[Book Notes] How to be an Antiracist

Monsur Hossain
8 min readDec 6, 2020

“Book Notes” are a way to synthesize my thoughts on a book before setting it aside. I like to read, but frankly I forget the details of a particular book over time. Hopefully this helps!

Key takeaway: Act to change racist policy.

It is absurd to distill Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist to only five words. The book is dense and thought-provoking, part personal memoir, part history, and part thesis paper. While I learned a lot on this journey, my fundamental shift was from viewing racism as a nebulous blob to a concrete thing maintained by policy.

How To Be An Antiracist achieves this shift by being very specific about racism and adhering to concrete definitions (I admired this, and I’d like to bring this specificity in my writing, even if I’m mostly writing emails and software design docs).

What does it mean to be an antiracist?

How To Be An Antiracist defines “antiracist” as “One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea”. While that definition is a bit circular, it becomes clearer when contrasting “antiracist” with “not racist”:

[“not racist”] is a claim that signifies neutrality: “I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.” But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is “antiracist.” What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist.

Why the focus on policy?

“Racist policy” also cuts to the core of racism better than “racial discrimination,” another common phrase. “Racial discrimination” is an immediate and visible manifestation of an underlying racial policy. When someone discriminates against a person in a racial group, they are carrying out a policy or taking advantage of the lack of a protective policy. We all have the power to discriminate. Only an exclusive few have the power to make policy. Focusing on “racial discrimination” takes our eyes off the central agents of racism: racist policy and racist policymakers, or what I call racist power.

A policy-centric view further refines the definition of antiracist:

An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences — that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group. Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.

Two additional notes about antiracism

First, antiracism is not fixed:

“Racist” and “antiracist” are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other. We can unknowingly strive to be a racist. We can knowingly strive to be an antiracist. Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.

Second, antiracism is not easy:

As Audre Lorde said in 1980, “We have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.” To be an antiracist is a radical choice in the face of this history, requiring a radical reorientation of our consciousness.

Don’t we already have language for this?

Why do we need a term like “antiracist” when the story of race in America is already one of segregation vs assimilation? Because putting “segregationist” and “assimilationist” at opposite ends of a spectrum is a false choice, as “assimilation” is also racist.

Chapter 2 defines these terms as:

Segregationist: One who is expressing the racist idea that a permanently inferior racial group can never be developed and is supporting policy that segregates away that racial group.

Assimilationist: One who is expressing the racist idea that a racial group is culturally or behaviorally inferior and is supporting cultural or behavioral enrichment programs to develop that racial group.

This is in contrast to antiracist, who “is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity.

The history of the racialized world is a three-way fight between assimilationists, segregationists, and antiracists. Antiracist ideas are based in the truth that racial groups are equals in all the ways they are different, assimilationist ideas are rooted in the notion that certain racial groups are culturally or behaviorally inferior, and segregationist ideas spring from a belief in genetic racial distinction and fixed hierarchy.

So what can we do about it?

While the entire book is illuminating, the call-to-action chapters towards the end (titled “Failure” and “Success”) tied it all together. “Failure” starts by addressing what hasn’t worked in fighting racism.

Incorrect conceptions of race as a social construct (as opposed to a power construct), of racial history as a singular march of racial progress (as opposed to a duel of antiracist and racist progress), of the race problem as rooted in ignorance and hate (as opposed to powerful self-interest) — all come together to produce solutions bound to fail.

The “incorrect conception” here means appealing to people’s morality and trying to change people’s values before policies.

The problem of race has always been at its core the problem of power, not the problem of immorality or ignorance… Moral and educational suasion breathes the assumption that racist minds must be changed before racist policy, ignoring history that says otherwise.

Kendi is critical of demonstrations and donations that seek only to raise awareness:

We formulate and populate and donate to cultural and behavioral and educational enrichment programs to make ourselves feel better, feeling they are helping racial groups, when they are only helping (or hurting) individuals, when only policy change helps groups.

A protest is organizing people for a prolonged campaign that forces racist power to change a policy. A demonstration is mobilizing people momentarily to publicize a problem. Power typically ignores demonstrations.

Which all leads up to the one sentence of the book that hit me hard, and fed into my key takeaway:

What if instead of a feelings advocacy we had an outcome advocacy that put equitable outcomes before our guilt and anguish?

This resonated with me because its applicable to all areas of life, not just to fighting racism. Focusing on data and outcomes is how I approach software engineering. Why not apply the same to other areas, such as fighting racism? Building on this:

What if we blamed our ideologies and methods, studied our ideologies and methods, refined our ideologies and methods again and again until they worked? When will we finally stop the insanity of doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result? What if strategies and policy solutions stemmed not from ideologies but from problems? Self-critique allows change. Changing shows flexibility.

Can antiracism succeed?

The final chapter, “Survival”, reminds us that this is a difficult journey, because “the source of racist ideas was not ignorance and hate, but self-interest” and “when it comes to healing America of racism, we want to heal America without pain, but without pain, there is no progress”. But change is possible because racism is relatively young: “Racism is not even six hundred years old.

But before we can treat, we must believe. Believe all is not lost for you and me and our society. Believe in the possibility that we can strive to be antiracist from this day forward. Believe in the possibility that we can transform our societies to be antiracist from this day forward. Racist power is not godly. Racist policies are not indestructible. Racial inequities are not inevitable. Racist ideas are not natural to the human mind.

So should we be hopeful that antiracism can succeed?

There is nothing I see in our world today, in our history, giving me hope that one day antiracists will win the fight, that one day the flag of antiracism will fly over a world of equity. What gives me hope is a simple truism. Once we lose hope, we are guaranteed to lose. But if we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive, a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free.

I highlight this excerpt about hope because Ta-Nehisi Coates also pushed back against hope in the past. While Kendi isn’t any more hopeful, his framing resonates with me: without hope we have nothing, so we have no choice but to hope.

A personal journey

The middle and bulk of the book views racism through different lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, behavior, color, white, black, class, space, gender, sexuality.

Each of these chapters weaves together Kendi’s personal experiences, from before he was born (how his parents met) through childhood, high school, college, and now. I wasn’t sure what to make about this back and forth, I found it distracting at first. But as I read on I appreciated the personal narrative for a few reasons:

  • It lends context and counterpoint to the more academic portions of the book
  • It shows that we all experience a personal journey. Even the author of a book about antiracism had to first grapple with (and is still grappling with) their racism.
  • It permits us to reflect on our personal journeys as we read.

That last part stuck with me the most. My parents immigrated to America from Bangladesh in the late 1970s. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about identity. Growing up between cultures feels isolating and confusing, and I struggle with the sense of never quite fitting in (even among other South Asians, where that simple term encompasses a wide range of cultures, religions, and backgrounds).

Reading How to be an Antiracist helped me navigate this confusion. I felt validated in the ways I am different, but I also had to temper that with a broader view of my identity. Yes, there are ways in which I am in a marginalized group. But there are also ways I’m not (e.g. male, straight).

My feeling of otherness partly came from framing my story through someone else’s eyes while only telling a part of it. Leveraging my privilege to help effect actionable change is the best I can do to help myself and others feel whole.

It is this continuous journey of self-awareness, self-reflection, and learning that makes an antiracist.