Read How to Be an Antiracist Online

Authors: Ibram X. Kendi

How to Be an Antiracist (9 page)

I heard the booming rhymes of Queens’s finest: Nas, Salt-N-Pepa, Lost Boyz, A Tribe Called Quest, Onyx, and LL Cool J’s “Hey lover, hey lover / This is more than a crush”; and a couple of Brooklyn cats like Biggie Smalls and the whole Junior M.A.F.I.A. and the newbie Jay-Z; and that ill Staten Island crew, the Wu-Tang Clan, learning “life is hell / living in the world no different from a cell”; and that Harlem genius, Big L; and those guads from outside the city, from Queen Latifah setting it off, to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony fast-rapping—“Wake up, wake up, wake up it’s the first of tha month”—to Tupac Shakur writing a letter to his mama. I related when Tupac confessed, “I hung around with the thugs, and even though they sold drugs / They showed a young brother love.”

Hip-hop has had the most sophisticated vocabulary of any American musical genre. I read endlessly its poetic text. But parents and grandparents did not see us listening to and memorizing gripping works of oral poetry and urban reporting and short stories and autobiographies and sexual boasting and adventure fantasies. They saw—and still see—words that would lead my mind into deviance. “By reinforcing the stereotypes that long hindered blacks, and by teaching young blacks that a thuggish adversarial stance is the properly ‘authentic’ response to a presumptively racist society,
rap retards black success,” linguist John McWhorter once claimed. C. Delores Tucker campaigned against rap in the mid-1990s. “
You can’t listen to all that language and filth without it affecting you,” Tucker liked to say—just like our parents and grandparents liked to say. The sixty-six-year-old chair of the National Political Congress of Black Women, the venerable veteran of the civil rights movement, kept coming at us like a Biggie Smalls battle rap.

we left Queens, left the Ave behind, to start our new life in the South. At the end of a school day sometime in the fall of 1997, I nervously made my way to the gymnasium to see who’d made the cut for Stonewall Jackson High School’s junior-varsity basketball team.

I walked over to the gym alone. I hated being alone all the time. I did not have any friends at my new high school in Manassas, Virginia. I’d arrived weeks before at our new house in a predominantly White suburban neighborhood. Manassas wasn’t the Deep South, but it was unquestionably south of Jamaica, Queens. Our first night there, I stayed up all night, occasionally looking out the window, worried the Ku Klux Klan would arrive any minute. Why did Aunt Rena have to move here and entice my parents?

The word had spread quickly in school that the quiet, skinny kid wearing baggy clothes, Air Force 1s, and Tims, with a weird accent and a slow strut, was from New York. Girls and boys alike were fascinated—but not necessarily reaching out to be my friend. Basketball was my only companion.

I opened a door to the gym, walked slowly across the dark court to the other side, and came upon the JV list. I confidently looked for my name. I did not see it. Startled, I looked again, pointing my index finger as I slowly read each name. I did not see my name.

Tears welled up. I turned around and fast-walked away, holding back my tears. I made my way to the school bus and plopped down like I’ve never plopped down on a seat before.

My sadness about being cut was overwhelmed by a deeper agony: Not making the team had fully cut off my one route to finding friends in my new school. I was suffering but held it together on my short walk home from the bus stop.

When I opened the front door, I saw Dad coming down the stairs of our split-level home—I stepped inside and fell into his surprised arms. We sat down together on the stairs, the front door still flung open. I cried uncontrollably, alarming my father. After a few minutes, I gathered myself and said, “I didn’t make the team,” only to start crying again and blurt out, “Now I’m never going to have any friends!”

Basketball had been life. It all changed when those tears finally passed.

was an intuitive believer in multiculturalism, unlike assimilationist sociologists such as
Nathan Glazer, who lamented the idea in his book that year,
We Are All Multiculturalists Now
. I opposed racist ideas that belittled the cultures of urban Black people, of hip-hop—of me. I sensed that to ridicule the Black cultures I knew—urban culture, hip-hop culture—would be to ridicule myself.

At the same time, though, as an urban Black Northerner, I looked down on the cultures of non-urban Blacks, especially Southerners, the very people I was now surrounded by. I measured their beloved go-go music—then popular in D.C. and Virginia—against what I considered to be the gold standard of Black music, Queens hip-hop, and despised it like C. Delores Tucker despised hip-hop. The guys in Virginia could not dress. I hated their Ebonics. I thought the basketball players were scrubs who I had to patronize, a belief that cost me the spot on the JV squad. I walked around during those early months at Stonewall Jackson with an unspoken arrogance. I suspect potential friends heard my nonverbal cues of snobbery and rightly stayed away.

