Review: Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist”

by Miles Raymer

Kendi

Following the tragic killing of George Floyd in May and subsequent protests, the concept of antiracism has come to dominate our national conversation about America’s brutal legacy of slavery and racism. While this is a complex topic with many possible interpretations, Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist has emerged as one of the authoritative texts to introduce curious readers to the theory and practice of antiracism. So my friends and I, like so many others cooped up due to the COVID-19 crisis, formed a book club to explore these ideas together. It’s been a fascinating and edifying journey. I feel like I gained a lot of useful tools for thinking about antiracism and pursuing positive solutions, but I also have a fair bit of trepidation about how Kendi’s ideas might be (mis)interpreted in counterproductive ways. I don’t think I’ve ever agreed and disagreed with the same book so strongly.

Antiracism is a controversial subject about which people tend to have intense, emotion-driven opinions, so I’d like to start by dispassionately presenting Kendi’s core arguments in his own words. Then I’ll proceed with commentary on my personal areas of agreement and disagreement.

The defining tenet of Kendi’s outlook is that it’s impossible for any person or political policy to be “race neutral” or “not racist.” He explains:

What’s the problem with being “not racist”? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: “I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.” The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is “antiracist.” What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” (9)

A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequities between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. By policy, I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people. There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups. (18)

There are three additional pieces one needs to fill out this picture. The first is that “racist and antiracist are not fixed identities”:

We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what––not who––we are… “Racist” and “antiracist” are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. (10, 23)

Second, Kendi asserts that Americans generally do not use the term “racism” in the appropriate manner, and seeks to rectify our collective mistake:

It’s important at the outset that we apply one of the core principles of antiracism, which is to return the word “racist” itself back to its proper usage. “Racist” is not––as Richard Spencer argues––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)

Third, Kendi consults world history and reveals an important discovery that essentially reverses racism’s traditional causal narrative:

My research kept pointing me to the same answer: The source of racist ideas was not ignorance and hate, but self-interest. The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policymakers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume those racist ideas, which in turn sparks ignorance and hate. (230)

I was happy to find many points of agreement as I made my way through How to Be an Antiracist. The text is a tapestry of interwoven genres: history, memoir, and social/political commentary. The history and memoir sections are generally excellent. I especially enjoyed Kendi’s humble focus on his personal development through various stages of racist and antiracist thinking and behavior. These sections make his theoretical positions more concrete and demonstrate his high degree of self-awareness. 

Kendi effectively presents many of the best lessons from America’s contemporary struggle with our nation’s racial past, present, and possible futures. I agree with his arguments that antiracism and racism are not fixed identities, that we should use racism as more of a descriptive than a pejorative term, and that racist ideas tend to stem from racist policies rather than vice versa. I also agree that we shouldn’t generalize individual behaviors based on race, nor should we seek to create or sustain racial hierarchies of any kind.

My favorite aspects of Kendi’s approach are his ability to see past what he calls the “mirage of race” and his tireless efforts to improve himself by becoming less racist and more antiracist. He urges readers to “overcome our cynicism about the permanence of racism” (11), and points out that we should ultimately seek to neutralize racial categories, but only after racial equity has been addressed and restored:

If we stop using racial categories, then we will not be able to identify racial inequity. If we cannot identify racial inequity, then we will not be able to identify racist policies. If we cannot identify racist policies, then we cannot challenge racist policies. If we cannot challenge racist policies, then racist power’s final solution will be achieved: a world of inequity none of us can see, let alone resist. Terminating racial categories is potentially the last, not the first, step in the antiracist struggle…To be antiracist is to recognize the reality of biological equality, that skin color is as meaningless to our underlying humanity as the clothes we wear over that skin. To be antiracist is to recognize there is no such thing as White blood or a Black diseases or natural Latinx athleticism. To be antiracist is also to recognize the living, breathing reality of this racial mirage, which makes our skin colors more meaningful than our individuality. To be antiracist is to focus on ending the racism that shapes the mirages, not to ignore the mirages that shape peoples’ lives. (54-5)

This is probably the best articulation of this problem I’ve encountered, providing a solid justification for equity-seeking race-based policies while still admitting that race is ultimately a spurious category without a firm biological basis. This leaves us with the harder question of what exactly those policies should be and how to tell when “racial equity” has been achieved, but at least it provides a good starting point on which reasonable people can agree.

