This interview was conducted in early 2017 at the Tucson Festival of Books with Ibram X. Kendi. The interview was meant to be published at a site I freelanced for, but due to changes in editors, it fell through the cracks and was never published. In light of recent events and the rise of racism in our country, I have decided to dig it out of old emails and share it with the world. I hope reading this offers some solace or help in some way.
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s has focused his studies on racist and antiracist ideas and movements. His research led him to write 2016’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction. The University of Florida professor’s book explores the entire story of anti-Black racist ideas throughout our country’s history over the course of hundreds of thorough and captivating pages.
Recently, Kendi was at The Tucson Festival of Books on University of Arizona’s campus to participate in panels about topics ranging from the history of slavery in America to modern issues the black community faces in this country. Kendi was kind enough to meet up between panels to briefly talk about the ideas from his award-winning book as well as give insight into what we can expect next from him as well as the future of racism in America.
You often write about and talk about the idea of an antiracist. What exactly does that mean?
One of the things that I wanted to do with Stamped from the Beginning and my work in general is to really simplify this complex issue of race in America. One of the ways to understand the distinction between racist and antiracist ideas is to understand the explanation that people give for racial disparities and inequities in our society.
When you ask people why racial disparities exist there are really only two answers. There is either the answer that there is something wrong or inferior about black people, which is a racist idea. Or people believe the racial groups are equal; therefore, it must be the result of some sort of discriminatory policy.
What antiracists ideas say are that the racial groups are equal; therefore, the racial inequities in our society must be the result of racial discrimination. So they spend their time, instead of trying to civilize or incarcerate black people, they spend their time trying to uncover discriminatory policies and end them.
What a lot of your book does is tracks how racism came to be what it is in America today. It’s not a wholly America idea though?
Why is it so volatile in America compared to other countries? Or is that a fallacy?
It’s hard for me to say compared to other places. I know every other place in the world would say it is more volatile in America. That’s because you have other places that have been making the case that they are post-racial longer than America has. In Western Europe, you’ll talk to people in France, England, other places and they’ll say that these are post-racial nations. Even though racial disparities are everywhere. I’m actually moving to study the emergence of racism in the rest of the world because it’s intertwined with its emergence in the United States.
During my undergrad I wrote a series of small research papers on xenophobia in European football [soccer]. One thing FIFA was trying to do then was to limit how many foreigners were on a team. For instance, a club in England would only be allowed to have an X amount of non-English players on the roster.
With the current political climate under Trump, has there been a regression in racial relations already, or is it too quick to tell?
I actually chronicle in Stamped from the Beginning a dual history: a history of racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism. So, two histories. One of racist progress and one of antiracist progress. If Barrack Obama represents antiracist progress, then Trump represents racist progress. Typically, throughout American history, racist progress has followed antiracist progress.
When antiracist activities were able to break down barriers, those creators of those barrier did not go home and go to sleep. They figured out a way to erect new barriers to hold people and to maintain inequality. That’s the progression of racism.
Does your research also look at the future to try to predict what the next antiracist step forward is going to be?
The progress of the future is going to be similar to the progress of the past. Antiracist progress is going to look like the narrowing of racial disparities. That’s essentially antiracist progress. The reason we will be able to narrow racial disparities or eliminate racial inequalities because there will be opportunity. There will be equal opportunity. If you create equal opportunity between two equal groups there will not be any disparities between those two groups.
Is there a future where we live in a post-racial world?
I think the goal that antiracists have, from what I see, is first and foremost in order to eliminate racial disparities, you have to recognize race. If we get to a point where there is true equal opportunity, the question then becomes if we go about eliminating race as a construct, then will we be able to see the possible progression of racism. So those who are trying to figure out new ways to create racial inequities. We wouldn’t be able to. It’s a hard thing. I would like to create a world in which we didn’t see race. I don’t think we could ever be colorblind. I see all different types of colors when I walk down the street and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. What becomes problematic is when you attach hierarchies to those different colors.
Recently, I listened to a podcast called With Friends Like These with MTV’s Anna Marie Cox and she talked to culture critic Ira Madison III. The majority of their conversation was around the idea of “the black friend” in culture and how white people will always turn to their one black friend to answer all questions related to black culture. Does that happen a lot to you?
I don’t have a problem with it because I’m a scholar of African-American culture. But one of the things that racist ideas have done is generalizes individual black negativity. When people see this individual black person acting negatively, they think of him or her as a representative as the race. They’ll say “black people are negative” or “black people are lazy.” Along the same lines, we generalize individual black people. We’ll say “okay, I can ask this one individual black person about black people because they are a representative of that race. I think that is extremely problematic. Unless they study black people, and study black people deeply, they are only really experts of themselves.
I want to shift to your career for a little bit. What got you interest in studying race?
I think becoming aware of the racial problems in our society while I was an undergraduate student. Being motivated to want to be a part of the people who were working to solve those problems. I became conscious of racism and the way it was excluding and harming so many people. Even manipulating others into believe there was something wrong with black people as opposed to the policies that were harming them.
How did your books become what they are now?
My first book was called The Black Campus Movement. It was on black student activism in the late-’60s and early-’70s. I was initially working on a book on the origin of black studies. The early chapters were going to be able the history of scientific racism to show what these black students were up against. When I started reading the literature on scientific racism, I found that many of these historians were ending their histories in the 1940s. You would have these students in the 1960s calling for black studies because they were saying that the entire academy was racist. Then you would have these historians saying racism was marginalized in the 1940s.
I realized that it was based on how both groups were defining a racist idea. In the ’60s, those students were inspired by Black Power and other notions of Pan-Africanism classified assimilationist ideas that black people were culturally or behaviorally inferior as racist ideas. While historians traditionally have only classified notions of biological inferiority as racist ideas.
So these students in the 1960s and Black Power were broadly redefining what racism was, but those redefinitions never got into the historiography. That was my entry point into writing this history that included the history of assimilationist ideas as racist ideas.
Are you doing research now toward a follow up to Stamped from the Beginning?
I’m working on a book called How To Be an Antiracist. It’s going to be right up this alley that many people have been asking me. “What is an antiracist?” “How can I become one?” I want to basically present a very clear rendition and discussion of what it means to think as an antiracist and what do antiracists do.
The first half of the book is going to be about antiracist ideas. So, how antiracists think about the radicalized world. The second half of the book is going to be on antiracist action. So, what antiracists do.
I’m thinking about ending the book with a fictional story that imagines what an antiracist America would look like.