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How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X Kendi

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

Book Review by Garrick Rigby


How to be an Antiracist is published by Penguin Random House UK, 2019.


The 2019 bestseller How to be an Antiracist is a remarkable read. Among its many essential contributions to the field, the main proposition put forward by its famous author – Ibram X Kendi, a leading American antiracist theorist, historian and columnist for the Atlantic magazine – is the priority he places on what he calls “policy”.


This surprisingly radical argument was an eye-opener for me, and it would seem to be of special relevance in the policy-driven field of public health. So although I am in some respects the wrong person to offer my comments (because unlike Kendi I am not myself a writer of colour, as I will address below) I nevertheless thought I would share some of my thoughts about his book.


A master educator, one of Kendi’s great strengths is the laser-sharp manner by which he is able to disambiguate ideas. He gets right to the essence of things as he continually searches for more precise and potent definitions of the problems to which he has dedicated his life – namely, the origins of racism and the most effective methods for combating it.


In his words: “Definitions anchor us in principles. This is not a light point: If we don’t do the basic work of defining the kind of people we want to be in language that is stable and consistent, we can’t work toward stable, consistent goals. Some of my most consequential steps toward being an antiracist have been moments when I arrived at basic definitions.” (p 17)


This passage is from chapter one which is literally entitled “Definitions”, and it lays out the groundwork for the entire narrative. Because while Kendi’s book is many things – a compendium of essential antiracist ideas, an outline of important historical perspectives, and a multi-layered portrait of the world as seen through the writer’s position of immersion in past and contemporary Black American culture – its narrative is at the same time biographical in structure.


It is the story of those “most consequential steps” that Kendi personally took as an antiracist, and of the “basic definitions” to which he arrived along the way.


This is partly why I had mistaken preconceptions. This is because I had come to antiracist theory from a different perspective – from a more selfish one, if you like – though one common to Pakeha liberals like myself. That is, I tended to see racism through the lens of White behaviour as a matter of “White fragility” and other such concepts. I took for granted that positive change would need to come by creating a shift in the conscious and unconscious lives of especially White people like myself.


I therefore assumed that his work would be another handbook on literally “How to be an Antiracist”. Reading his book by its cover, I imagined that the “how” in Kendi’s title would involve an effort to change me in some way, or teach me practical methods for changing myself. In fact, such a process of “changing minds” is something Kendi labels as “moral suasion”, since it is based on persuasion and “moral uplift” through education. To say that he dismisses such efforts would be something of an understatement.


Far from being a primary goal in antiracism, Kendi suggests, this kind of preoccupation with “changing minds” is virtually synonymous with the problem itself. The revered heroes of such a suasionist culture – of whom he chooses to call out mainly Black cultural figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King – are seen, among other things, as having been part of a centuries-long struggle to achieve an incremental if not glacial pace of change.


So that touches on the “how” of Kendi’s title – which is focussed somewhere other than the reader's mind. As for the part about “being” an antiracist, that is not straight-forward either. Paradoxically, one of Kendi’s fundamental messages is that the idea of “being” antiracist is at best a self-serving fiction. In this respect, he seems to agree with DiAngelo and other handbook writers that it is a major pitfall for us to believe that we will ever “arrive” at some final status, as the antiracist that we might wish to be.


This point is explained in various ways, and always with Kendi’s typically uncompromising if not somewhat mesmerising clarity. For example, at the end of his introduction he says:


“Racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be racist one minute and antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what – not who – we are. I used to be racist most of the time. I am changing. I am no longer identifying with racists by claiming to be “not racist”. I am no longer speaking through the mask of racial neutrality. I am no longer manipulated by racist ideas to see racial groups as problems. I no longer believe a black person cannot be a racist.” (p 10)


Among other things, this passage touches on a point which is as important as it is obvious: Kendi’s book is the story of a Black person’s journey out of their own unconscious racism.


Many readers may regard this to be the most important contribution of Kendi’s book. And to that extent, as I have suggested, I may be the wrong person to write an in-depth response. Not only am I struggling to understand what it means to be a Pākehā on this antiracist journey, I am also generally uninformed (even in theory, at least beyond Kendi’s book) what that journey may be like for tangata whenua or people of colour.


What I can say is that I found both refreshing and disconcerting the way in which Kendi’s book was clearly not addressed to me. As various authors have noted, White readers like myself can be unconsciously accustomed to feeling like the subject (the ideal reader, in a general way) of almost every book and article that we encounter. Yet Kendi’s address seemed to be positioning me in a way that offered a different kind of pleasure, not to mention a different (and perhaps less fictional) sense of inclusion.


In short, I had the feeling that both my race and the author’s own were in some respects superfluous to the core of his argument as such. Racism is bigger than both of us, after all.


