This review begins with a story.
So more than two years ago, I heard Ibram X. Kendi talking on NPR about his book, Stamped from the Beginning, and I knew immediately that I wanted to read it. About six months later I bought it but it has been sitting on my to-read pile ever since—mainly because it’s a bit intimidating at 608 pages with extremely small type, but also my to-read pile is large.
Flash forward to late last summer and I heard Kendi on NPR again talking about his next book, How to be an Antiracist, which I thought sounded really interesting too so I ordered it. I had just read White Fragility and it seemed a fitting follow-up to that. This one did not stay on the to-read shelf long and once I started, I finished it in a matter of days (all against the backdrop of the Trump impeachment hearings . . . the definition of cognitive dissonance.) Now that I’ve read it, I’m ready and excited to tackle Kendi’s earlier work though I know it’s going to depress the hell out of me.
How to Be an Antiracist is an interesting combination of theoretical discussion and memoir—here the personal is political or also, the personal is theoretical. In exploring and explaining the different aspects of becoming an antiracist, Kendi also tells his own story and the evolution of his thinking about race and equity and intersectionality. It’s a process that takes many years and involves many teachers and as he is the first to admit, it’s a process that never ends.
For me, there was so much to think about as an educator and someone who cares about social justice. The number one takeaway for me was to work to eliminate the phrase, “I’m not racist” from my thinking (because I don’t think I ever say it, but it’s all too easy to feel one is oh so woke when you’re reading The New Jim Crow or watching Just Mercy.) Digging deep to see how one’s assumptions and world view are tied up in systems of racism is not easy but Kendi makes a powerful argument for the importance of doing so.
The second biggest takeaway for me was the call to act, not just reflect. As Kendi wraps up his discussion by listing the steps in his mission to be an antiracist, he writes:
I struggle for antiracist power and policy in my spaces. (Seizing a policymaking position. Joining an antiracist organization or protest. Publicly donating my time or privately donating my funds to antiracist policymakers, organizations and protests fixated on changing power and policy.) (226).
This reminds me of the call for me as an educator not to be an ally but to be an accomplice. The difference is doing and not just talking and that is something I’m thinking a lot about now. How can I use this thinking in the spaces I occupy—the classroom, the writing center, etc. Kendi leaves me with more questions than answers but that seems fitting since my process is just beginning.