Author and historian Ibram X. Kendi’s highly anticipated third book How to Be an Antiracist is available nationwide this week, and we vote for it to be assigned reading for every single literate person in the country.
How to Be an Antiracist lays out the ways that we can all be active and effective proponents of a true, racially equitable America. The book goes well beyond discussing bigotry, covering the ways that underlying structures like capitalism, legislation, and colorism have allowed racism to flourish. “We can’t just talk about racism as an original sin,” Kendi explained to Democracy Now! on Tuesday. “We have to talk about racism as the original cancer, as this original disease that has been killing America.” He joined journalist and activist Shaun King later that evening in Brooklyn to kick off his book tour.
Kendi’s last book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, earned him the National Book Award in 2016. In it, he first explored the concept of “antiracism” as being the cure for racism in a sweeping, historical context. His latest book, part-memoir, part-guide, distills these ideas down into actionable and relatable steps to practicing antiracism. In a nutshell, Kendi told NPR, “If a racist says that certain racial groups are superior or inferior or better or worse than others, an antiracist says there’s nothing wrong, or even right, with any racial groups.”
This is distinct from simply feeling “not racist.” For one thing, it’s too easy to believe that someone or something isn’t racist simply because a piece of legislation or concept doesn’t explicitly outline that one race is superior or inferior to another. Kendi pointed out, “What we should remember — and I don’t think many Americans realize this — is that eugenicists, when they were called racist in the 1930s and 1940s, their response was ‘I’m not racist.’ When Jim Crow segregationists in the ’50s and the ’60s were called racist, their response was ‘I’m not racist.’ Today, when white nationalists and white supremacists are charged with being racist, their response is, “I’m not racist.’ It has long been this sort of term of denial in which people refuse to recognize the way in which they’re actually being racist.”
Kendi also is painfully aware of the complexities of racism, which is why we can’t always account for the ways that our actions or beliefs prop it up, even if we don’t think we have a racist bone in our bodies. He himself admits in the book that he has not always been an antiracist. In college, he recalled wearing contact lenses to lighten his eyes, believing they were too dark to be considered attractive. Even further back, he recalled a speech he gave in high school in which he contended that the black community simply needed to lift themselves up despite their circumstances in order to achieve the American dream, a speech that earned him applause from his mostly black audience. “I didn’t realize it until later just how many racist ideas I had internalized,” Kendi reflected. “I didn’t realize until later that internalized racism is the real black-on-black crime.”
Kendi will be on his third stop of his book tour tomorrow, Thursday evening, in New York City at Judson Church. Tickets are still available on his site.