Discussions of racism often get bogged down in disputes over definitions and intent. Ibram X. Kendi’s recent book How to be an Antiracist helps clear some of the fog around racism and antiracism by providing clear definitions as well as clear steps to take to combat racism.
Race, as Kendi defines it, is “a power construct of collected or merged difference that lives socially” (35) and racists are those who support racist policies while those who are antiracist support antiracist policies. Kendi’s definitions, as noted elsewhere, are expansive: any idea that there are things better or worse about a racial group is an example of racism, and we can act in either racist or antiracist ways–there is not neutral ground in the in-between.
Kendi then surveys numerous ways that racism and antiracism play out in public and private spheres. These chapters are extremely important because they show the simplicity with which we can identify racism when we cut through the attempts to dance around the topic. Biological racism, for example, is something someone does when they are “expressing the idea that the races are meaningfully different in their biology and that these differences create a hierarchy of value” (44). Ideas about bodies can also lead to racism, and someone who is bodily racist is “One who is perceiving certain racialized bodies as more animal-like and violent than others” (69). Kendi’s note of what it means to be antiracist in specific ways is uniquely helpful as it helps readers to instantly identify ways to counteract racist ideas. Regarding bodily racism, for example, the bodily antiracist is “One who is humanizing, deracializing, and individualizing nonviolent and violent behavior” (ibid). Thus, if someone refers to the behavior of a black man as exemplifying how young black men are “thugs” or attributes behavior to someone who is “acting white,” they are acting in ways that are bodily racist (and possibly biologically racist as well).
Racism goes beyond identifying bodily differences and also extends into cultural beliefs: cultural racism is the act of making one culture the standard and then imposing a hierarchy of value based on cultural backgrounds (81). Kendi notes the intense importance of attributing behavior to individuals rather than groups. Making an individual’s behavior determinate that of a group or making individuals responsible for whole racial groups is an example of behavioral racism (92). Kendi notes how color has been used to create inequities between light people and dark people, supported by racist ideas (107ff). Charges that Kendi is operating with some new or recent definition of racism and innovating in ways that are not found historically are dispelled when one looks at his use of sources, reaching back to scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois who already noted the ways in which colorism and similar ideas were deeply integrated into racial discrimination and pushing inequity based on race.
Kendi also does not fall into the trap of ignoring how racism can be based upon any color or perceived difference. Thus, he acknowledges that there is such a thing as Anti-white racism (122-135) and that it is a mistake to say that it is mistaken to claim that a group cannot be racist because they lack power (136ff). Kendi’s consistency on this point immediately undercuts many of the objections people make when discussing racism on a critical level.
Economics itself can be pressed into the service of racist ideas when one racializes the classes or supports policies that they justify by racist ideas based upon class (151). Additionally, racializing spaces and encouraging racial inequity based upon what spaces people are allowed to inhabit or visit continues to be a serious problem. Sexuality and gender can each play into racism as well, and Kendi surveys how they can be used together to create inequalities.
The book is filled with anecdotes, citations of studies, and citations of major historical voices to back up each claim. It’s a fascinating look at how we might work together to combat racism in all of its shifting forms. Perhaps most vitally, though, it also serves as a wake up call to how to identify many of these different forms of racism. How to Be an Antiracist is an incredibly valuable resource that I recommend to readers.
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