Read How to Be an Antiracist Online
Authors: Ibram X. Kendi
No one seemed to incite them more than “patriarchal women”—really, patriarchal White women standing behind racist White patriarchs. I can only imagine what they thought years later,
watching Kayla Moore defend her husband, Alabama’s U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, who had been accused of pedophilia and sexual assaults, who was asked on the campaign trail in 2017 when America was last great. “I think it was great at the time when families were united—
even though we had slavery,” he said. “Our families were strong, our country had direction.” This was long before we had so many women publicly attacking the women saying #MeToo. Patriarchal women, as a term, made no sense to me back then, like the term “homophobic homosexuals.” Only men can be patriarchal, can be sexist. Only heterosexuals can be homophobic. The radical Black queer feminism of those two women detached homophobic from heterosexual, detached sexist from men and feminist from women, in the way I later detached racist from White people and antiracist from Black people. They had a problem with homophobia, not with heterosexuals. They had a problem with patriarchy, not with men. Crucially, their going after all homophobes, no matter their sexual identity, showed me that homophobic ideas and policies and power were their fundamental problem. Crucially, their going after all patriarchs, no matter their gender identity, showed me that patriarchal ideas and policies and powers were their fundamental problem. They talked of queer people defending homophobia as powerfully as they talked about heterosexuals building a world for queer love. They talked of women defending sexism as powerfully as men building a feminist world. Maybe they had me in mind. Because they opened that feminist world to me where queer love is wedded to heterosexual love, in harmony. But this world scared me like they scared me. Opened by them, I learned, though—and eventually I wanted to help them create that new world.
I am forever grateful that the Black graduate-student discourse was ruled by queer Black feminists instead of by patriarchal Black male homophobes. They were my first role models of Black feminism, of queer antiracism, of antiracist feminism. They met my homophobic patriarchy and forced me to meet him, too. Their force forced me to check his ass, as desperate as I was to stay out of the way of their attacks, a desperation that transformed into a curiosity about Black feminism and queer theory itself, a curiosity that transformed into a desire to be a gender antiracist, to be a queer antiracist, to not fail Black people—all Black people.
One who has a record of power or policy change.
classroom started filling. Bodies hugging. Smiles and small talk and catching up. It all annoyed me as I sat, stood, and then sat again at the professor’s desk, hoping to begin our Black Student Union (BSU) meeting on time. It was early September 2007. We were laughing and chatting in Philly, but that day, in Louisiana, six teenage lives hung in the balance. We had devised a campaign to free them. I was prepared to present it in order to secure organizers to execute it. I hardly suspected I was bound to fail.
To understand why racism lives is to understand the history of antiracist failure—why people have failed to create antiracist societies. To understand the racial history of failure is to understand failed solutions and strategies. To understand failed solutions and strategies is to understand their cradles: failed racial ideologies.
Incorrect conceptions of race as a social construct (as opposed to a power construct), of racial history as a singular march of racial progress (as opposed to a duel of antiracist and racist progress), of the race problem as rooted in ignorance and hate (as opposed to powerful self-interest)—all come together to produce solutions bound to fail. Terms and sayings like “I’m not racist” and “race neutral” and “post-racial” and “color-blind” and “only one race, the human race” and “only racists speak about race” and “Black people can’t be racist” and “White people are evil” are bound to fail in identifying and eliminating racist power and policy. Stratagems flouting intersectionality are bound to fail the most degraded racial groups. Civilizing programs will fail since all racial groups are already on the same cultural level. Behavioral-enrichment programs, like mentoring and educational programs, can help individuals but are bound to fail racial groups, which are held back by bad policies, not bad behavior. Healing symptoms instead of changing policies is bound to fail in healing society. Challenging the conjoined twins separately is bound to fail to address economic-racial inequity. Gentrifying integration is bound to fail non-White cultures. All of these ideas are bound to fail because they have consistently failed in the past. But for some reason, their failure doesn’t seem to matter: They remain the most popular conceptions and strategies and solutions to combat racism, because they stem from the most popular racial ideologies.
These repetitive failures exact a toll. Racial history does not repeat harmlessly. Instead, its devastation multiplies when generation after generation repeats the same failed strategies and solutions and ideologies, rather than burying past failures in the caskets of past generations.
met regularly at a national convention, thinking the antislavery solution rested in continuing “
our parental care” over free Blacks, as they stated in 1805. White abolitionists lorded over Black behavior as if on good Black “conduct must, in some measure, depend the liberation of their brethren,” as their convention stated in 1804.
