How to Be an Antiracist is part how-to and part memoir. Author Ibram X. Kendi, like many of us, grew up in a racist society and internalized many of its ideas. Throughout much of his life, he was racist, and in How to Be an Antiracist, he describes how he changed his thoughts and actions—and how you can change yours—to become antiracist.
How to Be an Antiracist covers three major steps to becoming antiracist:
The first step to becoming antiracist is to understand what racism is and what causes it.
Most people think that the concept of race came first, then people developed racist ideas, and then, finally, people developed racist policies stemming from their racist ideas. However, the true order of events is different: The policy created to further self-interest—the lucrative slave trade of Africans—came first, and then race was invented to justify the policy. Racist ideas came last.
Before we examine these events in more detail, we need to understand why the order of these events matters. There are two primary reasons:
In the 15th century, Prince Henry the Navigator wanted to get into the slave trade but didn’t want to work with the existing Islamic slave traders, who were enslaving a variety of people, including Europeans, Arabs, and Africans. Instead, Prince Henry sponsored voyages to West Africa and focused the Portuguese slave trade on Africans. Because the Islamic traders were enslaving people from a variety of areas, their trading policies weren’t racist. However, Prince Henry’s policy, because it focused on a particular group of people, was racist (even though the concept of race hadn’t been invented yet).
Twenty years later, it fell to Prince Henry’s biographer, Gomes de Zurara to justify the enslavement of Africans. He did so by inventing the idea of the African race (though he didn’t use the word “race”). In his description of people being sold at a slave auction, he described the people as being different from each other in language, ethnic group, and skin color, but he lumped them into a single group of people who lived like animals and needed to be saved by civilized Europeans, who were inherently superior.
The goal of inventing races was twofold:
People read Zurara’s work, and other scientists, writers, and philosophers began to make generalizations about race. It took until approximately the 20th century for race to be a concept understood all over the world. Generalizations about race resulted in comparing racial groups, which is the foundation of racist ideas—ideas that imply that one race is in any way superior or inferior to another.
Now that we understand that we understand that racist policies created out of self-interest are the root cause of racism, we can understand racism and antiracism more precisely.
Ibram defines racism as a combination of racist policies and ideas that causes and maintains racial inequities.
An example of a racist idea is the generally held belief that Black people are more dangerous than White people. Growing up, Ibram believed in this idea and was constantly scared that the other Black kids at his school would beat him up.
An example of a racist policy was the one in Ohio that required newly registered voters in the 2004 federal election to submit their voter-registration forms on a particular kind of expensive paper, which made it harder to register. The policy appeared to target all newly registered voters, irrespective of race, but a large percentage of newly registered voters were Black, meaning the policy promoted racial inequity.
Ibram defines antiracism as a collection of antiracist policies and ideas that cause racial equity.
An example of an antiracist idea is the belief that no race’s culture or subculture is better than any other’s.
Examples of antiracist policies are the Immigration and Nationality Act (1965), the Refugee Act (1980), and the Immigration Act (1900), all of which encouraged immigration to the US from non-European countries. Although, in various ways, these acts favored non-Europeans over European immigrants, the acts were antiracist rather than racist because they promoted equity among immigrant groups. In other words, they aimed to...
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In How to Be an Antiracist, author Ibram X. Kendi takes readers through his journey to become an antiracist—a person who believes that all racial groups are equal and supports policies that reduce inequity. Antiracists acknowledge that there are differences between races, but these differences aren’t responsible for inequities—policies are.
Part 1 covers what racism is and how it came into being. Part 2 covers different kinds of racism and how they intersect with each other. For each kind, we look at how and why it was invented, how its policies have affected society, and how it has affected Ibram specifically. We also describe how Ibram identified his own racist ideas and worked at dismantling them. Finally, in Part 3, we’ll look at some of the techniques Ibram and other antiracists use to combat racist policies on a societal rather than personal scale.
The goals of the book are to:
There are several different types of racism, some of which intersect with other identities. Chapter 2 covers biological and ethnic racism, and subsequent chapters cover other types.
Biological racism is a combination of racist policies and ideas that causes and maintains racial inequities, the main idea being the belief that 1) there are biological or genetic differences between races, and 2) these differences make one race superior to another.
Example #1: A 1991 survey revealed that 50% of respondents thought that Black people had “more natural physical ability.”
Example #2: A generally held belief is that Black people are naturally good at improvisational decision making, which makes them good at basketball, rap, and jazz, and bad at astronomy, chess, and music.
There are no biological or genetic differences between races. Racial ancestry doesn’t exist. However, ethnic ancestry does exist—people who are from the same regions usually have similar genes, and these groups of people are called populations. Contrary to what most people believed, geneticists discovered that the populations within Africa are more genetically different from...
While the belief that races are genetically distinct has contributed to racism throughout history, there are many more common, and more subtle, beliefs that contribute to racism today. These commonly-held racist beliefs often fall into the categories of bodily racism and colorism, which are related to people’s physical appearance.
Bodily racism is a combination of racist policies and ideas that causes and maintains racial inequities, the main idea being the belief that people of certain races are more animal-like or dangerous than those of other races.
Example #1: Bill Clinton said that Black people have to understand White fear in America. He said that when White people encounter or see violence in the media, it’s often coming from Black people.
Example #2: Cops are scared of Black people, even unarmed kids. The US population is 13% Black, but people killed by police are disproportionately Black—in 2018, 21% of people killed by police were Black. White people are half as likely to be killed by police as Black people.
In reality, there are no inherently violent or dangerous races. Researchers have found that there’s a much stronger correlation...
Bodily racism includes the idea that people of certain races are more animal-like or dangerous than those of other races.
