arguably for the worse, two themes recur throughout the text. First, the authors argue that the people defending artists during the culture wars oversimplified matters by focusing primarily on the First Amendment. In other words, by stating that artists were entitled to say whatever they wanted because of the First Amendment, a counter-argument stating that the arts should not be funded if they do not express the majority opinion could be mounted. In other words, you are free to say what you want, but not on my dollar. Instead, defenders should have explained the importance of the art, demonstrated to audiences how it conveyed the message it did, and how they address broader social issues such as systemic inequality. Second, the authors argued that the culture wars reflected an ongoing conflict between white supremacy and underrepresented voices. By focusing on the culture wars as a question of taxation, conservatives diverted attention away from the oppression that was taking place with regard to LBGTQ voices, and other perspectives. As a result, decreased funding made these underrepresented voices even less likely to be heard. These authors conclude that a democratic form of arts funding in the United States would be a model that enabled artists to create the work they need or want to do, regardless of content or potential offense to the government, conservatives, and other groups.

Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America, written about twenty years after Art Matters, takes a different perspective reflecting the passage of time. He offers an intellectual history underpinning the debates regarding religion, education, feminism, race, and other prominent subjects within the culture wars. He takes special care to explore the intellectual underpinnings of both sides of the debate, from the arguments of the New Left and the neoconservatives of the 1950s and 1960s, to the new social history,  to the growing presence of fundamentalist Christians on the political right. Through these different explorations, Hartman argues that the culture wars represented an ongoing debate between two different versions of America. The conservative version, or the normative one, espoused white, middle-class values regarding race, class, gender, and religion, while the liberal view supported pluralism. He concludes that while liberals and conservatives alike have largely recognized the new pluralistic vision of America that developed out of the 1960s, the pluralism we experience today was by no means guaranteed during the culture wars period. Published in 2015, Hartman originally concluded that the culture wars were finished, but he has since published a second edition in the wake of the 2016 election.

While the culture wars arguably represent one of the most dramatic national manifestations of the ongoing debates over art in America, cultural politics can also influence on the regional or local level. When I was in Roswell, local cultural politics definitely influenced the way I curated shows. As a municipal museum, we could and did exhibit controversial content, but we had to be mindful of where we placed exhibitions or individual pieces. Given Roswell’s overall conservative political culture, I usually had to make sure that the most visible galleries in the museum, particularly those that were located near classrooms, had so-called family-friendly content from a cisnormative perspective. Any works with violence, nudity, or critiques of religion and other institutions were exhibited in less prominent spaces, and with plenty of signage so that visitors could choose to avoid those galleries.

The most subtle instance of cultural politics within the museum happened when I curated Power: New Works by David Emitt Adams. Based in Phoenix, Adams is a photographer who uses historical methods like wet collodion printing and other techniques to take images of landscapes. His work channels the great landscape photographers of the 19th century, but whereas those pieces endeavored to present a seemingly pristine version of nature, Adams exposes that myth by examining the interconnectivity between culture and environment. One way he does this is by printing his images on cans, metal, and other detritus he finds in the landscapes he photographs, for example.

The exhibition I worked on, Power, featured a new body of work Adams had made focusing on oil refineries. Traveling around the American South and Southwest, Adams had photographed various refineries and printed them on used oil drum lids, with the streaks and other imperfections of the wet collodion process suggesting the liquid nature of oil itself. When I saw these images, I personally interpreted them as a commentary on the obsolescence of oil as an energy source. By using an antiquated printing method, in other words, Adams’ photographs seemed to meditate on our reliance on a fuel source that is itself finite and out of date.

Yet even as I read these photographs as a critique of the oil industry, I didn’t want to alienate local visitors by making this the official interpretation. After all, southeastern New Mexico’s economy has relied on the petroleum industry for decades, and a lot of Roswell’s prominent leaders and influencers are involved in oil in one form or another. The Roswell Museum also owes much of its existence to oil, with nearly all of its most prominent donors and philanthropists making their money through petroleum. So while I saw a critique when I viewed these photographs, I knew many of our local visitors would interpret these works through a more nostalgic or celebratory lens. When I wrote the exhibition text then, I focused primarily on the wet collodion process and the works’ dialogue with the history of photography, which Adams himself focused on when discussing his artistic practice. In essence, I deliberately left the actual interpretation of the works up to the viewers. An activist like Mel Evans would likely interpret my decision as enabling artwashing, but given Roswell’s cultural politics, encouraging viewers to produce their own interpretations provided the most leeway with regard to showing these pieces.