As he suggests above, Kendi has long been fighting headwinds of assumption that people of colour cannot be racist. But he ultimately wins this fight (like all the others) with a certain coolness and intellectual command. He seems to achieve this by not getting dragged down. He doesn’t get dragged into discussions about one racial group or another, about who holds what kind of racism, or what they should do to correct themselves.


Instead, he practices what he preaches. That is, he chooses not to “see racial groups as problems”. Nor does he choose to “speak through the mask of racial neutrality”, as an expert who sits on the side-lines and tells everyone else what to do.


There are no side-lines in Kendi’s discourse of race. And thus he insists that there is no such thing as being merely “not racist”. This negative formulation has the structure of a denial for good reason, being a self-description that is most often used by racists. But it is also invoked too often by “ordinary White people” who may passively “identify with racists” by using the same negative term, and thus engaging in the same denial.


For Kendi, there are only two terms that mean anything: racism and antiracism. In this context, the false claim of being “not racist” is thus a posture of “racial neutrality” which serves the status quo by masking a true state of affairs – one that must be confronted and in the face of which we must make a stark and personal choice. This choice is simply between an alignment with the self-interest of the propertied and powerful (who are mostly White, or beholden to White/colonial culture) and the common interests of everyone else, including indigenous people, people of colour and other vulnerable or intersectional groups.


Kendi will not abide with the fence-sitters of history. But given the clamour and catastrophe still being ushered in around us by a so-called “silent majority” of ordinary White people, one of the most impressive things about Kendi’s book is the way he projects a profound sense of clarity and focus.


This is partly due to the way he has been able to cut an intellectual pathway through the racism and the “duelling consciousness” of his own internal and external reality. Such a journey has made him a kind of human beacon for all of us. But the effect of clarity is also due to the incisive and far-sighted nature of his analysis.


While treating controversial topics with an extraordinary rationality and restraint, this writerly poise remains an excellent means to an end. Because even as Kendi manages to lower the emotional temperature – keeping our cerebral cortex fully engaged and processing – he is thus able to keep us laser-focussed on a much higher prize. This is namely the more permanent changes to be hoped for in what might be called the universal (if somewhat abstract) realms of definition and “policy”.


This is yet another of Kendi’s deceptively simple ideas, though it is one which people working in the field of health and institutional racism may find vindicating. If I understand him correctly, it goes something like this:


The linguistic definitions we use – and even more so, the public policies that we create – have a kind of pre-eminent power to determine our reality. Such abstractions have this power, he seems to suggest, precisely because they are not grounded in the specifics of the day-to-day. For example, they are not directly subject to the toxic identity politics and culture wars that have all but overtaken Kendi’s own society.


As always, Kendi is also sure to furnish us with a clear and radical definition of what he means by the term “policy”.


“An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. By policy, I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people. There is no such thing as a non-racist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.” (p 18)


As I have said, Kendi extrapolates this view in part by distinguishing it rather sharply from the feelings-based approach of persuasive or “suasionist” antiracism (which dominates in his American context, and of which I myself may be an exponent). All the same, Kendi could be describing much of STIR’s own outcomes-based work in Aotearoa, when he says:


“What if instead of a feelings advocacy we had an outcome advocacy that put equitable outcomes before our guilt and anguish? What if we focused our human and fiscal resources on changing power and policy to actually make society, not just our feelings, better?” (p 210)


As the theory goes, the act of creating better policy works by first of all restructuring our social reality, which it does by encouraging more equitable outcomes in certain public institutions and discourses. This leads not only to an improved state of affairs for stakeholders (which is the matter of greatest urgency to the victims of racism and inequity) but it also creates new relational possibilities for our collective experience with and within those institutions.


Any reformed policy should oblige organisations to facilitate more equitable and mana-enhancing behaviours. But if these improved social behaviours are thereby normalised by those organisations – thus becoming expectations that we hold of each other – this also means that the cultural centre of gravity would have shifted in a real and meaningful way. In short, a policy approach employs the structural resilience of institutions themselves to produce a more abiding process of social change.


Done this way, moreover, such a shift in society will have been achieved without aggravating the emotions or denying the needs of any given individual or group (or at least none with the courage to stand and speak their views in the public square).


This would seem to be Kendi’s conception of social change in a nutshell: the policy changes first, and the collective culture eventually follows. His book provides ample historical case studies for this model. Sadly, the preponderance of these examples lie on the opposite side of the ledger, because the instruments of policy have historically been used to produce racist and inequitable outcomes.


For instance, Kendi describes at length the way that policies of standardised testing in American education have been “devised to degrade Black minds and exclude Black bodies”, with predictably devastating social consequences.


But there are some positive examples as well.


