Recent Reading: Antiracism

I feel as if I haven’t read a thing since the semester started, but that isn’t really true. I haven’t read as much as during the summer, and I’ve been very slowly pecking away at a long novel (Homeland by Fernando Aramburu), but I have been reading, including poetry, some mysteries, more Dick Francis audiobooks (though the binge has slowed way down), and some non-fiction about, as Ibram X. Kendi’s book has it, How to Be an Antiracist.

I learned about Bob Joseph and Cynthia F. Joseph’s Indigenous Relations: Insights, Tips and Suggestions to Make Reconciliation a Reality from someone in the Truth and Reconciliation Circle at my church, and then I spotted it at the library. It’s a short, accessible book, but I still skimmed some because it’s really aimed at business and government leaders doing projects with Indigenous communities. Bob Joseph does corporate training on Indigenous relations.

This book is useful even for non-corporate people like me, though. It helped me recognize assumptions I make about Indigenous people (and others from different cultural backgrounds) and raises questions around cultural differences I wouldn’t have thought to ask. I hope it makes me a better listener in general, not just to my Indigenous students. As a bonus, it gave me insight into an unrelated work issue! I plan to read Joseph’s book on the Indian Act, which I don’t know as much about as I should.

Joseph’s subtitle “tips and suggestions” suggests the practical nature of his advice–not surprising for a corporate trainer. Despite the “how to” of his title, Kendi’s book is more abstract. I’d checked out Stamped From the Beginning, his history of racist ideas in America, from the library, but didn’t get a chance to read it before it was due back. How to Be an Antiracist is much shorter and draws on Kendi’s personal history more than national history, but it’s grounded in the same ideas and approach: defining racism and anti-racism and then identifying them even when they appear in uncomfortable places, like his own mind. He weaves his own life story–at least the story of his developing thinking about racism and antiracism–through short chapters on themes like cultural racism, color, class, gender and sexuality.

There are a lot of provocative ideas here, including Kendi’s dismissal of the idea that Black people can’t be racist and his insistence that you can’t be “not racist”: you’re either an antiracist or you’re supporting (at least passively) racist policies and ideas. He also distinguishes demonstration from protest. Activism is not demonstration or Twitter rants, something aimed at making us feel better, but protest, actions aimed at changing racist policy and claiming power for antiracism. I found this distinction helpful, but perhaps too dismissive of the way that demonstrations and the emotions they engender could lead people to more effective action.

Kendi talks about how he gave up the idea of “suasion,” changing hearts and minds. Changes to policy, he says, need to come first, and attitudes will follow (maybe). This, too, makes sense, but the book itself seems to a work of moral or ideological suasion. There aren’t really clear prescriptions for action. He defines a racist as “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” But though there’s a lot of use of the word “policy” in his definitions, the book’s focus is more on ideas. That’s not necessarily a criticism: I thought the most nuanced and engaging parts of the book were the memoir parts. Kendi is rigorous in his self-examination and clear about the ways in which his own thinking has been racist. His story models the way to become antiracist (and it struck me that for most of us, this is a journey of becoming in which we will never reach the end). This did lead him to more practical action, heading the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University where he also teaches history and international relations. In that, too, he is a model for the reader.

When Kendi is writing more abstractly, not about his own or America’s history, I found the book more of a challenge. I understand why the book is structured in thematic chapters, because it explores many dimensions and intersections of racism. But it sometimes felt repetitive or simplistically didactic:

Racist (and homophobic) power distinguishes race-sexualities, racial (or sexuality) groups at the intersection of race and sexuality. Homosexuals are a sexuality. Latinx people are a race. Latinx homosexuals are a race-sexuality. A homophobic policy produces inequities between heterosexuals and homosexuals. A racist policy produces inequities between racial groups. Queer racism produces inequities between race-sexualities.

In a passage like this, I tuned, out, but when Kendi is telling stories, he’s riveting. For me, the concrete examples made the point much better. I wondered, though, what a passage like this might be like in audio, because it struck me it had the kind of repetitive, incantatory cadences of a good preacher.

