Reading and discussing How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, in a bookclub with coworkers is the first time in my 30+ years I can remember having a series of lengthy, honest conversations about racism with non-POCs (people of color). From my experience, it’s always felt that the onus has unofficially been placed on POCs to live with, discuss, and overcome racism in America, while also proving it still exists, and then somehow finding a way to fix it.
Honestly, it was a strange feeling to finally have a discussion about present-day and systemic racism with white people–and one, no less, where my participation was voluntary. Racism is hard to talk about. It’s an unpleasant, awkward, upsetting, and difficult conversation. But it’s even harder to live with.
I found “How to Be An Antiracist” a pretty reaffirming account of the thoughts, experiences, and feelings I’ve had growing up Black in a white America, laid out with a clear vocabulary of terms and definitions, and presented in a way that non-POCs can understand.
This was a difficult read in many ways, but these are my reflections.
Being “Not Racist” Isn’t the Same as Being an Antiracist
Growing up Black in white America, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard non-POCs say, “Well, I’m not racist,” and I legitimately thought, “Oh! That’s great!” But really, it’s not great. It’s good, but it’s only a start.
It’s not enough just to not be racist, especially in this social climate. We have to actively be against it, and actively be part of the solution. According to Kendi, an antiracist is, “One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”
This was the first of many definitions laid out over the course of the book, and it’s an eye-opening one. For those who claim to not be racist, but who don’t vote against policies and politicians that establish or reinforce racial inequity, and who don’t challenge and speak up against racist ideas and speech in circles of friends and family, this book has bad news: You’re still benefiting from and contributing to racism.
If you find yourself thinking “Well, I’m not racist,” when presented with accounts of racism or even accusations of racism, go a step beyond and think, “Well, am I actively being an antiracist?”
I’ve Had to Learn to Minimize My Blackness to Assimilate into White America
Growing up, I feel like I was inadvertently taught to present as white as possible, and I absorbed the racist attitudes and critiques of Black people who were too “stereotypically” Black that I’d heard expressed in my own Black community.
My older siblings and I were sent to a predominately white, private Christian school for K-12. We moved to a predominantly white neighborhood to be closer to that school. “Proper” speech and grammar were a must, to the point where we were told that we “talked white.” Academic excellence was the expected standard. A’s received a nod of approval, B’s were disappointing, C’s weren’t allowed. We were regulars at libraries and bookstores. We traveled a lot and occupied spaces where we were often the only Black family. When I was 5 or 6, I remember my dad asking a white man to take a picture of our family at the beach. His response was, “I’d rather not.”
And all of this to be sure that my siblings and I could fit into and survive in white America. We were pushed to be twice as good as our white counterparts just to be seen as equal.
Kendi has a word for this: Assimilation.
Kendi defines an assimilationist as, “One who is expressing the racist idea that a racial group is culturally or behaviorally inferior and is supporting cultural or behavioral enrichment programs to develop that racial group.”
The counter to an assimilationist is a segregationist, which Kendi defines as, “One who is expressing the racist idea that a permanently inferior racial group can never be developed and is supporting policy that segregates away that racial group.”
For Black Americans, these have appeared to be the only two options. Fit in or be rejected. But, this book offers a third option, an antiracist, which Kendi defines as, “One who is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals, and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity.”
Honestly, this is still a difficult concept for me to accept. Without the presence of the third option, I unfortunately see assimilation as the only way to grow up Black in America without being swallowed up by a system that’s not built to help people who look like you succeed.
On the surface, the result of my upbringing and assimilation appears to be a pretty normal, working adult who also happens to be a Black woman. The reality, though, is a crippling double consciousness.
Existing Within A Double Consciousness
For an African-American literature class at DePauw, I remember reading this excerpt from an essay by W.E.B. Dubois:
“… the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
My first thought after reading the essay was denial. It was too much to handle. I’d spent years trying to erase my Blackness and assimilate into white America.
Until reading Kendi’s chapter titled “Dueling Consciousness,” which opened with the definitions of assimilationists and segregationists, I hadn’t fully revisited the concept. In putting on a mask everyday to disguise my Blackness and fit in, I’ve been creating a split consciousness of inhabiting a Black body that’s perpetually the minority in daily life, and that I view almost exclusively through the eyes of white America.
I’m realizing now that this double consciousness, and the two-ness with which I see myself has always been there. I’ve always been aware that I’m the minority in whatever space I’m in, and it’s made me see myself through the majority’s eyes. From my preschool and early grade school years, to the first day of my AP English course in high school where my teacher thought I was in the wrong class, to college classrooms, to meetings for internships and later for work, to restaurants and breweries, to international flights, to last week when I was hiking at a state park. I’m almost always the only Black person, almost every single place I go.