The White judge birthed the Black judge. “
The further decrease of prejudice, and the amelioration of the condition of thousands of our brethren who are yet in bondage, greatly depend on our conduct,” Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm wrote on March 16, 1827, in one of the opening editorials of
, the first African American newspaper.
I grew up on this same failed strategy more than one hundred fifty years later. Generations of Black bodies have been raised by
the judges of “uplift suasion.” The judges strap the entire Black race on the Black body’s back, shove the burdened Black body into White spaces, order the burdened Black body to always act in an upstanding manner to persuade away White racism, and punish poor Black conduct with sentences of shame for reinforcing racism, for bringing the race down. I felt the burden my whole Black life to be perfect before both White people and the Black people judging whether I am representing the race well. The judges never let me just be, be myself, be my imperfect self.
T FELT COOL
outside, sometime in the autumn of 2011. Sadiqa and I had been dating for months. I looked at this Spelman sister and Georgia peach as a future wife: smitten by her affability as much as her elegance, by her perceptiveness as much as her easygoing sense of humor; smitten by her love of Black people as much as her love of saving human lives as a physician. She, too, had been raised in a middle-income Black home by similarly aged parents who cut their teeth in the movement, who brushed her teeth in the movement. She, too, had been taught that her climb up the success ladder uplifted the race. She, too, tried to represent the race well.
We dined near the window at Buddakan, an Asian fusion restaurant in Old City, Philadelphia. On the opposite wall, a massive gold statue of Buddha sat on a tiny stage at almost table level, against a red background that faded into a black center. Eyes closed. Hands clasped. At peace. Not bothering anyone. Certainly not Sadiqa. But the statue attracted a middle-aged, brown-haired, overweight White guy. Clearly drunk, he climbed onto the tiny stage and started fondling Buddha before his laughing audience of drunk friends at a nearby table. I had learned a long time ago to tune out the antics of drunk White people doing things that could get a Black person arrested. Harmless White fun is Black lawlessness.
His loud laughs summoned Sadiqa’s look. “Oh, my God!” she said quietly. “What is this guy doing?”
She turned back to her plate, took a bite, and looked up as she swallowed. “At least he’s not Black.”
I was taken aback but immediately recognized myself—my own thoughts—in Sadiqa’s face.
“How would you feel if he was Black?” I asked her, and myself.
“I’d be really embarrassed,” she said, speaking for me and for so many of us trapped on the plantation of uplift suasion. “Because we don’t need anyone making us look bad.”
“In front of White people?” I asked her.
“Yes. It makes them look down on us. Makes them more racist.”
We thought on a false continuum, from more racist to less racist to not racist. We believed good Black behavior made White people “less racist,” even when our experiences told us it usually did not. But that night, we thought about it together and shared a few critiques of uplift suasion for the first time.
Today, the few critiques would be many. We would critique paternalistic White abolitionists conjuring up uplift suasion. We’d argue against the assumption that poor Black conduct is responsible for White racist ideas, meaning White racist ideas about poor Black conduct are valid. We’d critique the White judge exonerating White people from the responsibility to rid themselves of their own racist ideas; upwardly mobile Black people deflecting responsibility for changing racist policy by imagining they are uplifting the race by uplifting themselves; the near impossibility of perfectly executing uplift suasion, since Black people are humanly imperfect. We’d notice that when racist Whites see Black people conducting themselves admirably in public, they see those Blacks as extraordinary, meaning not like those ordinarily inferior Black people. We’d remember what history teaches us: that when racist policy knocks Black people down, the judge orders them to uplift themselves, only to be cut down again by racist terror and policy.
Sadiqa and I left the restaurant, but we continued to talk about the uplift-suasion ideology that had been so deeply ingrained in us—to critique it, critique ourselves, and run away from it, toward freedom. All these years later, although the judges can catch us at any moment, I admire Sadiqa’s freedom to be Sadiqa. I feel free to move in my imperfections. I represent only myself. If the judges draw conclusions about millions of Black people based on how I act, then they, not I, not Black people, have a problem. They are responsible for their racist ideas; I am not. I am responsible for my racist ideas; they are not. To be antiracist is to let me be me, be myself, be my imperfect self.
