Sunday, May 16, 2021

Kendi's How to be an Antiracist

Nearing the end of my two-week long prep period at the END of a year that slayed me with back-to-back senior courses, and I'm finally getting caught up on my reading!

Just on Friday, Vancouver police were looking for a 40-year-old suspect, and arrested an 81-year-old Black man who happened to be a former judge with much to say about the state of the police department that would shackle a man on an early morning walk. We know how horrifically racist some police actions have been, and Ibram X. Kendi's bestseller takes us through to solutions for it all. It's a beautifully written  book that takes us step by step through his own journey from racism/not-racism towards antiracism mixed in with related history for context. It reads like a biography, and then you realize you've been significantly educated by the end of it! I added a few more points to this Canada/US history of colonization chart to avoid cluttering up the main ideas below.


He starts each chapter with definitions to help us see the more useful perception of these problems. Here are two key sets of terms:

non-racist / neutral / colourblind 

"The claim of 'not racist' neutrality is a mask for racism" (7). "The construct of race neutrality actually feeds White nationalist victimhood by positing the notion that any policy protecting or advancing non-White Americans towards equity is 'reverse discrimination'" (20). "White people have their own dueling consciousness, between the segregationist [separate people who don't accept the dominant culture] and the assimilationist [adopt the dominant culture's way of life]: the slave trader and the missionary" (31).

There's a false dichotomy between segregation and assimilation that, I hope, most people in Canada understand. We went down the multicultural road, except for the Indigenous, who we're largely ignored or violated. In some senses, Canada is worse because we actually get this part of it, in theory. We understand that we should never stop people from living the way they want to live, welcoming a variety of religions and customs to live side-by-side, except for that one group that was here first. We've got a long way to go too. And there are people here too that have that sense that any limit to privilege is necessarily oppression:

"Claims of anti-White racism in response to antiracism are as old as civil rights. When Congress passed the (first) civil Rights Act of 1866, it made Black people citizens of the United States, stipulated their civil rights, and stated that state law could not 'deprive a person of any of these rights on the basis of race.' President Andrew Johnson reframed this antiracist bill as a 'bill made to operate in favor of the colored against the white race'" (130).


"'Racist' is not a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it--and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction" (9). Antiracist people recognize that "racial groups of equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity" (24).

"If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. . . . The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination" (19). "To be antiracist is to see all cultures in all their differences as on the same level, as equals. When we see cultural differences, we are seeing cultural differences--nothing more, nothing less" (91).


He grew up internalizing racist ideas: "Racist ideas make people of color think less of themselves, which makes them more vulnerable to racist ideas. Racist ideas make White people think more of themselves, which further attracts them to racist ideas" (6). He explained the feeling with DuBois's notion of double consciousness, from The Souls of Black Folk: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others" (29).

He quotes Audre Lorde:

"We have all been programme to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals" (23).


It took a while for me to understand the term - but it's an active process. People aren't part of a race, biologically, but, instead, they have been racialized by the dominant culture.

"All ethnic groups, once they fall under the gaze and power of race makers, become racialized. I am a descendant of American slaves. My ethnic group is African American. My race, as an African American, is Black. Kenyans are racialized as a Black ethnic group, while Italians are White, Japanese are Asian, Syrians are Middle Eastern, Puerto Ricans are Latinx, and Choctaws are Native American. The racializing serves the core mandate of race: to create hierarchies of value" (62).

This can be further understood by looking at what counts as white. People from Southern Europe (Italy, Spain, Greece) weren't always included as part of the white race. Greek writer, Fotis Kapetopoulos wrote about graduating to "sort of white" in Australia as late as the 1980s. 

But even within people racialized as Black, there is the problem of 'colorism': racist policies that cause inequity between Light and Dark people: 

"Light people sometimes pass for White an may yet be accepted into Whiteness so that White people can maintain majorities in countries like the United States, where demographic trends threaten to relegate them to minority status. Some reformers project Light people as the biracial key to racial harmony, an embodiment of a post-racial future" (110). "Dark African Americans receive the harshest prison sentences and more time behind bars. White male offenders with African facial features receive harsher sentences than their all-European peers. ark female students are nearly twice as likely to be suspended as White female students" (111).