Throughout the book, Kendi’s capacity of self-critique and personal insight are impressive and inspiring. He advocates for challenging ourselves “by dragging ourselves before people who intimidate us with their brilliance and constructive criticism” (199), and calls for a turn away from ideological purity and toward policy-focused plans for helping the victims of discrimination. I’ll quote Kendi at length here since I believe this is perhaps the most important and powerful passage in the book:

When we fail to open the closed-minded consumers of racist ideas, we blame their close-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. When people fail to consume our convoluted antiracist ideas, we blame their stupidity rather than our stupid lack of clarity. When we transform people and do not show them an avenue of support, we blame their lack of commitment rather than our lack of guidance. When the politician we supported does not change racist policy, we blame the intractability of racism rather than our support of the wrong politician. When we fail to gain support for a protest, we blame the fearful rather than our alienating presentation. When the protest fails, we blame racist power rather than our flawed protest. When our policy does not produce racial equity, we blame the people for not taking advantage of the new opportunity, not our flawed policy solution. The failure doctrine avoids the mirror of self-blame. The failure doctrine begets failure. The failure doctrine begets racism.

What if antiracists constantly self-critiqued our own ideas? What if we blamed our ideologies and methods, studied our ideologies and methods, refined our ideologies and methods again and again until they worked? When will we finally stop the insanity of doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result? Self-critique allows change. Changing shows flexibility. Antiracist power must be flexible to match the flexibility of racist power, propelled only by the craving for power to shape policy in their inequitable interests. Racist power believes in by any means necessary. We, their challengers, typically do not, not even some of those inspired by Malcolm X. We care the most about the moral and ideological and financial purity of our ideologies and strategies and fundraising and leaders and organizations. We care less about bringing equitable results for people in dire straits, as we say we are purifying ourselves for the people in dire straits, as our purifying keeps the people in dire straits. As we critique the privilege and inaction of racist power, we show our privilege and inaction by critiquing every effective strategy, ultimately justifying our inaction on the comfortable seat of privilege. Anything but flexible, we are too often bound by ideologies that are bound by failed strategies of racial change.

What if we assessed the methods and leaders and organizations by their results of policy change and equity? What if strategies and policy solutions stemmed not from ideologies but from problems? What if antiracists were propelled only by the craving for power to shape policy in their equitable interests? (213-4)

Kendi’s ability to root out the antiracist movement’s central sources of frustration and failure while simultaneously illuminating the path to a better approach is marvelous.

In that same spirit, I’d now like to offer some thoughts on the weaknesses of this book. I do this not as an attempt to impugn Kendi’s integrity or to stymie antiracist goals, but rather to show how some of his positions may compromise the antiracist project and/or send the wrong message to people who support racial equity but reject this particular framing of the situation.

In general, Kendi has a tendency to oversimplify and overreach, often making statements that aren’t supported by his arguments or evidence. The most obvious example is his uncompromising insistence on the racist/antiracist binary. When it comes to political policies, Kendi declines the opportunity to present a set of clear guidelines for how to determine whether a proposed policy is antiracist (likely to increase racial equity) or racist (likely to decrease racial equity). I expected at some point he would discuss degrees of racism and antiracism (i.e. how to tell if a policy is more or less racist or antiracist than another policy), but no such discussion ever occurred. Additionally, he doesn’t appear to believe that a policy could be racist in some ways and antiracist in others, which seems almost guaranteed given the large number of often-unpredictable consequences that political policies entail, especially at the national level. Instructing people to support antiracist policies without drilling down on exactly how we can identify such policies has limited utility; these omissions are likely to leave readers unclear about exactly how they should go about “being an antiracist.”

