No Such Thing as “Not Racist”: The Millions Interviews Ibram X. Kendi

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.

Malcolm Gladwell Talks to Strangers

As Malcolm Gladwell sees it, nearly nothing is as simple as it seems, and just about everything warrants curiosity and caution. Behind even the most mundane human exchange lie intricate systems of psychology, sociology, philosophy, and a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle composed of beguiling historical anecdotes.

Gladwell wants to pique our interest in society and human behavior. And in his new book, Talking to Strangers, the 56-year-old New Yorker writer turns his gaze to how ostensibly innocent conversations between people who don’t know one another can be inherently problematic.

The book was inspired by one particularly lethal conversation between strangers: that between Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman who died in a jail cell, by what was ruled a suicide, and Brian Encinia, the white male police officer who pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change and ultimately arrested her. “The book begins with the question of ‘what happened?’” Gladwell says. “We have the interaction [between Bland and Encinia] on videotape, and we know exactly what they said to each other. It was the most upsetting of all the problematic encounters between police officers and African-Americans at that period, [and I ask], ‘Is this symptomatic of something more deeply problematic in the way strangers talk to each other in our society?’ and go from there.”

One could nip Gladwell’s inquisition in the bud by declaring that the problem is racism, plain and simple, but such an assertion gives Gladwell pause. “I think race is absolutely a crucial factor in their encounter,” Gladwell says, “but at the beginning of the book I say I will not dwell on it, not because it is irrelevant but because I don’t see how it helps us from preventing this in the future. What I want to do is say, ‘Let’s take another approach.’ Let’s ask, ‘Is there something fundamentally wrong with the way human beings deal with the other? And have those problematic ideas become the structure of our society?’ [Sandra Bland] died because of a particular philosophy of American police that has deep roots and is deeply problematic; to understand it just as an encounter between a white man and a black woman is to misunderstand it.”

Among the core problems that arise when strangers talk is what Gladwell calls our “default to truth.” “We assume someone is telling us the truth unless there’s powerful evidence telling us otherwise,” Gladwell says. “That helps us create a productive society, but it has a weak spot in that it allows us to be deceived by others.”

Another big problem is “the transparency assumption.” “We assume,” Gladwell says, “that people’s feelings are presented reliably on their face and in their body language, which is not true. We are constantly making this mistake. Take the case of Amanda Knox, on which I have a whole chapter. We assumed that just because she was a little bit weird [in her expressions], she was guilty of murder.”

Why do we assign so much value to the way strangers express themselves to us? Because in the land of family, friendships, and other familiars, such expressions are valid indicators.

“If you and I were very good friends, one thing that would happen is we would come to understand each other’s idiosyncrasies,” Gladwell says. “I would know, for instance, that ‘Nicole is someone who, when she’s very happy, gets nervous and her eye twitches’ or, ‘When she is sad, she does not show it on her face.’ We create highly individualized assessments of people’s feelings and expressions, but we can’t do that when we don’t know someone.”

In a sense, we’re taking the same math we use on people we know and applying it to people we don’t know, which naturally leads to a miscalculation. And in worst-case scenarios, that miscalculation could be the death of us. We make this mistake everyday, not just in real life but also with strangers on social media and with celebrities whom we may never meet yet feel we know.

“I just saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and came out of the movie theater feeling like I really knew Brad Pitt,” Gladwell says. “If I sat next to him on a plane, I would jump into conversation with confidence and bravado, feeling that I really knew the guy. I have zero insights into Brad Pitt from his performance, but it’s so easy to believe that I do.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.

I’d Rather You Decide: The Millions Interviews Susan Choi

Susan Choi is faced with a rather delicious dilemma with her new novel, Trust Exercise. The story, even on a structural level, is so filled with twists and turns that she can’t really discuss any of it without giving spoilers. Her reticence is provocative. It seems Choi is challenging readers to make a trust exercise out of reading Trust Exercise by disclosing so little about it. Here’s a taste of what we learned.

The Millions: What are some of the themes and ideas that Trust Exercise explores?

Susan Choi: Trust Exercise is about a group of high school students in a drama program. It follows them beginning from when they are actually art students in the 1980s, but the story and the time frame are not limited to that context. I am always reluctant to articulate themes when I try to describe my books because I hate to be the person to say, “the theme of this book is this.” I’d rather you decide. My whole thing is: I want people to come to it without knowing anything and just pick it up for what it is, ideally with no ideas.

TM: Of all the novels you’ve read, to which would you most hope Trust Exercise would be compared or live on a shelf beside?

SC: Wow, that’s an interesting question that I can’t say I have an answer for. When I started working on the book, I had a very specific vibe I was really enjoying in literature: the Muriel Spark vibe. I liked how dispassionate, clinical, and unsparing her gaze was when she looked at her characters and unveiled them to her reader. There is great precision and a certain level of mordant humor. When I started writing Trust Exercise, that was the writing mood I was in, but the book didn’t really stay in that vein. In retrospect, I was probably influenced by wonderful books I had read in the last couple of years including Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Those two books were so smart, brave, and just badass. I’d love for my books to be on a shelf with them.

TM: You primarily write fiction, yet I’ve noticed in reviews of your work, as I have in those of countless other female novelists and screenwriters, the critic’s sneaking suspicion that there’s an autobiographical element to your work. What do you make of these assumptions?

SC: I don’t know why women seem to face that question more than men. I can only assume that there is a lot of entrenched cultural sexism involved. There is this idea that if women create literary work, it must be their diary. It seems as though male writers are viewed differently, or perhaps in the same way but we’re less comfortable confronting them with these “gotcha!” questions. No one ever confronted Philip Roth [if his fiction was based on real experiences]. We all know that fiction writers draw on personal experience—whether they’re male, female, trans. I’ve never understood why it becomes so gendered. In the case of men, it seems to be just overlooked. Herman Melville worked on ships. No one seems to be asking, “Oh, did he know that whale?”