A Handbook for Fighting Racism in America
Ibram X. Kendi, author of "How to Be an Antiracist," on working towards equality in an era of rising nationalism and white supremacy
Ibram X. Kendi opens his latest book with his worst memory as a high school student competing in an oratorical contest. Having spent his short lifetime internalizing negative messages about Black people from Black people, from white people, and from the media and culture at large, Kendi delivered a remix of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, one that served up racist ideas about Black people to Black people. “The Black judge seemed to be eating it up and clapping me on my back for more. I kept giving more… I was a dupe, a chump who saw the ongoing struggles of Black people on MLK Day 2000 and decided that Black people themselves were the problem. This is the consistent function of racist ideas,” Kendi explains, “And of any kind of bigotry more broadly: to manipulate us into seeing people as the problem, instead of the policies that ensnare them.”
In How to Be An Antiracist, Kendi traces his journey in overcoming the effects of those racist ideas. He describes how racial inequity is a result of bad policy (not bad people) and how racist power leads to racist policies. He uses his life story to identify and define antiracist concepts and possibilities in a way that helps readers see all forms of racism, classism and sexism clearly so we can all work together to oppose their destructive effects both within ourselves and in society.
Ibram X. Kendi is a professor of history and international relations and the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His first book, The Black Campus Movement, won the 2011-12 W.E.B. Du Bois Book prize. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2017.
Kendi and I spoke by phone about how the erasure of the past has led to the resurgence of white supremacy and nationalism in this present moment, how the focus on test scores in education leads to discrimination against children of color, and how we can fight racism.
Deirdre Sugiuchi: I feel like I’ve been waiting for your books all my life. I want to thank you for all that you’ve done. Not to center this discussion on myself, but I grew up in Greenwood, Mississippi, which as you know was an integral site in the civil rights movement. Many brutalities occurred there, leading Stokely Carmichael to give the Black Power speech in Lay Park, something I didn’t know about until I left Mississippi and discovered in my own research.
Can you talk about how this erasure and denial of the past, particularly as it pertains to people of color, is connected to the resurgence of nationalism and white supremacy and this present moment?
Ibram X Kendi: First and foremost you have many white people who are struggling socially, economically, and other capacities. They are also simultaneously being told that they have white privilege, and they can’t really understand how they have privilege when they’re struggling, especially because they are not necessarily told about the long history of racism that people who are not like them suffered and endured, and the enduring impact of that racism. They just think that their past is the same as the past of the people of color, so as a result when a white man, a white supremacist organizer comes to them and says, “You don’t have anything wrong with you. You’re being discriminated against.” Of course that’s extremely enticing to them.
DS: Thank you. That’s really amazing. In How to Be an Antiracist, you say that the history of the racialized world is a three-way fight between between assimilationists, segregationists, and antiracists. Can you explain the terminology and what you mean?
IXK: The easiest way to understand the distinction between segregationists, antiracists, and assimilationists is over a simple idea. Like when Jefferson said, “all men are created equal,” you could change that to “all racial groups are created equal.” So in that sense, a segregationist would say all the racial groups are created unequal, that Black people, let’s say, are permanently and genetically inferior, and therefore the inequities in our society are caused by their inferiority, and those inequities are permanent.
An assimilationist would say that we’re all created equal, but Black people became inferior as a result of their environment, whether their environment is their so-called barbaric and pathological culture, or even that environment is oppression. Therefore they say that Black people are partly the cause, or Black behavior is the cause, of racial inequity but those behaviors and inferiorities are temporary. We can civilize and develop Black people as we challenge racism.
While an antiracist would say that all the racial groups are equal, meaning currently and historically there’s been nothing wrong or right with any of the racial groups, and there has been everything wrong with racist policies and racist power, and it’s racist policy that is fundamentally behind racial inequity, and in order to essentially eliminate racism or inequity, we must eliminate racist policies.
DS: You discuss racist power leading to racist policies, and the denial of racism being central to racism. How does this intersection of racism and capitalism contribute to inequality?
IXK: For instance, when you consider poverty in the United States, or even poverty around the world, people who are poor are disproportionately people of color. By 2030 forecasters are estimating that 90% of people living in extreme poverty will be living in sub-saharan Africa. So what that fundamentally means is when you talk about an issue like poverty, there are two different questions we should be asking. What is making large numbers of people poor, and what is making people of color disproportionately poor?
