How to be An Antiracist was released in 2018, but has become appallingly significant in the last few months.
After the tragic death of George Floyd, and the collective paroxysm of rage and grief that followed his passing in June, I recognized that I was not sufficiently doing my part in the fight against racism and racist policy. In an effort to remedy this, I endeavored to read about racism, join action groups, and donate to causes in support of policies to deconstruct racism.
I knew that Research was not enough, but I did not feel confident in my own understanding of the mechanisms and actions of Racism in America. So I’ve endeavored to research the issue more deeply.
But among these the most highly recommended book I saw was by Ibram X. Kendi: How to Be An Antiracist.
Before I read the book, I watched his Ted Talk and some other interviews in which he elucidated his viewpoint and stance so I came in with some understanding of how his argument was formulated.
But Is this book the best starting point in learning more about racism, and what you can do to undo it? The answer is…complicated, at least for me. Broadly, yes, but with many, many qualifications that you should know before reading, especially, if, like me, you want to do better in addressing racism meaningfully.
What is How to Be An Antiracist?
How to be An Antiracist is a book by Ibram X. Kendi written in 2018, serving as the followup to his debut book Stamped From the Beginning, released in 2016. The book itself is a mix of creative non-fiction, memoir, apologetics, statistics, essay and clarion call in an effort to address Kendi’s central philosophy of Antiracism. Or, the premise that one cannot simply be “not racist”. Rather, through activism and acknowledgment of a system, seek to enact policies that will enable equity.
The book, separated into 18 chapters, dissects racism through its history, tracing back its roots and ties to economic history, and deconstructing its intersections with class, ethnicity, culture, capitalism, gender, queerness, space, biology et. al. In defining Antiracism, Kendi illustrates a thorough approach to dealing with the perfidy and prevailing racism of our time in a way that will ultimately undo it.
Where How to be An Antiracist Works
The Dueling Consciousness of Antiracism
How to Be An Antiracist effectively argues the case for Antiracism and expands on racism in ways I was unused to. While there are several weak points in the rhetoric (which we will discuss), the overall construction of the idea of Antiracism is threaded organically and vigorously, supported by myriad statistics (taking up a whopping 70 pages worth of endnotes and citations), anecdotes, and oratory.
Kendi’s argumentative coup is introduced to us in the form of dueling consciousness as proposed by W.E.B. Dubois in the Souls of Black Folk. Dueling Consciousness, as proposed by DuBois is the idea that Black People and other Oppressed Communities have two visions of themselves at war with each other: their sense of internal self, and how they are seen through the eyes of the people who hate and oppress them. Dubois argues that the essential struggle of Black Folk is to reconcile these two warring factions.
Kendi threads How to be An Antiracist ergodically and fractally with this idea of dueling consciousness. The text wars with itself on page after page where harsh, declarative rhetoric a la Malcolm X and DuBois calling for the total dissection and dismantling of racist policies come into conflict with the more nuanced, statistics based deconstructions, anecdotes which show Kendi himself not living up to his own ideals – especially in segments towards the end – and Kendi’s evolving understanding of racism.
These binaries achieve greyscale and give the text an important sense of incompleteness. The struggle of how to fight racism is a fight both internal and external, and sometimes the most well meaning efforts of people can exacerbate the issues of race. Paradox on paradox on paradox.
In particular, during the Chapters on White and Black Racism, and Particularly in Chapter 17, he highlights his own struggles with his radical views on undoing race, and how, paradoxically, this contributes to his sense of his own racist tendencies. When discussing his youth he nakedly asserts that he was racist because he was relying on canards that black folk themselves use to distance from…as Donald Glover reframed it “Them Vampires” (I will not be using the N Word, for obvious reasons). I was more convinced of his argument by these nakedly vulnerable sections, than by the opening volleys fired out of a cannon in the beginning.
In particular this quote summed up the text’s internal conflict well for me:
When we fail to open the close-minded consumers of racist ideas, we blame their closed-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…– Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be An Antiracist, Chapter 16, p. 210
I’m a sucker for unflinching self-reflection, and that’s what really sold me on the book’s message overall. But this conflict is only highlighted by his…
Concomitant with the dueling consciousness is how Kendi uses deconstruction to examine the vectors by which racism is transmitted and fomented.
The structure of the text – a systematic exploration of racism from its major intersections – for the most part, is successful in underlining the interrelatedness of struggles in defining racism so that it may be undone. Kendi dissects racism clearly, methodically, and coherently.