An example of one of Adams’ photographs. This depicts a refinery in Artesia, a town about 40 minutes south of Roswell.

Cultural politics will also play a substantial role in my dissertation research. Throughout its run, the Community Art Center Project and other endeavors from the FAP faced criticism for using federal money to support the arts, a seemingly frivolous expenditure compared to roads or infrastructure (the Leftist sympathies of many of these artists didn’t help). Local politics also shaped the programming of individual institutions. As I’ve noted in previous posts, the Roswell Museum and Art Center was a site for debate between the FAP and the local A&H Society, as they both had very different visions for the institution. Whereas the FAP wanted the museum to be an art appreciation space, with a focus on producing and consuming contemporary art from around the country, the A&H Society wanted the museum to be more site-specific by concentrating on the history and culture of Roswell itself. Undoubtedly other art centers experienced their own cultural politics, and getting to know these better will only enrich my understanding of this program.

Well, that’s a wrap on my posts about reading lists. I have to say, working through these different texts has been an enriching experience. I’ve learned a lot about a variety of subjects, and more importantly, have gotten a better sense of the major scholarly arguments within my fields of interest. While I’m looking forward to being finished with exams and getting started on the dissertation in earnest, the comps preparation process has been enjoyable in its own way. And hopefully, all of you readers have also gotten something out of following me on this journey.

Thinking (and Reading) About Museums

Last week we explored the art of the New Deal era, from Holger Cahill’s exhibition writings to more recent works exploring the political dimensions of 1930s art. Today, we’ll be considering a topic that has played a seminal role in my professional and personal life: museums.

Celebrating the completion of my very first exhibition, the culmination of my internship at the Dallas Museum of Art back in 2010-2011.

Most broadly, the texts I’ve been working through are asking two interrelated questions: what functions do museums currently serve as cultural institutions, and just as importantly, what kind of work should they be doing? With the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others, museums have been rightly called out for their complicity in maintaining white supremacy. As museum professionals reevaluate their missions and ongoing roles in society, it’s important to examine the values these institutions espouse through their exhibitions, programming, and outreach. In other words, what kinds of stories do museums choose to tell through the objects they display or the educational programming they put together?

While the phrase “museums are not neutral” may seem to be the latest hashtag on the cultural scene, scholars have long recognized the politicized nature of museums. As Steven Dubin and Timothy W. Luke both observe in their respective books, Museum Politics and Displays of Power, museums are inherently politicized institutions because of the authority we associate with them. Since museums are traditionally portrayed as preservers of knowledge and culture, they’re ascribed with an aura of trustworthiness that makes them ideal places for reifying social values or beliefs. To put it another way, museums sacralize the objects and ideas within them, providing a sense of legitimacy to whatever or whomever is brought within them. In the words of Indiana Jones, an object is in a museum because it belongs there, and in the eyes of society, museums are supposed to reify so-called normative values. When they depart from that objective to question longstanding beliefs, as the 1995 exhibition The West as America at the Smithsonian did when it critiqued a romanticized version of American Western history, they become controversial.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the values traditionally ascribed to museums in terms of education and aesthetics are strongly linked to class, as Alan Wallach explores in his book, Exhibiting Contradiction. During the 19th century, art museums in particular became a means of affirming the taste of upper class patrons who supported them through philanthropy. As temples of objects, museums essentially sacralized the tastes of the wealthy by disconnecting works of art from their historical contexts, presenting them instead as seemingly timeless examples of beauty and good aesthetics. As our expectations of museums have shifted from the temple of art to the education/activist model, art museums in particular have slowly adopted revisionist histories with mixed results, as they are now expected to undo the timeless mythology they constructed during the 19th century.

