Ibram X. Kendi and Talking About Racism

Talking about racism is hard. 

Even among scholars there can be disagreement about how the words and phrases used when discussing race should be defined. 

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of  How To Be An Antiracist, considers accurate definitions to be so critical that the book’s first chapter is entitled, “Definitions”. Additionally, all but the last two chapters are prefaced with important terminology for the reader to master–or at least to begin to understand. I invite our readers to familiarize themselves with Dr Kendi’s definitions. I found some of them to be relatively easy to wrap my head around. I expect to be wrestling and grappling with others for some time.

So get your thinking cap on and forge ahead with me.

Racist: “One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.”

Anitracist: “One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”

When we picture a racist, many of us tend to conjure up the latter part of that definition. We know the kind of racism that consists of egregious racist comments or behaviors because we have all seen it. Dr. Kendi goes beyond the obvious and defines racism as being intimately tied to policy. To support racist policies is racist; to support antiracist policies is antiracist. However, Kendi also teaches that we are not racist or antiracist. It is not a binary. We can strive to be antiracists, yet engage in racist behavior at any given moment. To be an antiracist is a goal that we work toward each and every day.

Assimilationist: “One who is expressing the racist idea that a racial group is culturally or behaviorally inferior and is supporting cultural or behavioral enrichment programs to develop that racial group.”

Segregationist: “One who is expressing the racist idea that a permanently inferior racial group can never be developed and is supporting policy that segregates away that racial group.”

Once again, it is a bit easier to understand what it means to be a segregationist, the seemingly more egregious kind of racist. It is doubtful that anyone reading this blog believes that Black people are inherently inferior human beings and should be permanently relegated to a less-than equal status. Many who consider themselves “woke” are assimilationists and recoil at the thought of their behavior being labeled “racist”. Think of that white person who professes that BIPOC are not inherently inferior; they just need to be coached on how to speak differently or dress differently or behave differently. Instead of recognizing that racism in our justice system is why a disproportionate number of Black men are imprisoned, for example, assimilationists believe that the cause is an inferior culture in need of solutions such as white mentors and enrichment programs.

Race: “A power construct of collected or merged difference that lives socially.”

There are not that many words in that definition, yet somehow there is a lot to unpack!! I confess to not easily wrapping my mind around this one and I look forward to discussing it with the group as we wrestle with becoming better allies. What I do understand is that race is about power and the ability to use that power to categorize individuals into groups, elevate those within the powerful group, and exclude those on the outside. 

Biological Racist: “One who is expressing the idea that the races are meaningfully different in their biology and that these differences create a hierarchy of value.”

Biological Antiracist: “One who is expressing the idea that the races are meaningfully the same in their biology and there are no genetic racial differences.”

In Chapter 3, while reminding readers that all of humankind is 99.9% the same genetically, Kendi emphasizes that we need to be mindful not to fall into the trap of being assimilationists. Perhaps race isn’t “a thing” in terms of genetics–Yay! We are all the same!—yet that’s not the lived experience of BIPOC in America. Some of us are perceived as being lower on the hierarchy of humanity than others. Race, whether real or imagined, is what determines who holds the power. 

Ethnic Racism: “A powerful collection of racist policies that lead to inequity between racialized ethnic groups and are substantiated by racist ideas about racialized ethnic groups.” 

Ethnic Antiracism: “A powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to equity between racialized ethnic groups and are substantiated by antiracist ideas about racialized ethnic groups.”

Calling people from other cultures “barbaric” or referring to their homeland as “shithole countries” are clear examples of ethnic racism. Whether we are conscious of it or not, Americans consider some cultures to be less civilized than ours. Individuals who come from those “less sophisticated” cultures are therefore considered to be less desirable. In this country of immigrants, the hierarchy of desirability is well established. And it is racist.  

Bodily Racist: “One who is perceiving certain racialized bodies as more animal-like and violent than others.”

Bodily Antiracist: “One who is humanizing, deracializing, and individualizing nonviolent and violent behavior.”

Fear of Black men. That they are criminals, animals, rapists, and thugs. They are of great athletic build, strong, and prone to outbreaks of violence. Bodily racism is the reason that Black Americans breathe a sigh of relief when they see that the most recent mass shooting suspect is white. White Americans perceive a white murderer as they should: As an individual. When the shooter is Black, the crime is now a Black problem. 

Is your head spinning yet? Again, this is new for many of us and it’s challenging to understand! 

But tell me…when has talking about racism ever been easy?