As he rebukes those who assume that “racist minds must be changed before racist policy”, Kendi replies that history itself “says otherwise”. For example, “Look at the soaring White support desegregated schools and neighbourhoods decades after the policies changed in the 1950s and 1960s. Look at the soaring White support for interracial marriage decades after the policy changed in 1967. Look at the soaring support for Obamacare after its passage in 2010.” (p 208)


It is a compelling vision. One obvious advantage of Kendi’s focus on policies first is that by the time the minds of ordinary people have been changed, the more challenging next step – i.e. changing the society around them – will in theory have already been achieved.


But this leads us to the question of institutional racism as such, and here it seems to get a bit tricky. While Kendi would have us remain focused on policies and institutions (which can seem like an abstract and generalised system) the pitfall is that we start railing against “the system” as such. We must not fall victim to a conception of institutional racism as if it were “an inanimate, invisible, immortal system”.


Such a generalised and scatter-gun form of confusion only “veils the specific policy choices that cause racial inequities, [because they are in fact] policies made by real people. Covering up the specific policies and policymakers prevents us from identifying and replacing the specific policies and policymakers. We become unconscious to racist policymakers and policies as we lash out angrily at the abstract bogeyman of “the system.” (p 221)


In other words – on a small motu like Aotearoa, especially – there may be little use in talking about a “system”. That system is you and me, and those people we might happen to know who actually formulate policies, whether small or large. Nevertheless, there is still enough room to target our “human and fiscal resources” on specific policies and policymakers that simply need to change.


And yet, it is on this very point that I raise my own question about Kendi’s programme.

After all, the political world around us is currently shaking our understanding of institutional norms, and to that extent it should also be disturbing to our basic assumptions about the significance of policy and policymakers.


This might sound like tricky thinking, and I do not pretend that Kendi would have no answer. But my question arose in large part because I was reading Kendi’s book during the era of the 45th President of the U.S., who spent his entire presidency making bad policies and destroying good ones (including his removal of public support for antiracist training), while appointing unqualified cronies to the most important policy-making positions.


All power corrupts. But what happens to “policy” in scenarios where power has corrupted absolutely? What happens when the self-interest of the powerful tips over, by whatever degree, into a more open and unilateral exercise of domination?


Heaven forbid that such questions will confront us here, at least in the same way as they have in Kendi’s America. And yet, if there is one thing we have learned from the massive surfacing of hatred and division in that country, it is that even now – centuries later – there can be but a hair’s-breadth between original sins and contemporary social ills, between an early state of colonial White supremacy and a seemingly undying will to dominate that is still consciously or unconsciously held by a contemporary White populace.


In this regard, I find myself wondering about something. If we could speak to tangata whenua leaders of the late nineteenth century (if not those of today), what would have been their views of the period’s administrative “policy”? They were living in a country where their traditional mana and sovereignty had turned out to have been treated as little more than a nullity by one administration after another. Might it perhaps have seemed to such leaders as if these newly imported instruments of law and “policy” were themselves the problem – the needle’s eye through which nothing indigenous would ever be allowed to pass?


Said differently, it would seem to me that the institutional work product that we call “policy” is one of the most taken-for-granted, and therefore most definitive, and therefore also most limiting structures of White-dominated societies. Like human beings, policy cannot be treated like a culture-neutral phenomenon: it is an extremely White-coded and Pākehā-cultural way of doing things.


To the extent that it functions as a formal demonstration of real and political control, isn’t the entire domain of policy also serving our predominant institutions as, among other things, a kind of “foil” or bulwark against those more fundamental questions of sovereignty which Pakeha administrations cannot or will not address? Whatever our views, Ibram X Kendi’s book How to be an Antiracist is a shot in the arm for the work that STIR and others in Aotearoa are doing. Kendi demonstrates a new and inspiring commitment to the goal of changing racist institutional policies, as he conducts a full reboot of our philosophy and updates our historical perspectives. Along the way, he alerts us to the system glitches that prevent human beings from thinking straight about race, and our institutions from properly reflecting the will of the people.


For tangata whenua and readers of colour, Kendi’s book may offer gifts of even greater value, as he tells a searingly honest story of his long journey to overcome his own internalised racism, and of learning how to mobilise such an experience to more effectively combat racism at large.



About the author:

Garrick Rigby


Garrick Rigby is an independent writer residing in Tāmaki Makaurau. His education was in Fine Arts followed by a Master of Arts in film theory, with a focus on racial representation in New Zealand film. Garrick went on to release two short films Someone Else’s Cappuccino (2003) and Horses (2009), the latter of which was made during a second Masters (MLitt) in filmmaking. After starting a family and a brief period studying psychotherapy, Garrick published his first article “Therapist and Coloniser: Pākehā Approaches to Māori historical Trauma” (2017) in the Ata Journal of Psychotherapy Aotearoa New Zealand. He is currently working a day job while spending his spare time reading and writing about antiracism and the psychology of Pākehā settlement.