When we refer to a group as Black or White or another racial identity—Black Southerners as opposed to Southerners—we are racializing that group. When we racialize any group and then render that group’s culture inferior, we are articulating cultural racism. When I defended Black culture in my mind, I was treating culture in a general sense, not a specific sense, just as I understood race in a general sense, not a specific sense. I knew it was wrong to say Black people were culturally inferior. But I was quick to judge specific Black cultures practiced by specific Black racial groups. Judging the culture I saw in Manassas from the cultural standards of Black New York was no different than White New York judging Black New York from White New York’s cultural standards. That is no different than White America judging Latinx America from White America’s cultural standards. That is no different than Europe judging the rest of the world from European cultural standards, which is where the problem started, back during the so-called Age of Enlightenment.

That every practice and sentiment is barbarous, which is not according to the usages of modern Europe, seems to be a fundamental maxim with many of our critics and philosophers,” wrote critical Scottish Enlightenment philosopher James Beattie in 1770. “Their remarks often put us in mind of the fable of the man and the lion.” In the fable, a man and lion travel together, arguing over who is superior. They pass a statue that shows a lion strangled by a man. The man says, “See there! How strong we are, and how we prevail over even the king of beasts.” The lion replies, “This statue was made by one of you men. If we lions knew how to erect statues, you would see the man placed under the paw of the lion.” Whoever creates the cultural standard usually puts themself at the top of the hierarchy.

All cultures must be judged in relation to their own history, and all individuals and groups in relation to their cultural history, and definitely not by the arbitrary standard of any single culture,” wrote Ashley Montagu in 1942, a clear expression of cultural relativity, the essence of cultural antiracism. To be antiracist is to see all cultures in all their differences as on the same level, as equals. When we see cultural difference, we are seeing cultural difference—nothing more, nothing less.

It took me a while. Months of loneliness—really almost two years, if we are talking about making true friends. But I slowly but surely started to respect African American culture in Northern Virginia. I slowly but surely came down from the clouds of my culturally racist conceit. But I could not rise above my behaviorally racist insecurity.


One who is making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and making racial groups responsible for the behavior of individuals.

One who is making racial group behavior fictional and individual behavior real.

friends, an interracial group who arrived just as my old gear from the Ave became too small for my growing body. I lost the purity of my New York accent and jump shot, but I found living, breathing, laughing friends, like Chris, Maya, Jovan, and Brandon.

My schoolwork did not recover. I never bothered much with class back in Queens—I skipped classes at John Bowne to play spades in the lunchroom and tuned out teachers like they were bad commercials, doing just enough classwork to stay married to basketball. I was definitely not living up to my academic potential—and as a Black teenager in the nineties, my shortcomings didn’t go unnoticed or unjudged. The first to notice were the adults around me of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. As legal scholar James Forman Jr. documents, the civil-rights generation usually evoked Martin Luther King Jr. to shame us. “
Did Martin Luther King successfully fight the likes of Bull Connor so that we could ultimately lose the struggle for civil rights to misguided or malicious members of our own race?” asked Washington, D.C., prosecutor Eric Holder at an MLK birthday celebration in 1995. “
You are costing everybody’s freedom,” Jesse Jackson told a group of Alabama prisoners that year. “You can rise above this if you change your mind,” he added. “I appeal to you. Your mother appealed to you. Dr. King died for you.”

The so-called “first Black president” followed suit. “
It isn’t racist for Whites to say they don’t understand why people put up with gangs on the corner or in the projects or with drugs being sold in the schools or in the open,” said President Clinton in 1995. “It’s not racist for Whites to assert that the culture of welfare dependency, out of wedlock pregnancy, and absent fatherhood cannot be broken by social programs, unless there is first more personal responsibility.”

Black people needed to stop playing “race cards,” the phrase Peter Collier and David Horowitz used to brand “talk of race and racism” in 1997. The issue was personal irresponsibility.

Indeed, I was irresponsible in high school. It makes antiracist sense to talk about the personal irresponsibility of individuals like me of all races. I screwed up. I could have studied harder. But some of my White friends could have studied harder, too, and their failures and irresponsibility didn’t somehow tarnish their race.

