At long last, this week I completed the final book of my first “15-book reading challenge“. Ibram X. Kendi’s 2019 bestseller How to Be an Antiracist seemed like a great end to the series, as it is one of the most popular books in the antiracist movement right now.
How to Be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning
I read Kendi’s earlier book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America in January and February of this year, because 2020 made me realize that the racism from America’s history that I knew about was only the tip of the iceberg. After finishing Kendi’s 511-page 2016 masterpiece, How to Be an Antiracist was an obvious must-read. Stamped left readers wondering how we can fight for an antiracist future after such an atrociously racist history.
I went into How to Be an Antiracist consciously thinking about how it compared to and complemented Stamped from the Beginning. I wondered if there might be too much overlap or if this book might just include a more watered down history compared to its comprehensive older brother. What I found was that these books complement each other like no others.
Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist go together perfectly no matter which one you read first. (That’s not to say that it’s not worth reading only one; they also stand alone beautifully.) If you start with Stamped like I did, then the end will leave you wanting to know what steps you can personally take to become antiracist. Starting with this book makes sense because it is three years older, but in it, Kendi can sometimes feel like an anonymous, omniscient, disembodied Black male voice teaching you history. You don’t really know who he is, and you don’t need to for the book to be great.
If you start with How to Be an Antiracist, you learn about what racism is and what it means to be racist and antiracist alongside Ibram the biased, imperfect, stubborn person rather than Dr. Kendi the brilliant and all-knowing scholar. It certainly makes me wonder what the experience of reading Stamped is like when you know Kendi as a person before starting. How to Be an Antiracist is part memoir, so towards the end we learn of Kendi’s experience writing Stamped. Plus, we do learn condensed versions of some of the big defining events that Kendi goes into more detail about in Stamped. Whichever book you read first, you are drawn to pick the other up next.
How to Be an Antiracist as a memoir
The memoir elements of How to Be an Antiracist were such a welcome surprise. I totally did not expect Kendi to take us along on his journey struggling with his own internalized racism, and headstrong antiracism, through his life. We saw how he evolved from childhood, gave a pretty blatantly racist speech in high school, had an anti-White phase in college, and committed himself to learning how to be truly antiracist (and feminist and a queer ally) through grad school and beyond.
As we moved through Kendi’s own story, we were introduced to the nuances of different elements of racism along the way. Actually, we learned as he learned. Possibly what I loved most about How to Be an Antiracist was that while we saw how difficult it was for Kendi to learn these things through first-hand experience—being racist, having people be racist toward him and his peers, becoming a leader in the antiracist movement—we can simply read this book detailing what he learned instead of having to learn the hard way like he did at every turn.
Does the book do its job?
As for actually teaching readers how to be antiracists, I think this book did a great job. I always try my best to hold nonfiction books to the standards they set for themselves. For example, How to Argue with a Racist was great but did not necessarily give any tips on how to literally argue with people. How to Be an Antiracist passes the test with flying colors (and the memoir bits mixed in keep it from being dry or too academic). The summaries of each chapter have several sentences that begin with “To be an antiracist is to. . .” so that if you wanted to, you could literally make a bulleted list of how Kendi ends these sentences throughout the book. There you go, that’s how to be an antiracist.
However, I have repeatedly emphasized before that you don’t just become an antiracist overnight. I think a lot of White people hope that we can read books like this or White Fragility or So You Want to Talk About Race and be cured of their racism because they read a book about it. If that was true, I’d be 100% absolved of any and all racist ideas and thoughts. Unfortunately, it just does not work like that.
Even Kendi himself admits throughout How to Be an Antiracist that his journey to being so is a lifelong battle against the internalized racism that is actively and covertly drilled into each and every one of us—of all races—who is brought up in this racist nation. In the introduction, Kendi wrote,
The good news 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.Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, pp. 10
Kendi employs a definition of racism that is uniquely specific. I don’t really have the authority to say whether it is right or wrong, but I found it interesting and powerful nonetheless. He writes,
What is racism? Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities. . . .
Racial inequity is when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing. . . .
A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. . . .
A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas argue that the inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society.Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, pp. 17-20
Yes, these will all be on the test.
If there is one thing I think Kendi wants us to take away from How to Be an Antiracist, it is that the bulk of our nation’s racial cancer comes from racist policies created by racist policymakers. That the policies come from self-interest and not from ignorance or hate. That in order to fight against racist policies, we need to eliminate not just the symptoms but the cause. Using terms like “systemic racism” or “racial discrimination” can make it sound like racism is an ethereal, unstoppable force when in fact there is always a person or group of people who creates racist policies. The only way to fix it is to fight racist power with antiracist power.
Kendi knows that changing minds of people can be difficult or even impossible, and part of doing it effectively is knowing when it’s not working. But with that said, he is really damn good at it. He’s skilled at disarming defensive White people (by saying that the racist/antiracist line is not necessarily a White/Black line), telling an engaging story, and admitting his own weaknesses. He effortlessly tied current racist policies and statistics with important moments in history and his own journey grappling with racism in his life.
How to Be an Antiracist makes a big promise, and it delivers.