‘”Racist” and “antiracist” are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other.’
Just one of the ideas that stuck with me from Kendi’s thought-provoking polemic. It seemed original (it was certainly new to me) and useful – a way of moving beyond the sterile attempts to peer into each others’ souls and pronounce ourselves and our allies non-racist, while some despicable opponent is, of course, racist. Better to judge by actions.
Kendi begins the book with an account of himself as a young man taking part in a public speaking competition. While he explicitly rejects what he thought and said back then, he certainly hasn’t rejected the toolkit of the debater. He argues cleverly, persuasively, and like a good debater, is happy to take a logical short-cut when it suits him. For example: yes, many racists say “I am not a racist” – but it does not follow, as Kendi repeatedly implies, that “not-racism” is inevitably combination of racism plus lies.
(A personal aside: one of the reasons I picked up How To Be An Antiracist was my sense that I had no idea of the issues involved. I had that generic liberal sense that racism was repugnant and that everyone regardless of skin colour or ethnic heritage should be free to fulfil their potential, free from fear, oppression or discrimination. But it was dawning on me that I really hadn’t a clue what – for example – a young black man in America might have to deal with. Ironic, then, that Kendi’s first anecdote is of him doing pretty much what I was doing when I was the same age: standing on stage and spouting off.)
While I did not agree with everything, I learned a lot from this book – both the personal reflections and the argument. I found it particularly useful to have read Caroline Criado Perez’s excellent Invisible Women; the two books together helped me understand how much damage can be done by the unthinking default to male – or, in Kendi’s book, the unthinking default to white. This made it easier for me to engage with Kendi’s assertion that every policy is either racist or antiracist: what seemed at first a strange exaggeration made sense in the light of Crado Perez’s arguments. Sure, there almost certainly are policies that are neither racist not antiracist, but it’s worth explicitly asking yourself, “what is the likely impact of this policy or idea on different racial groups?”
My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”