Further, Kendi’s invalidation of race neutrality has no detectable limitations. Early on, he claims that “there is no such thing as a not-racist idea, only racist ideas and antiracist ideas” (20). He drops this sentence at the end of a paragraph without providing any theoretical or evidential support for it. We’re expected to accept it as an unfalsifiable axiom of antiracist thought. It seems reasonable to debate whether race neutrality can exist in the context of American political policy, but eliminating the possibility of race neutrality in our behaviors and ideas is egregious. The world is far too complex to admit such a reductive perspective. I cannot think of any serious field of research or arena of sociopolitical debate in which such totalizing statements are acceptable, and see no reason why we should make an exception for this topic.

Several problems follow from this, none of them insignificant. The first is that, in a world of ideas, behaviors and policies that are either racist or antiracist, any idea not deemed sufficiently antiracist is automatically racist. The “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality is impossible to miss. While this makes sense within Kendi’s internal logic, in practice we know that telling people they are racist when they don’t agree with us or question our ideas is likely to start a fight or shut down discussion entirely. This might change if we’re able to return racism to its more descriptive usage (an effort I support), but for the time being it’s still one of the most highly-charged labels in the English language, and I worry that insisting on the racist/antiracist binary will actually make that problem worse by inflaming our tribal instincts rather than fostering mutual understanding and empathy.

It seems better to say that a space of race neutrality can and does exist, but has been eroded and degraded by our long history of racism to the point where it is nearly impossible to occupy. However, we can revitalize and expand this race-neutral space through the antiracist project of constructing racial equity. As that project progresses, more and more of our policies, behaviors and ideas will be able to occupy the race-neutral space, ultimately allowing for the termination of racial categories that Kendi cites as the last step in the antiracist struggle.

Without a race-neutral space that we can collectively cultivate, we’re left without any viable endgame, forever condemned to live in the racist/antiracist binary. If this is the case, my concern is that antiracists will become increasingly motivated to extirpate smaller and smaller instances of purported racism, even where racism may not be present. This behavior, I fear, will ultimately delegitimize antiracism and invigorate its opponents. For these reasons, I think we should consider the possibility that antiracism needs race neutrality in order to succeed.

There are several other features of Kendi’s view that I’m unable to accept at face value. As far as I can tell, Kendi doesn’t believe that cross-cultural criticism can occur without a corresponding attempt to create cultural hierarchy. “To be antiracist,” he says, “is to see all cultures in all their differences as on the same level, as equals. When we see cultural difference, we are seeing cultural difference––nothing more, nothing less” (91). The first sentence mostly makes sense to me, but the second doesn’t. It’s appropriate to place all cultures on the same level as a parting point, but once we do that we’re faced with the unpleasant reality that different cultural practices produce different results in different contexts. The ability to analyze those results and make ethical judgments about the better and worse consequences of cultural practices is a non-negotiable feature of progressive and liberal activity.

To quell cross-cultural criticism, Kendi says we should separate “the idea of a culture from the idea of behavior” (95). While I agree with him that “behavior is something humans do, not races do” (105), I think trying to neatly disentangle culture from behavior is a losing battle. We just don’t know enough about the exact origins of behavior to draw a clean line between biological and cultural causation (if a clean line even exists), and we also live in a world where cultural norms and practices often occur and reproduce themselves along racial lines. This is not to say that we shouldn’t “deracialize behavior” (105) and treat everyone as individuals––Kendi is surely correct there. But I remain skeptical that we can always make judgments about individual behaviors that will never spill over into cultural territory.

To make an ethical judgment about the efficacy or destructiveness of a particular cultural practice in a particular context is not the same as creating a hierarchy of cultures. When Kendi critiques “White culture” for its racist history, he’s not saying that “White culture” is inherently inferior to “Black culture” or any other. He’s just saying that the particular practice of racism is bad, and rightfully so. We need a society in which these kinds of judgments are communicated directly and often, with everyone having an equal opportunity to concur with or refute them. Further, these critiques need to be taken on their own merits, regardless of their source. This means that a member of a minority culture can openly critique the practices of a majority culture, and vice versa, with those critiques being accepted or rejected based on logic and evidence. It’s a messy and imperfect process, but it’s also the only sure path to progress. In a world where all cultural differences are only and ever “mere differences,” progress is impossible.

