Five women in colorful clothing lean against a white brick wall

That’s a good question. Glad you asked! I wrote in last Friday’s blog post about the brilliant author Ibram X. Kendi and his 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist. Kendi reveals (as I noted in that post) that many of us unwittingly use words and perform actions that seem innocuous, but are actually racist. So you might be wondering, what’s an example of this? How can we avoid being accidentally racist?

Kendi begins his book with an example from his own life. The book opens with a section called “My Racist Introduction.” In this introduction, Kendi describes a speech he gave as a high schooler to an adoring audience—a speech which, he now concedes, with embarrassment, was racist.

The speech, delivered by a Black teen, was about how Black teens should do a better job of this, that, and the other. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t it okay, even laudatory, to urge your own racial and age group to do better? Kendi explains the problem succinctly, later in the book:

“Making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and making whole racial groups responsible for the behavior of individuals are the two ways that behavioral racism infects our perception of the world. In other words, when we believe that a racial group’s seeming success or failure redounds to each of its individual members, we’ve accepted a racist idea. Likewise, when we believe that an individual’s seeming success or failure redounds to an entire group, we’ve accepted a racist idea.”

One problem with the speech was that it presumed that each individual Black teen was somehow responsible for their entire racial and age group. Another problem with the speech was that it presumed that no individual Black teen was excelling, as so many are, in so many varied ways.

Even later in the book, Kendi writes about how damaging this hidden racism can be to a person’s (his!) psyche:

“I felt the burden my whole Black life to be perfect before both White people and the Black people judging whether I am representing the race well. The judges never let me just be, be myself, be my imperfect self.”

I notice this psyche-damaging error not just in the realm of race, but all over the place. It’s literally everywhere. Sometimes I hear it out there, and sometimes I catch myself doing it. Have you recently heard someone say Millennials are this, that, and the other? That’s unfairly prejudicial. Have you heard someone say the elderly are this, that, and the other? That’s unfairly prejudicial, too. There are a ton of exceptions to every rule, and to lump everyone together is not just unfair, but toxic to the individuals in that group. How can you live your life as an individual when you’re constantly trying to fit yourself into some mold of who others think you’re supposed to be? You can’t, and it will just lead you to give up and feel bad about yourself.

When I was a teenager, I remember being utterly confused about my role. I knew that, as a teen, I was “supposed” to be wild and get drunk and smoke and do drugs. I didn’t do any of those things, and I felt inadequate as a result. I kept hearing people say that teenagers were this, that, and the other. But every teenager is different. Some are wild and the life of every party. Some read books all day and are social misfits. Some don’t fit either of those descriptions. And all of these are people, with all their wonderful qualities and all their flaws.

When you saw the photo at the beginning of this blog post, did you think to yourself, “Oh, a group of Black women”? Or did you think to yourself, “Oh, six individuals, who happen to be Black and female, or are at least presenting as female, and who surely all have very different personalities and tastes and beliefs and etc., and I’d like to get to know each of them individually to learn more about them as human beings”? The second one is harder to think. It’s longer, for one. And it’s more complicated, and, furthermore, it requires a personal investment. But it’s also antiracist, because it looks at people first and foremost as individuals, and only secondarily as members of particular groups.

To be clear: statistics are okay. You can state a fact like “X percent of graduates from American colleges in 2010 were Black, X percent were White, and etc.” You can even use words like “most,” if they are true. And you can qualify a statement by saying “there’s a trend among such-and-such a group . . .” But an antiracist will not use the word “all,” including implicitly, unless of course it’s a scientific or logical fact.

But back to Kendi’s book. He shows remarkable courage throughout in bringing his life story to the page. Interspersed with the technical discussion are stories from his life, starting with his childhood and progressing through his college years and on to the present. Several of his stories are unflattering. But he tells them to illustrate important points, and, along the way, he reveals his humanity and shows how he has learned from past mistakes to become the amazing scholar, leader, and writer he is today.

I can’t express how good this book is. There’s even a surprise ending, which may make you cry.

So yeah, the bottom line is, it’s not easy to be an antiracist. It requires something of you. And it’s complicated.

Does anything in this blog post make sense?

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