The reviews I read made me think that readers’ responses to How to Be an Antiracist are likely to be shaped by the political predispositions they bring to it, and I’m sure that’s true of mine, too. Both Joseph’s book and Kendi’s challenged me, and sometimes I found myself pushing back against those challenges, and unsure about my motive for doing so. But that kind of self-questioning is part of what they ask us to do.


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5 Responses to Recent Reading: Antiracism

  1. Sunita says:

    Kendi seems to be using racism the way we used to use the terms bigotry or prejudice. In past decades social scientists reserved the term racism to define institutionalized bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination, or instances of individual attitudes of racial superiority that in the aggregate produced structures of discrimination and oppression. Kendi’s use of it tracks the general change in the way the word is used, which I often find disorienting because I’ve been using the structural version for so long.

    That paragraph you quoted makes total sense to me (although the idea that Latinx people comprise a race doesn’t; they’re not a race by any definition I’ve seen). This is probably a bad thing and says something about how much jargon I’ve internalized and use. I agree it’s repetitive and didactic, but I think that’s the point. It’s not for people who already know how intersectionality works, and I’ve been in any number of situations where it’s pretty clear that there are plenty of academics who don’t think about intersectionality, so the number of non-specialists is probably much greater.

    I need to look up the Josephs’ book. And I doubt you know less about the Indian Act than most US residents know about the Dawes Act. It’s a northern hemisphere problem, to be sure.

    I’ve been intrigued by the Aramburu; the reviews I’ve read are mixed, but interestingly so. I look forward to your thoughts on it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, it’s unfair really to criticize a book like this for being didactic. That’s the point, as you say! I just found passages like that a slog to read and wondered if his definitions (which are a key strategy of the book) could have been written in a more engaging way (every chapter starts with a definition structured the same way and adding the focus of that particular gender, like race-gender, race-sexuality, race-culture).

      Kendi says (I hope I’m getting this right, I returned the book) that he doesn’t like “institutional racism” (or systemic/structural), although he sometimes uses those terms, because it elides the responsibility of specific policies and policy-makers that make up institutions. I think what he’s really emphasizing is that there’s no such thing, in his view, as “not racist.” If you aren’t actively antiracist, you are passively supporting racism. I think that is a big part of why he focuses so much on ideas and beliefs. (Even though he says changing policy is what matters).

      Maybe I just want to be told more directly what to DO. I liked Joseph’s tips like “Don’t try to set up a community meeting during fishing season” because it translated cultural awareness into lived action. That’s the hardest step, in some ways. Beyond well-meaning.

      I am liking the Aramburu a lot, and I’m intrigued by the narrative voice, which slides from describing a person’s thoughts to reporting them in a really interesting way (from 3rd to 1st person from one sentence to the next). But I’m only about 100 pages in and it’s almost 600! Not the best book to take on at the start of September.

      • Sunita says:

        It’s not unfair if they’re a slog to read, because if they’re a slog for you, they’re probably even more opaque and difficult to get through for people who aren’t steeped in the jargon.

        The policies and the changing of hearts and minds really has to go hand in hand. Policies don’t change without active work (obviously) but if policy change were enough we would be further along this path and we would not be relitigating the big ones, like the Voting Rights Act. I guess my problem with his argument (not that I’ve read the book, just from your discussion and the various reviews I’ve read) is that his version of racism sounds like prejudice/bigotry, which are human traits. Of course we want to work actively against them in our daily lives and we want to be especially alert to the ways in which we reinforce unjust structures. That we do need to work at all the time. But prejudice is something to managed and its damaged minimized, not something that can be eradicated. Although again, I may be using the terms in a different way than he is.

  2. Kendi’s writing style isn’t for me, unfortunately — I found that when I tried to read his previous book and this one. I think the work he’s doing is so important but ALAS I can’t get along with the way he writes. It’s too broken up for me. :/

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, in the end I think my problem with passages like the one I quoted were the short choppy sentences more than the ideas. I’m glad I read it because I found some of it helpful, but it could have had a more engaging style.

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