Award-winning author speaks about tackling racism from within, promoting systemic change

Internationally acclaimed for “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” author Ibram X. Kendi (right) spoke with College of Arts and Sciences Dean Eric Eisenberg (left) and Senior Advisor to the President and Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman (center) about racism and anti-racism Wednesday during the Frontier Forum lecture series.

New York Times bestseller and National Book Award-winning author Ibram X. Kendi shared his insights about race, anti-racism and the power of change during Wednesday’s Frontier Forum lecture series.

Hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences Dean Eric Eisenberg and Senior Advisor to the President and Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, the conversation focused on topics such as Kendi’s best-selling books, racism and its effects on society as well as anti-Blackness and how people can take steps toward promoting change within themselves and their own communities.

The hourlong lecture featured a Q&A between the moderators and Kendi. He was paid a speaking fee of $12,500, according to Eisenberg. As of Wednesday morning, Eisenberg said around 1,200 people registered for the lecture and he expected 2,000-3,000 people in attendance.

Among his five books, Kendi is internationally acclaimed for “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” in which he brings light to the issue of racism and inequalities within society. 

The book, described by The New York Times as “the most courageous book to date on the problem of race in the Western mind,” digs deeper into how racism intersects between class, culture and geography — especially within capitalist structures.

When it comes to capitalism, Kendi further explained its relationship with racism by giving an example of some of the first global capitalism systems such as the slave trade and colonialism. With the shared idea of accumulation of power, Kendi said both concepts were critical to each’s own development. 

“You really can’t disentangle the history of racism from capitalism,” he said.

The effects, he said, are reflected in today’s society as well.

“If we want to fast-forward to today, you can’t really empirically detach race from class, meaning in our society, Black and native and Latino people are disproportionately poor and white people are disproportionately wealthy,” he said.

“I’m not making a philosophical argument, I’m making a historical and empirical argument.”

Kendi said he aimed toward clarifying the complexities surrounding racism and anti-Blackness when writing “How to Be an Anti-Racist” to make it accessible for everyday people to understand. 

The heartbeat of his books, however, comes down to self-reflection, self-criticism and vulnerability.

“That is indeed the heartbeat of being anti-racist,” Kendi said. “And it’s very different than the other heartbeat of being racist which is denial, which is consistently and always saying ‘I’m not racist,’ or ‘I’m the least racist person.’ [And] no matter what we just said, no matter what we just did, having a refusal to admit when we are wrong, or when we’ve wronged people. 

“I wanted people to sort of see the opposite of that which is, indeed, vulnerability.”

In a more global context, Kendi highlighted how racism is fundamentally international and local. While racist ideas are global concepts, he said the conceptualizations from each different country and region around the world are perceived differently.

“The way in which notions of, let’s say, anti-Blackness, the way they show up, is different in different countries so to just argue that the way anti-Blackness exists in the United States is the exact same way that it exists in Brazil, you’re going to miss something, you’re going to miss the peculiarities in Brazil or even the United States,” Kendi said. “But, typically, that anti-Blackness is a rendering of inferiority. And so that’s the sort of transnational similarity.”

For him, having both a transnational and intersectional perspective that considers race and class are essential to being anti-racist.

“From an intersectional lens, if you, for instance, are looking globally or nationally at let’s say defending native people, but in your mind native people are men, then you’re going to miss people,” he said. “Or, if you imagine that Black people are heterosexual or cisgender, then you’re going to miss people and you’re actually not going to be anti-racist because you’re not fighting for all Black people.”

During the Q&A, Hordge-Freeman brought up the Black Lives Matter movement and how it led to several protests across the country organized by different groups.

Kendi highlighted how there were groups who organized rallies to build campaigns against racism and others who were organizing rallies without a larger outcome or strategy to challenge power and policy. For him, the focus of the protest should be to push for permanent reform rather than temporary changes.

“We need to focus on outcomes,” he said.

When it comes to the “All Lives Matter” slogan, Kendi said it completely dismisses the intent of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“And to me, for [someone] to say ‘Well what about my family? Doesn’t all families’ lives matter?’ is somebody who is deeply unsympathetic and unaware of actual reality.”

Under the education realm, Kendi said educators should encourage students to ask questions around policy practices as well as tackle issues in their local communities through projects so students “learn as they do.”

“Why can’t a group of students do a project to not only sort of understand the policy sources of that food insecurity in that community, but also come up with policy solutions, but also present those policy solutions to those who have the power to implement them in that community, but also write in local media sources about that problem and that solution,” he said. “Why can’t a group of students do that?”

Education, however, is not the only way of tackling racism within institutions, according to Kendi. He said universities should also consider self-assessment of their own policies that potentially lead to inequalities and equities within their own leadership and structure.

“What they should be doing is assessing the choices that they’re making in terms of what types of faculty lines are they proposing, you know, who are they recruiting,” Kendi said. 

“They should be assessing themselves. We should always be assessing our policies and our practices, and indeed we do that in other areas. So why can’t we do that as it relates to creating equity and injustices.”

In “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” Kendi talks about his approach to identity, in which he rejects the idea of it as a permanent feature like a tattoo but rather a changeable feature based on one’s actions. During the discussion, Kendi touched on the human capacity to self-reflect, grow and change.

“This isn’t a fixed identity, this isn’t who a person is,” he said. “This is a descriptive term, it describes when a person is expressing a racist idea in that moment they’re being racist. If in the very next moment, they’re supporting an anti-racist policy, then in that very next moment they’re being anti-racist. 

“They’re not essentially racist or anti-racist. You are what you do … and what you do is what you do in that moment, and you have the capacity to change and be better and different in the next moment, especially if we admit what we were being in that previous moment.”

Halfway through the discussion, Eisenberg and Hordge-Freeman started gathering questions from the audience either by popularity or relevancy to the topic being discussed. 

In response to a question from the audience about the complexities in the minds of adults to recognize and act on issues around race, Kendi said it all comes down to empathy.

“It’s easy to just look at difference and say, ‘Well, that difference is inferior,’” he said. “It’s much harder to say ‘That difference is just difference,’ and I’m gonna learn more about it, not from the perspective of myself, but from that perspective. To step into another culture’s shoes or to step in another person’s shoes, is a little bit more difficult than for us to just look at them from our own perspective.”

The solution, according to Kendi, lies within one’s self-awareness around society’s pressing issues as well as self-growth and self-education.

“We should be thinking about how can we continue to transform ourselves so we can continue to transform society,” he said. “So, if I can talk about self-education, after you come to this talk or other talks or read one book, it shouldn’t stop there. This is a constant process.

“I think every one of us needs to ask ourselves what it is that we have to give, and we should give that to this larger struggle against racism.”