How to Be an Antiracist Themes
The main themes in How to Be an Antiracist are antiracist versus “not racist” practices, racist policy, and race and identity.
- Antiracist versus “not racist” practices: While antiracism is active, merely being “not racist” is passive: it allows existing racism to persist.
- Racist policy: Kendi is careful to use the term racist policy (rather than terms like systemic racism) to accessibly highlight the real problem with these laws and structures.
- Race and identity: Ideas of race, racism, and antiracism are deeply part of Kendi’s own identity, as they are part of everyone’s, and racist ideas take hard work to dismantle.
Antiracist Versus “Not Racist” Practices
The titular theme in How to Be an Antiracist—antiracism—is one of the most important that Kendi addresses in the volume. He defines the term in various ways throughout the book, depending on how it’s used in context, but it can be generally understood to mean the active pursuit of policies and habits that reduce racial inequity wherever it exists. These actions can be external—an antiracist action might include lobbying for equitable political policies or working toward equitable social change in one’s own community—but antiracist work is also done internally.
Because the United States is a nation governed by policies that create and defend inequity, all Americans have been socialized in ways that normalize this imbalance. This means that all Americans have functional vestiges of racism within them, regardless of their good intentions or conscious beliefs about racial equity. To be an antiracist, one needs to identify these ingrained perspectives and work to dismantle them within oneself.
It’s especially important, Kendi notes, to draw a distinction between being an antiracist and being, as many people tend to describe themselves, “not racist.” Just as racism is active prejudice on the basis of race, antiracism is the active commitment to dismantling prejudice on the basis of race. To be “not racist,” by contrast, is neutrality, which—despite people’s best intentions—is itself complicit in upholding racism. To be “not racist” is equivalent to saying, “I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.” In his introduction, Kendi clarifies,
There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.
In his definitions of various types of antiracism throughout the book—gender antiracism, class antiracism, and ethnic antiracism are just a few examples—Kendi makes an important linguistic choice. When he defines an antiracist, he does so using the present progressive tense. An antiracist is not a person who believes a certain thing, but rather a person who is doing a certain thing. This is deliberate: by using wording that indicates an action in progress, Kendi highlights the changing nature of these terms. They’re determined by what a given person does, not who that person is. He explains in chapter 1,
“Racist” and “antiracist” are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other.
In the first chapter of the book, Kendi uses the term racist policy to describe the pervasive system of inequity in American society, specifically defining it as “any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups.” By his definition, racist policy can be understood to be the root of racial inequity across myriad arenas, encapsulating political injustice, social injustice, economic injustice, internalized racism, and beyond.
This atypical wording, Kendi says, is important. Many people working toward social justice favor other terms, like systemic racism, structural racism, and institutional racism . But these, Kendi argues, are...
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