By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributor
Ibram X. Kendi is a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow, a professor of history and the founding director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University. With clear, audacious and innovative thinking, his new book, ‘How to Be an Antiracist’ (One World Press, 2019), blows the doors off institutional racism and its real-world effects. In light of the recent study ranking Pittsburgh as one of the most unhealthy cities in America for black residents, Kendi’s visit feels especially essential. He spoke to the Current via telephone from his home in Washington, D.C. (Answers have been edited for length.)
Can you talk about the terms ‘racist’ and ‘antiracist’ and ‘not racist?’
The heartbeat of racism is denial. Every group of racists in American history have self-identified themselves as ‘not racist.’ They refuse to recognize their ideas, their policies as racist. A large part of our debate over who or what is racist has been based on differing definitions of the term. Americans cannot define racists in a way that always exonerates them and, I think, historically, that’s what Americans have normally been doing. The term ‘not racist’ has always been a defensive term. A racist constantly denies the ways in which they are being racist; an antiracist constantly recognizes and admits the ways in which they are being racist, so they can be different and better.
You write that Americans have been trained to see the deficiencies of people rather than policy. But we also hear that people need stories and narratives. How do we bridge that divide?
It’s hard to tell the story of a policy. But you can tell the stories of how people are the victims of racists policies. Not only by telling the story of how people of color are victimized by mass incarceration — you can simultaneously tell the story of white people who are victimized by mass incarceration. White people have been mass incarcerated, not to the extent of people of color, but racist policies meant for people of color typically end up harming white people, too. It ends up harming Americans. You can tell that shared story.
Talk to me about space. About black spaces, and about integrated and protected space.
I wanted to emphasize that not just black people but black spaces are viewed as less than or inferior. Spaces where black people govern or are in the majority are viewed as inferior to white spaces. To be an antiracist is to not just view people as equal, but to also view their spaces as equals. For racist white people, the solution to racial problems is herding of people of color into white spaces and the elimination of all spaces created and maintained by people of color. Thereby, it would be very difficult for people of color to reproduce and create culture and ways of life that are distinct from the cultures and ways of life of white people.
Can you talk about the intersection of racism and capitalism, racism and colonialism, homophobia, misogyny?
Racism reinforces all these other forms of bigotry and bigoted policies. Individuals are not just racialized — they have a gender or they’re non-gendered. They have a class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality. So bigotry towards one’s sexual orientation, or one’s gender or one’s class, intersects with bigotry towards one’s race.
Can you talk more about the intoxicating nature of racist ideas?
Generally speaking, racist ideas connote that the problem is people, antiracist ideas connote that the problem is bad policy. Part of the reason why racist ideas are so seductive and widespread is because they are easy to believe. Antiracist ideas are much more complex and much harder to believe. People regularly see, for lack of a better term, the bad behaviors of people in their face. Regularly. It’s easier to believe that the problem in general is precisely what they see on a day to day basis. Since policy is more removed, oftentimes hidden, it’s very difficult for people to see directly how policy is impacting the life chances of people.
Racist ideas sound chemically engineered to trigger certain sensors in your brain, like fast-food.
Historically, the most powerful people have had the bully pulpits and the platforms from which they can project those racist ideas. While antiracist ideas have typically come from the margins of society. Racist ideas are meant to be believed. They are tailored for human consumption. For those who project these ideas — truth doesn’t matter, complexity doesn’t matter. With antiracist ideas, what matters fundamentally is truth and logic and evidence.
Ibram X. Kendi will speak as part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures’ Ten Evenings Program on Monday, October 14th at 7:30 p.m. at the Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland