How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X Kendi

Updated: Jun 22

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.