I remember, during reading that, around the point where he started discussing Class and Biological racism, the thread of the topics that came before – namely the ideas of racial inequity, dueling consciousness, and his own life experiences created a braid of ideas that ran through and enforced each other. Each progressive chapter highlighted its connection to the previous. This is in part due to Kendi’s priming us to see these connections by mentioning them, but the effect is organic. As much as relies on the use of effervescent prose, the ideas accumulate around the edges.
As the ideas and intersections of racism fall into place, How to Be An Antiracist successfully explains the fundamental nature of racism to the modern american state and how it pervades every facet of our culture. As I read, I found myself reassessing our culture and its racist foundations. Although I was already open to the idea, I was able to get a greater sense of how racism informs the operation of modern society. I got angrier.
He best argues in the cases of
The Perfidy of Post-Racial Discourse
The strongest parts of the book, however, center around the locus of ideas around Post-Racism and Assimilationism and how racism became worse, as it got pushed under the surface by those who would seek to eradicate it. Namely, assimilationist lines of thought
Let’s be real for just a moment: racism, as Kendi argues, is not solely an issue on the right side of american politics. It pervades thought across the political spectrum. Our focus on the right’s brand of racism ties into its straightforwardly hateful nature. Or, put another way: Nazis and Klansman are obvious.
But in analyzing the liberal left’s ideas of both assimilationism (sucking Blackness and Black identity into American culture broadly) and how, after the election of President Obama we became “post-racial”, Kendi makes his most resonant argument for antiracism.
Simply: because we are supposed to “not be racist” anymore, we give ourselves the illusion of not having to deal with the smaller racist behaviors, and we don’t have to assess our own behaviors in the context of a racist culture. We don’t have to consider how racism persists in a post-racial culture because, ironically, that would be racist. This conflict allows racism to fester. He also expertly points out how this fragilizes the left towards discussing racism, opting to say that someone is “not racist” instead of acknowledging our racist institutions, systems, and policies.
For me, this is the most compelling argument about racism the book proffers. Because it shines a light on how the system itself that wants to undo racism supports it, it helped me to see how much harder it is to get anything accomplished towards undoing racism when everyone is afraid of being racist. Especially on the side actually fighting it.
Antiracism is ever incomplete
The design of Kendi’s argument and its inherent contradictory, dueling consciousness nature, allows the text and its very explicit imperfections (which we will get to shortly) to resonate broadly. Kendi’s mix of autobiographical tit-bits, especially in how his formation on thoughts on race has evolved, and his declarative philosophical meanderings create paradox on paradox. But, in concluding his story, he is able to articulate antiracist thought as a process unto itself.
The idea behind the text, unlike many screeds of its ilk, is centered around the idea that racism exists as a process and as a subset of inequitable policies. He asserts that we shouldn’t see racism and antiracism as absolute concepts, but rather as two ideals at war with each other.
This works. One of the hardest elements of discussing race today is how people take it in absolutes, both those who are explicitly racist, and those who seek to undo it. That Kendi acknowledges it that it isn’t that simple makes the process of reading the text way more valuable.
Where How to Be An Antiracist Falls flat
Oratory and Rhetoric gets in the way of flow (Dueling Consciousness, Part II)
For me, the biggest issues of the text have nothing to do with the argument, but how it is argued.
It is clear even in the introduction that Kendi’s conception of the text falls in line with classic texts and compositions on race such as the Souls of Black Folks, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and the likes of Martin Luther King’s letter from birmingham jail. He is as much an orator as a writer, which is brought up in the introduction when he brings up his oratorical competition at Stonewall Jackson high school.
That bold, articulate, declarative style can be persuasive…in the pulpit. But, often, Kendi’s enthusiasm overshadows the construction of his argument. Despite his acknowledgment of the messiness of discussing race and racism, he regularly injects diatribes with very explicit messages that are designed not to be argued. Early on, when explaining the reasons for discussing racism, he notes the need to systematically define racism and what that means
Then he goes on a series of statistical analyses. Then he jumps into an unrelated anecdote about his Grandmother’s alzheimer’s and how women of color experience greater troubles with physical, and emotional health problems, then he jumps into a series of clarion calls about some aspect of racism.
The effect is not bad, but it is jumbled. It is designed to act as a spoken text. Where you are among the church pews, listening to the man preach. It would be more effective spoken, at least when I was reading it. It feeds into the notion of Dueling consciousness, and clarifies it, but muddies the text’s argument when reading it.
