Ibram X. Kendi Explains How to Not Be a Racist

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National conversations surrounding racism and racial divides are at their most potent in decades. On Monday, October 23, Bates College joined this conversation with Ibram X. Kendi, a Professor of International Relations and History at American University and author of the National Book-award winning opus, Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. The talk, titled “How to be an Antiracist,” was hosted by the Office of Equity and Diversity in Gomes Chapel with pews upon pews packed with Bates students, professors, and Lewiston residents alike.

Kendi was preceded by both Clayton Spencer and Professor Christopher Petrella, both of whom offered quick appraisals of the work and how it adds to the conversation on American white supremacy. Kendi, in his opening remarks, praised the city of Lewiston for the strides it has made towards integrating the migrant population. According to Kendi, “Lewiston is moving towards anti-racism; Maine and its governor, I’m not so sure,” to which the audience laughed candidly.

Armed with nothing but his sharp rhetoric and casual humor, Kendi’s lecture lasted roughly ninety minutes. At his speech’s commencement, Kendi admitted that writing Stamped changed his understanding of what it means to be racist and how ideas of white’s superiority became thought of as common sense. In his book, Kendi defines a racist idea as “any concept that states one racial group is superior to another.” For Kendi, the history of racial progress has been met with the counteractively dual progression of racism. In other words, racists have innovated their ideas on how to legitimize oppression as time has marched on. “I used to assume that racists were just ignorant,” explained Kendi, “but the reality has been that racist ideas about biology and culture were created by elites and intellectuals to justify already existing systems.”

Kendi made it clear that many of these elites were not ignorant, and some were not even necessarily bigoted: “They were, however, intent on defending existing policies and inequalities to maintain their self-interest.” He then elaborated on how conversations about race get muddled for so many people; they are viewed as dichotomies of “racist” versus “not racist,” where being labeled racist is seen as a fixed characteristic.

To be anti-racist is quite simply the process of a person not believing, and out rightly rejecting, racist ideas, in Kendi’s view. This was the part of his speech in which he made direct calls to the audience to reevaluate what they had been taught about racism and how they view race in their quotidian lives.

Kendi divided racist ideas into three schools of thought: biological, assimilationist, and behavioral. Kendi described the long and troubling history of elites who perpetuated the ideas that black people were inferior to whites by genetic nature (i.e. biologically). Other racists have said that black people are held back by their regressive culture (“they need to assimilate to white customs”), or they cite statistics that say black people commit more crime (“it’s a behavioral problem.”) Kendi sharply countered these narratives by describing the history of racist pseudoscience, the philosophical weakness of critiquing another culture without exiting your own point of view and learning its intricacies, and the inherently unequal way by which we define and punish criminality.

The final part of the night consisted of question and answer with Petrella dashing around Gomes with a microphone. Students and Lewiston residents alike were eager to raise their hands, with one attendee asking if racism, as an idea, was nature or nurture. To this, Kendi punctually responded that “no one has ever proven that people are racist by nature. They’ve never found the ‘racism gene.’” Another attendee asked what we, as Bates students, can do to be more anti-racist on campus. “Look for disparities in institutions and don’t immediately blame individual people,” he suggested, adding in a later question that “in our circumstances, we need to focus on the production of racist ideas.”

Ultimately, Kendi beseeched the audience to understand that “people aren’t the problem; discrimination is. That is the goal of anti-racism.” The end of his speech was met with a well-earned standing ovation.

Ibram X. Kendi delivers speech on how to be an anti-racist PHYLLIS GRABER JENSEN/BATES COLLEGE

Ibram X. Kendi delivers speech on how to be an anti-racist. PHYLLIS GRABER JENSEN/BATES COLLEGE

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