He explained the route DuBois took to get to the same place, as even he had a racist preference for lighter-skinned Black leaders in the 1920s. "DuBois had changed his thinking by the 1930s. . . . He replaced Garvey as the chief antiracist critic of the NAACP, which initially shied away from defending the Dark and poor Scottsboro Boys, who were falsely accused of raping two Alabama White women in 1931" (117).  And as recently as 2014, in a "casting call for the movie Straight Outta Compton, the Sandi Alesse Agency ranked extras" by skin tone connected to character types (119)!


Nobody should have to carry the burden of representing an entire group of people, especially not a child:

"I was under motivated and distracted and undisciplined. In other words, a bad student. But I shouldn't be critiqued as a bad Black student. I did not represent my race any more than my irresponsible White classmates represented their race. . . . Every time someone racializes behavior--describes something as 'Black behavior'--they are expressing a racist idea. To be antiracist is to recognize there is no such thing as racial behavior" (94).

Kendi questions Joy DeGruy's theory of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) to explain any 'negative behaviours' exhibited by anyone Black (97). He called this an example of an "oppression-inferiority thesis" that keeps people inferior by explaining their behaviours as due to oppression (and therefore unable to change). "First slavery, then segregation, and now poverty and life in the 'ghetto' made Black people inferior. . . . Poverty became perhaps the most enduring and popular injustice to fit into the oppression-inferiority thesis. Something was making poor people poor, according to this idea. And it was welfare" (154). It ignores how much the wealthy rely on the tax cuts and low wages, etc. but the theory also "positioned the Black poor as inferior to Black elites. . . . This stereotype of the hopeless, defeated, unmotivated poor Black is without evidence. Recent research shows, in fact, that poor Blacks are more optimistic about their prospects than poor Whites are" (155).

I recognize this phenomenon as a unique form of pigeonholing that can happen to anyone in a minority but also anyone with a unique characteristic: looking for that one thing is sometimes used to understand all of you - autism, trans-identity, an alcoholic parent, a long ago rape or abortion, etc. - and then anything that happens to you, or any questionable actions or ideas, are written-off as due to this one thing. It fails to see people as individuals. It's a shortcut that goes nowhere: "You're depressed today? Must be because of your mom's alcoholism." A good analogy to clarify the problem with this mode of thinking is to replace that one thing with something physical and temporary: "You've got a broken arm? Must be because of your mom's alcoholism." For DeGruy's theory, slavery is that one overriding thing that affects all else through generations. It creates a perception that can box people in instead of helping them escape. Kendi explains, 

"Some individuals throughout history have exhibited negative behaviors related to this trauma. DeGruy is a hero for ushering the constructs of trauma, damage, and healing into our understanding of Black life. But there is a thin line between an antiracist saying individual Blacks have suffered trauma and a racist saying Blacks are a traumatized people" (97).


The crux of Kendi's book is about affecting policy. He writes about taking a GRE prep course that taught him, not general knowledge, but how to take a test like that, and how standardized tests perpetuate racism:

"It revealed the bait and switch at the heart of standardized tests--the exact thing that made them unfair: She was teaching test-taking form for standardized exams that purportedly measured intellectual strength. My classmates and I would get higher scores--two hundred points, as promised--than poorer students, who might be equivalent in intellectual strength but did not have the resources or, in some cases, even the awareness to acquire better form through high-priced prep courses. Because of the way the human mind works--the so-called 'attribution effect,' which drives us to take personal credit for any success--those of us who prepped for the test would score higher and then walk into better opportunities thinking it was all about us. . . . The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies" (101). 

So, if we can ditch streaming as an effort to be antiracist, can we please ditch standardized tests?? We train our grade 10s to fill every blank line and memorize mnemonics that help them remember to include two made-up quotations in their news article because some committee somewhere decided that's what a level 4 news article contains and that that is how to determine literacy rates. Too much time is wasted training to that test seem to be used, in my parts, primarily to rank schools.  

His call to arms is focused exclusively on changing policies that are exclusionary in principle:

"When Black people recoil from White racism and concentrate their hatred on everyday White people, as I did freshman year in college, they are not fighting racist power or racist policymakers. In losing focus on racist power, they fail to challenge anti-Black racist policies, which means those policies are more likely to flourish. Going after White people instead of racist power prolongs the policies harming Black life. . . . White supremacists blame non-White people for the struggles of White people when any objective analysis of their plight primarily implicates the rich White Trumps they support. . . . White supremacist is code for anti-human, a nuclear ideology that poses an existential threat to human existence" (131-2).

