Book Review: How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Whenever I review a nonfiction book like How to Be an Antiracist I always feel as though I’m in at least a small part also writing an informational and educational essay about the subject of the book, rather than simply reviewing the book itself. In large part that’s because when reviewing a nonfiction book, I’m not just evaluating the quality of a fictional narrative, but I’m evaluating the quality of dissemination of knowledge, and in the case of books like How to Be an Antiracist, the knowledge that is being disseminated is not only powerful and important, but also at times high-context. By high-context I mean that a mere summary of the book often fails in conveying the depth of the book’s message and merit, and if not handled carefully can cloud the meaning of the text. Bearing this in mind, the result is often that I feel that I have a duty to my readers to make sure that everything I talk about in the review is as accessible as possible.
The need to meet people where they are at is something that Kendi talks about at various points within the text, particularly with regard to how he oftentimes makes a point to use terminology that he knows people will understand, even if it is not the preferred, more academic, term he would use when speaking freely. How to Be an Antiracist is a book wherein Kendi embraces his own failures and the places where he has made mistakes throughout his life. I have rarely read a book wherein someone was so unflinchingly brutal in their characterization of a past self and their foolish and harmful actions done out of self-righteous ignorance, and yet so generous with that past self’s capacity for growth.
There are a great many things I admire about How to Be an Antiracist. The book is systematic in its appraisal of racism and antiracism, and the frameworks laid out are informative and actionable. In many ways the book is a great companion to the book I previously reviewed here by Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning, which was a more thorough historical text, but didn’t contain a great deal of action items. This is something that Kendi himself calls attention to in How to Be an Antiracist — he spends a portion of the book discussing how an important part of his growth was the feedback he got from readers of Stamped From the Beginning who asked him the tough questions about what he was doing to combat racism, apart from talking about it. This is because in order to effectively make change, one has to do more than just talk. That important lesson is something that How to Be an Antiracist really teases out in the best way, because this book is about more than talking, it’s about doing. I particularly appreciated the way that Kendi discussed activism, and established a clear way to distinguish between protesting and demonstrating, and how movements can fail when there is not a clear signal as to which is being enacted.
Another way that How to Be an Antiracist differs from Stamped From the Beginning is in how it calls attention to issues of sexuality and gender in a more established way, which is something that I found lacking in Stamped From the Beginning. Kendi makes note of how racism is inextricably tied to gender discrimination and homophobia, and particularly calls out transphobia and the plight of trans women of color. These were all acknowledged in Stamped From the Beginning, but because that text was so comprehensive, the nuance that is allowed for in How to Be an Antiracist was lacking in Kendi’s previous text.
And yet all is not perfect. There was no mention of nonbinary folx in the text, and I took issue with was the strict framing of people as being either Black or White or Asian or Latinx, etc. I understand the logic to this; in a book discussing racism and antiracism it is useful to have everyone fit into racial groups. And there is within the book an excellent chapter surrounding color, and the need for equity between Light people and Dark people. I really enjoyed that chapter. What I didn’t enjoy, was that throughout the rest of the book, discussion was very much in terms of what was true of “Black families” versus “White families.” And I understand that this isn’t a particular failing of Kendi specifically, but more that the statistics available are typically very — if you’ll pardon the pun — black and white. I simply wish that there had been the slightest acknowledgement of the existence of interracial families, and the fact that there was no data available (if that is in fact the case; I can’t be sure because of there being no mention either way.)
What I was most disturbed by in How to Be an Antiracist was the incredibly ableist language that was used to frame the discussion of capitalism and racism as “conjoined twins,” which detracted from otherwise solid arguments and made that section of the book disquieting and almost impossible to grapple with, because for all that I understood the metaphor Kendi was using, I found the conflation of a biological phenomenon that is heavily fetishized and discriminated against with systems of oppression that Kendi was in the act of denouncing to be quite frankly disgusting. This section of the book, more than anything, shows that there is always more work to do.
Which brings be to what I said before, which is that throughout the text I did admire how much of this book is about Kendi sharing his own personal journey toward becoming an antiracist. Because being an antiracist is difficult in the world that we have found ourselves in, and Kendi acknowledges that, and the proof is readily available, especially in the fact that I was able to find the above things to critique about the text. What Kendi teaches us here is that there is no one way to be an antiracist, and furthermore that the journey toward being an antiracist is meaningful and that it’s worth every step we take on it.
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