Like so many people across the US, I’ve spent the past six weeks (and counting) feeling disheartened by the ongoing police violence against and murders of Black people and those of other minorities. Seeing the new surge of support for action to help #BlackLivesMatter has been inspiring. This growing movement is what finally spurred me to begin Ibram X. Kendi‘s How to Be an Antiracist. I’d had the audiobook loaded in my Kindle for months, but now it felt like I couldn’t put it off one more day. I want to learn and grow, and this felt like the best place to start. At the beginning of June, I began listening to the audiobook of How to Be an Antiracist, narrated by the author himself.
In How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi takes readers deep into what it means to be racist, non-racist, or antiracist. We learn the history of racism in the United States, how policies uphold racism, and how various thinkers throughout history – both racist and antiracist – have described people of different colors and ethnicities. All of this is told through Ibram’s own development from childhood through college and into adulthood. Like everyone, he had to work at unlearning toxic ideas in order to learn better – antiracist – ideals.
As he asserts at the beginning of the book, it’s not enough to simply be non-racist: Non-racism is passive and only ends up supporting the side of racism. Rather, we must be specifically and purposefully antiracist. But we must also remember, these terms refer to actions and behaviors, not simply a description of one’s character. We perform racism or antiracism by the things we say and do, and we can hold conflicting opinions or act in conflicting ways in any given day. It’s up to us to recognize our blind spots and continue learning and improving.
The book moves through definitions of numerous terms, starting with ideas of a dueling consciousness, power, biology, ethnicity, and the body. Ibram goes into detail on specific ways racism impacts these different facets of life. He slowly moves outward, turning his attention to culture and behavior, then eventually expanding into intersectional discourses of race with class, gender, sexuality, and both success and failure. The final chapter is particularly moving, about how we can survive and overcome racism, just as Ibram battled and survived cancer.
How to Be an Antiracist is a stunning and powerful book. It’s dense and often challenging, to be sure, but it’s also fully worth your attention. After giving it a little time, you’ll be forever changed and much closer to being an antiracist yourself.
One thing that will appeal to most readers is that this book doesn’t come across as preachy. Quite the contrary, Ibram X. Kendi walks us through his own transformation from racism to antiracism. He fully admits to thinking racist thoughts and acting in racist ways. He describes being afraid of other black people, wanting to look more white by changing his eye color, and distancing himself from other, “lesser” black people. But we also get to see the events that changed him and the way he saw things.
The way he narrates the book, the reader feels included and like it’s a safe place to learn. You’re never attacked for having held bad opinions. Instead, you feel that if he was able to learn and improve, you can, too. He overcome his own racism, sexism, and homophobia, so why not you? This is a great way to include all readers on this tricky path through profound and difficult subjects.
And indeed, How to Be an Antiracist does get into some deep topics. I appreciate how far this books goes with the many facets of racism. Before, I had never thought of racism as applied specifically to a Black body, or to a Black location. The author breaks down these different facets, providing plenty of detail and context, but also making it fully comprehensible.
Still, this is a dense book. It’s the kind of book you’ll want to reread, highlight certain parts, review areas you may have struggled with. It should be revisited regularly as you grow. This may require more work from the reader than most books, but it also comes with a bigger payoff. It’s a hugely important subject – and particularly relevant now – so don’t be scared off by this. Instead, come to this book ready and excited to learn.
One section of the book that stood out to me was chapter 12, on class. I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize, but sometime in the last five years it started to become clear that, politically speaking, one of my highest concerns is with economic justice. I grew up poor, and have found myself more and more disgusted with capitalism. As such, I loved how Ibram linked racism with capitalism and antiracism with anticapitalism. He explained it well, and I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with every sentence. That’s a chapter I’ll definitely revisit soon.
For better or for worse, I currently only own the audiobook of How to Be an Antiracist. However, I feel that I’ll really need a physical copy, too, so I can review sections of the book more easily. (I’m more of a visual learner anyway.) That said, the audiobook was great, and I love that Ibram X. Kendi narrated it himself. Books tend to feel most personal and real that way.
How to Be an Antiracist is an incredible book, and I encourage everyone to read it. Whether you think it’s okay to just be non-racist or you’re already interested in learning more about antiracism, this is a thorough and accessible book to introduce the most important concepts. I feel that it’s changed me for the better, and I anticipate you’ll feel the same.
This book has inspired me to keep learning, so stay tuned for my reviews of So You Want to Talk About Race and White Fragility next.