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