It’s a slow burn. It didn’t bother me as much for the first 26 or so years, but over 30+ years, the result of this perceived isolation and two-ness, the dueling consciousness, manifests. At first it manifested as me going above and beyond to fit in in a space where white people wouldn’t have their presence challenged.
But the older and the more exhausted I get of the two-ness, the more it manifests as depression and anxiety, among other things. It manifests as extreme introversion, and avoiding the world. It manifests as cancelling plans because I don’t have any more energy to put on a smile.
The dueling consciousness is an ongoing struggle, and has been exacerbated even further by a rising wave of feminism. Notice the pronouns used in W.E.B. Dubois’s essay: he/him/his. Just as whiteness is the default in America, as too is the patriarchy. The feminism movement has presented what feels like a triple consciousness in realizing that Black women have two fights: racism and women’s rights, and our struggles are largely ignored in both.
The Intersection of Blackness and Feminism
While I’m proud to identify as a feminist, I honestly have little insight and even less hope for navigating the space where Blackness and feminism intersect, but I think it’s important to mention in any discussion about race. I’m currently struggling through the book, “Ain’t I A Woman,” by bell hooks, which I’ve been trying to finish since last fall. I’d encourage all feminists to read it, especially non-POC feminists.
It’s a tough read, and often leaves me feeling so stuck, hopeless, and angry that I need a break after just 20 or so pages. In short, Black women are not only dealing with racism in white America, but we’re also dealing with sexism in a patriarchal society. We’re in a place where Blackness is erased from the feminist dialogue, and feminism is erased from the racism dialogue. Black men benefit from a relative position of power that the patriarchy affords them. Black women don’t even have that.
It’s a tough place to be, and Kendi has two chapters later in the book called, “Gender” and “Sexuality,” that I was feeling too hopeless and low to even attempt to read. For the sake of preserving a sliver of hope and happiness, I skipped them and opted out of book club for that week.
I don’t have any revelations or takeaways here, but please know that this is a space that exists, and a space that many have the privilege of avoiding. While educating yourself about race and/or feminism, please also take some time to educate yourself about where those two intersect, and the people who have to experience both.
Treating Racism Is Like Treating Cancer
Throughout the course of the book, I kept wondering what the proposed solution, or conclusion might be. The information and knowledge are great, but can feel overwhelming, and finding a way out seems impossible.
In the last few chapters of the book Kendi describes he and his wife’s struggles with cancer and draws parallels between treating racism the same way we treat cancer. He realizes that he has cancer, and while it’s likely to kill him, he can survive against all odds. Similarly, our society has racism, spreading rapidly, at the most serious and critical stage. Racism is likely to kill our society, but we too can survive against all odds.
What if we saturated systemic racism in America with antiracist policies that shrink tumors of racial inequalities and kill undetectable cells? Remove any remaining racist policies and their margins as we would cancer cells until there are none left. Encourage consumption of healthy antiracist ideas and put those ideas to work, exercising them on a regular basis. Monitor progress closely, especially in cells where racial inequity previously existed, and detect and treat recurrences early before they can become a threat.
He also lays out steps that we can all take to eliminate racial inequity in the spaces we occupy. I feel like they’re useful enough to quote in their entirety:
“Admit racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people.
Identify racial inequity in all its intersections and manifestations.
Investigate and uncover the racist policies causing racial inequity.
Invent or find antiracist policy that can eliminate racial inequity.
Figure out who or what group has the power to institute antiracist policy.
Disseminate and educate about the uncovered racist policy and antiracist policy correctives.
Work with sympathetic antiracist policymakers to institute the antiracist policy.
Deploy antiracist power to compel or drive power from the unsympathetic racist policymakers in order to institute the antiracist policy.
Monitor closely to ensure the antiracist policy reduces and eliminates racial inequity.
When policies fail, do not blame the people, Start over and seek out new and more effective antiracist treatments that work.
Monitor closely to prevent new racist policies from being instituted.”
I’ll conclude my reflections here, but if you’ve read this far, please don’t let this be your stopping point. Read How to Be An Antiracist in its entirety. If you’re a person of color, ask your POC and non-POC friends to read and discuss with you. If you’re not a person of color, take it upon yourself to organize a book club of other non-POC friends or family to read this book with. It’s so difficult and so awkward to talk about racism, or to challenge racist views and ideas, but before we can treat it, we first have to detect and acknowledge it.