Many of us approach topics like race and racism with apprehension, discomfort and sometimes anger. For Ibram X. Kendi, founder and director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, researching, writing and talking about these difficult topics are all in a day’s work.
Author of bestsellers like “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” winner of the National Book Award, and “How to Be an Antiracist,” Kendi has made it his work to uncover and learn about some of the worst actions and ideas in U.S. history. In doing so, he has learned that racist ideas were manufactured and spread, and that means, he says, that anti-racist ideas can be created and proliferated, too.
On the same day that eight people were killed in Atlanta-area spas, six of whom were women of Asian descent, The Seattle Times caught up with Kendi ahead of his April 7 Seattle Arts & Lectures conversation with Edward Taylor, vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs at the University of Washington.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
We should talk about what happened today. So much has happened this past year and then again today we see people of color being targeted and killed in Atlanta. How do you personally cope with doing work on race and racism in a time when racism is particularly rampant? Do you envision a future where racist ideas or policies might be extinct, or at least endangered?
I think because I’ve studied and written about the entire history of racism, especially as it relates to Black people, but also Native folks and Asian folks and Latinx folks, [and] have seen and written about and read about some of the most vicious and horrific things that have ever been done to people or said about people, in many ways having that sort of knowledge or being aware of that history almost allows me to cope with the devastation and the terror that is being waged today. It’s not shocking to me. It’s not surprising to me. It obviously enrages me as it does other people, but it’s part of a long, long story.
Racist ideas were manufactured and circulated and spread and consumed, and so I think we can create a nation, we can create a world where instead of this mass manufacturing and consumption of racist ideas, we’re doing that with anti-racist ideas. We literally have to actively unlearn and learn a different way of knowing and being even human. We’ve been taught for so long, particularly white Americans, people have been taught to think that they’re better or superior or that inequality is normal.
Many people of color are often doing work around race and racism in their workplaces, in their everyday lives. As a person of color yourself and someone who does this work, do you ever experience a fatigue?
Part of the reason you have some folks of color who get fatigued is because this isn’t necessarily their job. Their job, whatever they’re being asked or paid to do, is already demanding, and then you put on top of that the demands of having to be an unpaid diversity worker at an institution or in a community. It can become a lot. Just the difficulty of navigating as a woman or a man, as a straight or gay person, as a trans or cis person, and then on top of that you have to navigate being a Black woman or being a Black trans woman, I think that’s why it can be so tiring and sapping for so many people.
Because this is indeed my sort of job, for the lack of a better term, I don’t feel as overburdened as other people who are being forced to work two jobs. This is the single job that I have. I think that helps in that sense. What tires folk out is that [race and racism] is hard to understand. In a sense it’s our job to understand what’s going on, so I don’t necessarily feel tired because I can’t understand why this is happening. We’ve been researching precisely why this is happening.
In your book “How to Be an Antiracist,” you mix your own experience with your work and research pretty seamlessly. Does that ever feel vulnerable?
Oh yeah, I didn’t want to do that. I was very hesitant to use my personal story in “How to be an Antiracist,” but I also knew that one of the reasons that this is such a difficult topic for people, and that’s everyone, is because we can’t think about race and racism in the abstract.
This is deeply personal for people, whether it’s personal for people because of what they’ve experienced in terms of racist acts they’ve experienced, whether it’s personal for people because they’re just swimming in this well of denial about what they’ve done to other people. Either way it’s deeply personal. So knowing that, if there is a specific topic in our society for which it’s actually effective to use personal stories, it is specifically as it relates to bigotry and more specifically racism. I think my story of being raised to think there’s something wrong with Black people and coming to realize that no, actually, it’s systemic racism, is I think a journey that other people can take, too.
Has there been anything in your research that has particularly jumped out at you? Any moments in U.S. history where you feel there was particularly surprising anti-racist work happening?
There’s so many things that jump out at me. Writing about so much anti-racist activity in the 16[00s] and 1700s was a revelation for me, because obviously people imagine that racism did not emerge until the 1800s. But no, you actually had racism much earlier than that and you had the efforts against racism much earlier than that. I think the early efforts at anti-racism have always jumped out at me. For instance, in the 1680s there was the Germantown Petition Against Slavery. You had these people who would come to Germantown from Central Europe who had faced all sorts of religious oppression and then came upon these Quakers who were enslaving people, and they could not understand how and why they weren’t following the golden rule, and they wrote about that in this petition. That’s just one example.
Your work is very hopeful in that it tells people the beginning of anti-racism is to be aware of what you’re doing and make an effort to change it. Are there any areas now where you feel you need to do more work?
It’s somewhat ongoing in the sense of my gender politics, my politics on sexuality, my politics on class. I think coming from this patriarchal, homophobic, middle-income place, I don’t think it’s ever going to be a point at which I have arrived and I don’t have to continuously question and correct and try to strive anew. I think that’s a good thing, because I think in other areas for us as humans we should be seeking to continuously grow and become a better form of ourselves.
So what you just did right there, being so forthright about the areas you need to work on, that’s hard for people [to do]. How do you get to the place where you’re comfortable about knowing you have work to do on certain issues?
It’s just clear as day to me that I can’t be better at anything if I’m not able and willing to recognize my faults and mistakes. That combined with a more theoretical recognition that, historically, denial has been at the heartbeat of racism itself, and knowing thereby that if the history of people being racist is denying that they’re racist by continuously saying they’re not racist, what’s the opposite of that? The opposite of that is to actually admit the times in which we’re being racist, it’s to actually admit our faults, our mistakes.