“To be antiracist is to reject cultural standards and level cultural difference,” Kendi writes, and “to recognize there is no such thing as the ‘real world,’ only real worlds, multiple worldviews” (84, 171). But having cultural standards that emphasize solidarity through sameness (common humanity) isn’t the same as saying one culture is better than another. And denying the existence of a “real world” that we all share takes us dangerously close to relativism, with no grounding whatsoever for the project of discovering what’s better or worse for the human species. A mature, robustly pluralist society will seek standards that allow for norms of communication, civility, and collective decision-making without obliterating differences or generating rigid hierarchies. Kendi may not believe such a society is desirable or possible, but I do.

We run into the same issue in Kendi’s discussion of biology. “Connecting biology to behavior,” he says, “is the cradle of biological racism––it leads to biological ranking of the races and the supposition that the biology of certain races yields superior behavioral traits” (53). While it’s true that linking biology to behavior has led to biological racism, that doesn’t mean that every attempt to find biological sources of behavior will fatalistically cause us to start making racial hierarchies. Furthermore, research on the connections between biology and behavior has produced and will continue to produce incredibly important findings that improve our understanding of human nature.

There are many additional assertions for which I don’t think Kendi provides satisfactory support:

  • “It is a racial crime to be yourself if you are not White in America. It is a racial crime to look like yourself or empower yourself if you are not White” (38).
  • We should retire the term “microaggression” and replace it with “racist abuse” (46-7).
  • “Capitalism is essentially racist; racism is essentially capitalist” (163).
  • “The ways women and men traditionally act are not tied to their biology” (196).
  • The state of global racism is so bad that it is comparable to stage four metastatic cancer (234).
  • “There is nothing I see in our world today, in our history, giving me hope that one day antiracists will win the fight, that one day the flag of antiracism will fly over a world of equity” (238).

The last two claims become especially baseless in the context of these facts cited by Steven Pinker in his recent book Enlightenment Now

Racial and ethnic prejudice is declining not just in the West but worldwide. In 1950, almost half of the world’s countries had laws that discriminated against ethnic or racial minorities (including, of course, the United States). By 2003 fewer than a fifth did, and they were outnumbered by countries with affirmative action policies that favored disadvantaged minorities. A huge 2008 survey by the World Public Opinion poll of twenty-one developed and developing nations found that in every one, large majorities of respondents (around 90 percent on average) say that it’s important for people of different races, ethnicities, and religions to be treated equally. Notwithstanding the habitual self-flagellation by Western intellectuals about Western racism, it’s non-Western countries that are the least tolerant. But even in India, the country at the bottom of the list, 59% of the respondents affirmed racial equality. (222, emphasis his)

As I see it, the major problem with Kendi’s simplistic and grandiose conclusions is that they may render the American antiracist movement politically inviable. Like any political movement, antiracists will need to build coalitions in order to pass antiracist policies. Coalitions require compromise and finding common cause with fellow citizens who don’t agree with us on everything. It’s hard to imagine antiracists clearing that hurdle if they call everyone who supports capitalism a racist or deny the decades and centuries of antiracist progress that should give us ample hope for further improvements. I commend Kendi for his focus on policy outcomes, but at the same time I’m left feeling like his book provides grist for those seeking to increase the already-high ideological price of admission to the antiracist cause.

There are still many aspects of How to Be an Antiracist about which I remain ambivalent, most notably how we should think about color-blindness, the ethics of discrimination, Kendi’s definitions of assimilation and integration, and the limits of moral persuasion. As I move forward, I’ll continue to revisit and update these perspectives. Kendi’s contribution to our national discussion is definitely a valuable one––something we should neither revere as gospel nor dismiss as drivel. Like all human endeavors, it’s something in between.

Rating: 7/10