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How to Be an Antiracist: Ibram X. Kendi on Why We Need to Fight Racism the Way We Fight Cancer

StoryAugust 13, 2019
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In his new book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” professor Ibram X. Kendi urges readers to break out of the false framework of “racist” and “not racist,” instead laying out what it means to be antiracist: viewing racial groups as equals and pushing for policies that create racial equity. Kendi says, “We can’t just talk about racism as an original sin. We have to talk about racism as the original cancer, as this original disease that has been killing America.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about — in your new book, you talk about the whole issue of class and race and the relationship of capitalism to race. And in one section you write, “Anticapitalism cannot eliminate class racism without antiracism.” And, “Case in point,” you mention, “is the persistent racism AfroCubans faced in socialist Cuba” after the revolution in 1959. Give us a better sense of how you see this whole interrelationship between the fight against racism and also against capitalism.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I think it’s interrelated. I mean, I classify racism and capitalism as these conjoined twins — right? — from the same body but different personalities, different faces. And the reason why I do that is because I’m an historian. And so I track, particularly in my last book — the origins of racism cannot be separated from the origins of capitalism. The origins of capitalism cannot be separated from the origins of racism. The life of racism cannot be separated from the life of capitalism, and vice versa.

When you think about, for instance, the slave trade, which was critical in the accumulation of wealth in Europe, that was fundamentally a set of racist policies. When you think of colonialism, or even slavery, these are fundamentally a relationship between racism and capitalism, which was essential to its emergence. And so, I think in order to truly be antiracist, you also have to truly be anti-capitalist, as I write in the book. And in order to truly be anti-capitalist, you have to be antiracist, because they’re interrelated.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk more about this and the founding of this country and the issue of slavery, the number of presidents who had slaves, and the president who had the most slaves of all, Thomas Jefferson, something like, what?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Six hundred.

AMY GOODMAN: Six hundred slaves.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah. I mean, when you —

AMY GOODMAN: Lay that all out.

IBRAM X. KENDI: When you look at the founding of this country, you’re really talking about the power, American power, at its founding, largely being held in the hands of slaveholders. You’re talking about slaveholders who largely shaped economic policy, economic policy that they ensured did not eliminate or harm racial policy, which was key to, of course, their slaveholding. You’re also talking about a group of people, in slaveholders, who, by 1860, became the richest group of people in the world. And slaves and the crops that they were producing and the land that they were producing those crops on were essentially the wealth of America. These were — when you talk about how America became rich, you can’t separate America’s riches from slavery. And the reason why America was able to become rich through slavery, which was an economic system, was because of racism. So that’s why you can’t really separate the two. And I know many people want to, but we have to stare truth in the face.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Continuing in that vein, for the first time, I think, in a presidential race, the issue of reparations has now been addressed by several of the Democratic candidates, whereas previously had been largely an issue among activists in the African-American and Latino community. I’m wondering your perspective of how this is now finally surfacing, and the resistance against it?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I think it’s obviously surfacing because of those activists — right? — and because of their voices and because of their activism. And I would say to my fellow Americans who oppose reparations, you know, I typically — I would ask the question, currently — well, first, I’d make the statement that currently the white median wealth in this country is 10 times higher than black median wealth. And then forecasters are estimating that by 2050 black median wealth will be at zero dollars. And they’re forecasting that two decades later, that Latino median wealth will be at zero dollars. So what we’re seeing now is a growing racial wealth gap.

How do you, how do we stop this growing racial wealth gap, turn it around, even close it, without reparations? Because the reason for that racial wealth gap is because of past and present racist policies. And so, reparations is not only a way to challenge and eliminate those policies, but also to essentially repair the effects of those policies, which is the racial wealth gap.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Senator Cory Booker. This is Booker speaking on ABC’s This Week.

