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Scholar speaks on anti-racism in UMass talk

  • Ibram X. Kendi, who spoke Wednesday at the University of Massachusetts, is a professor of history and international relations and the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Ibram X. Kendi, a leading scholar of racism and discriminatory policy in America, became the youngest person to win the National Book Award for Nonfiction for “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.”  —SUBMITTED PHOTO



Staff Writer
Friday, November 09, 2018

AMHERST — Ibram X. Kendi, a leading scholar in African-American studies, has a suggestion to all those who believe they are not racist — stop saying you are not racist.

An anti-racist, or someone who supports policies or ideas that promote equality among all racial groups, recognizes that racism is fluid — you might claim to be “colorblind” while simultaneously believing that black neighborhoods are more dangerous than white neighborhoods.

In order to actually be an anti-racist, the topic of Kendi’s lecture recently at the University of Massachusetts, one must actively work to dismantle the discriminatory policies in the United States, and the racist rationale given to defend those policies, to change the practices that perpetuate inequality among different racial groups, he said.

“The source of racist policies is not ignorance and hate — it’s self-interest and power,” Kendi said to a large audience at the Fine Arts Center Concert Hall. “Fundamentally, this racial struggle has always been a power struggle at its core. To be an anti-racist is to be engaged in the power struggle and to realize that the way we build empathy in society is not by convincing and persuading millions of people — it’s getting into positions of power where you can change policy to create equity.”

Since the birth of the country, Kendi said, Americans have deflected from being called racist, and instead argued that they were simply following the law or Constitution. Slaveholders in the South said they were helping “civilize” black people after centuries of “barbarism” in Africa, Kendi said, even though unpaid black labor turned plantation-owners into some of the wealthiest people in the country.

Being racist is not a fixed category, Kendi said. One can support a racist Justice Department policy while also supporting an anti-racist Department of Education policy.

“Essentially, it’s very difficult to situate and fix people conceptually in a particular box because most people are deeply convoluted, complex, and oftentimes, hypocritical,” Kendi said. “What if instead of having one fixed identity, we based whether they were racist or anti-racist on what they are doing in the moment.”

Kendi defined a racist idea as one promoting the notion that one racial group is superior or inferior in any way when compared to another racial group.

And he wanted to be clear that black people, like all other races, are made up of a collection of racial groups.

“Black women are a racial group with a specific history of ideas that have targeted them, that denigrate them, that say they are inferior to white women or inferior to black men,” Kendi said.

Other groups within the black race are black men, black poor, black elites, and African-Americans, according to Kendi.

“Black feminist intersectional theory is at the basis of this,” Kendi said. “You cannot understand the history of racist ideas without understanding all the ways in which racist ideas intersect with other forms of bigotry to target these groups.”

He said that by being an anti-racist, one is not simply saying that black people are equal to white people who are also equal to Asian people.

“What we are saying is that the black poor are equal to white elites,” Kendi said. “We are saying that white lesbian women are equal to black transgender men.”

Equality among all these different groups within all the different races makes it all very complex, Kendi said.

“That’s why I had to write a book on how to be an anti-racist,” Kendi said. “It is critical for us to understand how these ideas intersect; racist ideas intersect with other forms of bigotry. It is pretty impossible to be an anti-racist and to be sexist and to be homophobic and to express any other form of bigotry.”

An example Kendi gave was a sexist idea suggesting that women are weak and a racist idea that black women are not like white women.

“Those two ideas intersect to suggest that the pinnacle of womanhood is the weak white woman who is superior to the strong black woman,” Kendi said.

The driving force of all these bigoted ideas is political, economic, and cultural self-interest that produces policies that discriminate against all racial groups, Kendi said.

Last fall, Kendi became the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C. Kendi’s lecture was based on his forthcoming book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” expected in summer 2019.