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 rectify the current and historical imbalance that favored White immigrants.
It’s not possible to be neutral when it comes to racism—anything that’s not antiracist is racist. This is because all policies and ideas either advance or hamper equality.
(Shortform example: Racist policies have created funding imbalances between Black and White schools. Therefore, a scholarship program open only to Black people is antiracist because it strives for educational equality between racial groups. Axing this scholarship program because White people aren’t allowed to apply may seem “neutral,” but, in fact, canceling the program would be racist because it would mean canceling a policy that’s aimed at remedying the current funding imbalance and thereby promoting racial equity.)
Since true neutrality is impossible, we’ve all consciously or unconsciously adopted at least one of three perspectives regarding how to handle racial inequities:
Many people hold beliefs that fall into more than one of these schools of thought. People of color tend to hold both antiracist and assimilationist views and experience “dueling consciousness”—the sensation of looking at themselves from two angles: how they view themselves and how others view them. Antiracism suggests there’s nothing wrong with Black people and that they’re perfectly capable of achieving success. But assimilation suggests that when Black people aren’t successful by White standards, it’s due to the negative behaviors characteristic of the entire racial group. Consequently, Black people experiencing dueling consciousness are torn between the belief in their own inherent equality and the belief that Black people have only themselves to blame for the disproportional success of Whites in society.
For example, Ibram experienced a moment of dueling consciousness in high school when he competed in an oratory contest and gave a speech about everything that was wrong with Black youth these days. Ibram was proud of being Black (an antiracist belief), but at the same time, he believed that Black people were responsible for their own problems—if Black students would just try harder (act more like White people and assimilate), they would be getting the same grades as White students.
Like Ibram, most of us live in a society created by racist policies and racist ideas. All of us internalize these ideas to some extent, and a large part of becoming antiracist is reflecting on our beliefs and recognizing what racist ideas we hold.
There are many different types of racism, each based on different racist ideas.
Ethnic racism is a combination of racist policies that causes racial inequities between racialized ethnic groups. These policies are supported by racist ideas about the differences between racialized ethnic groups, the main idea being the belief that there’s a hierarchy within races—certain ethnic groups within a race are superior or inferior to others within the same race.
Ibram, an African American, was both guilty of and subject to ethnic racism at different times in his life.
Guilty of: When Ibram was in eighth grade, he and other students made fun of Kwame, a Ghanaian immigrant. They likened him to Akeem, a prince from a fictional African country who comes to Queens to find a wife in the movie Coming to America. Throughout the movie, characters make fun of Akeem by suggesting that Africa is uncivilized and things like wearing clothes must be a new experience for him.
Subject to: Ethnic racists believe that Black immigrants are superior to African Americans because statistics suggest that immigrants are more successful. However, this interpretation of the statistics is flawed. Immigrants of any race are more successful than locals because immigrants are self-selecting—only people who are motivated, ambitious, and have the necessary resources choose to immigrate.
Because Ibram is successful, many people think he’s an immigrant, and he’s often asked where he’s from. When he answers that he’s from Queens, his father is from New York, his mother is from Georgia, and that he’s a descendant of enslaved Africans, the questioners give up. They either think he’s an exception, or lecture him about how lazy his ethnic group generally is.
“Light” and “Dark” refer to the varying skin colors of people of color. Light people have straighter hair and lighter skin, but they aren’t White. Dark people have bigger noses and lips, kinky hair, and darker skin. These two groups are made up of people from many nationalities, ethnicities, and races—membership is assigned based on physical appearance.
Colorism is a combination of...
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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:
Race has only existed for about 600 years. 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: policy created to further self-interest—the lucrative slave trade of Africans—came first, and only then was race invented to justify the policy. Racist ideas came last.
In the fifteenth century, Prince Henry the Navigator wanted to get into the slave trade but didn’t want to work with Islamic slave traders, who were enslaving a variety of people including Europeans, Arabs, and Africans. Prince Henry sponsored voyages to West Africa and focused the Portuguese slave trade on Africans. His ships explored new regions of the continent, including the...
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 each other than they are from other continents’ populations. For example, genetically, Western African ethnic groups are more similar to groups in Western Europe than Eastern Africa.
There’s not a lot of historical or cultural support for biological racism—the Bible says that all humans descended from Adam and Eve, which suggests that all humans are the same, as does the American value of “all men are equal.”
