Authors: Ibram X. Kendi
Martin dodged puddles on his slow stroll home. He called his girlfriend. He talked and walked through the front gate (or took a shortcut) into the cluster of sandy-colored two-story townhouses. As in many neighborhoods during the Great Recession, investors had been buying foreclosed properties and renting them out. With renters came unfamiliar faces, transient faces, and racists who connected the presence of Black teenagers with the “rash” of seven burglaries in 2011. They promptly organized a neighborhood-watch group.
The watch-group organizer was born a year after me, to a White Vietnam veteran and a Peruvian immigrant. Raised not far from where my family moved to in Manassas, Virginia, George Zimmerman moved to Florida as I did, after graduating high school. His assault conviction and domestic-violence accusations altered his plans to be a police officer. But nothing altered his conviction that the Black body—and not his own—was the criminal in his midst.
Zimmerman decided to run an errand. He hopped in his truck, his licensed slim 9-millimeter handgun tucked in a holster in his waistband. He drove. He noticed a hooded Black teenager walking through the complex. He dialed 911. The Black body’s presence, a crime. The historic crime of racist ideas.
plan for my second book to be a history of racist ideas, as Zimmerman zeroed in on what could have been any Black male body, as he zeroed in on the teenager President Obama thought “could have been my son.” After my first book,
on the Black Campus Movement, I planned to research the student origins of Black studies in the 1960s. Then I realized that Black students were demanding Black studies because they considered all the existing disciplines to be racist. That the liberal scholars dominating those disciplines were refusing to identify their assimilationist ideas as racist. That they were identifying as not-racist, like the segregationists they were calling racist. That Black students were calling them both racist, redefining racist ideas. I wanted to write a long history using Black students’ redefinition of racist ideas. But the daunting task scared me, like Zimmerman’s glare scared Martin.
Martin called a friend and told his friend he was being followed. He picked up the pace. “Hey, we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood,”
Zimmerman told the 911 dispatcher. “And there’s a real suspicious guy. This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something….A dark hoodie, like a gray hoodie.” He asked how long it would take for an officer to get there, because “these assholes, they always get away.”
Martin ran. Zimmerman leapt out of his car in pursuit, gun at his waist, phone in hand. The dispatcher told him to stop. Zimmerman ended the call and caught up to Martin, a dozen or so minutes after 7:00
Only one person living knows exactly what happened next: Zimmerman, probably fighting to “apprehend” the “criminal.” Martin probably fighting off the actual criminal for his life. Zimmerman squeezing the trigger and ending Martin’s life. Claiming self-defense to save his own life. A jury agreeing, on July 13, 2013.
typed “Black Lives Matter” into the mourning nights, into the Black caskets piling up before her as people shouted all those names from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown to Sandra Bland to Korryn Gaines. The deaths and accusations and denials and demonstrations and deaths—it all gave me the strength each day to research for
Stamped from the Beginning
By the summer of 2012, I was finding and tagging every racist idea I could find from history. Racist ideas piled up before me like trash at a landfill. Tens of thousands of pages of Black people being trashed as natural or nurtured beasts, devils, animals, rapists, slaves, criminals, kids, predators, brutes, idiots, prostitutes, cheats, and dependents. More than five hundred years of toxic ideas on the Black body. Day after week, week after month, month after year, oftentimes twelve hours a day for three horrifically long years, I waded through this trash, consumed this trash, absorbed its toxicity, before I released a tiny portion of this trash onto the page.
All that trash, ironically, cleansed my mind if it did not cleanse my gut. While collecting this trash, I realized I had been unwittingly doing so my whole life. Some I had tossed away after facing myself in the mirror. Some trash remained. Like the dirty bags or traces of “them niggers” and “White people are devils” and “servile Asians” and “terrorist Middle Easterners” and “dangerous Black neighborhoods” and “weak Natives” and “angry Black women” and “invading Latinx” and “irresponsible Black mothers” and “deadbeat Black fathers.” A mission to uncover and critique America’s life of racist ideas turned into a mission to uncover and critique my life of racist ideas, which turned into a lifelong mission to be antiracist.
It happens for me in successive steps, these steps to be an antiracist.