More recent texts like Patricia Banks’s Diversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums complicate Wallach’s discussion of class by examining intersecting identities of race or gender. Focusing specifically on African American museums, Banks argues that upper-middle and upper-class donors support museums for different reasons depending on their race, gender, age, and involvement with culture. Donors working in the for-profit sector, for instance, tend to support museums because of the positive association it projects onto their business, as well as for the opportunity to network with related professionals, whereas nonprofit donors get involved for more individualistic reasons. White donors perceive African American museums as spaces for integration, whereas Black philanthropists value them as specifically Black spaces telling Black narratives. Art collectors specializing in Black artists patronize museums as a way of legitimizing their private collections while simultaneously confronting the overly white, male canon of art history. In short, the kind of work a museum does for the community largely depends on the person you’re asking, underscoring that museums participate in a dialogue with their audiences.

Yet other authors take a different angle to museums by examining their potential as sites of resistance or questioning. In Decolonizing Museums, Amy Lonetree explores several case studies of indigenous museums performing decolonizing work, with the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways being considered especially successful. In particular, she explores how these institutions either do or do not center indigenous voices, including the use of indigenous frameworks of history, and confronting the ongoing trauma of genocide and other atrocities. In Lonetree’s scholarship, indigenous museums should be more than memorializing or reifying institutions. Rather, they should act as sites of healing by willingly confronting the traumas of white colonization.

While not overtly resistance-oriented in its subject matter, the contributors to the anthology Defining Memory make a case for smaller museums as alternatives to the imposing model of major institutions like the Met or the Field. By emphasizing a localized sense of place, highlighting quirky subject matter, or displaying collections with minimal interpretive texts due to limited staff or budgets, small museums, inadvertently or otherwise, can offer visitors greater autonomy in their own interpretive experiences. Additionally, they often highlight objects or subject matter that go against the perceived norms associated with larger institutions. Whether it’s a video recording of an Elvis sighting or the skeleton of a two-headed calf (or in the case of the Isle of Wight County Museum I visited before the pandemic, the world’s oldest ham), small, local museums often celebrate difference, an approach unintentionally in keeping with queer theory.

Still other authors argue for the potential of museums in taking a more radical approach to their work. In Curating Community, Stacy Douglas posits that museums should question and interrupt such western, liberal ideals as community, sovereignty, and autonomy. Focusing specifically on museums in South Africa, she posits that museums conventionally affirm individual autonomy as articulated in constitutions. Whereas constitutions are obligated to maintain questions of borders and sovereignty due to their role as legal documents, museums can and should actively question these ideas in order to get people to think about the interconnected, interdependent nature of existence.

As you might expect, I found this part of the list quite engaging. Given my interest in the Community Art Center Project, questions regarding what kind of work museums and galleries can and should do resonate with my research. As I’ve learned from the Roswell Museum’s early history, local and federal supporters had different answers to these questions, which affected the exhibitions and programming that took place there. Moving forward, I’ll definitely remember these readings as I continue delving into the museum history field.

More importantly, these readings have helped guide my ongoing thinking about museums as institutions. Whether I’ve visited them for fun, worked in them as a curator, or researched them as a scholar, museums have played a substantial role in my professional and personal life (especially my personal life, given that I met Brandon through the Roswell Museum). Yet as recent articles have pointed out, museums are problematic institutions given their complicity in white supremacy, colonialism, classism, and sexism. Should I decide to return to museums after the program, I’ll need to confront these issues in my work, and do my part to create more inclusive institutions. As I work on my dissertation, I know I’ll keep thinking about, and acting on, these questions.

Thinking (and Reading) About the Art of the 1930s

We have reached the final list for my comprehensive exams: American art history. For the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at what I’ve been reading about art history, beginning with today’s post on the 1930s.

