Reviewing “How to be an antiracist”

by Neil Rickert

I did not initially intend to read Kendi’s “How to be an antiracist”. I had seen a lot of criticism of Kendi’s ideas, so it did not seem like a good way to spend my time. However, somebody persuaded me to actually read it. So I purchased the Kindle edition. And I’m glad that I did.

I’ll break this discussion into two parts. First I will give an overview, and say what I liked about it. And then I will discuss Kendi’s ideas on racism.

Overview

The author presents many anecdotes from his experiences, starting from elementary school and onto high school, college, graduate school. These anecdotes illustrate the way that Kendi has personally experienced racism. He presents the anecdotes in an interesting way, and this is part of why I found the book worth reading.

Of course, I have my own experiences. But because I am not black, I have not experienced racism in the way that Kendi has. So these presentations did help to give me a better picture of what racism looks like to an African American.

Kendi appears to be following a formula. He picks a topic, and then discusses racism as is relevant to that topic. This works quite well in the early chapters when he is discussing he experience of childhood, education, college and graduate school. But it does not work so well in the last few chapters, where it seems a bit forced. For example, while there are similarities between racism and homophobia, his treatment of the latter as a kind of racism did not seem very convincing.

In the final chapter, Kendi describes his own experience with cancer. He then likens racism to a metastatic cancer which is engulfing America. I disagree with that picture. Yes, racism is still a serious problem. But it has been getting better. Perhaps it is easier for me to be patient, because I am not black. When LBJ signed civil rights legislation, I had expected the racism to quickly dissipate. But I was mistaken. There is an enormous amount of social inertia, and such change takes time and perhaps requires several generations. But the improvement has been very noticeable. Yes, at present we are in unfortunate circumstances. The racists were alarmed when Obama was elected president, and we see them reacting. But time is not on their side.

On racism

Kendi’s overall thesis is that it is not sufficient to be non-racist. One must be anti-racist. And to be non-racist is itself a form or racism.

This is where I though I would have a major disagreement with Kendi. My own view was that it was sufficient to be non-racist.

Once I started getting into the book, I began to realize that we are using the words differently. What Kendi means by “anti-racist” is pretty close to what I mean by “non-racist”. And what Kendi means by “non-racist” seems close to what I would call a covert racist — somebody who mostly avoid racist slurs but who acts in many ways that have racist implications.

Where I still disagreed with Kendi, is on his reaction to the idea of assimilation. He brings this up in chapter two. And, from Kendi’s perspective, assimilation is racist.

I’m not quite sure why Kendi sees it that way. He seems to have the impression that assimilation means that blacks must become oreos — black on the outside but white on the inside. I disagree with that.

To me, assimilation implies the merging, perhaps gradual, of white culture and black culture. It does not require that black culture disappear. Rather, I would expect a merged culture with ideas from all sides. This could be a richer culture. And to some extent that is already happening.

In his chapter on space racism, Kendi left me with the impression that he would be okay with schools that were separate but equal, as long as they were really equal. He points out, correctly, that in the era of segregation the black schools were not adequately funded. But I think this misunderstands human nature. Schools are chronically underfunded, because legislatures do not like imposing taxes. So schools depend on parents to raise some of the needed funding. Parents, quite naturally, are more interested in the funding of the schools that their children attend. Integrated schools is part of what cause this to be better shared by all.

Summary

So there we have it. This is an interesting book. You can probably learn something from reading it. But expect to disagree with some of the author’s idea.

One Comment to “Reviewing “How to be an antiracist””

  1. I haven’t read Kendi so I’m relying on your review on which to make comments.

    Firstly regarding assimilation. I disagree with your understanding of assimilation. I’m looking at it from my personal perspective as an autistic Pākehā living in Aotearoa New Zealand, married to an immigrant from Japan and both our children marrying into cultures different from our own. It seems to me that rather than a merging of cultures, it results in the submerging of one culture by the more dominant culture. The minority culture exists but is not seen nor is it catered to by the majority This was the process that had occurred in Aotearoa New Zealand for over 100 years, leaving the minority Māori population socially and economically deprived. Individual Māori have succeeded, but only by becoming “brown Pākehā” (same meaning as oreos), not by being true to their culture. Customary law had no place in our legal system and laws were enacted based only an a Pākehā (Western) perspective. The use of Te Reo (the Māori language) in the public forum was frowned upon and at school children were punished for speaking it.

    Since a resurgence Māori culture from the 1970s onwards, its distinctiveness has become better understood, and for the most part welcomed. It’s likely it will always remain different from the dominant Pākehā culture, but the influence of Māori culture is making changes to New Zealand culture and only likely to increase, particularly when it comes to abstract concepts such as spirituality, restorative justice, and humankind’s relationship with nature. Today, Māori customary law has (almost) equal standing with common law inherited from England, and there are requirements for Māori to be consulted on almost all matters that affect the lives of all New Zealanders. I believe what is evolving are two distinctive cultures that value and respect their differences, and where individuals do not feel out of place even when in cultural settings not their own.

    As for homophobia being a form of racism I lean more towards Kendi’s perspective. I consider racism, homophobia, transphobia, and particularly the pathologising of autism to all be forms of “othering” where differences are devalued, ignored and/or perceived as less or bad. I guess that as an autistic person I was able to, with limited success, fake being “normal” – an advantage that isn’t available to those with a different skin pigmentation. But on the other hand, being black in the US doesn’t result in a 80% chance of never having a job. That’s not because autistics are unemployable. It’s because no one employs them. There’s a big difference between unemployed and unemployable

    As an outsider, in the US there seems to be little in the way that differentiates the cultures of White America and African Americans and that “othering” is based mostly on a combination of skin colour and socioeconomic status. However, perhaps centuries of “othering” has caused the forming, or is causing the forming a distinct subculture. If so, then a merging of it with the dominant white culture will in my view result in blacks becoming oreos, much like Māori becoming “brown Pākehā”. Whether that’s good or bad will depend on one’s perspective. Māori don’t see it as being good, whereas a significant minority of Pākehā do. African Americans make up a smaller proportion of the American population than Māori do of the NZ population, and are not so distinctly different culturally, so it’s unlikely to have anything more than a token influence on the wider American culture.

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