As it stands, written, it can be confusing, or contradictory, in execution. And that’s not just because of Kendi’s emphasis on oratory. He is also…
Putting the Cart Before the Horse
How to Be An Antiracist struggles with the construction of its opening chapters, primarily, which sets up the confusion I have noted below. While Kendi acknowledges that in order to examine something, one must first define it systematically and subject it to rigorous formality and scrutiny he…fails to do that, at the beginning.
If he were to be systematic in defining antiracism I would have preferred he start at what Antiracism seeks to address: racism, and race.
He does not do that. Instead, he starts by defining antiracism and he throws out a partial definition of racism as “racist policies that create inequity”. This threw me off. Although the concept of race is contentious and complicated, he does not devote any ink to it until Chapter 3, at which point he has defined racism and antiracism. Even then he deflects on an actual definition of race as the subject is so complicated to define.
In placing the definition of race after the definition of racism and antiracism, I found myself disoriented. While I have an understanding of what race is, I did not know if my and his definitions are identical, and so I am unable to tell if his argument for antiracism has merit relative to his definitions of both race and racism.
This was cleared up, but that confusion turned me off in the early chapters and slowed down my reading in ways I didn’t want. I was frustrated arranging the argument in my mind.
But that is part of the bigger issue, which is.
Because of this issue with the definitions of race, racism, and antiracism that start the text, it took far longer than necessary for me to understand the definitions of subsequent intersections he defined using the term “racist policy” and “antiracist”. It took me approximately 5 or 6 chapters before the definitions that opened each chapter made sense. And even then they served more to confuse the text than clarify.
And it’s not that his definitions are bad, or that he doesn’t explain them. It is in the arrangement of them and reliance on presumptions of what they constitute that make it challenging.
If I don’t understand what “racist policy” means in the context of antiracism, then “A collection of antiracist policies for x concept” means very little and doesn’t clear it up much.
This lack of clarity is often exacerbated by
Abstractions aren’t always threaded perfectly with concrete elements
Especially at the beginning of the text, Kendi relies on extremely abstract definitions of topics that cannot be defined abstractly because he wants to have a broad reach. For example, this is one abstract paragraph which offers no insight to the discussion:
What is racism? Racims is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities– Ibram X. Kendi, How to be An Antiracist Chapter 1, page 19
These things are defined in subsequent paragraphs, but I had to take a moment to pause because that framing is very abstract. And though he explains what inequity is, and what policy is on the following page, I got lost because the concept of race had not been articulated beforehand.
In defining racism as a “racist policy” he notes that he use the term policy because it’s more grounded, but for me, Policy is the same level of abstraction as institutional, or systems.
I should point out that I understand what he means or eventually did understand after doing a lot of work mentally. But frequently, he will hinge his definitions in abstractions that leave me feeling groundless, regardless of statistics. The lack of heterogeneity and concrete definitions (defining racism with racist), and establishing firm boundaries – that is to say, to systematize – adds to the general confusion in establishing the argument. I am harping on all of this for a specific reason. Not because of the argument’s weakness itself.
Racist Capitalism, White Racism, Black Racism, and Space Racism are the weakest sections
Kendi’s goal is to establish a simple framework for fighting racism: antiracism. The essential concept boils down to fighting inequity by proposing equitable policy. That expansive argument is simple, and difficult.
And although I understood that Kendi was doing that to establish how antiracism should work in a perfect world, in addition to the oratorical flourishes, the abstractions, and the weakly orchestrated structure, the arguments for some segments were either more confusing than they needed to be, or actively contradictory (more on that in a moment).
The sections in which he discusses Capitalist Racism, and how they are twins, and how to be antiracist is to oppose capitalism fell flat for me. That is largely a personal problem (I find a lot of arguments surrounding capitalism to be weak because of my own beliefs in economic reflexivity and strange loops), but this section in which fighting capitalism is fighting racism felt undercooked.
More problematic, however, were the arguments for racism against whites, and racism against other black folk. Although they are set up by the previous chapters, Kendi’s argumentation itself muddies the message. When arguing that antiracism includes racism against white people, he refers to racism against white people as a product of the racist systems already in place. Or, how white people who are not wealthy and at the top of the economic food chain are subject to racism.
The argument for black racism – how black folk employ dueling consciousness to look down on themselves, and help perpetuate the system – is equally poorly argued. When I read it, I wasn’t entirely clear what he meant. It took a lot of additional thought as to what he was trying to say. I had to stop and chew on the idea like gristle.
