With Black Lives Matter protests rocking the USA, our bookclub chose this pertinent book by Ibram X. Kendi. In How to be an Antiracist, the main idea is to show that being not racist is not enough (in fact, it is a mask for racism), but one needs to be an antiracist. Kendi provides a thorough definition of racism and its history and causes in the USA, looks at it through a multitude of facets and defines how to be an antiracist in each of those dimensions.
In the book, the author recounts his life and provides a good perspective of the systemic racism a Black person (even a middle class one like him) faces right from childhood, school, through adulthood and into his career. He uses each stage of his life to expound on a certain dimension of racism. Dimensions such as power, biology, ethnicity, language, color, class, space, gender and sexuality.
The best parts of the book were for me are where he methodically defines various racist and antiracist terms, where he goes back into history to look at racist roots of USA, and where he shows how colonizers invented a hierarchy with the White man on top and the native at the bottom. From the beginning, the book takes a clear stance that leveling the playing field now is not enough after centuries of subjugation and big changes in policy are required. This is not just a book for folks who want to actively fight against racism (as the title might allude to), but can also be a good dive into racism in the USA.
One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of not racist. The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.
Racial discrimination is an immediate and visible manifestation of an underlying racial policy. When someone discriminates against a person in a racial group, they are carrying out a policy or taking advantage of the lack of a protective policy. We all have the power to discriminate. Only an exclusive few have the power to make policy.
Beginning in 1735, Carl Linnaeus locked in the racial hierarchy of humankind in Systema Naturae. He color-coded the races as White, Yellow, Red, and Black. He attached each race to one of the four regions of the world and described their characteristics. […] At the bottom of the racial hierarchy, Linnaeus positioned Homo sapiens afer: “Sluggish, lazy. Black kinky hair. Silky skin. Flat nose. Thick lips. Females with genital flap and elongated breasts. Crafty, slow, careless. Covered by grease. Ruled by caprice.”
Scholars call what I saw a microaggression, a term coined by eminent Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970. Pierce employed the term to describe the constant verbal and nonverbal abuse racist White people unleash on Black people wherever we go, day after day. A White woman grabs her purse when a Black person sits next to her. The seat next to a Black person stays empty on a crowded bus. He defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.”
One of racism’s harms is the way it falls on the unexceptional Black person who is asked to be extraordinary just to survive and, even worse, the Black screwup who faces the abyss after one error, while the White screwup is handed second chances and empathy.