My problems with personal irresponsibility were exacerbated—or perhaps even caused—by the additional struggles that racism added to my school life, from a history of disinterested, racist teachers, to overcrowded schools, to the daily racist attacks that fell on young Black boys and girls. There’s no question that I could have hurdled that racism and kept on running. But asking every nonathletic Black person to become an Olympic hurdler, and blaming them when they can’t keep up, is racist. One of racism’s harms is the way it falls on the unexceptional Black person who is asked to be extraordinary just to survive—and, even worse, the Black screwup who faces the abyss after one error, while the White screwup is handed second chances and empathy. This shouldn’t be surprising: One of the fundamental values of racism to White people is that it makes success attainable for even unexceptional Whites, while success, even moderate success, is usually reserved for extraordinary Black people.

How do we think about my young self, the C or D student, in antiracist terms? The truth is that I should be critiqued as a student—I was undermotivated and distracted and undisciplined. In other words, a bad student. But I shouldn’t be critiqued as a bad
student. I did not represent my race any more than my irresponsible White classmates represented their race. It makes racist sense to talk about personal irresponsibility as it applies to an entire racial group. Racial-group behavior is a figment of the racist’s imagination. Individual behaviors can shape the success of individuals. But policies determine the success of groups. And it is racist power that creates the policies that cause racial inequities.

Making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and making whole racial groups responsible for the behavior of individuals are the two ways that behavioral racism infects our perception of the world. In other words, when we believe that a racial group’s seeming success or failure redounds to each of its individual members, we’ve accepted a racist idea. Likewise, when we believe that an individual’s seeming success or failure redounds to an entire group, we’ve accepted a racist idea. These two racist ideas were common currency in the 1990s. Progressive Americans—the ones who self-identified as “not racist”—had abandoned biological racism by the mid-1990s. They had gone further: Mostly they’d abandoned ethnic racism, bodily racism, and cultural racism. But they were still sold on behavioral racism. And they carried its torch unwaveringly, right up to the present.

The same behavioral racism drove many of the Trump voters whom these same “not racist” progressives vociferously opposed in the 2016 election. They, too, ascribed qualities to entire groups—these were voters whose political choice correlated with their belief that Black people are ruder, lazier, stupider, and crueler than White people. “
America’s Black community…has turned America’s major cities into slums because of laziness, drug use, and sexual promiscuity,” fancied Reverend Jamie Johnson, director of a faith-based center in Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, after the election. “Although black civil rights leaders like to point to a supposedly racist criminal justice system to explain why our prisons house so many black men, it’s been
obvious for decades that the real culprit is black behavior,” argued Jason Riley in 2016.

Every time someone racializes behavior—describes something as “Black behavior”—they are expressing a racist idea. To be an antiracist is to recognize there is no such thing as racial behavior. To be an antiracist is to recognize there is no such thing as Black behavior, let alone irresponsible Black behavior. Black behavior is as fictitious as Black genes. There is no “Black gene.” No one has ever scientifically established a single “Black behavioral trait.” No evidence has ever been produced, for instance, to prove that Black people are louder, angrier, nicer, funnier, lazier, less punctual, more immoral, religious, or dependent; that Asians are more subservient; that Whites are greedier. All we have are stories of individual behavior. But individual stories are only proof of the behavior of individuals. Just as race doesn’t exist biologically, race doesn’t exist behaviorally.

But what about the argument that clusters of Black people in the South, or Asian Americans in New York’s Chinatown, or White people in the Texas suburbs seem to behave in ways that follow coherent, definable cultural practices? Antiracism means separating the idea of a culture from the idea of behavior. Culture defines a group tradition that a particular racial group might share but that is not shared among all individuals in that racial group or among all racial groups. Behavior defines the inherent human traits and potential that everyone shares. Humans are intelligent and lazy, even as that intelligence and laziness might appear differently across the racialized cultural groups.

it differently from antiracists, and even from each other. In the decades before the Civil War, behavioral racists argued over whether it was freedom or slavery that caused supposed mediocre Black behavior. To proslavery theorists, Black behavioral deficiencies stemmed from freedom, either in Africa or among emancipated slaves in America. In the states that “retained the ancient relation” between White mastery and Black slavery, Blacks “
had improved greatly in every respect—in numbers, comfort, intelligence, and morals,” Secretary of State John C. Calhoun explained to a British critic in 1844. This proslavery position held after slavery.
Freed Blacks “cut off from the spirit of White society”—their civilizing masters—had degenerated into the “original African type,” with behavioral traits ranging from hypersexuality, immorality, criminality, and laziness to poor parenting, Philip Alexander Bruce maintained in his popular 1889 book,
The Plantation Negro as a Freeman

