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.