Robyn Reviews: How To Be An Antiracist

How To Be An Antiracist is part autobiography, part history, and part social commentary. Kendi uses his experience of growing up as an African American to explore racism – how his ideas about what racism is evolved throughout his life, and similarly, how he discovered the concepts of not-racist and anti-racist and what those mean. Each chapter is prefaced with a type of racism – behavioural racism, space racism, colourism – and starts with a time in Kendi’s life where he encountered it, segueing into the history, modern social perspectives, and what his experiences have taught him. The mix of personal, historical, and modern factual works well, providing a touchstone and backing every point up with strong evidence.

Many of the points Kendi makes I had heard before, although not being Black or American I found his personal insight into them fascinating. Kendi is exceptionally honest about problematic beliefs he himself has held in the past – as we all will have held – and how he still grapples with them today. He articulates the impact of racism very well, along with the impacts of various movements which have sought to end it. I particularly enjoyed his take on the work of the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, a man who I was taught about at school but only in very basic terms. Kendi’s viewpoint is nuanced and well worth listening to.

One of the strongest parts of the book covers the concept of integration – a controversial issue, especially here in the UK where we like to think people are more integrated than they perhaps are in the US. His points are logical but might not occur to those who are not themselves black or another ethnic minority. I thought he did an excellent job of framing it in a non-judgemental but understandable way. I came away from that section feeling educated and reframing several ideas that I had previously held. As Kendi says, anti-racism is a constant learning process, and we have to open to changing our beliefs as we learn more about them.

The later chapters of the book were more personal – Kendi and his family were going through significant personal difficulties with enormous impact on their lives. I have huge respect for Kendi for managing to write such an excellent book in such a trying time. That being said, I felt those later chapters weren’t quite as strong or impactful as some of the earlier points. His metaphors for racism were interesting, and in many ways accurate, but for me they didn’t add anything. The strength of the book was the interweaving of the story of growing up Black in America with the statistics around racism and its impact.

Overall, this is an excellent book that I’d highly recommend to everyone. Go in with an open mind and be prepared to learn. The points that Kendi makes are not radical, but they may be new to you. Listen to what he has to say, read his sources – he cites plenty, and includes a further reading list for those interested in the topic – and you might find yourself reframing what racism, and anti-racism, really is.

 

Published by The Bodley Head
Hardback: 15 August 2019

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

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When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, is a memoir put together from an unfinished manuscript left on the author’s computer after his death from cancer. The book opens with a forward by Abraham Verghese and contains two parts written by Paul and then an epilogue by his wife, which brings closure to a story that he did not have time to complete. It is incredibly moving but so much more. It is a profound exploration of what it means to live.

“even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”

Paul’s prose is coruscating, devastating, illuminating. The words reach down deep. I felt a sense of loss, of tears, of a desire to grab this life and appreciate everything in it.

Paul was obviously born to privilege. He first studied as an English major, completing a Masters in Literature before changing direction and preparing for medical training, first at Cambridge and then at Stanford where he rose to become Chief Resident with a glittering career promised, just ahead. He was always questioning his choices and seeking wisdom.

“I don’t believe in the wisdom of children, nor in the wisdom of the old. There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”

The sections relating to the author’s residency should be required reading for all with contacts to the medical profession, including patients. He ponders what it means to be a doctor, how it is so much more than saving a life. He offers thoughts on those occasions when this may not be in the patient’s best interests, how illness afflicts not just the individual but also family and friends. Few survive major trauma unchanged.

The second part of the book relates to his months after diagnosis, a time when he had expected to graduate and realise the dreams he had been working so hard and for so long to achieve.

“I knew I was going to die – but I’d known that before. My state of knowledge was the same, but my ability to make lunch plans had been shot to hell.”

I found this section acutely moving. Paul had such potential yet he did not indulge in asking “why me?” Instead he accepted, “why not me?” He had support from his family, he made plans with his wife to have a child, he wrote this book.

“Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.”

Paul struggled at times to hand over his care to others. He learned how difficult some of the treatments he had routinely recommended were to bear. When improvements occurred he questioned how he wanted to spend his time, if his career was as important as it had seemed. His musings on why he had become a doctor should be read by all who complain about those entrusted with their medical care.

The epilogue is written by his wife and is in a very different style. Rather than considering the bigger questions of life and death and how to deal with these, she rounds off Paul’s story with facts wrapped around love and grief.

A beautiful, emotive book that is more than just a memoir. The author is a thoughful and skilled writer making this an inspiring, considerate read. Any death brings sadness to loved ones. It is hard not to think of the death of this man, whose work could have led to the saving of so many other’s lives, as a loss to the world. I am grateful that he left us these words.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The Bodley Head.