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The limits of black and white thinking

Ibram X Kendi’s new book, How to Raise an Antiracist, is overly simplistic and dogmatic.

By Tomiwa Owolade

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this month, the broadcaster Amol Rajan gave the most misguided opinion on a book I have heard this year: he described Ibram X Kendi’s bestselling How to Be an Antiracist as “complex”. Kendi is many things, but he is not a complex thinker.

Regardless, he is venerated as the go-to thinker on racism. A professor of humanities and the founding director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, Kendi was last year awarded a MacArthur fellowship worth $625,000. Unofficially known as the “genius grant”, it is one of the most distinguished awards for intellectual excellence in the US.

His first prominent book, Stamped from the Beginning, was published in 2016 and won the American National Book Award for Nonfiction. It traced the origins of racist theories in the US, including assimilationism – the idea that in order for black people to be equal they need to assimilate into white mainstream society – and segregationism: that this is impossible because black people are inherently deficient.

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Everyone accepts that segregationism is evil, but Kendi’s novel insight in Stamped was that assimilationism is racist, too: to argue that black people need to assimilate into white society implies that there is something wrong with them. There is nothing wrong with black people. Racism is about bad policies, not bad people.

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How to Be an Antiracist, his 2019 follow-up, is a guide for anyone committed to antiracism, and it confirmed his status as an expert on the subject. Along with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Layla F Saad’s Me and White Supremacy, it was canonised in the summer of 2020 by many booksellers and social media influencers after the murder of George Floyd. In order to grasp the reality of racism, they implied, white people needed to educate themselves by reading the race experts.

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Kendi’s new book, How to Raise an Antiracist, is yet another variation on the theme of trying to understand and fight racism. In the past six years, in addition to Stamped from the Beginning and How to be an Antiracist, he has written the children’s books Antiracist Baby, a picture book illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky; Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism and You, in collaboration with the children’s author Jason Reynolds; and Goodnight Racism, which is illustrated by Cbabi Bayoc.

Throughout these books, his conclusion is the same: there is no such thing as a non-racist. You are either a racist or an antiracist. A racist, as he writes in How to Be an Antiracist, is someone “who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea”. An antiracist, meanwhile, is anyone “who is supporting an anti-racist policy through their actions or expressing an anti-racist idea”.

Racist ideas assert that differences between racial groups exist because some groups are better than others; antiracist ideas emphasise that differences between groups exist because of racist policies, and not because one racial group is superior to another. For instance, white Americans are ten times as wealthy as black Americans not because they are more naturally gifted, but because of racist policies that discriminate against black Americans.

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Kendi believes that understanding the differences between racist and antiracist policies is essential to understanding racism. As he writes in How to Raise an Antiracist: “One is supporting either policies that lead to racial equity or justice (as an antiracist) or policies that lead to racial inequity or injustice (as a racist).” He adds that “there’s no in-between equality and hierarchy; equity and hierarchy; justice and injustice”.

If you have read one Kendi book, you have read them all. And whether one agrees or disagrees with his arguments, they are the very opposite of complex. He thinks in binaries. For Kendi, there are no ambiguities when it comes to understanding racism, no shades of grey.

How to Be an Antiracist is a memoir of Kendi’s childhood and young adulthood. In his latest book, the focus has shifted to future generations, reflecting his newfound fatherhood. How can one protect the innocence of a child in a profoundly racist society? The answer he gives is straightforward: not by raising them to be indifferent to, or neutral about, race, but to be antiracist.

“Whether starting at birth, at five years old, at ten years old, at 15 years old,” Kendi writes, “any child can be raised to be antiracist.” Key to this is critical thinking: “To raise an antiracist is to raise a critical thinker,” he writes, “and to raise a critical thinker is to raise an antiracist.”

But what qualities define a critical thinker? According to Kendi, one needs “to be inquisitive on a range of issues, to trust the reasoning process of questioning and investigating and discovering and complicating, to be open to different thoughts and informed opinions, to be able to understand those differing opinions”, and also “to be capable of suspending or changing one’s own thinking on a topic”.

This definition is excellent, but Kendi has never demonstrated any aptitude for the qualities he lists. He is not interested in complicating, but in simplifying. He is not reflective or inquisitive, but dogmatic.

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He affirms that every racial disparity in the US can be explained fundamentally by racism. This is reductive. Nigerian-Americans and Indian-Americans, for example, both have higher median household incomes than white Americans. But a fact like this, according to Kendi’s thinking, is not because of class, education or cultural and economic differences between various ethnic groups. He views every inequality or social disparity in the US through the lens of race.

What is most striking, however, isn’t Kendi’s lack of sophistication. It is the exceptionally bland tone of the book. “If children can’t routinely make mistakes and learn from them, then how will humanity grow?” he asks. “Conceit and insecurity are the twin children of being racist,” he proclaims with faux-profundity.

Kendi’s confessional style has a luminous legacy in black American culture, from Ta-Nehisi Coates – the former Atlantic essayist who shares many of Kendi’s beliefs about the inexorable nature of racism in the US – to Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin. But unlike these writers, Kendi writes with neither passion nor eloquence.

Racism is such a sensitive issue that someone who can efficiently taxonomise it, transform it into a few binaries, appears a godsend: just read these books and learn how to be an antiracist! Kendi’s books, though, don’t deliver. Instead, they reinforce racial categories.

We are often told that we need to discuss racism more openly, but the popularity of a thinker such as Kendi illustrates how hollow this pronouncement is. It also reflects poorly on the broader state of our intellectual culture. We need to treat racism with greater sophistication, but in his books there is little room for insightful discussion or debate. Kendi doesn’t offer true illumination, only thought-terminating bromides.

How to Raise an Antiracist
Ibram X Kendi
Bodley Head, 288pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party