The answer to the first question is capitalism. Inherently and historically capitalism has manufactured large numbers of poor people. The answer to the second question is racism. Racism is the reason why people of color are disproportionately poor. And what’s interesting is that relationship, of people of color being disproportionately poor, has always existed within the life of both racism and capitalism, because they have been fundamentally reinforcing each other from both of their beginnings.
DS: You have that beautiful section and the chapter on dueling consciousness, when you talk about the white body defining the American Body and the Black body is instructed to become an American Body, the white body. How do we free ourselves from this dueling consciousness and how does anti-racism free us from this?
IXK: I think the way we free ourselves from this dueling consciousness is to strive to be antiracist, to recognize that there is no such thing as a prototypical American, that there are many different ways to be Americans. We should not exclude people we don’t consider to be American or assimilate people we don’t consider to be American. The white sort of dueling consciousness has been between those who are trying to exclude people of color, who they did not consider to have the ability to be American, and trying to include and trying to assimilate people of color who they considered to have the ability to be American, only if they acted right.
While for Black people it’s been this desire to be a negro, to be themselves, but then a simultaneous desire to be an American, or more or less to be white. So the relationship between whiteness and American-ness, the relationship between whiteness as a standard, we need to free ourselves from that. While for an antiracist there’s no such thing as the racial standard, there’s no race which is the standard American or human race.
DS: I was a Title I public educator and school librarian for 15 years. In your book, you describe at the age of eight recognizing the lack of Black teachers. You also describe recognizing and witnessing what you now refuse to term as a microaggression and instead recognize as a racial abuse.
Public schools are far less racially and ethnically diverse than their teachers. 80% of the teachers are white. How do we fix this?
IXK: First and foremost we have to think very clearly about why 80% of the teaching force in this country is white. What are the policies or lack thereof which is leading to a large percentage of teachers being white? What are the types of curriculums that schools of education are putting forward, the way in which teachers are included, the way in which teachers are being qualified, the way in which teachers are professionally developed, the way in which teachers are supported? Black and Latinx teachers are less likely to remain teachers. What is happening to them that is causing them to leave the profession?
We should aggressively try to create programs that recruit teachers of color, that provide incentives for people of color to become teachers. One of the reasons why people of color choose not to become teachers is because they may feel it’s not lucrative enough for them to pay off their student loans.
We need to really figure out what are the reasons why people of color not choosing teaching. What are the barriers? What are the reasons why those people who are choosing teaching and are going to school to become teachers are not finishing? And those who do finish and become teachers, what are the reasons why they’re leaving? I think we have to do those wide-ranging studies or collect the evidence that has already been put forth, and create programming and policies to ensure that we have that pipeline.
DS: You say that the use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective policies devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies, that we degrade Black bodies every time we speak of an academic achievement gap based on these numbers. How does the focus on test scores discriminate against children of color, and how is this an opportunity gap not an achievement gap?
IXK: So the fundamental question that I always ask, and that we should always ask, is why does racial inequity exist? And in this case, there are very well-known racial inequities in test scores. Typically Latinx and Black children are scoring lower academically on standardized tests than white children and Asian students and there’s only two explanations for why that’s happening. There’s either the case that white and Asian kids are intellectually superior, that they are achieving at a higher level than Black and Latinx children, that they somehow are working harder or studying harder, that they value education more, they are better students, they’re smarter, or it is the case that there is something wrong with the test. There’s something wrong with the test takers who are not doing as well or there is something wrong with the test. From the beginning of the emergence of the standardized test, and these tests were largely created by eugenicists a century ago, these eugenicists were saying the reason why Black people are scoring lower is because there is something wrong with them. We’ve been saying that for a hundred years.
What I’m saying is, there is nothing wrong with Black children, with Black students, and what could potentially be happening is their achievement looks different than the achievement of white students. What I also know is that if you have test prep companies and test prep tutors concentrated in your neighborhood, and whites and Asians do, then you’re going to do better on these tests.