"Every single person actually has the power to protest racist and antiracist policies, to advance them, or, in some small way, to stall them. Nation-states, sectors, communities, institutions are run by policymakers and policies and policy managers. 'Institutional power' or 'systemic power' or 'structural power' is the policy making and managing power of people, in groups or individually. When someone says Black people can't be racist because Black people don't have 'institutional power,' they are flouting reality" (141). "The saying 'Black people can't be racist' reproduces the false duality of racist and not-racist promoted by White racists to deny their racism" (143).  

He provides several examples of Black racists attacking Black people as inferior in order to gain some status with White people. In a survey of 8,000 officers in U.S. in 2017, 6% of White officers agree with the need to give Blacks equal right compared with 69% of Black officers (148). It's definitely a case that there are more White racist cop who believe we're in a post-race world, but they're not all White.

"When a policy exploits poor people, it is an elitist policy. When a policy exploits Black people, it is a racist policy. When a policy exploits Black poor people, the policy exploits at the intersection of elitist and racist policies--a policy intersection of class racism" (152).


This is a pivotal section that gets at the twin, intersecting problems of race and capitalism. It all goes back centuries before neoliberal capitalism. Kendi takes aim at the basic principle of the free market. 

"It is impossible to know racism without understanding its intersection with capitalism. As Martin Luther King said in his critique of capitalism in 1967, It means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated. . . . Prince Henry's Portugal birthed conjoined twins--capitalism and racism--when it initiated the transatlantic slave trade of African people. . . . The Black poverty rate in 2017 stood at 20 percent, nearly triple the White poverty rate. The Black unemployment rate has been at least twice as high as the White unemployment rate for the last fifty years. The wage gap between Black and Whites is the largest in forty years. The median net worth of White families is about ten times that of Black families. . . . The global gap between the richest (and Whitest) regions of the world and the poorest (and Blackest) regions of the world has tripled in size wince the 1960s" (156-7).

But it's important to remember how interdependent the concepts are, what scholars now call 'racial capitalism:

"Attributing these inequities solely to capitalism is as faulty as attributing them solely to racism. Believing these inequities will be eliminated through eliminating capitalism is as faulty as believing these inequities will be eliminated through eliminating racism. . . . As racial disparities within the classes narrowed in recent decades, the economic inequities within the races have broadened, as have the class-racist ideas justifying those inequities. . . . 'The discovery of gold and silver in America,' Karl Marx once wrote, 'the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.' Marx recognized the birth of the conjoined twins" (158-9).

And it important to define racist capitalism carefully:

"Conservative defenders are defining capitalism as the freedom to exploit people into economic ruin; the freedom to assassinate unions; the freedom to prey on unprotected consumers, workers, and environments; the freedom to value quarterly profits over climate change; the freedom to undermine small businesses and cushion corporation; the freedom from competition; the freedom not to pay taxes; the freedom to heave the tax burden on to the middle and lower classes; the freedom to commodify everything and everyone. . . . Liberals who are 'capitalist to the bone,' as U.S. senator Elizabeth Warren identifies herself, present a different definition of capitalism . . . . competition that comes with a market that has decent rules . . . the problems are when the rules are not enforced, when the markets are not level playing fields, all that wealth is scraped in one direction,' leading to deception and theft. 'Theft is not capitalism'" (161-2).

BUT, Kendi explains, this liberal definition disentangles capitalism from theft, racism, sexism, and imperialism dishonestly:

"History does not affirm this definition of capitalism. Markets and market rules and competition and benefits from winning existed long before the rise of capitalism in the modern world. What capitalism introduced to this mix was global theft, racially uneven playing fields, unidirectional wealth that rushes upward in unprecedented amounts. . . . When did the rules not generally benefit the wealthy and White nations? Humanity needs honest definitions of capitalism and racism based in the actual living history of the conjoined twins. . . . To love capitalism is to end up loving racism. To love racism is to end up loving capitalism. The conjoined twins are two sides of the same destructive body. The idea that capitalism is merely free markets, competition, free trade, supplying and demanding, and private ownership of the means of production operating for a profit is as whimsical and ahistorical as the White-supremacist idea that calling something racist is the primary form of racism" (162-3).

In class, I show this 2 minute clip (starting at 2:46) of Richard Pryor explaining the connection succinctly:


Recently a Black homeowner had her house appraisal double when she got a white friend to pretend to be her. Kendi list many examples of this continued exploitation, from disproportionate endowments in school to bank loans. "Banks remain twice as likely to offer loans to White entrepreneurs than to Black entrepreneurs. Customers avoid Black businesses like they are the 'ghetto,' like the 'White man's ice is colder,' as antiracists have joked for years" (173).


