To fight racism, people need to be antiracist, which is different from being nonracist. In his new book, How to Be an Antiracist, ideas columnist for the Atlantic Kendi explains the distinction—and why it’s so important.
The Millions: What motivated you to write How to Be an Antiracist?
Ibram X. Kendi: I think that the people really motivated me to write it. What I mean by that is my last book [the National Book Award–winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America] was a narrative history of racist and antiracist ideas, and I would often speak of this long-standing debate between racists and antiracists, encouraging people to be antiracist. People would often ask me what that means. The more people asked, the more I realized there was a need for this book.
TM: Being antiracist sounds more active and intentional than being nonracist. What is the difference?
IXK: When I look out at American society today, I see that, typically, when people are charged with being racist, their response is “I’m not racist.” The term “not racist” has primarily been a defensive term, a term of denial, and that’s really all its meaning has ever been. So, I would argue that there is no such thing as “not racist”; it exists only as a denial of being racist. However, an antiracist would have definitions of racist ideas and racist policies and would admit when they were being racist, or when they supported a racist policy, and then seek to essentially not do that again. The heartbeat of racism is denial, is consistently saying, “I am not racist,” while the heartbeat of antiracism is confession, self-reflection, and seeking to grow change.
TM: Your writing suggests that it’s arguably most crucial for people of color to be antiracist. Why?
IXK: If black people believe the problem is other black people, they will spend their time attacking other black people instead of attacking racism. That will only make our condition worse. For me, everyone is responsible for striving to be antiracist, but if you are materially suffering more than other people as a result of forms of racism, then it’s in your interest—the interest of people of color—to be antiracist. That has always been the case, because people of color have always led the way of antiracism in this country.
TM: What are some ways we can begin to practice antiracism? Where does one start in looking at their immediate surroundings?
IXK: Everyone is different and everyone has different passions. What I would suggest is for people to think about the spaces and places they hold most dear. Perhaps you’re a school principal who is most concerned about the citywide curriculum or a nurse in national nursing associations. Look at the racial inequities and disparities in that space and place and then recognize that those disparities are not the result of racial groups—behaviorally or biologically. The fundamental cause of these inequities is racist policies. The next step is to figure out who has the power to change these policies. Join those people. Support them. Fight with them to create a more antiracist space.
TM: Can one ever actually be an antiracist, or is antiracism perpetually an act of becoming, of recognizing and committing to change?
IXK: Yes, no one ever becomes an antiracist. The reason why no one can ever become one is because to grow up in this country, and in many other parts of the world, people are raised and trained to be racist. In many ways, people become addicted to racist ideas. It’s like a personality characteristic. Once we decide that we want to be an antiracist, we can’t just wake up one day and be one, just like we can’t wake up one day and be free of an addiction. It’s an everyday process. One has to be constantly challenging themselves.
TM: So, in a sense, someone striving to be antiracist is sort of like a “recovering racist.” Is that right?
IXK: On one level it is recovery, on the other it’s advancing an antiracist project—to challenge those racist policies and be a part of movements and organizations that are toppling them and replacing them with antiracist policies.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.