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. As a result, despite being Black, he was racist himself throughout much of his life. In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi describes what he’s learned about racism, how he changed his thoughts and actions to become antiracist, and how you can do the same.
Kendi is a historian, teacher, and activist. He’s also the director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. He was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020, a year after this book was published.
How to Be an Antiracist is Kendi’s third book. While his previous book—Stamped From the Beginning—focused purely on the history and sociology of racism in America, How to Be an Antiracist weaves those lessons together with Kendi’s own experiences with racism (both as a target and an instigator of it). How to Be an Antiracist was a New York Times bestseller in 2020.
In this guide, we’ve organized Kendi’s lessons into three clear and actionable steps toward becoming antiracist: First, learn what racism is and how it evolved. Second, become aware of subtly racist ideas you might be carrying, and start working to move beyond them. Finally, support antiracist policies and work for true equality. Our commentary explores how racism became so deeply ingrained in our culture and why it’s so hard for us to let go of our racist ideas on an individual level. We’ll also suggest some specific ways you can implement Kendi’s ideas and start taking antiracist action.
Before starting his journey toward antiracism, Kendi believed racism was an integral part of society that couldn’t be removed. He also denied that he personally held racist ideas and performed racist acts. Kendi didn’t want to reexamine his ideas about racism, and this isn’t uncommon; it’s hard for people to change beliefs that they hold strongly.
However, as he continued his studies and the Black Lives Matter movement launched, Kendi began to reassess his ideas about what racism is and what he could do about it. Eventually, he revised his definition of racism to the one given in this book: Racism includes all ideas and all policies that promote inequity between people of different races.
To start working toward being antiracist, Kendi first had to accept that he could sometimes be racist. He acknowledged that he held racist ideas and supported racist policies because he had grown up in a racist country, and he listed the racist ideas and policies that he personally subscribed to. Then, he intentionally let go of those beliefs and replaced them with antiracist ones—beliefs that promote equality.
(Shortform note: In Awaken the Giant Within, life coach Tony Robbins explains that it’s hard to change a belief (including racist beliefs) because we’re emotionally invested in our beliefs—the thought that something we believe might be wrong feels like a personal attack. Therefore, we only tend to change our beliefs when holding onto them becomes more frightening than changing them. For example, a racist might not try to change his or her racist beliefs unless the social consequences become too steep—say, if that person’s friends break off contact with him, and he suddenly finds himself unwelcome at his favorite places. For Kendi, the pain of realizing that he was part of the problem was greater than the fear of changing his beliefs.)
The next step was to start working to create antiracist policies. To that end, Kendi donated money to organizations that supported antiracist causes and became an antiracist activist himself. He also uses his influence as a teacher and an author to educate others about racism and antiracism.
Steps You Can Take Toward Antiracism
Devoting your life to antiracist activism like Kendi may not be realistic for everyone. However, there are some easily achievable steps that anyone can take, and that you could start taking today. For example, in her book So You Want to Talk About Race, antiracist writer and speaker Ijeoma Oluo says that a great way to start reexamining your views and beliefs is to diversify the media you consume.
Oluo says that most of our media, including movies, shows, books, and news, is White-dominated and White-centric. By making an effort to consume media from diverse creators, you’ll see and hear viewpoints that you might not normally get the chance to, and you’ll perhaps gain a greater understanding and appreciation of other cultures. Reading How to Be an Antiracist is a great start on this endeavor, and this Buzzfeed list has numerous other book suggestions.
The first step toward becoming antiracist is to understand what racism really is, and where it came from.
Historically speaking, most people assume that the concept of race came first; then, people developed racist ideas; and finally, they developed racist policies based on their racist ideas. However, Kendi tells us that the true order of events was different: **A policy created to further powerful people’s self-interest came first—namely, European royalty began the lucrative...
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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?