SEN. CORY BOOKER: This impotent simplicity of who is and who isn’t a racist is really not the question. If we have racism in our country and we are all in this together and we believe that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, what are you doing about that injustice? If you — it’s not enough to say “I’m not a racist” in America. If racism exists, you need to be antiracist.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to this issue, and that’s the core of your book, Ibram Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, the idea that to be a nonracist and to be an antiracist are very different.

IBRAM X. KENDI: They are. And when we really sort of acknowledge the term “not racist,” we’re really thinking about a term that comes from the larger sentence, “I’m not racist.” And then, we think of who and when are people saying “I am not racist,” they’retypically saying that when what? They’re being charged with being racist for something they said or did. And this is Americans across the ideological board. But the people who first and most prominently would say that they’re not racist were eugenicists — right? — were Jim Crow segregationists. White nationalists and supremacists today are saying, no matter what policies they support, no matter what ideas they express, that they are not racist. They can say that Latinx people are invading this country, they can say that this black neighborhood is an infestation, and then they can turn around and say, “I’m the least racist person anywhere in the world.” And what that means to me is that the term “not racist,” that when we say “I’m not racist,” that that is fundamentally a term of denial. That’s all it has really ever been. It has never really had any meaning, other than a way for one to deny being racist when charged with being racist.

In contrast, being antiracist, there’s a clear sense of what that is. If a racist says that certain racial groups are superior or inferior or better or worse than others, an antiracist says there’s nothing wrong, or even right, with any racial groups. We’re equals. If a racist supports policies through their action, or even inaction, as Senator Booker stated, then they’re being a racist, because they’re allowing for the reproduction of racial inequities. If someone is supporting policies with their actions that create racial equity, they’re being an antiracist.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You also delve, in your new book, on how racism has affected the African-American and Latino communities, the issue of skin color and lighter and darker. I’m wondering if you could talk about that, as well as your own personal journey through that maelstrom of trying to understand how race works in America.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Sure. So, How to Be an Antiracist was very difficult for me to write, because I had so many personal stories. And one of the personal stories — and I don’t want to say this, but I’m going to have to say it; it’s in the book, so people are going to read it — is, when I was in college, I thought that my eyes were too dark. And so I decided to get color contacts. And they were these honey contacts. And my friends would joke on me that I had orange eyes. But I thought, with these honey contacts, that I was more beautiful, that I looked better, that I was more attractive.

And this was a representation of what I sort of address in the book is known as colorism — right? — this idea that the lighter the skin, the better; the lighter the eyes, the better; the straighter the hair, the better. And within communities of color, there are, of course, gradations of skin color, of eye color, of hair texture. And so, what I did in that —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And it often changes from generation to generation.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Precisely, precisely. And what I did in that chapter, I’ve called “Color,” was sort of talk about what I called light people and dark people. And this is particularly within communities of color. And we have been led to believe, primarily taught to people of color by the white people, who said, “Since lighter people are closer to us, they’re more superior to those dark people,” and we’ve internalized those ideas. And there’s also a set of policies that actually favor lighter people over darker people. So I talked about all of the disparities between light people and dark people. And an antiracist does not view lighter people, or even darker people, as better or worse than each other.

AMY GOODMAN: Which is the perfect time to bring in one of the great writers of the 20th century, Toni Morrison, who we just lost last week. Last week on Democracy Now!, we did an hour — two hours: one hour on the show and one hour off — with Nikki Giovanni and Angela Davis and Sonia Sanchez, playing the clips of Toni Morrison. And we want to go back to one of those moments, as you describe wanting lighter eyes, Ibram. Let’s go to 2010, a conversation between Toni Morrison and Angela Davis at the New York Public Library.

TONI MORRISON: When I wrote the first book I wrote, The Bluest Eye, I really wanted to know why that girl felt so bad, the one who — a real-life girl who said she wanted blue eyes. We were talking about whether God existed. I, of course, was persuaded that he did, and she was persuaded that he did not. And her proof was that she had prayed for blue eyes for two years — two years — and she didn’t get them. So, obviously, he wasn’t up there.