Kendi explains that self-segregation by minority groups isn't the problem many think it is. In 1954, the Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll experiment, that found that Black children preferred White dolls, was brought to play in the Brown v. Board of Education court. The doll preference was seen as, 

"proof of the negative psychological harm of segregation. . . .  [Justice Warren ] wrote the 'segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children.' It retards their 'education and mental development.' . . . What really made the schools unequal were the dramatically unequal resources provided to them, not the mere fact of racial separation. . . . The 1973 Supreme Court ruling reified the only solution emanating from the Brown decision in 1954: busing Black bodies from detrimental Black spaces to worthwhile White spaces. . . . Martin Luther King Jr. also privately disagreed. 'I favor integration on buses and in all areas of public accommodation and travel. . . . I think integration in our public schools is different,' King told two Black teachers in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1959. 'White people view black people as inferior. . . . People with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.' King had a nightmare that came to pass" (176-7).

Black students did better on standardized tests in integrated schools, but Kendi suggests that's because they were taught test prep by their middle class White teachers. He calls out the mistaken the way many people have understood this: "The integrationist transformation of King as color-blind and race-neutral erases the actual King. He did not live to integrate Black spaces and people into White oblivion." He built low income homes with all Black workers, architect, attorneys, and banks so that, 

"The child of a Black neighborhood, church, college, and organization lived to ensure equal access to public accommodations an equal resources for all racialized spaces, and antiracist strategy as culture-saving as his nonviolence was body-saving. . . . Through lynching Black bodies, segregationists are, in the end, more harmful to Black bodies than integrationists are. Through lynching Black cultures, integrationists are, in the end, more harmful to Black bodies than segregationists are. Think of the logical conclusion of integrationist strategy: every race being represented in every U.S. space according to their percentage in the national population. A Black person (12.7%) would not see another until after seeing eight or so non-Blacks" (179).

An antiracist strategy would provide open access to all public accommodations, and integrated Black spaces (as well as Indigenous, Middle Eastern...), that are,

 "as equally resourced as they are culturally different. . . . To be antiracist is to support the voluntary integration of bodies attracted by cultural difference, a shared humanity. Integration: resources rather than bodies. To be an antiracist is to champion resource equity by challenging the racist policies that produce resource inequity. Racial solidarity: openly identifying, supporting, and protecting integrated racial spaces. To be antiracist is to equate and nurture difference among racial groups" (180). 


And it's all worse for women and LGBTQ+ and anyone with a disability who are also Black. One of the most shocking examples: there were 700,000 case of involuntary sterilizations of Black women by 1980. 

"Gender racism produced the current situation of Black women with some collegiate education making less than White women with only high school degrees. . . . Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than are White women. A Black woman with an advance degree is more likely to lose her baby than a White woman with less than an eight-grade education. Black women remain twice as likely to be incarcerated as White women" (189).

As discussed in Michael Sandel's Tyranny of Merit, the idea of rising out of poverty in the U.S. is a fairy tale. Worse than not rising, "Black men raised in the top 1 percent by millionaires are as likely to be incarcerated as White men raised in households earning $36,000" (191). And this: "The average U.S. life expectancy of a transgender woman of color is thirty-five years" (197). Kendi points to Black women as first to point to the importance of recognizing intersectionality:

"All racial groups are a collection of intersectional identities differentiated by gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, skin color, nationality, and culture, among a series of other identifiers. Black women first recognized their own intersectional identity. Black feminists first theorized the intersection of two forms of bigotry: sexism and racism. Intersectional theory now gives all of humanity the ability to understand the intersectional oppression of their identities, from poor Latinx to Black men to White women to Native lesbians to transgender Asians. A theory for Black women is a theory for humanity. No wonder black feminists have been saying from the beginning that when humanity becomes serious about the freedom of Black women, humanity becomes serious about the freedom of humanity" (191).


Often the solutions we look for are informed by misguided concepts, like education being the key to change. We need to focus on power and policy: 

"Incorrect conceptions of race as a social construct (as opposed to a power construct), of racial history as a singular march of racial progress (as opposed to a duel of antiracist and racist progress), of the race problem as rooted in ignorance and hate (as opposed to powerful self-interest)--all come together to produce solutions bound to fail. . . . Behavioral-enrichment programs, like mentoring and educational programs, can help individuals but are bound to fail racial groups, which are held back by bad policies, not by behavior" (201-2).

