Ibram X. Kendi: Racist Ideas Can Be Subtle

What is subtle racism? How can racism be disguised with antiracist rhetoric?

When we think about racist ideas, we tend to think about openly hateful, hostile, or discriminatory rhetoric. But racist thinking can take subtler forms and even disguise itself as nonracist.

Here’s how you can spot racist logic, according to Ibram X. Kendi.

There Are 3 Positions on Race

While we might assume that ideas are either racist or nonracist, the reality is much more complicated. According to Ibram X. Kendi, the author of Stamped from the Beginning, there are three types of thoughts on race: segregationist, antiracist, and assimilationist.

1) Segregationist ideas blame racial disparities on Black people by proposing that they’re inferior or defective in some way. These are the kinds of ideas we’d typically identify as racist. For example, a segregationist explanation for the low number of Black Fortune 500 CEOs might be that Black people lack the intelligence and motivation to be business leaders.

2) Antiracist ideas blame racial disparities solely on racism and maintain that all races are equal. An antiracist explanation for the lack of Black Fortune 500 CEOs might be that hiring and promotion procedures discriminate against Black candidates and employees.

3) Assimilationist ideas blame racial disparities on Black people and on racism. Assimilationist ideas can take two forms—they can maintain that both Black people and racist whites are at fault, or they can propose that Black people are defective as a result of racism. 

For example, the first type of assimilationism might explain the low number of Black Fortune 500 CEOs by saying that hiring policies are discriminatory and that many Black people lack the skills to be business executives (such an explanation might even suggest that businesses should try harder to find the few qualified Black people out there). 

The second type of assimilationism is especially pernicious because its racism is subtler—for example, it might argue that after centuries of racial discrimination, most Black people can’t imagine themselves in leadership roles. As Kendi points out, an idea like this seems to place the blame on racism, but in doing so, it also promotes the idea that Black people are inferior (even if the inferiority isn’t their fault, but was caused by racism).

Racist Thoughts Affect Everyone

Part of Kendi’s goal in identifying these three stances on race is to show how racist ideas don’t just reside with openly racist white supremacists—they affect how everyone thinks, regardless of one’s own race or one’s support or opposition for racist policies and ideas. For example, in Part 2 of this guide, we’ll see that throughout history, both Black and white advocates against racism have harbored racist ideas without even realizing it.

Likewise, because we tend to think of racism as explicit hatred for other racial groups—and because most people don’t hold this hatred—it can be hard to recognize the impact racism has on the world. In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo argues that many white Americans aren’t explicitly racist, but nonetheless view the world through a racialized lens. As Arlie Russell Hochschild argues in Strangers in Their Own Land, this is partly because the institution of slavery came to define what it meant to be white just as much as what it meant to be Black.

The irony is that systemic racism has even harmed some members of the race it ostensibly benefits. According to Hochschild, racism is part of the paradoxical mix of beliefs and values that leads many poor white people to persistently vote against their own interests and support policies that keep them impoverished. Meanwhile, in Caste, Isabel Wilkerson argues that middle- to lower-income white Americans have suffered increased death rates from suicide, drug overdoses, and similar causes as a direct result of their loss of dominant-group status in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.
Ibram X. Kendi: Racist Ideas Can Be Subtle

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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