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.