Ibram X. Kendi, professor of history at American University and winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction, talked about his new book How to Be An Antiracist at Hopkins on Wednesday.
In his talk Kendi discussed his definitions of the terms “racist” and “antiracist” and his personal journey from espousing beliefs of the former to those of the latter.
Kendi opened his talk with an anecdote of an oratory competition he participated in as a high-school student in Northern Virginia.
In the speech he gave for the competition, he had argued that the culture of black youth, rather than racism, was the fundamental problem in the black community, a notion that was mainstream in the 1990s.
He reflected that his beliefs are completely different today.
“Thinking back on the speech, how I had swallowed those anti-black ideas whole and then repeated them back to black people, it encapsulated how internalized racism is the real ‘black-on-black’ crime,” Kendi said.
He went on to explain that he now regrets his past views.
“It’s very shameful to think about everything I said,” he said. “And because that speech boosted my own academic confidence, I essentially stepped on the heads of black people and gained a sense of self.”
Kendi provided his framework for understanding racism in America. Kendi explained that there are only two categories for any policy or idea: racist and antiracist.
Kendi believes that most individuals possess a combination of racist and antiracist ideas.
The goal, Kendi says, is to educate people in order to shift their beliefs from racist to antiracist.
Kendi provided his definition for antiracism.
“The heartbeat of antiracism is self-reflection, recognition, admission and fundamentally self-critique,” he said. “While a racist when charged with racism will say, ‘I’m not a racist,’ no matter what they said or did, an antiracist would be willing to confess and recognize what they just said or did was, in fact, racist.”
Kendi added that anti-racists accept that they’ve been raised to be racist.
“They would recognize that they were trained and nurtured in this racist society to become a racist,” he said.
To that end, Kendi argued that those who imagine themselves as “not racist” are in fact perpetuating racism.
He said that by doing nothing in the face of racist policy and advancing racial inequity, such individuals commit sins of omission, allowing said policies and inequities to pass on to the next generation and so forth.
To Kendi, just being “not racist,” is not enough. One must actively challenge racist policies whenever they arise.
Kendi also provided instructions on how to be an antiracist. An important aspect, according to Kendi, is to refrain from judging cultural differences from the perspective of one’s own culture.
Kendi reflected on how where he grew up shaped his perceptions of African American culture.
“Because I’m from Queens, I assessed the culture of black people in Northern Virginia from the standards of Queens culture,” he said. “I was imagining black Queens culture and standardizing it as the pinnacle of African American culture, and I viewed the Black suburban culture of Northern Virginia as inferior.”
White Americans, he said, behave similarly.
“In the same way, white Americans have been assessing African American culture from their own cultural standard — the dominant culture of this country — and classifying it as pathological,” he said.
In Kendi’s eyes, racism originates primarily from one’s ethnocentric views. Cultural relativism is the idea that one should evaluate a foreign culture on its own merits, rather than as compared to one’s own.
“In order to be an antiracist, we have to stop standardizing our own culture and judging other cultures from our standards because whoever creates the standard becomes the top of the hierarchy,” Kendi said. “We need to figure out a way to recognize that when we see cultural difference, all we are seeing is cultural difference.”
Another aspect of becoming an antiracist is to recognize how spurious the concept of racial difference is, Kendi said.
According to Kendi, too many people perceive racial difference as genetic difference that determines cultural and behavioral differences, and end up ranking races hierarchically.
To truly view all groups and peoples as equals, it is paramount to recognize that there’s no such thing as biological races, Kendi said. He argued that society has to recognize that though different groups of people might they be culturally different, there is nothing fundamental that separates them.
“Behavior is something that all humans do. All humans love; all humans hate; all humans laugh. But how they do these things is different based on different cultures,” Kendi said.
In the Q&A session that followed his talk, Kendi discussed how antiracism provides a net benefit to society as a whole.
“One of the biggest misnomers that middle- and higher-middle-income people have is that if we have a truly equitable society, they would lose. I’m not so sure about that,” Kendi said. “If, for example, we truly valued education in this country, and we valued spending on education more than spending on defense, we would be able to create all schools like they’re first-class schools.”
He argued that improving teaching systems everywhere would provide gain to society as a whole, and that education is not a zero-sum game. He shared his vision for an educationally equitable future.
“Middle-income people who send their kids to business-class schools may think that supporting antiracism means that their kids have to go back to go coach, but they would in fact benefit,” he said. “We literally can create schools all over the country as good as the schools in New England where the super rich send their kids.”
Toward the end of the event, Kendi concluded that the fundamental force driving racist policies is different from what most people believe.
“What’s actually at the core of racist policy is self-interest, not ignorance or hate. If you’re truly serious about dismantling racism in this country, you can’t educate it away,“ Kendi said. “You have to win the power struggle — an antiracist power struggle.”