How To Be an Antiracist, Reviewed

“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

Angela Davis’s much-cited quotation has been making the rounds on social media, in the midst of a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and global outrage over police brutality against Black people, sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin.

It implies that for any meaningful change to occur, we must be actively engaged in the fight against racism, not just standing passively by, hoping that one-day things will just be better.

Ibram X. Kendi takes this idea a step further in his book How to Be an Antiracist positing that there is actually no such thing as “not racist”.

“The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist’. It is ‘antiracist.’…The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism,” Kendi writes.

Part memoir, part dictionary, part antiracist treatise, How to Be an Antiracist takes readers through Kendi’s personal antiracist journey, arriving at his current understanding of racism.

The book serves as a kind of confessional of Kendi’s own stumbling blocks in the development of his antiracist analysis that encourages readers to do their own self-reflective critique of race and racism.

He is honest, as he tells us with embarrassment, tales of his own homophobia, sexism, and internalised racist admonishment of those in the African-American community. But his point is made – we all have the capacity to learn and grow and become actively antiracist.

At the beginning of most chapters, Kendi has created a glossary of his definitions of antiracist terms, some of which he coined himself, to reiterate and reinforce his own definitions of racist: “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea”, and antiracist: “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”

Kendi writes that “racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities”.

Kendi makes the point that racism is not simply one group of people thinking bad thoughts about another group of people, but that racism has real and material consequences for racialised people.

However, his overemphasis on policy as the most, perhaps only, significant point where this occurs can feel limited and repetitive, as can his definitions. Of course, we must challenge racist power and policies, but surely the government is not the only meaningful actor that needs to be resisted.

Kendi argues that moral suasion trying to convince someone of the humanity of another — is an antiquated and ultimately losing strategy. But the policy changes he advocates ultimately have to be enacted and enforced by people, all of whom have been raised in a racist society. Policy without an accompanying antiracist education is doomed to fail. Just look at the millions of euros allocated by government policy for Traveller accommodation that is left unspent every year.

For me as an anarchist and abolitionist, the insistence on policy change as the only salient goal of antiracism is short-sighted, unimaginative, and reinforces the idea of the state in its current neoliberal form as inevitable.

In his chapter on class, Kendi writes, “capitalism is essentially racist; racism is essentially capitalist. They were birthed together from the same unnatural causes and they shall one day die together from the same unnatural causes. Or racial capitalism will live into another epoch of theft and rapacious inequity, especially if activists naively fight the conjoined twins independently as if they are not the same fight.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. But I think it is equally naive to believe that we can simply vote or reform or “policy change” our way out of racial capitalism.

How to Be an Antiracist is ambitious in scope and it covers a lot of ground. Kendi’s storytelling and staccato prose make it feel more like an oration at times than a strategic roadmap that the “How to” in the title would suggest. But overall it’s a decent primer for people looking for a place to start their antiracist journey.

It is easy for white settled Irish people, including those on the left, to fall into the trap of thinking about racism as something that exists in other places like the United States, but not here, simply because the context for racism in Ireland differs somewhat from other places.

As a woman of colour growing up in the American South and living much of my adult life in Ireland, I can assure you racism exists in both places. How to Be An Antiracist is US-centric, but don’t let that be a reason not to read it or other books on race and racism by US authors. There is plenty in it that is applicable to Ireland.

Read this book, but please don’t let it be the last or only book you read on the subject. Another major criticism that has been made of the book is about Kendi’s use of the “strong Black woman” trope. He talks about how Black queer women challenged him and taught him on his antiracist journey and that through these interactions, he was forced to confront his own misogyny and homophobia.

He ascribes some of the most controversial aspects of his antiracist analysis – namely the fact that Black people can be racist, what he terms the “Powerless Defense” – to these women, in what often feels like an attempt to preemptively deflect criticism of these ideas by other queer Black women.

I would encourage you to read books by black women in their own words. Read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis, and How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

Join Noname Book Club, started by rapper Noname to highlight and uplift works by radical people of colour to create a collective political consciousness. Read bell hooks, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Audre Lorde and any number of other brilliant antiracist organisers and writers. And while you’re reading all of these books always remember what Audre Lorde taught us, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

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Emily Waszak: Emily Waszak is a long-time antiracist activist and abolitionist. She is the co-founder of MERJ (Migrants and Ethnic minorities for Reproductive Justice).

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