But when I looked at her and thought about how awful she would look if she got them, and then I thought — the second thing was how beautiful she was at that moment. You know, she was just — but I didn’t even know whether she was beautiful or not, until I thought about what she might think. Then the third thing, of course, is: Why does she want that? You know, what makes her think that’s an improvement? And that kind of self-loathing, which is real, you know, when you don’t have any support, made me think of that as a real subject for a book, not some, oh, victim, but really how it works.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Toni Morrison. There’s so much to follow up on here, from when did you finally take off those contacts to the effect of Toni Morrison in your life.

IBRAM X. KENDI: I finally took them off, I believe, around the time I locked my hair, when I was a junior in college. And I remember, a few years later, reading The Bluest Eye for the first time. And in many ways, I could not read about that little girl without thinking about myself, without thinking about that first time I put on these honey contacts, that I thought it was an improvement, that I thought I was handsome, and how long it took me to realize that I was actually more handsome without the orange eyes, as my friends would joke on me.

And so, I think, you know, obviously, Toni Morrison, like any sort of black writer living, has had a tremendous impact on my life, on my personal life, let alone my sort of literary life. And I think one of the ways in which she had an influence even on me writing this book, even on me writing the colorism sort of chapter, was her constant sort of instructions to black writers to not write with the white critic on our shoulders, to not write with the white gaze in our minds, because one of the things that we have been — it’s difficult for us to write about is internalized racism, because what we fear is going to happen is white racists are going to take that and see, “We’ve been telling you you’re the problem all along, right? And now you’re finally admitting it.” And so, for me, I was like, let me get the white critic off my shoulder and write. This is a reality that people of color, particularly black people, are facing, and I wanted to speak to it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion. We’re talking to Ibram Kendi, the professor of history and international relations and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. He is a National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

And just before we go to break, you were not a well-known professor, what, assistant professor at the University of Florida. Can you describe the moment the National Book Awards — this is one of these like dinners where no one knows who gets it until you’re actually — your name is called?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yes, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, did you have your speech all prepared?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Oh, no. So, yeah, I remember we had a — my wife and I, Sadiqa, we had a hotel room near the venue. And we were about to walk out. And Sadiqa was like, “Have you written your speech? Where is your speech?” And I was like, “No, I didn’t write a speech. I’m not going to win. What’s the purpose of writing a speech?” And she insisted that I jot down those notes. And I jotted down some notes. And when I heard my name called, as the video shows, I was completely shocked. I was completely shocked and literally had to gather myself even before I spoke.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Ibram Kendi is the youngest winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Today, his next book is out, How to Be an Antiracist. We continue with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Ben Harper performing “I’ll Rise,” from the poem “Still I Rise” by the late Maya Angelou. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest for the hour, Ibram X. Kendi, professor of history and international relations, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, American University, National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. His book, out today, on his birthday, How to Be an Antiracist. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to go on to the whole issue of your journey. You started out, you wanted to be a sports reporter? And then you went to Temple University. Talk about that. You actually lived, say you in your book, in Hunting Park, a neighborhood that I know well. I used to live in Hunting Park on 8th and Luzerne, so I knew that area well, for many years. Talk about that journey, away from sports writing to becoming a historian.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, so, I grew up playing basketball. I was a huge John Starks fan and New York Knicks fan. And, you know, I wanted to play in the NBA. Ironically, I joined another NBA, but… And, ultimately, I realized I probably wasn’t good enough to make the NBA, so I decided to pursue sports writing.

But I went to school in Tallahassee, at Florida A&M University. I was a freshman in the year 2000. And we all know what happened in 2000 with the election. And I was told constantly — and I talk about this in How to Be an Antiracist — you know, after the election of 2000, and so many black people’s votes were suppressed or thrown out, I heard many of those stories firsthand. And it really sort of provided my first major lesson on racism. And I think the more I witnessed those lessons, the more I realized that I wanted to become a reporter, sort of sharing those lessons with the world. And so I decided to go to Temple to pursue my master’s.

