A Workout for the Brain

My brain has been getting a workout lately! Just when I think I’m getting things figured out, professor Ibram X. Kendi makes me think again. Below you will find Dr. Kendi’s definitions of concepts he presents in chapters 7-12 of his bestselling book, How To Be An Antiracist. Some are straightforward, others not so much. But all of them are important to grapple and wrestle with as we continue on our journeys of becoming Antiracists.

Cultural Racist: “One who is creating a cultural standard and imposing a cultural hierarchy among racial groups.”

Cultural Antiracist: “One who is rejecting cultural standards and equalizing cultural differences among racial groups.”

In Chapter 7, Kendi sums up what it means to be a cultural antiracist by saying that it is the ability “to see all cultures in all their differences as on the same level, as equals. When we see cultural difference, we are seeing cultural difference–nothing more, nothing less”. Cultural differences can take the form of how people dress, what religion they practice, the language they speak (and how they use that language), the food they eat, and the music they listen to. When we decide that the way white America dresses, worships, speaks, eats and enjoys music is superior to other cultures, we are being cultural racists

Behavioral Racist: “One who is making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and making racial groups responsible for the behavior of individuals.”

Behavioral Antiracist: “One who is making racial group behavior fictional and individual behavior real.”

Just as there are a myriad of behaviors which white people engage in, so it is with Black people. This seems so obvious to me! But upon reading what Kendi writes about living with the burden of letting down the entire Black race, I was reminded that BIPOC are being judged in a way that white people are not: Their personal failings, mistakes, or missteps are not seen as being committed by an individual. Behavioral racists group them all together and assign fictitious behavioral tendencies to them as a racial group. As if they are one big entity and not a group of free-thinking, unique individuals.

Colorism: “A powerful collection of racist policies that lead to inequities between Light people and Dark people, supported by racist ideas about Light and Dark people”.

Color Antiracism: “A powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to equity between Light people and Dark people, supported by antiracist ideas about Light and Dark people.”

Dr. Kendi explains further when he says: “To be an antiracist is to focus on color lines as much as racial lines, knowing that color lines are especially harmful for Dark people.” The inequities between Light and Dark people range from their respective GPAs to incomes to health. And while we may not have been consciously aware of the advantage that Light people have over Dark people, the fact that “people tend to remember educated Black men as Light-skinned, even when their skin is Dark”, illustrates that colorism causes us to have higher expectations for Light-skinned Americans (If he was well-educated, he must have had Light skin).

Anti-White Racist: “One who is classifying people of European descent as biologically, culturally, or behaviorally inferior or conflating the entire race of White people with racist power.”

Well, this sure threw me for a loop. I have spent the better part of two years educating myself about race and racism and if it’s one thing I thought I had learned, it was that Black people cannot be racist. Kendi stresses the importance of differentiating between racist power (and the racist policies made by racists in power) and white people as a group. Just as I caught myself breathing a small sigh of relief (It’s not just us!! We’re not the only racists!!) I read more: “Anti-White racist ideas are usually a reflexive reaction to White racism….the hate that hate produced, attractive to the victims of White racism.” It is White racism against Black people that causes Black racism against White people. And none of it benefits anyone.

Powerless Defense: “The illusory, concealing, disempowering, and racist idea that Black people can’t be racist because Black people don’t have power.”

Those are some strong words for what I thought was an antiracist idea. Kendi posits that embracing this defense strips Black people of the power they have, even if that power is limited. Policymakers, judges, police officers—all shielded from blame and responsibility when their actions result in racist policies, judgements, and arrests. It was when a younger Kendi began to understand this, he says, that he knew that the real battle wasn’t between Blacks and Whites, but between racists and antiracists.

Class Racist: One who is racializing the classes, supporting policies of racial capitalism against those class-races, and justifying them by racist ideas about those race-classes.”

Antiracist Anticapitalist: “One who is opposing racial capitalism.”

In chapter 12, Dr. Kendi describes racism and capitalism as having come together, as conjoined twins, with the advent of the transatlantic slave trade. While some may point to markets and competition as the bedrock of capitalism, Kendi warns against ignoring  “global theft, racially uneven playing fields, [and] unidirectional wealth…” Racism and capitalism have come together, benefitting White people and White nations, while leaving behind Black people, and African nations. 

So much to think about! 

As I make my way through this book, I am grateful to scholars and thinkers like Ibram X. Kendi. This material isn’t easy for me, as I suspect it isn’t easy for some of you. It really has been a workout for my aging brain! But it is also an opportunity to learn and to grow and to become the antiracist that I want to be.