Yep, tomorrow is the first day of Black History Month, 2020! And I’d like to kick off the celebration a day early with a preview of one of the most amazing and powerful books I’ve ever read.
I know, I know. I say that about (almost!) every book I preview on this blog. But this one’s really special. Extraordinary. Never seen anything like it. And it’s been getting a ton of buzz here in the DC area, ever since its release last summer. The author, Ibram X. Kendi, is the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University, right here in Washington, DC. And listen to what he has to say:
“There is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.'”
Kendi’s argument, boiled down here into two sentences, takes an entire book to explain, as he examines all of racism’s many facets. This is complex stuff, the dissection of the difference between actual (scientific and historical) reality and perceived (culturally transmitted) reality. But the essence at the core of every chapter in this book is this: You can’t just sit back and do nothing and still have claim to any moral ground.
This is true, of course, in all of the big life arenas. Your family. Your friends. Your workplace. The humane treatment of animals. The environment. Voting for whom you want to represent you in local, state, and national government. And race inequities in America.
An antiracist does not sit back and do nothing about the problem of racism, just as a friend does not sit back and do nothing when a friend needs help. Being “not an enemy” is all well and good; but it’s not sufficient when a friend needs help with a big problem. Similarly, being “not a racist” is not sufficient when your country needs help with a really, really big problem: a hundreds-year history of toxic racism.
But those are my words. An antiracist, in Kendi’s words, “locates the roots of problems in power and politics” (as opposed to “in groups of people”). And an antiracist “confronts racial inequities.”
And that’s hard. Kendi points out that all people, no matter what their race or skin color or heritage or background is, are susceptible to racist ideas, and these racist ideas take many forms. Many of these forms are not typically viewed as racist at all . . . but turn out to be upon close scrutiny. Kendi points out that we must actively work against these racist ideas, to prevent them from taking over our minds and actions without our even realizing it:
“Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”
Yep, just as being a friend is hard work, and bringing your own bags to the grocery store is hard work, and researching who’s running for local councilperson and getting yourself to the voting booth is hard work—confronting racial inequities is hard work. These activities are hard work not because any individual action is particularly difficult, but because they require reflection and forethought and patience, and because they are ongoing commitments.
You can be “not an enemy” of anyone on earth, and also not have a single friend.
But then, what happens when someone you encounter needs help? What happens when you need help? Is “not an enemy” something to be proud of, as if not doing something cruel is the same thing as doing something helpful or loving?
That’s not the world I want to live in. So let’s kick off Black History Month tomorrow with a renewed commitment to, first of all, figuring out what the hell is going on with racism in this country. Where is it located? What are all of the different, under-the-radar facets of racism?
That’s where Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist is a gem. Only once we’ve seen all the facets, which he examines in brilliant detail, can we start working on making them shine with the light of our intellect, kindness, and commitment to a better society.
How are you going to kick off Black History Month?
And have you ever wondered why February is Black History Month? Here’s the answer!