How to Be an Antiracist Analysis
With How to Be an Antiracist, Professor Ibram X. Kendi offers critical guidance to readers seeking to expand their own antiracist education and divest themselves of ingrained prejudice. In the book’s introduction, Kendi elucidates the big-picture goal of his work:
This book is ultimately about the basic struggle we’re all in, the struggle to be fully human and see that others are fully human.
Kendi is a leading scholar in the field of antiracism. His prior book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2016 and was nominated for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in 2017.
Released in 2019, How to Be an Antiracist is especially timely; Kendi notes that the 2016 election of Donald Trump galvanized his own antiracist efforts, prompting him to move to Washington, DC, to start the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. “The most threatening racist movement,” he asserts in the first chapter, “is not the alt right’s unlikely drive for a white ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a ‘race-neutral’ one.” The necessary rebuttal to modern racism, Kendi argues, is not race neutrality but antiracism—the active and participatory acknowledgement of racial inequity, so that it may be dismantled.
In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi weaves three narratives together: a personal memoir in vignettes, cataloging his own effort to become an antiracist; a historic overview of race-making and race relations in the United States, demonstrating the origins of much of the racist policy still burdening Black Americans; and a detailed statistical overview of contemporary disparities across racial divides, highlighting the impact of this racist legacy in objective, measurable terms. In aggregate, these create a three-dimensional picture of American racism that a reader can use to contextualize and better understand extant systems of injustice—and, subsequently, to do better themselves.
To best reach his audience—readers who, presumably, want to be reached, by virtue of selecting this deliberately instructive material—Kendi employs several unique structural approaches that reinforce his material. Emphasizing the importance of clearly acknowledging and defining a problem so that one may dismantle it, and reminding the reader that “definitions anchor us in principles,” Kendi includes short glossaries as epigraphs to most of the book’s chapters. These typically consist of two opposing definitions—racism and antiracism, for example, or class racism and class antiracism. By repeatedly pairing and highlighting inverse concepts throughout the text, Kendi reminds the reader of the dangerous outcomes of neutrality.
As Kendi explains concepts both inside and outside of these epigraph-glossaries, he makes another clever rhetorical choice: terms related to racism and antiracism are always defined in the present progressive tense. Per Kendi’s definitions, racist and antiracist are designations that exist in flux in accordance to action. A person is not racist or antiracist, by this metric; instead, they may act in racist or antiracist ways. Kendi explains that these labels are ephemeral. They require sustained deliberate choices and ongoing commitment to maintain.
Finally, and perhaps most effectively, Kendi does not merely talk about racism or antiracism in the abstract. With the exception of occasional political critique, he also rarely points out the actions of others and labels them racist. Instead, with extreme candor, Kendi highlights illustrative moments in his own history as an unwitting racist. Unpacking anecdotes from...
(The entire section is 874 words.)