These issues are all of a part in the bedrock issue of the text
Internally Contradictory Messaging
The reason I harp on the construction of the rhetoric in How to be An Antiracist is not that the argument is bad. And I want to be clear at this point, I don’t take issue with the argument itself. Even the poorly argued segments of the argument are still valid, and the more I think on them, the better they become. Even the White Racism section makes sense given a lot of additional thought on my part.
But in the process of reading, I was confused. Especially re: White Racism. The Argument for racism, in the beginning, does hinge on the current sociological definition of being a function of systems and institutions. Kendi even goes out of his way to highlight how those words are too abstract in defining it.
In making the claims of systemic racism, he also explicitly points out that whiteness and white privilege are key elements of american systemic racism. Inextricably linked. So when he discusses how whites are also the victims of racism, in the same way that black folk are, it is explicitly internally contradictory.
To Kendi’s credit, as I noted in what I liked, he observes that antiracism is a process, and that it is necessarily imperfect. And even the best expressions falter at its idealized state.
But these internal contradictions – which are not limited just to white racism – keep the text from being clearly and systematically rolled out. That not only harms the experience of reading it, but it also hinders Kendi’s central goal in formulating How to Be An Antiracist.
And the major issue with this, at its most essential is that
How to be An Antiracist may Ambivalent “Not-Racists” with these construction issues
How to be an Antiracist is a well written, mostly well argued book if you already understand that racism is systemic, and have done a bit of prior research. If you operate under the assumption that we need to undo the systems of oppression that harm everybody with their perfidy and toxicity, then this book will be good for you to articulate further those thoughts, and deepen your understanding of that premise.
If you, like me, want to understand the mechanisms and vectors by which racism operates and put in a good faith effort at working to undo those systems via activism, How to be an Antiracist is a good place to develop your vocabulary and understanding of how to meaningfully change society.
If you are looking for a klaxon announcing the dangers of white supremacy, and want to point out how it makes life worse for everybody except the very wealthy white men at the top. How to be an Antiracist will help you articulate that.
But if you are on the fence about studying racism, or you are scared of talking about race for fear of ostracization, or white fragility brought about by upbringing; if you are not on board with the idea of systemic racism as a premise, this book will do nothing to undo those patterns of thought.
And that is the hardest part of selling How to be An Antiracist. It’s argued well if you already have a baseline for these concepts, and are open to learning more. While dyed in the wool nazis and klansmen are not going to change their mind, regardless, for the middle-class white folk who call themselves “not racist”, this book’s construction will alienate a good portion of those people. And it’s not because they’re bad. It’s because they’ll rankle at the construction. That’s why I’m spending so much time harping on it. I want more people to be antiracist, and I know that these confusions will alienate a lot of them.
If the audience which is ambivalent gets lost or thinks its internally contradictory, or sees a major flaw in their argument, I think its safe to assume that they will not take the time to parse out the ideas and try to figure out what Kendi meant. They will simply inure themselves to the belief that they are racist in any meaningful way.
And I don’t want that.
Conclusions: Is how to be an antiracist the best introduction to learning about racism and doing something about it?
With all that said, is How to be An Antiracist good as a starting point for studying race, racism, and activating activism? I’d say yes, but qualified by the fact that the reader needs to be open to having their mind changed.
How to be An Antiracist is good at systematizing the nature of racism and showing how it affects everybody, politically, culturally, historically, economically, et. al. It’s longform exploration facilitates a deeper understanding of the “Systemic” component of racism. It also will help clarify ways in which you can fight racism.
To that point, I am angrier and activated about wanting to be an antiracist to undo the systems that perpetuate it. So, for me, it succeeded in its ultimate goal.
However, how to be an antiracist’s design flaws, it’s assumptions of common knowledge and rhetorical clunkiness for certain concepts, it’s assumptions of audience knowledge, it’s internal contradictions, its uneven argumentative construction, and its lack of appeal to an ambivalent audience make it a good starting point in tandem with other books and studies on racism. If you read this with Notes of a Native Son, Invisible Man, James Wheldon Johnson’s Autobiography, The Souls of Black Folk, and other essential texts about race, you will get more out of it.
More importantly, by its own admission, it is not a substitute for taking action. If you want to act to undo racist policies and create an equitable society for all, consider donating to the NAACP, the ACLU, joining a SURJ Base Group, Supporting Black Business Owners, or any other number of initiatives in service of undoing racist policies.
Final Assessment: It’s worth reading, with supplemental materials at hand.
8.3 out of 10