 Many of the works I have been reading have delved into the political nature of 1930s American art. As both Cécile Whiting and Andrew Hemingway point out in their respective monographs, art historians have tended to understudy the art of the 1930s in favor of postwar art such as Abstract Expressionism. They posit that the art of the interwar period gets dismissed because it’s regarded as formally regressive and overtly political, rejecting the abstraction of the 1910s for a more conservative, social realist style. Yet as both authors point out, the seemingly timeless, individual aesthetic attributed to Abstract Expressionism is itself a historical idea, and simply dismissing the art of the 1930s as political and regressive oversimplifies the cultural complexity of this period. Just as Michael Denning argues in his seminal volume The Cultural Front that the creative output of the Popular Front was more innovative than traditionally believed, so these authors argue that the art of the 1930s is more aesthetically and politically complex than conventionally thought. So Whiting points out, for instance, that antifacist art could be as subtle as Stuart Davis creating abstractions inspired by jazz or electric signs, celebrating the vivacity and diversity of American culture. Likewise, Andrew Hemingway posits that not all artists were hardcore Communists during the 1930s, and that they engaged with leftist ideas to varying degrees. 

While the majority of the books I’ve been looking at focus on the United States, I’ve also been reading about Mexican Muralism, since the work of Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, among others, significantly influenced both artists working in the United States and the federal government in terms of sponsoring a national art. As the authors contributing to the anthology Mexican Muralism point out, muralists had to navigate a lot of logistical and ideological challenges, including the negotiation between maintaining a radical art versus appeasing the interests of the state providing sponsorship. Indeed, Mary K. Coffey explores this question more deeply in her book, How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture, arguing that artists such as Orozco and Rivera underwent a conventionalizing process through their placement in museums. In other words, by commissioning artists to paint new works in museum spaces, institutions that have historically been associated with the state and official iterations of culture,  the Mexican government endeavored to domesticate the more radical politics presented in Mexican muralism. Throughout the New Deal era,  artists working in the United States faced similar issues. On the one hand, working in public spaces provides you the opportunity to express your messages to a wider audience. At the same time, however, when it’s the state that’s sponsoring you, it’s questionable whether you’ll be able to get any radical content out there. Indeed, a lot of critics of the New Deal at the time made this very argument regarding art, suggesting that art was better served when left to its own devices in a free market because it didn’t have to acknowledge or appease government oversight.

Given my interest in the New Deal, naturally a lot of the readings I’ve been looking at focus on the Federal Art Project, or share similar ideas. In Democratic Art, for instance, Sharon Ann Musher frames her study around the following questions: how did art advocates temporarily secure a New Deal for the arts, and what lessons does the past offer about government funding for the arts today? Looking at the political and cultural history underpinning the New Deal art movements, Musher goes beyond the standard critiques of middlebrow or radical content to explore the relationship between art and the state. Examining both renowned, federally-operated projects such as Federal One as well as smaller, more merit-based projects, Musher considers how the various institutions and projects associated with the New Deal functioned in society, and how both their critics and participants responded to them. Rather than lump them collectively into either conservative or liberal reactions, she instead considers local as well as national responses. Her discussions of community responses to various projects is particularly thorough, as when she describes different local reactions to community art centers. Rather than simply dismiss them as conservative or reactionary, she examines and identifies a variety of responses reflecting local politics, from the aversion toward nudity at the Phoenix Art Center, to the discomfort toward Communist politics at the Oklahoma City Art Center. 

If Musher concentrates on the political aspects of the Federal Art Project, Victoria Grieve highlights the educational side of the FAP in her book, The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture. She argues that FAP administrators emphasized the importance of public art education and appreciation to the various art projects they sponsored, because they believed that educating citizens in art appreciation helped to cultivate a critically engaged citizenry. Influenced by the writings of John Dewey, John Cotton Dana, and other Progressive Era thinkers from the turn of the 20th century, she posits that art administrators believed that teaching citizens to critically engage works of art would influence other behaviors. In other words, teaching visitors to look at a painting and assess its quality by analyzing such formal aspects as line, shape, or color, would encourage them to be more proactive thinkers in other aspects of their life, because they were being taught to actively engage their surroundings. Additionally, teaching visitors to appreciate art would not only demystify it and make it appear more approachable, but would also encourage visitors to view themselves as art consumers, making them more likely to purchase works of art for themselves. In this way, the FAP served an economic as well as educational dimension, enabling an active approach to art appreciation that fed into both capitalist and democratic ideals. This book has been particularly influential in my own work up to this point, because Grieve talks explicitly about community art centers and their role in cultivating citizenship, not only through teaching art appreciation through exhibitions, but also through participatory, hands-on art-making classes.

