After taking a three-day seminar in antiracism through my church, my eyes were opened to the reality of systemic racism. That experience was just the beginning of a journey for me, and books such as Ibram X Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist have become an important part of my listening and learning. This particular book compelled me with the promise in its title.
Kendi, the winner of the National Book Award for Stamped from the Beginning, amazed me with his premise: that either you are a racist or an antiracist, there is no middle ground. Yet he redefines racism in a way that seems so sensible and so provoking at the same time. A racist is not, he says, just someone wearing a hood and burning a cross while yelling out the n-word. The word “racist” has been appropriated as such, to the detriment of the conversation about it.
Kendi calls himself a racist a few times in the book. For example, he purposely dated girls with dark skin in college to prove how enlightened he was. From the book’s description of racism, he was being a racist: “At its core, racism is a powerful system that creates false hierarchies of human value; its warped logic extends beyond race, from the way we regard people of different ethnicities or skin colors to the way we treat people of different sexes, gender identities, and body types. Racism intersects with class and culture and geography and even changes the way we see and value ourselves.” I thought of people in my life who insist racism can go both ways, and that Black people can be racist too. I had strongly resisted this idea, but Kendi confesses his own racism in a way that is disarming and startling. His vulnerability is a marvel, a conduit to powerful persuasion.
I confess, Kendi’s stories and insights made me uncomfortable a few times, but that doesn’t mean they were not true. Listening to him narrate his own book made his words feel even more bold and visionary. Some people have disliked his voice and called it “choppy,” but for me, his delivery, sometimes measured and calm, sometimes proclaiming and urgent, increased the book’s authenticity. I knew going in that Kendi had a diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer, but it was shocking and terrible to hear him talk about it near the end of the book. No wonder there is a sense of urgency in the way he narrates. Racism is the real cancer, the actual malignancy, he concludes, ending the book in prophetic power.
Christian readers will find the story of Kendi’s believing parents, who met at the Urbana missions conference years ago, to be fascinating, but Kendi does not seem to share his parents’ faith. Or perhaps he just doesn’t talk about it in a way that one can easily tell. Listeners sensitive to coarse language might want to read the book instead; somehow hearing swearing on an audiobook is more jarring than reading the words on a page. Readers will have to decide if Kendi’s strong message—often using strong language—is worth it. Personally, I thought it was. I was challenged, provoked, and filled with hope for a more antiracist future. (Penguin Random House, Audible)