Ibram X. Kendi: ‘Racist’ Is an Adjective, Not a Noun. Understanding Why Is Important

14 minute read

In the months after How To Be An Antiracist published in August 2019, I kept my distance.

The title had the ring of a self-help book, pop-psychology wrapped in the for some folks comforting ideology of personal effort can fix anything. Those kinds of books – see Lean In and, dare I say it, The Secret – tend to make the bold and arguably illogical claim that vast, long-standing inequality and just about anything else that damages the human body, mind or experience are within the individual’s control. They do not demand systems change but personal effort, individual adjustments, shifts in mindset. How to Be An Antiracist sounded, to me, like a book on bigotry, packaged to be highly palatable to white readers to whom those same systems are mostly good, written by the historian and National Book Award winner Ibram X. Kendi.

But I was wrong. That’s something I discovered when I was asked to talk with Kendi about his latest book, a sort of companion piece published Feb. 1, How to Be a (Young) Antiracist, co-authored by the young adult fiction writer Nic Stone.

I went back to the original, then opened the new book and found something that rather deftly asks and even guides the individual to explore where and how and why they have been socialized to accept certain ideas about race and ethnicity. What I found in How to Be A (Young) Antiracist was a kind of meditation on the ways that the personal is, as they say, political. I found a book that illuminated how each of us are gradually drafted into the thinking, the lies and distorted truths which can render a person unable or at least unwilling to challenge the systems and practices which masquerade as normal, as functional and fair. In reality, many of those systems drive and sustain vast inequality along with pervasive belief in group inferiority or superiority. I found a book that seems to want to equip young people living now, in the midst of surround-sound injustice, open and almost gleeful bigotry – in public and in private – with the language and the skills to recognize they too have been drafted. Then it calls on them to decide if, where, and how they will revolt against that system.

Donavon Smallwood for TIME

Kendi and Stone do this by encouraging the reader to follow Kendi through his own journey from a young, academically insecure Black teen lauded for the way he articulated the logic and language of internalized racism at an event honoring who else but Martin Luther King Jr., to a leading thinker and writer on race, a professor and director of the Boston University Center on Anti Racist Research his ideological opponents deem so potent that his security is a constant concern.

It’s 2023 now, a time where simplistic, fantastical, self-deceptive thinking on race in America will not explain much of anything at all. It’s a time for introspection, for interrogation of the self and society, for kicking the brain into high gear. And that is where my conversation went when I sat down with Kendi last month.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Let’s start at the beginning. What was the genesis of How To Be a (Young) Antiracist?

This book was adapted from a book that theoretically was geared to adults, How To Be An Antiracist. And certainly it was, but I say theoretically, because so much of the story of that book is when I was a young person. And so in certain ways, this book and this story, and even the audience for this book is probably even more authentic. Because so much of it was when I was in, you know, middle school and high school, and college. And in many ways, that’s when we are forming our sense of selves. That’s when we’re internalizing ideas, including racial ideas.

When you say “internalizing racial ideas,” what would you include in that umbrella?

I would include racist and antiracist ideas. So ideas that are suggesting to us that our racial group is either better or worse than another racial group, that there’s something wrong or right about our racial group, or antiracist ideas that are saying there’s nothing wrong or right, better or worse about any group because of the color of their skin. And even our cultures are equals despite differences, despite different skin colors and hair textures. I think, particularly [for] young people who are really gaining a more sophisticated understanding of the world, these are the types of conversations that they’re having with themselves.

For me, for instance, growing up as a young, black male in the 1990s, who was oftentimes, like other Black or Brown males or females, are often times being harassed, if not brutalized, by the police, one of the things that happens is we tell our parents and our parents ask us, ‘Well, what did you do?’ ‘Why did you do that wrong?’ Or if you are a young woman of color who is being sexually harassed, you come home and share that with your parents. And they say, ‘Well, what did you do?’ Or even if you are a white boy or girl and you’ve befriended some kids of color, and you come home and they say, ‘Watch out for them.’ There’s so many different ways in which we’re being told, just by the nature of who we’re befriending, what we’re experiencing in society, about whether there’s something wrong or right about other people, and even us.

So the other thing about this book that really stands out is something that most people are simply not capable of – a lot of vulnerability and self-critique. What made you willing to go there, to begin with that speech at the MLK event? You were a Black high school student who in the 1990s stood before an audience and blamed Black teens, their clothing, their priorities for educational achievement gaps and received resounding applause.

Well, I think first, one of the distinguishing factors between being racist and being antiracist, is to be racist is to consistently deny when we do or say something. They say they, “can’t be racist.” So no matter what they do or say, that’s their position.

But I think to be antiracist, there are times in which we’re going to say the wrong thing. And we have to be willing to acknowledge it, so we can stop doing it so we can grow, so we stop offending people, so we can stop passing policies that harm people. And so we wanted to show that through this book. I think this was probably the most shameful and embarrassing moment of my life. I stood before 3,000 almost totally Black people [and spoke about] …all types of things that I imagined were wrong with Black people, particularly Black youth, on a day where we were showcasing the excellence of Black people and Black youth. I just wanted to show people like where I was at, but then also show how I got to that point, and ultimately how I was able to move away from it.

And I think the other thing about young people, Nic will tell you, if you’re not authentic with young people, they’re going to know it. I think that authenticity, we hope, will bring young people into the story.

You also put so much time and energy into definitions in this book. One, I thought, is something you could form an entire course around: the idea that “racist” is not a noun, but an adjective. Explain that concept.