I stop using the “I’m not a racist” or “I can’t be racist” defense of denial.
I admit the definition of racist (someone who is supporting racist policies or expressing racist ideas).
I confess the racist policies I support and racist ideas I express.
I accept their source (my upbringing inside a nation making us racist).
I acknowledge the definition of antiracist (someone who is supporting antiracist policies or expressing antiracist ideas).
I struggle for antiracist power and policy in my spaces. (Seizing a policymaking position. Joining an antiracist organization or protest. Publicly donating my time or privately donating my funds to antiracist policymakers, organizations, and protests fixated on changing power and policy.)
I struggle to remain at the antiracist intersections where racism is mixed with other bigotries. (Eliminating racial distinctions in biology and behavior. Equalizing racial distinctions in ethnicities, bodies, cultures, colors, classes, spaces, genders, and sexualities.)
I struggle to think with antiracist ideas. (Seeing racist policy in racial inequity. Leveling group differences. Not being fooled into generalizing individual negativity. Not being fooled by misleading statistics or theories that blame people for racial inequity.)
Racist ideas fooled me nearly my whole life. I refused to allow them to continue making a fool out of me, a chump out of me, a slave out of me. I realized there is nothing wrong with any of the racial groups and everything wrong with individuals like me who think there is something wrong with any of the racial groups. It felt so good to cleanse my mind.
But I did not cleanse my body. I kept most of the toxic trash in my gut between 2012 and 2015. Did not talk about most of it. Tried to laugh it off. Did not address the pain of feeling the racist ideas butchering my Black body for centuries. But how could I worry about my body as I stared at police officers butchering the Black body almost every week on my cellphone? How could I worry about my body when racists blamed the dead, when the dead’s loved ones cried and raged and numbed?
How could I worry about my suffering while Sadiqa suffered?
rarely sat on the rounded cream sofa in our new home in Providence. But our nerves brought us into the living room on this day in late August 2013.
We’d moved in weeks before as newlyweds. We eloped and changed our last names together months before, in a picturesque affair captured in
Bridal Bliss” column. Sadiqa’s gold dress and red accessories and cowrie-shell adornments and regal aura sitting on her throne of a peninsula beach as the waves bowed under the colorful sunset were all so sublime.
Still high from the pictures, we were crashing down now. We held hands, waiting for the phone call from the radiologist who performed the ultrasound and biopsy. A week prior, Sadiqa told me about the lump. She did not think much of it, probably knowing that 93 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer are over forty years old. She was thirty-four. But she obliged my requests to see a doctor that day. The phone rang. We jumped as if we were watching a horror flick. On speakerphone, the doctor said Sadiqa had invasive breast cancer.
Minutes later, we were upstairs. Sadiqa could not do it. I had to call and tell a mother who had lost a daughter that her living daughter had cancer. I stood in our guest room as her mother let out a wail, as Sadiqa wailed in our bedroom, as I wailed in my mind.
The wailing soon stopped, if the worry encircling and suffocating my wife did not. Sadiqa surveyed the fight ahead. Surgery to remove the lump. Chemotherapy to prevent a recurrence. Close monitoring to notice and treat a recurrence.
Sadiqa had time before surgery. We decided to freeze embryos in case the chemotherapy harmed her ovaries. The process dangerously overstimulated her ovaries, filling her abdomen with fluid, causing a blood clot. We slept in the hospital for a week as she recovered. All before her cancer fight.
The blood clot made doing surgery first too dangerous. Chemotherapy came first, which meant three months of watching and feeling her anguish. She was a foodie who couldn’t really taste her food. She had to push through chronic fatigue to exercise. She’d just completed twelve years of medical training, but now instead of seeing patients, she’d become one herself. It was like training hard for a marathon and getting sick steps into the race. But she kept running: through chemotherapy, through three surgeries, through another year of less toxic chemotherapy. And she won.
separating Sadiqa’s cancer from the racism I studied. The two consumed my life over the final months of 2013 and during the better part of 2014 and 2015. Months after Sadiqa survived stage-2 breast cancer, Ma was diagnosed with stage-1 breast cancer. She endured radiation and a lumpectomy in 2015. Those years were all about caretaking Sadiqa, helping Dad caretake Ma, and—when they were sleeping or enjoying company or desiring alone time—retreating from the pain of their cancer into the stack of racist ideas I’d collected.