Think about the last time you saw a person who was a different race than you at a distance. What was your first instinctive impression of them? Did they seem bigger or stronger than you, or smaller and weaker? Did you feel the need to do a particular action, such as cross the street to avoid getting close to them?
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In addition to bodily racism and colorism, cultural and behavioral racism are types of common and sometimes subtle beliefs that contribute to racism today. Cultural and behavioral racism are related to how people act, both as a community and as individuals.
Cultural racism is a combination of racist policies and ideas that causes and maintains racial inequities, the main idea being the belief that there is a standard culture that is superior and the cultures of other racialized groups are inferior.
Example #1: Enslaved Africans created the language of Creole in Haiti. Racist powers deem these languages mere “dialects” of the “standard” English that White people speak, and they attach negative connotations to these languages such as “broken” or “nonstandard.”
Example #2: Columnist Jason Riley condemned Black youth culture in New York because it “celebrated thuggery.” He thought that the baggy pants and loose shirts people wore glorified jail fashion. This belief suggests that certain ways of dressing are inherently superior to others.
In reality, there is no hierarchy of cultures. Cultures are different from each other, but none of them are...
In previous chapters, we considered different types of racism. Now, it’s time to look at the intersections between race and other identities such as class, gender, and sexuality. Race is inextricably linked to these other identities, and bigotry towards any identity can have a multiplying effect on racism.
Because intersectional racism is made up of a combination of racist ideas and classist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic ideas, to be truly antiracist, we must also be anticapitalist, feminist, non-homophobic, and non-transphobic. For example, to believe that Black Lives Matter, we must believe that the lives of all Black people—be they poor, female, or queer—matter.
Race-classes are combinations of race and economic class, for example, Black poor or “White trash.”
Class racism is a combination of racist policies and ideas that causes and maintains racial inequities between race-classes. Class racists link race and economic class, support capitalistic policies that have a disproportionately negative economic impact on members of certain races, and use racist ideas to justify those policies.
Although some people blame groups like the Black...
In previous chapters, we looked at how racism is directed at people. In this chapter, we’ll look at how racism is directed at spaces. Spaces that are governed or highly populated by racial groups can be assigned race.
Space racism is a combination of racist policies and ideas that aim to eliminate racialized spaces or that cause resource inequity between racialized spaces, the main idea being the belief that certain racialized spaces are more deserving of resources than others.
Example #1: People believed that Black “ghetto” neighborhoods were full of violence and juvenile delinquency, and this would creep into surrounding areas if people weren’t careful. People assumed that the people living in these neighborhoods had fewer resources because they were less deserving of them.
Example #2: In South Carolina, school districts became racialized spaces, and there were White schools and Black schools. In 1930, South Carolina spent $53 on each White student and $5 on each Black one. This inequity implies that White students are more deserving of resources than Black students.
In reality, no racialized spaces are any better or worse than others. Inequities are due to...
Space racism involves the idea that certain racialized spaces are superior to others.
What spaces do you avoid living in or visiting? Why?
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All the types of racism previously mentioned in Part 2 can be directed at any non-White race. The types of racism in this chapter are directed at specific races.
Before we explore anti-White racism and Black-on-Black racism, we need to confront the myth that Black people can’t be racist.
Powerless defense is the idea that it’s impossible for Black people to be racist because they lack power. This concept appeared in the 1960s as a response to accusations of anti-White racism. Black people defended themselves by saying that they couldn’t possibly be racist towards White people because they didn’t have any political power.
Suggesting that people of color don’t have power results in several negative consequences:
In Parts 1-2, we looked at what racism is and its various forms. Race may have been a made-up power construct, but its various iterations still very much affect us today. Part 3 covers how we can strive to be antiracist.
Chapter 8 covers some of the activism techniques antiracists have used to try to create an antiracist society.
To work towards ending racism, you have to treat the cause, not the symptoms. Many people think that racism is caused by ignorance and hate, but as we’ve learned in previous chapters, in fact, it’s actually caused by self-interest and policy. The ignorance and hate come later.
Therefore, any attempt to end racism that starts by addressing ignorance and hate instead of the root cause is never going to be successful. For example, mentoring programs might help individuals, but no behavioral program will have an effect on policy.
While racist power is very flexible—it will use whatever strategy is most effective—historically, antiracists have tried the same strategies over and over again, even though they’ve never worked and will never work because they focus in the wrong place.
According to Ibram,...
The most effective way to create policy change is to make the change in the policymaker’s best interests.
Think of a policy that you’d like to see changed, whether it's a federal policy or a rule at work. How would you employ uplift suasion to this policy? How effective do you think it would be?
Part of becoming antiracist is identifying your racist ideas and working to dismantle them, but another large part is changing your actions. In the previous chapter, we looked at some of the methods antiracists use and compared their success rates. In this chapter, we’ll look at how to harness the most effective techniques to achieve results. Ibram measures success by results, not by intentions.
In 1967, Charles Hamilton, a political scientist, and Kwame Toure, an activist, described two types of racism, overt and covert. Overt racism is individual racism—a specific White person targeting a specific Black person. An example of individual racism is White terrorist who attacks a Black church.
Covert racism is institutional racism—the entire White community going after the entire Black community. An example of institutional racism is Black children dying because they don’t have the same access to medical facilities that White people do.
The theory of overt and covert racism acknowledges that the system is the problem, not people. As a result, **understanding overt and covert racism, also known as institutional racism, has both an enlightening...
Being antiracist involves targeting racist policies.
How would you find out what some of the racial inequities are in your region? Consider connecting with antiracist groups, looking up statistics, or talking to activists.
Like Ibram, most of us grew up in a society based on racist ideas. Identifying our racist ideas is an important step in becoming antiracist.
It’s impossible to talk about racism if we constantly deny that we’re racist. What’s an example of a racist idea that you once believed in or have realized you currently believe in?