Garrison did not let the Black body be her imperfect self. “
Have you not acquired the esteem, confidence and patronage of the whites, in proportion to your increase in knowledge and moral improvement?” Garrison asked a Black crowd not long after founding
in 1831. Uplift suasion fit his ideology that the best way to “
accomplish the great work of national redemption” from slavery was “through the agency of moral power” and truth and reason. Garrison’s belief in “moral suasion” and what we can call “educational suasion” also
fit his personal upbringing by a pious Baptist mother, his professional upbringing by an editor who believed newspapers are for “instruction,” his abolitionist upbringing by moral crusader Benjamin Lundy.
Moral and educational and uplift suasion failed miserably in stopping the
astounding growth of slavery in the age of King Cotton before the Civil War. But success, apparently, does not matter when a strategy stems from an ideology. Moral and educational suasion focus on persuading White people, on appealing to their moral conscience through horror and their logical mind through education. But what if racist ideas make people illogical? What if persuading everyday White people is not persuading racist policymakers? What if racist policymakers know about the harmful outcomes of their policies? What if racist policymakers have neither morals nor conscience, let alone moral conscience, to paraphrase Malcolm X? What if no group in history has gained their freedom through appealing to the moral conscience of their oppressors, to paraphrase Assata Shakur? What if economic, political, or cultural self-interest drives racist policymakers, not hateful immorality, not ignorance?
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do that,” President Abraham Lincoln wrote on August 20, 1862. “What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.” On January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation as a “
necessary war measure.” After winning the Civil War, racist Republicans (to distinguish from the less numerous antiracist Republicans) voted to establish the Freedmen’s Bureau, reconstruct the South, and extend civil rights and voting privileges to create a loyal Southern Republican base and secure Black people in the South far away from northern Whites, who “
want nothing to do with the negroes,” as Illinois senator Lyman Trumbull, one of the laws’ main sponsors, said.
The “White man’s party,” as Trumbull identified the Republican Party, grew “tired” of alienating their racist constituents by
militarily defending the Negro from the racist terrorists who knocked Republicans out of Southern power by 1877. Republicans left Southern Blacks behind, turning their backs on the “outrages” of Jim Crow for nearly a century. “
Expediency on selfish grounds, and not right with reference to the claims of our common humanity, has controlled our action,” Garrison lamented in an address for the centennial of Independence Day, in 1876.
1934, W.E.B. Du Bois critically assessed the success of educational suasion, as Garrison had critically assessed moral suasion before him: “
For many years it was the theory of most Negro leaders…that white America did not know of or realize the continuing plight of the Negro.” Du Bois spoke for himself, believing “the ultimate evil was stupidity” early in his career. “Accordingly, for the last two decades, we have striven by book and periodical, by speech and appeal, by various dramatic methods of agitation, to put the essential facts before the American people. Today there can be no doubt that Americans know the facts; and yet they remain for the most part indifferent and unmoved.”
Gunnar Myrdal ignored Du Bois’s 1934 call for Black people to focus on accruing power instead of persuading White people. The racism problem lay in the “
astonishing ignorance” of White Americans, Myrdal advised in
An American Dilemma
in 1944. “
There is no doubt, in the writer’s opinion, that a great majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts.”
Popular history tells us that a great majority of White Americans did give the Negro a better deal—the desegregation rulings, Civil Rights Act (1964), and Voting Rights Act (1965)—when they learned the facts. “
Gunnar Myrdal had been astonishingly prophetic,” according to one captivating history of the civil-rights movement. Not entirely. As early as 1946, top State Department official Dean Acheson warned the Truman administration that the “existence of
discrimination against minority groups in this country has an adverse effect on our relations” with decolonizing Asian and African and Latin American nations. The Truman administration repeatedly briefed the U.S. Supreme Court on these adverse effects during desegregation cases in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as historian Mary L. Dudziak documents. Not to mention the racist abuse African diplomats faced in the United States. In 1963, Secretary of State Dean Rusk warned Congress during the consideration of the Civil Rights Act that “
in waging this world struggle we are seriously handicapped by racial or religious discrimination.” Seventy-eight percent of White Americans agreed in a Harris Poll.