Over time, the source of racist ideas became obvious, but I had trouble acknowledging it. The source did not fit my conception of racism, my racial ideology, my racial identity. I became a college professor to educate away racist ideas, seeing ignorance as the source of racist ideas, seeing racist ideas as the source of racist policies, seeing mental change as the principal solution, seeing myself, an educator, as the primary solver.
Watching Sadiqa’s courage to break down her body to rebuild her body inspired me to accept the source of racist ideas I found while researching their entire history—even though it upended my previous way of thinking. My research kept pointing me to the same answer: The source of racist ideas was not ignorance and hate, but self-interest.
The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policymakers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume those racist ideas, which in turn sparks ignorance and hate. Treating ignorance and hate and expecting racism to shrink suddenly seemed like treating a cancer patient’s symptoms and expecting the tumors to shrink. The body politic might feel better momentarily from the treatment—from trying to eradicate hate and ignorance—but as long as the underlying cause remains, the tumors grow, the symptoms return, and inequities spread like cancer cells, threatening the life of the body politic. Educational and moral suasion is not only a failed strategy. It is a suicidal strategy.
HIS MESSAGE OF
focusing on policy change over mental change was written in my next book,
Stamped from the Beginning
. After the book came out in 2016, I took this message on the road from our new home at the University of Florida. I talked about racist policies leading to racist ideas, not the other way around, as we have commonly thought. I talked about eliminating racist policies if we ever hope to eliminate racist ideas. I talked and talked, unaware of my new hypocrisy, which readers and attendees picked up on. “What are
doing to change policy?” they kept asking me in public and private.
I started questioning myself. What am I doing to change policy? How can I genuinely urge people to focus on changing policy if I am not focused on changing policy? Once again, I had to confront and abandon a cherished idea.
I did not need to forsake antiracist research and education. I needed to forsake my orientation to antiracist research and education. I had to forsake the suasionist bred into me, of researching and educating for the sake of changing minds. I had to start researching and educating to change policy. The former strategy produces a public scholar. The latter
produces public scholarship.
N THE SUMMER
of 2017, I moved to American University in the nation’s capital to found and direct the Antiracist Research and Policy Center. My research in the history of racism and antiracism revealed that scholars, policy experts, journalists, and advocates had been crucial in successfully replacing racist policy with antiracist policy.
I envisioned building residential fellowship programs and bringing to Washington dream teams of scholars, policy experts, journalists, and advocates, who would be assisted by classrooms of students from the nation’s most politically active student body. The teams would focus on the most critical and seemingly intractable racial inequities. They would investigate the racist policies causing racial inequity, innovate antiracist policy correctives, broadcast the research and policy correctives, and engage in campaigns of change that work with antiracist power in locales to institute and test those policy correctives before rolling them out nationally and internationally.
HESE TEAMS WOULD
model some of the steps we can all take to eliminate racial inequity in our spaces.
Admit racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people.
Identify racial inequity in all its intersections and manifestations.
Investigate and uncover the racist policies causing racial inequity.
Invent or find antiracist policy that can eliminate racial inequity.
Figure out who or what group has the power to institute antiracist policy.
Disseminate and educate about the uncovered racist policy and antiracist policy correctives.
Work with sympathetic antiracist policymakers to institute the antiracist policy.
Deploy antiracist power to compel or drive from power the unsympathetic racist policymakers in order to institute the antiracist policy.
Monitor closely to ensure the antiracist policy reduces and eliminates racial inequity.
When policies fail, do not blame the people. Start over and seek out new and more effective antiracist treatments until they work.
Monitor closely to prevent new racist policies from being instituted.
On the September night I unveiled the vision of the Antiracism Center before my peers at American University, racist terror unveiled its vision, too. After my presentation, during my late-night class, an unidentified, middle-aged, hefty White male, dressed in construction gear, posted
copies of Confederate flags with cotton balls inside several buildings. He posted them on the bulletin boards outside my classroom. The timing did not seem coincidental. I ignored my fears and pressed on during the final months of 2017. This wasn’t the only thing I put out of my mind. I also ignored my weight loss and pressed on. It became annoying going in and out of bathrooms only to produce nothing, only to still feel like I needed to go minutes later. But I felt I had more important matters to worry about. After all, White nationalists were running and terrorizing the United States and their power was spreading across the Western world.
