Out In The Open·Q&A

Ibram X. Kendi says we are either being racist or antiracist, there is no middle ground

Author and historian Ibram X. Kendi talks about "How to Be an Antiracist", his rallying cry for all of us to reframe how we think about racism in order to remedy it. If we don't, Kendi says racism may well threaten our very existence.

‘‘Not racist' has always been the heartbeat of denial,’ argues author and historian

Ibram X. Kendi's latest book is titled "How to Be an Antiracist". (Jeff Watts/American University)

Originally published on Nov. 15, 2019.

Ibram X. Kendi thinks there are three major "lethal weapons" threatening human existence: climate change, nuclear war, and a third, which he says we're in denial about — racism.

In his latest book, How to Be an Antiracist, the American author and historian argues that people are being either racist or antiracist, there is nothing in between. And depending on their actions, ideas or the policies they support, people — regardless of their background or race — can fall into either category. 

"There's no such thing as a 'not racist' or 'race neutral' policy," Kendi told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay.

In his book, which weaves memoir, history and social commentary, Kendi recalls developing youthful perceptions of black people and racism, as informed by his parents and country. "It was easier for me to understand the idea that there was something wrong with black people who were struggling," Kendi said of his perspective after his family transitioned from the working to middle class. "It was harder for me to understand how and why there was something wrong with racism." 

Later on, attending a historically black university in Florida during the 2000 U.S. presidential election shaped his perception of white people. "I heard (stories of) voter suppression, primarily at the hands of white people; white police officers harassing black people trying to vote, or white lawyers, white judges who ultimately … allowed it such that Bush would win that re-election," he said. "As a result, I ended up thinking that there was something fundamentally wrong with white people."

In a wide-ranging conversation with Chattopadhyay, Kendi addresses his past perceptions (which he now views as racist), lays out his proposal for how to counter racism, and comments on Canada's relationship with racism today.

The interview below has been edited and condensed. Click here to listen to the full conversation.

If your views were racist, does that mean you were "a racist?"

Whenever someone is saying anything racist, they're being racist. So yes. Other people define a racist as a fixed category — this is who you are and this is who you'll always be. I define a racist as someone who's expressing racist ideas or supporting racist policies with their action or inaction.

Some of our listeners may be thinking, "You're a black man. You can not be racist. Race is a social construct invented by white people for power." What do you say to that view?

Historically, people have imagined that people of colour can't be racist because they don't have power. To say that people of colour don't have power is to say white people are all powerful. To say white people are all powerful is to render them gods. And to say that people of colour have no power is to render them slaves.

In fact, people of colour have limited amounts of power. Do they have as much policymaking or policy managing power as white people in the United States or in other countries? They don't. But does every single person of colour have the power to resist? They do. 

Some black people think, like I did when I was younger, that the problem is black people. Then they don't use their power to resist racism. It really bothers me because this idea — black people can't be racist because they don't have power — is imagined to be a progressive, radical or liberal idea. In fact, it's based on an extremely conservative idea that black people are powerless slaves. That has never been the case. Black people have used their power to resist slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow segregation, and mass incarceration. I don't ever want us to forget that black people do have power. And some black people choose not to use their power because they look in the mirror and see the problem.

Hand-in-hand with the view that you just expressed is another one that you know is coming to mind for people out there — that white people cannot be victims of racism. To that you say what?

We have to be very precise when we're talking about racism. We should use the term "racial groups." So for instance, black men and black women are racial groups. The black poor and black elite are racial groups. White elites and the white poor are racial groups.

The reason why this is absolutely critical is because you have black men who have historically expressed the same racist ideas about black women, and supported the same racist policies towards black women, as white people have. And it led to these disparities between black men and black women. 

And really, white people across the world do not benefit equally from racist policies. White poor people do not benefit from racist policies as much as, for instance, white elites. And so I think that's one of the biggest misnomers about racism. We have to recognize how policies directly harm people of colour and they harm them the most. But it's not the case that they harm or help all white people equally. And that's never been the case.

To say white people are all powerful is to render them gods. And to say that people of colour have no power is to render them slaves.- Ibram X. Kendi

Let us be specific then. What exactly is your definition of racism?

I define racism as a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas. I define a racist idea as any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group in any way. I define a racist policy as any policy that leads to racial inequity. I define racist power as policymakers who are using their policymaking power to institute or defend policies that are breeding racial inequity.

When you call someone a racist, it is heard as an insult. How should I take it if someone labels me or something I say or do as racist?

The same way we should take it if someone labels something we said or did as mean. It's a descriptive term. It describes what we just said or did. It is not a pejorative term. That idea that "racist" is an attack word, a pejorative term, has been promoted by white nationalists. What's ironic about so many people who claim to not be racist is that they can't even define the term "racist" in a way that everyone can understand.

Let us focus on the key concept of your book — the term antiracist. Define that.

An antiracist is someone who is expressing an antiracist idea or is supporting an antiracist policy with their action. An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests racial groups are equals. When you talk about group or racial group hierarchy, that's something antiracists don't believe. At the same time, they recognize racial differences; that certain racial groups have different aesthetic sensibilities, traits or colours. But they don't rank one colour as better than the other. They also don't rank cultures and assess other cultures from their own cultural standards.

To be antiracist is to see racist policies as the problem; and to see antiracist policies that create racial equity as the solution. To be antiracist is to be a part of the struggle to get rid of racist policies and institute antiracist policies.

To be antiracist is to be a part of the struggle to get rid of racist policies and institute antiracist policies.- Ibram X. Kendi

During our most recent federal election campaign, it came out that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had worn blackface (and brownface) on at least three occasions in the past. Trudeau called his own actions racist and apologized. It launched a big debate in this country about whether or not those actions meant that he was unfit to govern. What's your take on that?

For those Canadians who believe it's essentially crossing a red line, I wouldn't necessarily dispute that. What is critical is, will he become the most antiracist Canadian political figure ever? Because now he has the opportunity to do that. Or is he just going to say, "I'm sorry for doing that; I won't do it again," and not become a force of racial change in Canada? I think that he has the capacity to do that, become that and make up for what he did. Because one of the worst things a white person can do, particularly symbolically, is to wear blackface.

Canada was founded on the colonization of Indigenous people in the past. But many Canadians often look at the U.S. and think, "We're better than that. We're not American. We're not racist. Or at least we're not that racist." What do you want to say to Canadians?

That's a form of denial. From my reading of Canada, it has always had racial inequities. Thereby, it has always had racist policies. I don't have a ranking of who is more or less racist. The only way in which I assess who is more racist is who is more in denial. So those countries that have a persistence and pervasiveness of racial inequity and imagine themselves as "post-racial" are, to me, more racist than the country that has more racial inequities but is less in denial. Because denial fundamentally is the heartbeat of racism.