Lauren Kroiz also reconsiders the significance of art education in the 1930s in her work Cultivating Citizens: The Regional Work of Art in the New Deal Era. Looking at the careers of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry, she argues that education not only comprised a vital part of their work, but also reflects broader questions about art, citizenry, and the development of a distinctly American visual culture and identity. At the heart of this ongoing debate, according to Kroiz, is the question of who gets to teach art and its appreciation to the public, and by extension, use art to cultivate a more robust democracy. For Wood and Benton, artists should be the instructor because they possess the practical experience with the medium that enables them to pass that interest on to amateur makers. For art historians such as H.W. Janson, it is art historians who should be the primary teachers, as they can provide the historical and stylistic context to inform citizens while still enabling them the freedom to choose which styles to emulate. Museum directors and educators, in turn, argued that they were crucial because they possess the repositories of works that enable viewers to study them first-hand.  More than petty conflicts between clashing personalities, Kroiz argues that the educational efforts surrounding Regionalist artists and their respective institutions reflect ongoing debates regarding the role of art education in the cultivation of an engaged, democratic citizenry. Although her work doesn’t specifically address the Federal Art Project per se, her focus on the pedagogy of Regionalism shares affinities with the FAP’s educational interests.

While the books I’ve been reading focus on what would be called the so-called fine arts, such as painting and sculpture, also been reading text focusing more explicitly on what we call folk art or vernacular art. Given my previous curatorial experience at Shelburne Museum, which is renowned for its vernacular art collection, I’ve been especially interested in exploring this topic more deeply. Among the texts I’ve been reading is the seminal catalog,  Folk Art in America: Art of the Common Man, by Holger Cahill, future director of the FAP itself. Accompanying an exhibition of the same name that was held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1930, this project was one of the first shows to elevate such objects as trade signs, cigar-store figures, vernacular paintings, and other objects to the status of so-called fine art. Cahill’s curating and writing would prove immensely influential on the development of folk art as a field, and continues to inform us today. Reading this text is illuminating because you get to see what kinds of objects Cahill is designating as art, and just as importantly, what isn’t.

The omission of objects from the folk art canon it is a particularly driving theme in a related work, Kentucky by Design. This catalog accompanied an exhibition of the Kentucky submissions to the Index of American design, one of the FAP’s biggest undertakings. Consisting of thousands of illustrations hand-painted by American artists and illustrators,  the index attempted to document American design through a selection of vernacular objects such as textiles, furniture, toys, and so forth. Yet as numerous scholars have pointed out, the Index, while claiming to offer a comprehensive view of American visual culture, was in fact highly selective. The vast majority of its objects originated from Eurocentric immigrant cultures, for instance,  while works originating from Native American or African American traditions were essentially ignored. While Cahill argued he wanted to avoid repetition because Native American objects were already being documented through ethnographic projects, the mere designation between ethnographic object and fine art is illuminating, offering insight into the ways that the Federal Art Project classified different visual cultures. In other words, American works originating from a European tradition were more likely to be regarded as art, whereas works coming from indigenous cultures were labeled as artifacts. All of these observations remind me of one of the first books I read for comps, Sorting Things Out, which argues that for every designation made in a classification, something has to get left out.

Since I’m interested in the Community Art Center Project, all of these readings are also relevant to what I’ll be working on. Even if I’m not addressing post office murals directly, or overtly political art, it’s important to be familiar with the visual culture of the period, and how it might have influenced the selections made in the Community Art Center Project exhibitions. I’ll definitely be keeping all of these works in mind as I start putting together my own prospectus. 

Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist

As part of our ongoing work to challenge racism, this month we’re going to be taking a look at Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist.

How to Be an Antiracist: Kendi, Ibram X.: 9780525509288: Amazon ...

First, a little about Kendi himself, because this book is closely linked to his life and work. Kendi is a historian, professor, and antiracist activist. He is the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, DC, and starting this fall, he will be a professor of history and the Founding Director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. His essays have appeared in The Atlantic and CBS, and he has authored four books: The Black Campus Movement; Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America; Antiracist Baby; and the text we’ll be looking at today, How to be an Antiracist. He is a powerhouse when it comes to antiracist research and policy.

