Ibram X Kendi Q&A: “Racism is harming white people and they don’t notice it”

The author discusses the writings of WEB Du Bois, watching Lovecraft Country and his admiration for Malcolm X.

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Ibram X Kendi was born in New York City in 1982. He is the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research and the author of books including the New York Times number one bestseller “How to Be an Antiracist”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being in my parents’ house in Queens, New York City, surrounded by all these plants. My mother had a huge green thumb and I felt like I was living in a forest.

 

Who are your heroes?

As a child, John Starks, a guard on the New York Knicks, the professional basketball team. He was smaller, he had to go up against Michael Jordan and he always stood up to him. As an adult, my hero is Malcolm X. He challenged black people and non-black people. He evolved over the course of his life and recognised the ways in which he had previously erred. He’s a prime example of the ability we have to change.

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What book last changed your thinking?

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee, which talks about how racism in the US is disproportionately harming people of colour, but it’s also harming white people and white people don’t realise it.

 

Which political figure do you look up to?

WEB Du Bois, who had the ability, even as a scholar, to write in a way that everyday people can understand and be moved by.

[See also: Carmen Maria Machado Q&A: “The Golden Girls is keeping me from losing my mind”]

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Defining racism. I spend my time understanding the totality – historically and currently – of racism, of racist ideas, of racist policies, of people who are racist, just so I can accurately define those terms.

 

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

In pre-colonial West Africa, before the emergence of racism and even of race, of blackness, as a concept. There were incredibly powerful empires such as Mali and Songhai that rivalled those in Europe, Asia and the Americas. I would have loved to live in that time rather than now, when it’s widely believed there’s something wrong with people of African descent.

[See also: Anne Marie Rafferty Q&A: “I consider myself a stem-cell Brownite”]

What TV show could you not live without?

I liked Watchmen, Lovecraft Country and I’m enjoying The Equalizer. But these aren’t shows I can’t live without.

 

Who would paint your portrait?

Kehinde Wiley or Kara Walker or Amy Sherald or Kerry James Marshall.

 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

That the mark of a person has to do with how they deal with adversity and difficulties and challenges.

 

What’s currently bugging you?

That we have bigotry, climate change and war threatening our existence and that too many humans, especially those in power, are agnostic about those threats.

 

What single thing would make your life better?

The obliteration and elimination of racism.

 

When were you happiest?

When I’m with my family and friends, just enjoying their presence.

 

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A lawyer, and in that other life our justice system would truly be just, and thereby I wouldn’t be battling against the law itself, as so many lawyers find themselves doing today, but I would be battling for justice.

 

Are we all doomed?

If we believe it, we will be. The fuel for change is believing change is possible. 

 

“Four Hundred Souls”, edited by Ibram X Kendi and Keisha N Blain, is published by the Bodley Head

This article appears in the 21 April 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical

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