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18th October 2021

How to be a genius: MacArthur fellowship winner Ibram X Kendi

Ava Innes takes a look at How to be an Antiracist, the bestselling work of MacArthur recipient Ibram X Kendi
How to be a genius: MacArthur fellowship winner Ibram X Kendi
Photo: Aileen Loftus @The Mancunion

Ibram X Kendi is an American historian who was awarded the MacArthur so-called ‘genius grant’ last month for his work on racism in the US. The MacArthur Fellowship is a five-year grant to individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits, with no strings attached. To honour Kendi’s said genius, I read his 2019 book How to be an Antiracist

Born in Queens, New York City, Kendi was, as he outlines in his book, a child unsure of his own intellect. After attending multiple different junior schools, largely due to racist staff, Kendi completed a degree in African American Studies and Magazine Production from Florida A&M University. He then went on to gain an M.A and Ph.D in African American Studies from Temple University. 

Kendi is now a Professor at Boston University, as well as director of the university’s Centre for Antiracist Research. The $625,000 grant will go towards furthering his groundbreaking research. 

How to be an Antiracist is a beautifully crafted blend of history, biography and radical activism. Kendi writes in an inviting and concise way, weaving the personal and political together. He demonstrates the lived reality of racism as well as its long history, whilst demanding from the reader an answer to a clear question: will you be a racist, or an antiracist?

The book, perhaps surprisingly, opens with a discussion of Kendi’s own racism. Describing a speech he gave as a young high school graduate, he highlights how he internalised racist ideas, endorsing the idea that Black people needed to ‘better themselves’. This “assimilationist” creed becomes an important talking point in the book, as Kendi describes the “duelling consciousness” people of all races experience. For racialised groups, this “consciousness” is formed from a battle between “antiracist” and the aforementioned “assimilationist” urges. 

By assimilation, Kendi means the idea that a racial group must improve themselves in order to fit in with society, which in other words means White society. He describes how this was a particularly infectious idea among his parent’s generation, who became wrongly convinced that it was Black people themselves who were holding each other back from better lives. Kendi argues that being an antiracist is the only way to free oneself from this “duelling consciousness”.

Kendi’s definitions of antiracism and racism are radical. He argues that these are not fixed terms that denote someone’s identity, but rather fluid descriptors that anyone can adopt at any time. He is also clear that there is no in-between, there is no neutral middle ground.

To be racist is to endorse racist policy and attitudes either through action or inaction. To be antiracist is to actively work against this. By locating these labels in action, and leaving them open to anyone, Kendi leaves no room for laziness. He is telling you clearly How to be an Antiracist.

Kendi particularly emphasises how racism is essentially linked to power. He argues for a focus on what he terms “racist power”, which is comprised of “racist policy and racist policymakers”. For Kendi, there is no “neutral policy”: every policy has a racial outcome. The idea of “race neutrality” thus becomes a dangerous concept: like ‘colour-blindness’, it exempts people from antiracist action, and therefore endorses racism. 

How to be an Antiracist, although framed as a guide into race politics, demonstrates clearly how we are all, constantly, partaking in it. Kendi provides the reader with a variety of tools, from historical knowledge to concise definitions of political terminology. The real power, however, lies with the reader and our active choice to become antiracist. 

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