Can a Black person be racist? In my humble opinion, the answer is no, because there is not a strong enough power structure in place to allow Black people to systemically, socially and physically oppress a complete racial or ethnic group. However, Black people are totally capable of perpetuating racist ideas — my family and myself included.
I have an uncle who blames all of his financial problems on Mexican people — that is a racist idea. I once graded a paper by an older Black student who argued that all the new rappers are dangerous, trigger-happy thugs –– that is a racist idea. And I recently made a joke about my distain for tardiness — praising myself for always getting to meetings early, while my colleagues stay on CPT— which is also a racist idea. Spreading that idea isn't right, even in the form of a joke.
I understand where these racist ideas come from; they are learned behaviors passed down from previous generations who were also raised on the same racist ideas. The beauty of learned behaviors is that you can unlearn them as well.
Ibram X. Kendi has dedicated his life to helping the world unlearn dangerous racist ideas that continue to hurt us all. Kendi is a National Book Award-winning and #1 New York Times bestselling author of 10 books and the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. In 2020, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The recognition and global praise has not derailed Kendi's mission. On this episode of "Salon Talks" he explained why it's important to continue to do anti-racist work and his latest book "How to Raise an Antiracist."
Watch my "Salon Talks" conversation with Kendi here or read the transcript below for Kendi's response to Sen. Ted Cruz mischaracterizing his book "Antiracist Baby" on the Senate floor and his plans for adapting his work for television.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
You are the top scholar on race in America. I have been watching your rise and watching the impact that your books have had on so many people. How do you gauge the success of the work that you've been doing?
One of the things that I've really tried to do through my work is to not only conduct a tremendous amount of historical research that would not only allow people to understand this nation's history of anti-Black racism, but also trying to point a way forward in a way that we can actively seek to deconstruct racism and thereby be anti-racist. I've really attempted to try to make my books and my work accessible to everyday people.
One of the reasons why I admire your work, D, is the way your books are just so accessible to regular folks. For me, I've been trying to ensure that everyday people can have an understanding of this larger complex structure of racism, but more importantly, have the language to understand it and express and imagine how they could and should be.
Seeing people, regular folks, reading the work and being impacted by the work and joining and organizing and pushing against racism, that's the reason why I do it. That's been exciting to see. Of course, it's also brought a tremendous amount of hate, but that's part of the work.
I got upset when I saw Ted Cruz using your book as a talking point. How did you process the experience of watching him display pages of your "Antiracist Baby" book during Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's Supreme Court hearing?
In the moment, I didn't know what type of impact his weaponizing of my book would have. I was deeply concerned and it was just part of a larger effort to weaponize my work—well, first distort it and then weaponize it and then use it to attack people and certainly to attack me. I think in the moment, I was just like, OK, what's going to come out of this? But obviously when people rallied around the book and recognized that he was distorting my work, and of course, Judge Jackson would go on to be confirmed, I was fine.
"It's hard to know whether what's happening now is the last gasp of white supremacy or whether it is the turning into a new nation."
But I think it's just an example of just how badly and cruelly and crudely they're distorting the work because they don't really have an argument. All they can do is change what we're saying, and then argue against what they've changed. They can't really directly respond to us when we're like, the problem is racism and we need to eradicate it.
Somebody like Ted Cruz, who benefits off of racism — is there ever a way to address a person like that and to help them see that if they had more understanding and more love, how better we would all be?
I think it would be tough to address someone like Senator Cruz, because as you stated, his political life rests on racist propaganda and making particularly white and, to a lesser extent, Latinx male voters like him, believe that the problem are people like me and that he's then going to save his constituents.
He really won't have any political standing if he didn't have the ability to manipulate people. But what we can do is we could protect people through information and knowledge and through systematic forms of anti-racist education, including children so that they won't grow up and become vulnerable to the propaganda of somebody like Senator Cruz.
In a way, their negativity has had a positive impact because more people are paying attention to the work because they want to know why it's being rejected the way it's being rejected. Have you seen that?
I have. I mean, and I think that is precisely what happened with "Antiracist Baby" because many people were like, "Wait, hold up. I got to see this for myself." And then when they actually read the text of the book, they realized that it was encouraging the youngest of people and their parents to recognize racial equality and to be anti-racist in that sense. I think it actually made him look worse. At the same time, it made the book look better.
Why would you want your baby to not be anti-racist? Is the real question.
I think what's the problem is that we as adults and parents, we're taught that race and racist ideas are these extremely sophisticated concepts that apparently the youngest of people can't understand. But I think if we were to really break it down, the idea that dark skin is ugly, is bad, that's a very simple idea that even a two-year-old can understand. The idea that light is beautiful. That's a very, very simple idea.
"They can't really directly respond to us when we're like, the problem is racism and we need to eradicate it."
That's why in "How to Raise an Antiracist" I wanted people to understand what young people are experiencing at different ages. And indeed by three years old, according to studies, kids are already attaching negative traits to dark skin, because in many ways, that's the environment in which they're being raised in.
Do you feel like we'll get there in our lifetime?
I mean, that's the hope, because if we can get there in our lifetime then our children will be able to build from it. But we're in a pitched battle right now. It's hard to know whether what's happening now is the last gasp of white supremacy or whether it is the turning into a new nation. But we don't have anything else other than to try to create that type of anti-racist society.
You recently moved to Boston with your family. How has Beantown been treating you?
We really like it. I think for me in particular, I just really like the all sorts of radical Black history that's here in Boston and all of the people who came through here, going all the way back to people like David Walker, who appealed "To the Coloured Citizens of the World" in 1829 to throw off the yoke of slavery, to people like W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X. Especially in this moment when it's easy to feel hopeless. I'm really trying to remember that those people didn't feel hopeless and they still fought the good fight.
I heard you might be breaking into television. Anything you can talk about?
Some of my book projects, we are in the process of transforming them into film and television. And so we've also decided to create a production shingle that could not only steward those, but even steward projects of other writers and creators and thinkers. It's a completely different, new, scary field. But there are many people who won't read one of our books, but they will watch a show that is going to convey similar ideas.