But then again, part of me was also thinking about pursuing my doctorate to become a professor, because I, on some level, recognized that professors had more autonomy and more freedom to really write and research. But when I got there, once I arrived at Temple University, once I saw the life of a professor through the life of Molefi Asante, through the life of my dissertation adviser, Ama Mazama, the way in which they were engaged in worldwide intellectual struggle against white supremacy, against racism, I was sort of hooked. And I wanted to be like them, and I wanted to be a professor.

AMY GOODMAN: You ask the question: What if we treated racism in the way we treat cancer?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yes. So, while I was writing this book, I had stage 4 colon cancer. And a few years before I had cancer, my wife and mother had cancer. And a decade ago, my father had had cancer. And so I, in a way, lived with cancer for quite some time. But more importantly, I’ve seen how cancer has been treated, how doctors treat cancer, how they save people like me who have metastatic cancer.

And the way that they tend to do it is they first do — or, they do a local treatment, in which they go in and surgically remove the tumors, which is essentially like us going in to surgically remove racist policies in this country. But then they don’t stop there, right? They also flood the body with chemotherapy to ensure that there’s no more cancer cells left, to ensure the cancer won’t come back, or to try to make sure or try to help prevent the cancer, I should say, from coming back, which is equivalent to us flooding the body of America with antiracist policies. But then they don’t stop there, right? Once they have removed the tumors, once they’ve flooded the body with antiracist policies, then they — what do they do? They watch the body very closely to make sure nothing comes back. And then, if something does come back, what do they do? They treat, and treat very aggressively and quickly.

So, you know, I wanted to sort of speak to that in How to Be an Antiracist: What if we treated racism, which is literally a metastatic cancer that has been ravaging the American body from the beginning, in the way we treat cancer?

AMY GOODMAN: So, lay it out for us. What would that look like?

IBRAM X. KENDI: I think that would look like, first and foremost, us saving America. And I think we can’t just talk about racism as an original sin. We have to talk about racism as the original cancer, as this original disease that has been killing America. It almost prevented Americans from coming together and forming a union at its founding. It almost killed America in the Civil War, where literally been in a civil war. And what I mean by sort of antiracist policies is policies like, for instance, Medicare for All or high-quality healthcare for all, that reduce racial inequities, you know, policies like legalizing marijuana, policies that aggressively go after climate change, which is specifically harming the communities of color. I mean, what policies do we have currently that literally have a chance to radically reduce racial inequities? Those are the types of policies we should flood the American body with.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In your book, you have chapters on gender and sexuality. You talk about queer racism and gender racism. Could you explain?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Sure. So, when we think of racism and when we think of racial inequity, and when we even think of the races, we should recognize that, so, for instance, black people are not a monolith, just like Latino people are not a monolith, white people are not a monolith. Black people are literally a collection of racialized groups. And so, to give an example, black men and black women are racialized groups. And each of these groups have been targeted and denigrated with racist ideas. And as a black male, I had to come to grips with the fact that I had consumed and internalized racist ideas about black women, that I was saying some of the same ideas that white men and others were saying about black women. And I’m sure I was saying also some of the same ideas that white people or white heterosexuals were saying about the black queer community — right? — because black queers, black gays, black lesbians, black transgender women, these are racialized groups that are distinct from black heterosexuals. And black heterosexuals imagine themselves as less sexual — right? — than the black queer community, which is a racist idea.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, just at the beginning of the show, when I was presenting headlines, one of them was that the estate of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who was found dead in a jail cell at Rikers Island, has sued the city of New York over her death, the medical examiner saying the 27-year-old Afro-Latinx woman died of complications from epilepsy. Polanco’s mother says officials knew of her medical condition but still put her in solitary confinement without proper supervision, the suit alleging that this violated the 14th Amendment, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Layleen was arrested in April on midemeanor charges and jailed for two months, after she was unable to post $500 bail. She really is a picture at every level of racism in America and this issue of queer racism, etc. She was the center of that. And you talk about mass incarceration and as one of the ways that if you’re going to deal with antiracism in this country.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah, so, you know, black queer community, they’re more likely to be poor than black heterosexuals, let alone white queer community. Some of them are subjected to this type of violence from the state. But then, most obviously, black transgender women are literally experiencing a genocide. I mean, I don’t know of any way to talk about the fact that their average life expectancy currently is in the mid-thirties. This isn’t 1750; this is 2019. And we have a group of Americans whose life expectancy is in the mid-thirties.