Intertwining history, theory, and autobiography, Kendi’s book introduces readers to antiracist ideas through the lens of his own life. Over the course of eighteen chapters, Kendi examines how racist and antiracist policies and ideas influence our thinking about different topics, including space, gender, sexuality, or color. He discusses these ideas while describing his own transformation from a teen with aspirations to playing for the NBA to becoming a history professor and activist. Each chapter follows a similar format: he provides a racist and antiracist definition of a term or idea, such as racist culture and antiracist culture. Following these definitions, he opens his prose with a personal vignette reflecting how his life at that moment embodied the concepts he describes. He then contextualizes his personal experiences within a broader historical framework before finally introducing an antiracist counterpart. He concludes by returning back to his personal life to show how he had learned or changed from the incident. The resulting argument is lucid, nuanced, and deeply personal.

An important theme underpinning this book is learning. Kendi demonstrates in each chapter that his antiracist stance did not develop overnight. On the contrary, he considers this process ongoing. He also underscores the multiple layers of racist belief to demonstrate how deeply embedded it has become in American culture. Every time he thought he understood racism, he argues, he discovered yet another layer that he needed to unlearn, whether it pertained to gender relations, queer bodies, or ideas of success.

For Kendi, the key to being antiracist is to recognize racism as a form of power. Whereas the default to explaining racism is ignorance and misunderstanding, Kendi argues that self-interest rather than ignorance underpins racism. In other words, people who have power use racism as a means of exploiting other people while maintaining their power. Related to this idea of power is the importance of distinguishing individual racism from racist policies (he avoids the term institutional racism because it tends to render the machinations underpinning our institutions invisible. To dismantle racism, we need to concretize it by confronting the actual policies that enable it). The key to real change is targeting the policies that enable racist beliefs and practices. Only through this large-scale, systemic change can we hope to see improvement. For white people, this means recognizing that racist policies also adversely affect them because they promote inequality.

Intersectionalism plays a key role in Kendi’s book. As he argues, racist policy does not affect all people equally. Your gender, sexuality, and economic standing will also shape your experience. Nor is oppression an either/or binary. People are oppressed or empowered to different degrees. Poor white people can be economically oppressed while still benefiting from white privilege. A middle-class, Black man is still affected by racial policies, but will have very different experiences from a Black, trans woman. The point isn’t to make it a competition, but rather to recognize that everyone’s experiences are different, and that lumping any group of people into a monolithic category is unproductive.

Kendi spends a lot of the book exploring how racist beliefs manifest in Black communities. In his chapter entitled Color, for instance, he explores colorism within African American communities, with light-skinned Blacks often viewed as more attractive than darker-skinned blacks, for instance (for another article exploring colorism, check out Dr. Catherine Knight-Steele’s work on The Proud Family). He discusses this idea through his experiences as an undergraduate at Florida A&M University, from his experiments with wearing lighter-colored contacts, to the ways his friends responded when he briefly dated a light-skinned Black woman. As he does with each chapter, he scrutinizes his own behavior to identify persistent racism, as when he subsequently decided to date exclusively dark-skinned women in an instance of reverse discrimination. As a white person who’s admittedly not terribly familiar with Black culture, I appreciated Kendi’s nuanced exploration of African American communities, and his refusal to condense Black people into a monolithic group. Throughout, he argues for the importance of recognizing everyone as an imperfect individual.

He also emphasizes the importance of being open to change. By using himself as an example and being frank about his past racism, sexism, and homophobia, Kendi demonstrates that it’s possible to unlearn old beliefs. Throughout he emphasizes how he changed his viewpoints by not only reading books, but especially through having conversations with Black people who had different perspectives and experiences. As he makes clear, it’s hard, ongoing work, but it can and must be done.

If you’re a white reader who’s new to thinking about racism on a cultural or policy-wide level, I recommend starting with Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race or Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Kendi’s argument is a subtle one that focuses primarily on how racism manifests in Black communities, so if you’re not used to thinking about your own privilege, your white fragility may be tempted to push back and recuse you from responsibility. If you have read these other texts and you’re ready for another engaging, nuanced argument from a Black perspective, I recommend it.