Sure. Let me give the example of Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson looked upon Native Americans as, to use his words, “capable of civilization,” capable of being white. But then he looked upon Black people, as potentially incapable of civilization, of being civilized, of being developed, you know, being white. And so he had, from his standpoint, a higher conception of Native people than Black people.

When we think about even our relatives, our friends, they may think better about certain racial groups than others. In Jefferson’s case, both perspectives were racist perspectives. There are people who see themselves as equal to Latinx people, but superior to Asian people, or certain people advocate for policies that are equitable when it comes to education, but when it comes to the environment, they support environmental racism. So how do you account for all this complexity that people have about different racial groups about different topics? Well, what you can say is racist is not who you are, but what you’re saying in any given moment, what you’re doing. We were trying to get young people to think less about who they essentially are, and [more about] what they’re saying and what they’re doing. I think even if older people thought that way, we’d be much more attuned to what we’re saying and doing.

I think to be racist is to support policies that are leading to inequality or injustice. And there are two ways to support policies that are leading to inequity or injustice: by your actions, or inaction. So you literally live in a society, you work in a space, where the norm is inequality. And then when you do nothing, that allows that norm to persist. By contrast, to be antiracist is not just to recognize racial equality and fight for justice and equity, but you have to activate yourself consistently and constantly, in order to create that equality because in many places it doesn’t exist.

We now live in an age where the very definition of many things has been twisted. Terms like “activist,” “woke,” “social justice warrior,” are now used as pejoratives. What does that make possible?

You’re speaking on one of the major challenges that young people are facing. The ways in which the people who have sought to conserve racism have adopted the language of social justice as their own, or they demonized the language of social justice and racial justice. So what that requires then is an even deeper and consistent engagement with young people over what is right, what is wrong, what is racism and what is antiracism. We have young people who are being targeted for recruitment by white supremacists, particularly white, male teenagers. And the way in which they’re seeking to recruit them is through all these sorts of memes and comedy. If someone isn’t aware of what racial justice truly is or what it means to be antiracist, then our young people are easily able to be hoodwinked and to be recruited into white supremacist organizations, or to be thinking that they’re doing something that’s going to be helpful for a particular racial group when it’s harmful.

You mentioned the co-opting of social justice language by people who are actually looking to preserve racism in our country. I wonder if you could explain what you meant by that.

One of the most prevailing examples that I think particularly are affecting young people are standardized tests. Many young people believe that their test score is indicative of whether they are smart or not smart. What those young people don’t know is that the SAT, for instance, is largely going to predict the wealth of the parents of the test takers, and not necessarily the intelligence level of test takers. What many young people don’t know is that people who have more wealth and resources are able to get their kids in high-priced test-prep courses, or even to get the teacher of those high-priced test-prep courses to personally tutor their child. And typically, those companies promise that their score will be boosted by a couple hundred points.

I’m mentioning this because we currently have this test score gap in which white and Asian kids are getting on average higher scores than Black, Native, and Latinx kids and resulting in people thinking that their kids or that they themselves are smarter, or not. And those very parents who are claiming that their kid is so smart know that they paid for test prep for their kid, which boosted their kid a couple hundred points. So I just think that it’s something we’re not being honest about. And then when we start pressing for, maybe we should not use the standardized test, you have parents who are saying, “That’s hostile to my kid,” or you have parents who say, for instance, that affirmative action is a race-conscious policy that “discriminates” in their mind against their children. But they don’t consider standardized tests to be a race-conscious policy that literally discriminates against kids who don’t have money, who don’t have resources.

In the book, you highlighted what that confusion and maybe willful self-deceit can do to people’s lives. For example, in the 1990s, the wide acceptance of this idea of the super predator, whose crimes needed to be punished severely, is, to me, a grand example. The United States now incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world. Is there anything happening today that has the potential to mushroom into something terrible if not better understood?

I don’t think we, as a society, have truly recognized the ways in which social media is impacting the way in which our young people see the world and see themselves. You have more and more, for instance, parents of girls who recognize the ways in which social media creates all this body shaming. But that also has to do with skin color, that has to do with hair texture. I don’t also think that we have really fully grasped the ways in which the spread of racist ideas today is largely happening.

Online people are being targeted with misinformation and that creates a situation in which, since we can’t be there with our children every waking moment that they’re on Instagram or TikTok, that we really have to ensure that we are protecting them through information so that they can protect themselves. In the 90s, I think certainly our parents worried about television, but they could walk by us at any point and know what we’re watching on television. And generally, they knew what was on television. The fact is that we can’t stop the creation and spread of bigotry online, but we can [help] our children know how to recognize it and how to protect themselves, and for them to never think less of themselves or more of themselves because of a particular post.

If you were giving a prescription to a young person who has made up their mind that they intend to lead their life as an antiracist, what does that require?

I think that first and foremost, when you decide to live your life and strive to be antiracist in a racist society, you’re going to certainly be able to create relationships with all different types of people that you wouldn’t be able to do if you were being racist towards those people. You’re going to be able to be a part of a beautiful movement that could create, whether on a small or large scale, justice and equity. That’s going to bring you joy, but at the same time it’s going to be difficult because there’s going to be many people who are going to critique you, who are going to think that there’s something wrong with you because they don’t want to look in the mirror. And that will even include people in your own family. Change may not be coming fast enough. And then, sometimes you may have to acquire courage. In other words, recognize something is the right thing to do, but it’s also the dangerous thing to do. But you decide to do it anyway. I would encourage young people to strive to be that. There’s going to be positives and negatives, challenges and rewards, to being antiracist.

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