However, biological racists wanted to find biological differences between racial groups so that they could arrange groups into a hierarchy. They came up with four theories:
Theory #1: The Curse of Ham. After surviving the Great Flood in his ark, Noah planted a vineyard, got drunk, and fell asleep naked in his tent. One of his sons, Ham, saw his father naked and told his brothers Shem and Japheth. His brothers avoided seeing...
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 between unemployment and violent-crime levels than race and violent crime levels, for example:
Additionally, all-Black neighborhoods have varying levels of crime. If Black people were inherently violent, crime levels in all-Black neighborhoods would be the same. Middle- and upper-income neighborhoods—in which people who have jobs tend to live—are less violent than low-income neighborhoods.
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 superior or inferior.
Cultural racism started back in the Age of Enlightenment when Europeans decided their culture was the normal standard and everyone else’s was inferior or pathological.
Enslaved Africans created new cultures in most European countries, influenced by what surrounded them and informed by their existing cultures. African American culture was created by Ibram’s ancestors. They created the language of Ebonics by mixing ancestral languages with English, and they created African Christianity, which includes call-and-response, lively funerals, and Holy Ghost worship.
Culturally racist scholars see this culture creation as assimilation. They expect that if African Americans still had culture, they would use the same languages and traditions that the people in Africa do. However, outward displays of culture such as fashion...
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 poor for their poverty, in reality, economic disparities are the result of policies, not a result of the actions of individual members of races.
Example #1: In 2017 in the US, the White poverty rate was a third of the Black poverty rate, indicating that Black poor people are affected by two sets of ideas and policies—those that disfavor them for being Black and those that disfavor them for being poor—while White poor people are affected only by the policies and ideas that disfavor the poor.
Example #2: Capitalist growth in Africa has benefited many foreign investors, but very few Africans. The majority of Africans in Sub-Saharan Africa, most of whom are Black, live in poverty, and as the continent’s wealth increases, its poverty rate also increases. In fact, by 2030, 9 out of 10 “extremely poor people” will live in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is clearly a systemic problem, not a...
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 policy, not the people who live in or govern spaces. The antiracist view of spaces is that racial spaces should be acknowledged and protected, that no spaces bar anyone from entry, and that all spaces are allocated equal resources. No race should have a majority in politics or culture.
Space racism begins in the US in the early 1800s. According to slaveholders, people in Africa, which was a Black space, were ignorant, immoral, and wild, and a space like this had no business existing. Thomas Jefferson proposed a solution—civilize and free Black people in the US and then send them to Africa so they could teach the rest of the country how to be civilized. However, Black people typically wanted to stay in their existing spaces and had no interest in going to Africa.
In 1865, Edwin M. Stanton, US secretary of war, and General William T. Sherman...
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:
Additionally, the idea of powerless defense is flawed. Everyone, even those who don’t hold a high political position, has power. Black power is more limited than White power, but it exists—if White people had absolute power, they would control everyone’s minds, and not only would no Black people reach positions of power, it would never even occur to them to try for power.
Anti-white racism is the **belief that people of European descent are behaviorally, biologically, or culturally lesser than those of other racial groups, or the belief that all White people are part of...
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, activism seeks power and creates policy change. Changing minds and critiquing doesn’t count as activism.
Suasion—trying to persuade people not to be racist—was and still is a popular method for fighting racism, even though it’s doomed to fail because it doesn’t address policy.
Uplift suasion is the idea that Black people can teach White people not to be racist by behaving exceptionally. For example, free Black people thought that if they set a good example, White people would free other enslaved Black people.
Uplift suasion, in addition to being an ineffective method for fighting racism, comes with some problematic ideas:
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 and quashing effect. Rooting the problem in policy is enlightening. However, placing blame on the system makes racism less visible because it takes the focus away from specific policies and specific people who made them. For example, the policy that creates the circumstances in which Black children don’t have the same access to medical facilities as White people was made by someone. It’s possible to find out who made that policy, the same way it's possible for the police to identify a shooter.
Toure and Hamilton wouldn’t have expected their ideas would be used to make racism less visible. They were making the point that individual and institutional racism are different, and ignoring this difference allows individuals to think well of themselves even if they’re supporting a system that causes racism.
There are several steps the Antiracist Research...
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?