The vital read aims to open our eyes on how everyone, whether we mean to or not, can be complicit in racism and explores how to identify and tackle it.
The title says it all. This book breaks down the author's own journey toward active anti-racism, while serving as a guide for people who want to go beyond not being racist, into working to create a more just society. It's essential reading for anyone asking, "What more can I do?"
The liberal America Kendi wants to heal is rooted in frontierism and capitalism. Does this explain why his analysis culminates in a disease metaphor in which the body turns on itself? Does this, perhaps, also account for his ignoring the cultural genocide of North America’s First Nations and his failure to include indigenous people in the race equation of the American dream? It is curious that while focusing on the individual rather than the collective consciousness, Kendi is still able to understate the role of self-interest in nourishing the social inequality propagated by the racism–capitalism complex. As a result, he seems ultimately unable to articulate a cure for the cancer he repeatedly alludes to. But as Ursula Le Guin put it, although capitalism seems inescapable, so did the divine right of kings: “any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings … The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom”.
How to Be an Antiracist is more like a textbook than I would like, but then there is much schooling to be done. Kendi succinctly takes down assimilationist thinking (“Assimilationists typically position White people as the superior standard”) and the glamorising of poverty as “authentic blackness” (with typical honesty, he confesses to having been guilty of this)... This is a dogmatic book, but that should be no surprise given that the title takes the form of a “How To”. Kendi gets away with the instructional tone, both because of the work he has put in, and because of his ability to face up to his own flaws.
It’s a mark of the transformative and unsettling power of Ibram X Kendi’s writing that I relaxed into How to Be an Antiracist with the comforting and self-righteous knowledge that the title was not addressing me. After all I am black; I couldn’t possibly be racist, could I? By the book’s end, I wasn’t so sure...How to Be an Antiracist offers a way out from the tangled disingenuousness of mainstream narratives around racism. Whether you’re an institution such as the BBC, fumbling editorially in determinedly refusing to describe Trump as a racist, or an individual in moral paralysis, dumbfounded by the febrile emotions now at large in a resurgence of racist attitudes, you are not alone; hope is on its way. At its simplest, the book argues that to be an antiracist is to take an active and persistent stance against racism.
In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi recycles ideas from his earlier book and weaves them into a memoir of his own life, from his middle-class childhood in multiethnic New York, through the racial standoff in the South, to the largely white university communities in which he now teaches. In an often engaging amble through three decades, he touches on themes that do need airing: the contrast, for one, between the descendants of black slaves, still poor and underachieving, and their eager-beaver African and Caribbean immigrant cousins, now cutting a swathe through corporate life... Kendi is right that, to understand America, you cannot escape the chasm of its racial divide, and I would love to cheer on his desire to treat race as a serious topic of study. But he seems like a prophet warning us of a future we’ve already passed through. Without more rigorous tools of analysis, the storytelling is likely to end up promoting the political outcome he would most hate: more racial division, and more Trump.