So what I argue is that instead of us continuing to posit this idea that Black and Latinx children are intellectually inferior, we should be questioning the measuring device itself, and we should be ensuring that we don’t use standardized tests to reinforce one of the oldest racist ideas, which is that Black people are stupid.
DS: How do you think curriculum plays into this? Do you think that the curriculum that we use alienates Black and Latinx children?
IXK: Yeah. For instance if you are a Black or Latinx child and you’re not represented in the curriculum through the people and the places that are being studied. Even the examples the teachers are using to explain complex ideas—if the people, if the examples, if the places are not relevant to you, they seem foreign to you then first and foremost it’s going to be harder for you to essentially grasp that information because it’s unfamiliar to you. And not only that, it’s going to cause you to ask the question why is the teacher not sharing the literature of people who look like me. Some kids, their answer is going to be maybe there is something wrong with me, and to me it’s sort of indicative of racist ideas within the curriculum itself.
DS: Yes. When I began teaching back in 1999, I had a child tell me that Black people hadn’t written any books. And it was something that hurt me to understand that that middle school-aged child had no idea of what Black people had contributed to literature, that she had internalized that idea. That instance helped me. I focused my master’s program and later work on creating culturally relevant collections in the media center, but I don’t feel like until recently that people in the culture at large really began to understand (due to the work of activists and organizations like We Need Diverse Books and Well Read Black Girl) how important it was for children to see themselves, again because the literary gatekeepers were so predominantly white.
IXK: Well part of it also is that some of the teachers are white assimilationists who imagined that their job is to train these children away from their so-called ghetto culture. They actually prefer for them to not read. I should say they prefer for them to read high quality literature, which to them is written by white people. So to their mind, they are actually doing the child a favor, a service, in that they’re helping the child by exposing them to white writers. They do not perceive how a Black writer could help that child.
DS: You discuss the powerless defense, which shields people of color from charges of racism when they are reproducing racist policies, and justifying them with the same racist ideas as the white people they call racist. You say it empowers people of color to oppress people of color for their own personal gain. You use Justice Clarence Thomas as an example. Why is this distinction important for people to understand?
IXK: I wanted to send a message that is critical for people of color to be antiracist. If white people are commonly saying I am not racist and people of color are commonly saying I can’t be racist, neither of them are recognizing that the only distinction is between a racist and antiracist, and if you are not being antiracist, then you are being a racist. I also want to talk to through this defense that well-meaning people who I respect have put forth, that Black people can’t be racist because Black people don’t have power.
When we think of power in a way I have described, essentially racist power is individual policy makers, people who literally have the power to make and shape policy, institutional, local, national, and even statewide and federal. There are individual Black people who have the power to shape policy. But power doesn’t just lie with those individual policy makers, it also lies with people, sort of middle managers who are charged with carrying out policy that has been already made. So there are Black people in positions of power who can resist, who can say I’m not going to carry-out that racist policy. That is power. Every single person on Earth has the power to resist racism, and there are people who are using and recognizing that power and there are people who are not. So we have power. Black people have power, and to say that Black people don’t have power is to essentially call us slaves. I think that Black people have used their power, however limited, over the course of American history to extract antiracist gains, and I think that’s also something we have to recognize.
DS: I actually heard you interviewed on NPR this morning and it amazed me, I guess it shouldn’t, that they asked you if you thought Donald Trump was a racist. Why are we still asking this question and why is this important right now?
IXK: I don’t know at any other time in American history when the president of the United States was being recognized so widely as being racist. I mean almost every American president has said so many racist things, supported so many racist policies, I don’t think it was until Trump that a large swath of Americans were willing to finally identify a president is racist, so I think that Americans are still coming to grips with that reality, like, “Wow, the American president is racist in 2019.” And I think that’s probably what’s driving the question, because Americans are still coming to grips with that reality.
DS: I tend to think about history in cycles. Why is 2019 important in the context of 1919?
IXK: Because you had a pretty sizable immigration into the United States in the early 20th century, immigrants from people who are different from the Anglo-Saxon white Americans here, so those Italians and Jews and Russians were demonized as invaders, in certain types of ways that Latinx and immigrants from African nations are demonized today. And they were used as political pawns for people to gain power, particularly political power, a century ago, and that’s the way they’re being used again.