In contrast, abolitionists, including Benjamin Rush in 1773, argued, “
All the vices which are charged upon the Negroes in the southern colonies and the West-Indies, such as Idleness, Treachery, Theft, and the like, are the genuine offspring of slavery.” A year later, Rush founded the budding nation’s first White antislavery society. Prefacing Frederick Douglass’s slave narrative in 1845, abolitionist William Lloyd
Garrison stated that slavery degraded Black people “in the scale of humanity….Nothing has been left undone to cripple their intellects, darken their minds, debase their moral nature, obliterate all traces of their relationship to mankind.”

Abolitionists—or, rather, progressive assimilationists—conjured what I call the oppression-inferiority thesis. In their well-meaning efforts to persuade Americans about the horrors of oppression, assimilationists argue that oppression has degraded the behaviors of oppressed people.

This belief extended into the period after slavery. In his address to the founding meeting of Alexander Crummell’s American Negro Academy in 1897, W.E.B. Du Bois pictured “
the first and greatest step toward the settlement of the present friction between the races…lies in the correction of the immorality, crime, and laziness among the Negroes themselves, which still remains as a heritage of slavery.” This framing of slavery as a demoralizing force was the mirror image of the
Jim Crow historian’s framing of slavery as a civilizing force. Both positions led Americans toward behavioral racism: Black behavior demoralized by freedom—or freed Black behavior demoralized by slavery.

The latest expression of the oppression-inferiority thesis is known as post-traumatic slave syndrome, or PTSS.
Black “infighting,” materialism, poor parenting, colorism, defeatism, rage—these “dysfunctional” and “negative” behaviors “as well as many others are in large part related to trans-generational adaptations associated with the past traumas of slavery and on-going oppression,” maintains psychologist Joy DeGruy in her 2005 book,
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
. (Some people believe, based on misleading studies, that these trans-generational adaptations are genetic.)

DeGruy claimed “many, many” African Americans suffer from PTSS. She built this theory on anecdotal evidence and modeled it on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But studies show that many, many people who endure traumatic environments don’t contract post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers found that among soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan,
PTSD rates ranged from 13.5 to 30 percent.

Black individuals have, of course, suffered trauma from slavery and ongoing oppression. Some individuals throughout history have exhibited negative behaviors related to this trauma. DeGruy is a hero for ushering the constructs of trauma, damage, and healing into our understanding of Black life. But there is a thin line between an antiracist saying individual Blacks have suffered trauma and a racist saying Blacks are a traumatized people. There is similarly a thin line between an antiracist saying slavery was debilitating and a racist saying Blacks are a debilitated people. The latter constructions erase whole swaths of history: for instance, the story of even the first generation of emancipated Black people, who moved straight from plantations into the Union army, into politics, labor organizing, Union leagues, artistry, entrepreneurship, club building, church building, school building, community building—buildings more commonly razed by the fiery hand of racist terrorism than by any self-destructive hand of behavioral deficiencies derived from the trauma of slavery.

Increasingly in the twentieth century, social scientists replaced slavery with segregation and discrimination as the oppressive hand ravaging Black behavior. Psychoanalysts Abram Kardiner and Lionel Ovesey expressed this alarm in their 1951 tome,
The Mark of Oppression: A Psychosocial Study of the American Negro
. “
There is not one personality trait of the Negro the source of which cannot be traced to his difficult living conditions,” they wrote. “The final result is a wretched internal life,” a crippled “self-esteem,” a vicious “self-hatred,” “the conviction of unlovability, the diminution of affectivity, and the uncontrolled hostility.” Widely taken as scientific fact, these sweeping generalizations were based on the authors’ interviews with all of twenty-five subjects.

Black teenager in the nineties, I felt suffocated by a sense of being judged, primarily by the people I was closest to: other Black people, particularly older Black people who worried over my entire generation. The Black judge in my mind did not leave any room for the mistakes of Black individuals—I didn’t just have to deal with the consequences of my personal failings, I had the added burden of letting down the entire race. Our mistakes were generalized as the mistakes of the race. It seemed that White people were free to misbehave, make mistakes. But if we failed—or failed to be twice as good—then the Black judge handed down a hard sentence. No probation or parole. There was no middle ground—we were either King’s disciples or thugs killing King’s dream.

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