Saturday, July 18, 2020

How to be an Antiracist: a very short review

For the last month or so, I've been studying Ibram Kendi's How to be an Antiracist

I use the word "studying" rather deliberately, for Kendi's book is not the sort of book you just glide through. It stops and challenges you, it asks hard questions, it demands that you reflect.

How to be an Antiracist is not exactly a textbook, and it's not exactly an autobiography, though it has elements of both. Kendi takes a trip through his own life, looking back on various events and decisions as they occurred. Through that format, he shows how his life experiences came to shape him, and how he overcame many of those shapings to find new ways to be, new ways to see.

I found it to be deeply unsettling, as it was no doubt intended to be, and profoundly moving.

On the other hand, it's good for me to know that, personally, I still have a lot more work to do. After all, you can't fix something that you don't know about.

Kendi's book is certainly not perfect. For one thing, it can be dense and hard-going at times, particularly when he slips into the language of academic discourse, which is no easy read:

Across history, racist power has produced racist ideas about the racialized ethnic groups in its colonial sphere and ranked them -- across the globe and within their own nations. The history of the United States offers a parade of intra-racial ethnic power relationships: Anglo-Saxons discriminating against Irish Catholics and Jews; Cuban immigrants being privileged over Mexican immigrants; the model-minority construction that includes East Asians and excludes Muslims from South Asia. It's a history that began with early European colonizers referring to the Chrokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole as the "Five Civilized Tribes" of Native Americans, as compared to other "wild" tribes. This ranking of racialized ethnic groups within the ranking of the races creates a racial-ethnic hierarchy, a ladder of ethnic racism within the larger schema of racism.

We practice ethnic racism when we express a racist idea about an ethnic group or support a racist policy toward an ethnic group. Ethnic racism, like racism itself, points to group behavior, instead of policies, as the cause of disparities between groups. When Ghanaian immigrants to the United States join with White Americans and say African Americans are lazy, they are recycling the racist ideas of White Americans about African Americans. This is ethnic racism.

For another thing, he makes a deliberate attempt to be encyclopedic, framing chapter after chapter each with their own custom particular themes, which at times makes the overall effect feel rather forced. Some chapters are strong, and could have been longer. Some chapters are weak, and could have been shorter. But the overall structure forces him to tolerate some of those weaknesses.

But, please! Don't let these minor quibbles dissuade you. How to be an Antiracist is a powerful, valuable, necessary book. Kendi is a clear and piercing writer and he illustrates his points with vivid examples, making them crystal clear and immediately recognizable.

I'm tremendously glad I read How to be an Antiracist, and I hope everyone who can takes the time to read it.

Check that. I hope everyone takes the time to study it.

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