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How to be an Anti-Racist

I read this book, as many others did, in the midst of the beginning stages of the Black Lives Matter movement. As I was processing what role I could or should play in this movement – including acknowledging how I’ve benefited from racism, ways that I have perpetuated it, and what I should do about it – this is a book I found really helpful in giving me perspectives on how to move forward.

I know it has become a bit of a lightning rod for some serious vitriol, but I have found it to be incredibly helpful in educating myself on the complexities of racism, including its history and ways we can address it in society and, most importantly, in ourselves. If you have negative feelings toward this book but have yet to read it, I would encourage you to give it a chance! Not only is Ibram X. Kendi an effective writer, but he is also an accomplished academic, writing about his own personal experience and explaining in-depth research in a palatable way.

Kendi suggests that we should define racist acts very clearly and simply: Racist acts are actions that increase the disparity and inequity between the races. Anti-racist actions are those that decrease the disparity and inequity between the races. Full stop. While intentions may be important for the sake of measuring the character of a person, intentions do not matter when it comes to the impact of a particular action. A law that is intended to be anti-racist and actually increases the disparity between the races is, therefore, a racist law.

My main takeaway, which builds on the previous idea, is Kendi’s helpful presentation of racism as a behavior rather than an identity. It completely reframes how to talk about this topic. We can all do racist things at different times – one moment I can behave in a racist way and the next moment I can do something anti-racist. We are not either “racist” or “not racist,” we are either behaving in a way that supports racism or dismantles it. When we label a whole person as either racist or not racist, it means that there’s a complete lack of nuance and that people are stuck with or cling to that label. Someone who is doing racist things can placate others and themselves by saying that they are “not racist.” On the other end, the burden of being labeled as “a racist” (a label that defines every aspect of who we are), can lead to defensiveness and denial rather than behavior change. When racism is a behavior, we can acknowledge that we did a racist thing, apologize, and be better in the next moment. (Now, of course, behaviors can become identities. I can’t remember if he addresses this in the book or not, but if someone is consciously doing racist things and is fine with perpetuating disparity between the races, I think we can safely call them a racist…)

I can think of very few books that have actually changed my language around a topic. Words are powerful and language is useful in creating behavior change and I think this book does a great job of it. I highly recommend this read!

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