And part of the reason why is because people of color, black people, white people, Americans do not value their life, view them in the way in which — and we view them in the way Trump views Latinx immigrants. And we criticize Trump without criticizing our views about these black transgender women. All of these people, their lives matter, and we need to recognize the ways in which they’re being subjected, as a result of their gender, as a result of their sexual orientation, as a result of their transgender status, as a result of their race, as a result of their class, how that’s all intersecting to lead to their genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: Ibram, you have a child?


AMY GOODMAN: What’s her name?

IBRAM X. KENDI: It’s Imani. Her name is Imani, which, of course, means “faith” in Swahili. And she certainly gives me faith every day to challenge white supremacy and racism.

AMY GOODMAN: And how old is she?

IBRAM X. KENDI: She’s 3 years old.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you raise her as an antiracist human being in this country?

IBRAM X. KENDI: So, I think — first and foremost, I think when we think about raising children, we should not be raising children to not be something — right? — to not be racist. We should be raising children to be something, to be antiracist.

And, you know, what we’re seeking to do is get her to see difference and appreciate it — right? — to appreciate difference, no matter that difference is cultural, racial, gendered, to see difference and appreciate it.

We’re also getting her to ask why. Now she’s asking too many whys, about everything, but that is the central question. Why does this exist? And to get her — we’re trying to sort of clarify for her why inequities exist, so she can realize that inequities do not exist because some racial group — there’s something wrong with some racial group. They exist because of these larger policies and powers.

And so, that’s what we’re seeking to do. And I think it’s a tremendous job as a parent, right? You literally have the opportunity to raise a racist or an antiracist. And we’re committed to raising an antiracist.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We have about a minute left, but I wanted to ask you — you grew up as a child in the same neighborhood, or roughly the same neighborhood, as the president of the United States: Queens, New York. But, obviously, different upbringings and different perspective. And you mention that in your book. Talk about growing up in Queens.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Sure. So, yeah, I grew up in Jamaica, Queens. And I had — I was fortunate that my parents sort of came of age in the Black Power movement, and specifically the Black Theology movement, specifically this movement that said, “You know what? Jesus is black. He’s a reflection of our image. He wears a ’fro just like we do. And the church needs to be an engine of liberation. Jesus was a revolutionary. And to be like Jesus is to be a revolutionary.” And so, in many ways, they never left that type of liberation theology behind, and raised me to imagine myself as someone who is essentially trying to eliminate racism and really create equal opportunity for all.

AMY GOODMAN: And what message you have for President Trump?

IBRAM X. KENDI: He probably should read my book. But, I mean, you know, I don’t know whether, obviously, he would, but — and more importantly, I would urge his voters to read my book.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That could be the first book he’s read in years.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yes. No, I was going to say, I would actually more so urge his voters to read my book, so they can realize, actually, that his policies are harming them, and the only reason why they’re connected to him is because of the racist ideas he manipulates them with.

AMY GOODMAN: Ibram X. Kendi, author of the new book How to Be an Antiracist. He’s speaking in Brooklyn at the Community Bookstore at Congregation Beth Elohim tonight, a conversation with activist Shaun King. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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