This is a first touch, being only a few chapters in at this point. I wasn’t really aware of the book, or Ibram X. Kendi until I was invited to be part of a quarantine-Zoom discussion group, or a reading group/discussion group or whatever. It’s only since the invitation that I learned it was on The New York Times Bestseller List. I don’t know if that happened before or after these current protests started. Frankly, it surprised me that it was already sold out on Amazon as I would have assumed that not enough people cared about the topic beyond declaring themselves to be “not racist.” That’s not an indictment of conservatives or liberals but kind of a blanket observation based on parlor conversations. Racism or racist often seem to be terms like ugly or stupid. Nobody is going to admit to it, and not just people that actively commit racist acts. Liberal parlor discussions often seem to be more about declarations of wholesome goodness and lots of handwringing and finger-pointing. Sorry, but that’s what I see, and it’s not like I’m setting myself above that. I often have to examine myself and decide if many of my moral positions are real positions or if I just want to be seen by others as a good person. So I hope this paragraph makes sense. I know people cared in a sense, but I wasn’t of a mind that people cared actively in a way that included self-examination.
This is not a book review. This is the beginning of thoughts on self-examination and there is really no better time to engage in such things. Sooner or later we’re all going to have to go back to The Simulation, that to and fro business of what we do to pay the bills. I’ve said before, I want to come out of this part of the experience as a more whole, informed, integrated (not speaking racially here) human being.
The first couple chapters delve into definitions and that’s something that usually makes me wary but it’s important here to set the premise and tone of the book. This isn’t a manifesto. It’s not invective. It appears so far to be a reframing of the language we use to describe ourselves as individuals and as groups.
“Racist isn’t a descriptive word. It’s a pejorative word, It’s the equivalent of saying I don’t like you.” ~ Richard B. Spencer – alt-right troll and a racist by any definition of the word if you ask me.
I say that not just because he is unelected but popular leader of Douchebag Nation, but because it’s simply not true. It not only denies that racism exists but attempts to undermine the truth that it is a descriptive word that describes racist policies and activities to support racist policies. That’s where the book starts, in reframing what racism is and how racists are differentiated. The interesting part here is where Kendi goes. A person may describe him or herself as not racist but that’s not such a big deal. Donald Trump, as Kendi points out, has said repeatedly for decades that he is “the least racist person you will ever meet.” The KKK and various White Power groups state repeatedly in their speeches and literature and websites that they are not Anti-Black but Pro-White. This is, of course, utter nonsense but the point is, simply saying one isn’t racist or is colorblind is a statement of neutrality that is not only usually not true, but it is dangerous and morally indefensible.
“The opposite of racist isn’t not racist. It’s anti-racist.”
And there sets the premise of the book.
“Definitions anchor us in principle. This is not a light point. If we don’t do the basic work of defining the kind of people we want to be in language that is stable and consistent, we can’t work towards stable and consistent goals.”
I like also that Kendi tosses aside some of the conventional language of racial discourse. He blankets the foundation of racism as racist policy. “Racism itself is institutional, structural and systemic.” His suggestion is to put it in plain language that describes the foundation of the problem and doesn’t break it down into various manifestations. This works for me totally because while I have a better than average vocabulary, I can get lost in details. More words means more separate and distinct definitions. Why have three when one is perfectly suitable?
But backtracking to the differences between ‘not racist’ and anti-racist, the former to me seems wishy-washy and doesn’t really mean anything. Not harboring any open enmity or even having non-white friends doesn’t mean much. Even loving a non-white person doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t manifest in many ways in your life, either through action or inaction. That’s an important part of it for me. Love is an action or a pattern of actions. It’s more than a passive sentiment.
This is a first touch though. My hope as I go through this book is to hold up a mirror not to other people but to myself. How do I come out of this more whole? ‘This’ meaning not just the time in lockdown but life itself. That’s my entire bucket list, to go from Point A to Point B a more complete human being than when I entered all this.
My takeaway from this book so far is that we need to redefine Point A in the race discussion so we can set practical goals. We want to be a certain kind of people so we need those stable, consistent definitions to build stable, consistent goals, right? For me this also means that I want to find out for certain that all my efforts in the world thus far have been about being a better person or being seen as a better person. I don’t think that my only purpose has been to be popular amongst the non-white people in my life, but I’m willing to look at that, because it’s a phenomenon I’ve witnessed in other people. That I recognized it at all might imply that I recognized it in myself first. It’s not a lovely thought at all. Current status though isn’t static. There is, as Kendi points out early on, always opportunity to learn and grow, for everyone.
Oh, and one thing the book taught me so far: I knew that people proclaiming their colorblindness sounded like bullshit, but couldn’t put words to why and didn’t know that it is so dangerous and offensive. It just seemed like benign nonsense. Lesson learned, but read the book if you want the explanation. Not my job to do your work.