How to Be An Antiracist

So, I just finished a book that everyone has been talking about: How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi. And, after finishing it, I totally feel like it lives up to the hype. It is, as you might expect, illuminating and educational, as well as being really well-written.

I love how he uses his own personal story, his own developing awareness, to tell the larger story of racism in the United States, including plenty of relevant statistics and historical detail. He is honest about the places he has experienced growth, and the ways in which his mind has changed; and his own vulnerability really encourages the reader to self reflect on her own vulnerabilities and areas where change is needed in her life as well.

I also really appreciated the compelling ways in which he links racism with classism, sexism, and homophobia; in these chapters, I found his emphasis on being an anticapitalist also really crucial. Throughout, the importance he gives to bodies in the world–particularly black bodies–was so central; for me especially in this Covid-19 time, I want to be reminded of all the ways our bodies matter in the world, and all the ways we make decisions about others based on physicality, including what we wear and how we act. Related to this are his compelling discussions about how we all are subject to the pernicious tendency of stereotyping–generalizing about a whole group of people based on one experience with one person.

All of that was fabulous, but I’d like to illustrate my favorite take-away [and really, the book’s main point, I think] with an analogy to Luther’s Catechisms. One of the things that I love about Luther’s explications of the 10 Commandments in both the Large and Small Catechisms is the way he emphasizes that keeping the Commandments is not primarily about not doing bad things, but about actively doing good things—proactively engaging in loving acts for the sake of the neighbor and the stranger. So, for example, “not bearing false witness” isn’t about just keeping your mouth shut, but it’s about publicly and explicitly coming to the defense of your neighbor, and putting the best construction on her actions–using your power and privilege to “cloak” her, in Luther’s language.

To me, that’s really the heart of what Kendi means by being an antiracist. It’s not enough to be “not racist”–that implies silence, inaction, not doing something, neutrality. Instead, what he is calling for is active engagement against racist policies and racist power for the sake of a better society and for the future of our country and the world. It’s not enough to be silent on the sidelines–to disavow one identity (racist) without actively taking up another (antiracist). I confess that I have not thought enough about that

The book ends on an extremely powerful and personal note. He discloses his own struggle with stage 4 colon cancer, and then goes on to compare that experience with his experience of fighting racism; and, indeed, uses the fight against cancer as a metaphor for what is required in the fight against “metastatic racism.”

I want to leave you with two quotes from the book that are very relevant to this work. The first you have probably heard before, and he quotes a version of it twice: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the strength to do what is right in the face of fear.” And, almost at the end of the book he says, “the heartbeat of racism is denial, the heartbeat of antiracism is confession.” Those two affirmations are linked, I think. Confession takes courage–facing the truth about ourselves, about society, about history. But there’s no shortcut; and if the best time for confession was yesterday, the next best time is right now.

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