[Book Notes] How to be an Antiracist

“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”:

Why the focus on policy?

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

Two additional notes about antiracism

First, antiracism is not fixed:

Second, antiracism is not easy:

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:

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.

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.

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

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

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

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:

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.

So should we be hopeful that antiracism can succeed?

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.

Engineer @ Google, Author: CORS in Action

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