As part of the Stronger Together initiative, the Office of Community Engagement is hosting book discussions this summer based on Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist. These small groups discussions are now closed for summer 2020. New groups will open up in fall 2020.
For those who are reading along, here are some reflections questions from Chapters 1-9 to guide us in critical self-reflection as we do the important work of becoming antiracist. Part 2, with questions for Chapters 10-18, is also now available.
The book’s central message is that the opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” The true opposite of “racist” is antiracist. “The good news,” Kendi writes, “is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be racist one minute and an antiracist the next.” What does it mean to have to constantly reaffirm your identity as an antiracist? Is there any benefit to the fact that you can’t just decide you are “not racist” or an antiracist and be done with it?
“‘Racist’ is not- as Richard Spencer argues- a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it- and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction.”
Chapter 1 – Definitions
“What is racism? Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.”
“No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other. We can unknowingly strive to be a racist. We can knowingly strive to be an anti-racist. Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”
Chapter 2 – Dueling Consciousness
Kendi explores assimilation, segregationist, and anti-racist mindsets. What are some examples you’ve seen of each of these?
What is your reaction to the “War on Drugs” – the stiffer sentencing policies for drug crimes and the mass incarceration of non-violent offenders? How does this fit within our current tensions around racial disparities in law enforcement and police brutality toward Black individuals?
Chapter 3 – Power
Kendi recounts the history of race as constructs. Have you heard this history before? What is your response to hearing the story of Prince Henry enslaving Africans? And Linnaeus’ racial hierarchy? How do these mesh with stories you have heard about race growing up?
“This cause and effect – a racist power creates racist policies out of raw self-interest; the racist policies necessitate racist ideas to justify them – lingers over the life of racism.” (p42)
Chapter 4 – Biology
Microaggressions, i.e. racial abuse – When have you witnessed or been a perpetrator of microaggressions? “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership?” (p46)
What is the impact of this persistent daily hum of racist abuse? Kendi lists distress, anger, worry, depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, and suicide. (p46)
Disparities in punishment and education – “I wonder if her racist ideas chalked up my resistance to my Blackness and therefore characterized it as misbehavior, not distress. With racist teachers, misbehaving kids of color do not receive inquiry and empathy and legitimacy. We receive orders and punishments and ‘no excuses,’ as if we were adults. The Black child is ill-treated like an adult, and the Black adult is ill-treated like a child.” (p47)
Racial categories – Kendi argues that as long as racial inequities exist, that racial categories are essential in identifying those inequities and addressing racist policies. (p54) This is why a color-blind system doesn’t work. It neglects to acknowledge the racial inequities and maintains the existing racial hierarchies and power structures. How do you respond to those who say they do not “see color?” How might we respond?
Chapter 5 – Ethnicity
“…The central double standard in ethnic racism: loving one’s position on the ladder above over ethnic groups and hating one’s position below that of other ethnic groups.” (p65) Have you experienced this tension before? Why do we consume racist/sexist/classist ideas about other groups and reject racist/sexist/classist ideas about our own?
Chapter 6 – Body
Kendi quotes President Bill Clinton saying – “By experience or at least what people see on the news at night, violence for those White people too often has a Black face.” (p70) He then goes on to comment, “Americans today see the Black body as larger, more threatening, more potentially harmful, and more likely to require force to control than a similarly sized White body, according to researchers.” What have you observed about media portrayals of violence? What kinds of antiracist strategies can challenge these racialized depictions of violence?
“We were unarmed, but we knew that Blackness armed us even though we had no guns. Whiteness disarmed the cops – turned them into fearful potential victims – even when they were approaching a group of clearly outstrapped and anxious high school kids… Unarmed black bodies – which apparently look armed to fearful officers – are about twice as likely to be killed as unarmed White bodies.” How do these views of the Black body as inherently dangerous play into the recent tragic and deadly police encounters, e.g. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner?
What is your response to Kendi’s description of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (p 74)? How did this act perpetuate the correlation of Blackness with violence? What were some of the unintended consequences?
What about the correlation of violence with poverty and unemployment? (p79) Advocates for defunding the police argue investment in jobs programs and other services are more effective in reducing violence and crime in low income communities. What are the possibilities and challenges of moving in this direction?
On page 75-76, Kendi addresses the depictions of the inner city as perpetuating and breeding violence. “We, the young Black super-predators, were apparently being raised with an unprecedented inclination toward violence – in a nation that presumably did not raise White slaveholders, lynchers, officials, venture capitalists, financiers, drunk drivers, and war hawks to be violent.” What is your reaction to this tendency to overlook White violence? What do you know about the violence of lynching, racial terrorism, and the treatment of slaves? In what ways have we acknowledged and made restitution for those violent acts?
Chapter 7 – Culture
“The act of making a cultural standard and hierarchy is what creates cultural racism.” (p 83) What are some of the cultural standards we hold? Kendi says to be antiracist is to reject cultural standards and level cultural differences. How might we do that?
“The cultural African survived in the Americans, created a strong and complex culture with Western ‘outward’ forms ‘while retaining inner [African] values’…The same cultural African breathed life into the African American culture that raised me.” (p 86) Discuss some of the aspects of culture Kendi talks about, e.g. fresh fashion, Black church, soul food, Hip Hop. Does any of Kendi’s descriptions challenge racialized images and stereotypes for you? How might we, as cultural antiracists, reject cultural standards in these areas and equalize cultural differences among racial groups (p81)?
Chapter 8 – Behavior
Kendi says that Black individual mistakes are generalized to the mistakes of the race, while White individual mistakes are seen as individual mistakes and often met with second chances and empathy. How have you seen this play out in your experience?
The achievement gap and standardized tests – “The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies.” (p 101) What is your response to the context and history that Kendi brings to tests like the SAT and GRE? Why do we continue to use these tests? What would changing educational structures and admissions look like?
Looking at the racial disparities in funding for education and resourcing of schools and teachers, Kendi says “The racial problem is the opportunity gap, as antiracist reformers call it, not the achievement gap.” (103) How do we move toward creating opportunities for more children to succeed inside and outside of school? How do we acknowledge and celebrate different kinds of intelligence?
Chapter 9 – Color
Kendi talks about the dueling consciousness of antiracist pride in one’s own race and assimilationist desire to be another race. (p 109) For him, it was wearing colored contact lenses to portray himself as lighter. He also talks about white people tanning to become darker. In his words, “to be antiracist is not to reverse the beauty standard. To be antiracist is to eliminate any standard based on skin, eye color, hair texture…to be antiracist is to diversify our standards of beauty like our standards of culture or intelligence, to see beauty equally in all skin colors, broad and thin noses, kinky and straight hair, light and dark eyes. To be an antiracist is to build and live in a beauty culture that accentuates instead of erases our natural beauty.” (p 113) What would an antiracist beauty culture look like? What do we need to change to get there?
How have you experienced the dueling consciousness of pride in one’s own body and assimilationist desire to fit in with others?
View Part 2: Chapters 10-18.
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