I did not have a rejuvenating break during Thanksgiving. I was bedridden. The throwing up started and stopped after the weekend. The bloody diarrhea did not. It all became worse. By Christmas, things had become acute. I obliged when Sadiqa urged me to get myself checked out.
Neither the nurse practitioner nor Sadiqa thought it was anything serious. I was thirty-five, about half the median age for the worst possibility, colon cancer. I did not exhibit any of the risk factors for colon cancer, since I exercised, rarely drank, never smoked, and had been a vegan since Sadiqa and I made the change to help prevent a recurrence of her cancer. We scheduled a precautionary colonoscopy for January 10, 2018.
from the anesthesia early that morning. Cleaning out my colon had been an all-night affair. Sadiqa helped me put on my clothes in the small and dreary consultation room. No windows or striking colors or decorations, only pictures of the GI tract hanging on the walls. The Black woman doctor who’d performed the colonoscopy entered the room with a serious look on her face.
“I saw something abnormal,” she said, sitting down. “I saw a mass in the sigmoid colon. It is large and friable, and it is bleeding.” I looked at her in confusion, not knowing what she meant. Sadiqa looked at her in shock, knowing exactly what she meant.
She said she could not get her scope past the mass. It was obstructing the colon. “It is most likely cancerous,” she said.
She paused as my confusion converted into shock. I checked out of myself. Sadiqa had to speak for me, really listen for me. The doctor told me to get blood work that day and get my body scanned the next day to confirm the cancer. I did not know what to think or feel. And so I did not feel or think anything other than shock.
At one point, several minutes later, perhaps as someone drained me of blood, I thought about Professor Mazama. About when I told her Sadiqa’s diagnosis and asked, “Why her?”
“Why not her?” Professor Mazama responded.
Why not me?
I thought of Sadiqa and Ma and Dad’s cancer fights.
Why not me?
Why shouldn’t I be the one to die?
E LEFT THE
medical office in downtown Washington and headed for Busboys and Poets to meet Ma for breakfast. We sat down at the table. Ma had been waiting for a half hour. She asked why it took so long. I was still mute, looking down, up, away from anyone’s eyes. Sadiqa told Ma about the mass. That it was probably cancer. “Okay, if it is, we will deal with it,” Ma said. I looked up into her eyes, holding back tears. “We will deal with it,” she said again. I knew she was serious. “Yes, we will,” Sadiqa said, snatching my eyes.
Yes, we will,
I said to myself, absorbing their courage.
That night, I received more courage, when Sadiqa and I assumed we’d caught the cancer early. Probably stage 1 or 2. Perhaps 3. Not stage 4.
About 88 percent of people diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer die within five years.
The next day, they confirmed it. I had metastatic colon cancer. Stage 4.
Maybe we won’t be able to deal with it
UR WORLD IS
suffering from metastatic cancer. Stage 4. Racism has spread to nearly every part of the body politic, intersecting with bigotry of all kinds, justifying all kinds of inequities by victim blaming; heightening exploitation and misplaced hate; spurring mass shootings, arms races, and demagogues who polarize nations; shutting down essential organs of democracy; and threatening the life of human society with nuclear war and climate change. In the United States, the metastatic cancer has been spreading, contracting, and threatening to kill the American body as it nearly did before its birth, as it nearly did during its Civil War. But how many people stare inside the body of their nations’ racial inequities, their neighborhoods’ racial inequities, their occupations’ racial inequities, their institutions’ racial inequities, and flatly deny that their policies are racist? They flatly deny that racial inequity is the signpost of racist policy. They flatly deny the racist policy as they use racist ideas to justify the racial inequity. They flatly deny the cancer of racism as the cancer cells spread and literally threaten their own lives and the lives of the people and spaces and places they hold dear. The popular conception of denial—like the popular strategy of suasion—is suicidal.