"Moral and educational suasion focus on persuading White people, on appealing to their moral conscience through horror and their logical mind through education. But what if racist ideas make people illogical? What if persuading everyday White people is not persuading racist policymakers? What if racist policymakers know about the harmful outcomes of their policies? . . . What if no group in history has gained their freedom through appealing to the moral conscience of their oppressors?" (205).

DuBois gave up on education as a prime motivator, advising for accruing power instead: "Today there can be no doubt that Americans know the facts; and yet they remain for the most part indifferent and unmoved" (207).

"Racist power stopped out of self-interest when enough African and Asian and Latin nations were inside the American sphere of influence. . . . The problem of race has always been at its core the problem of power, not the problem of immorality or ignorance. . . . Once they clearly benefit, most Americans will support and become the defenders of the antiracist policies they once feared. . . . An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change" (208-9).

He has much to say about the faux activism found in many marches and demonstrations: 

"We convince ourselves we are doing something to solve the racial problem when we are really doing something to satisfy our feelings. We go home fulfilled, like we dined at our favorite restaurant. And this fulfillment is fleeting, like a drug high. The problems of inequity and injustice persist. They persistently make us feel bad and guilty. We persistently do something to make ourselves feel better as we convince ourselves we are making society better, as we never make society better" (210).

"When we fail to open the closed-minded consumers of racist ideas, we blame their closed-mindedness instead of our foolish decision to waste time reviving closed minds from the dead. When our vicious attacks on open-minded consumers of racist ideas fail to transform them, we blame their hate rather than our impatient and alienating hate of them" (213).

"The most effective demonstrations (like the most effective educational efforts) provide methods for people to give their antiracist power, to give their human and financial resources, channeling attendees and their funds into organizations and protests and power-seizing campaigns" (215). 

"The most effective protests create an environment whereby changing the racist policy becomes in power's self-interest, like desegregating businesses because the sit-ins are driving away customers, like increasing wages to restart production. . . . Organizing and protesting are much harder and more impactful than mobilizing and demonstrating. Seizing power is much harder than protesting power and demonstrating its excesses" (218).

"We become unconscious to racist policymakers and policies as we lash out angrily at the abstract bogeyman of 'the system'. . . . In the way people have learned t see racist abuse coming out of the mouths of individual racists, people can learn to see racial inequalities emerging from racist policies. All forms of racism are overt if our antiracist eyes are open to seeing racist policy in racial inequality.  . . . A similar bond exists between implicit bias and post-racialism. They bond on the idea that racist ideas are buried in the mind. " (221).

"The source of racist ideas was not ignorance and hate, but self-interest. . . . Educational and moral suasion is not only a failed strategy. It is a suicidal strategy" (230).


  1. Stop using the 'I'm not a racist' or 'I can't be racist' defense of denial.
  2. Admit the definition of racist (someone who is supporting racist policies or expressing racist ideas).
  3. Confess the racist policies I support and racist ideas I express.
  4. Accept their source (my upbringing inside a nation making us racist).
  5. Acknowledge the definition of antiracist (someone who is supporting antiracist policies or expressing antiracist ideas).
  6. Struggle for antiracist power and policy in my spaces. (Seizing a policymaking position. Joining an antiracist organization or protest. Publicly donating my time or privately donating my funds to antiracist policymakers, organizations, and protests fixated on changing power and policy.)
  7. Struggle to remain at the antiracist intersections where racism is mixed with other bigotries (227).
  8. Investigate and uncover the racist policies causing racial inequity. Invent or find antiracist policy that can eliminate racial inequity. 
  9. Figure out who or what group as the power to institute antiracist policy. 
  10. Disseminate and educate about the uncovered racist policy and antiracist policy correctives. 
  11. Work with sympathetic antiracist policymakers to institute the antiracist policy. 
  12. Deploy antiracist power to compel or drive from power the unsympathetic racist policymakers in order to institute the antiracist policy. 
  13. Monitor closely to ensure the antiracist policy reduces and eliminates racial inequity. 
  14. When policies fail, do not blame the people. Start over and seek out new and more effective antiracist treatments until they work. 
  15. Monitor closely to prevent new racist policies from being instituted (231-2).

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