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Q&A: Author Ibram X. Kendi on fighting racism, how to be antiracist

Ibram Kendi, author of “How to Be An Antiracist,” shares what he thinks are the best ways to fight racism and why an antiracist isn’t the same as being "not racist."

Ibram X. Kendi, a historian and founder of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, wants Americans to examine the nation’s racial inequities and inspire them to enact change.

The bestselling author of “How to Be An Antiracist” explains the difference between someone simply saying they are “not racist” and someone who is antiracist. In his book, Kendi argues antiracism sees racist policies as the source of America’s racial inequity – not the racial groups themselves.

And if you’re not actively part of the solution to racial injustice in America, Kendi says you are part of the problem.

“How can we move forward as a country if we're not willing to admit the ways in which our ideas and our policies are racist? How can we move forward? We can't,” Kendi said.

Kendi sat down with KING 5’s Joyce Taylor in August to talk about how Americans can strive to be antiracist and why he stays hopeful in a time of racial unrest.

WATCH: Full interview with Ibram X. Kendi

The following is a partial transcript of their conversation. Some of the questions and answers below have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Joyce Taylor: There have been some politicians and critics who have equated the Black Lives Matter movement with antifa. What do you think of that?

Ibram X. Kendi: I mean to me to equate Black Lives Matter activists with antifa – when they may or may not be in both organizations; I suspect that they're not – is equivalent to equating a white supremacist who shoots and kills people with a politician who he or she likes. I mean, I think it's a defense tactic. And it's really a way to attack Black Lives Matter and make Black Lives Matter into something that it's not. It's essentially a movement that is seeking to not only call attention to racism and police violence, but to eliminate it.

Taylor: After this most recent shooting of Jacob Blake on Twitter you responded to that shooting, and I want to read that: "To be black in a racist America is to be armed and dangerous even when we are unarmed and walking away. This is the insanity of racist ideas. This is the cruelty of racist power and policies that protect police violence not Black lives."

Talk to us about those racist ideas and how they impact the way Black and brown people are policed in your mind.

Kendi: Well, police officers are people. And everyday people, when they see Black people they don't know coming down the street, when they see Black people living in a particular neighborhood and they drive on by, they get scared. They feel that those people could be dangerous. There's nothing other than the color of these people's skin, in many cases, that's causing them to imagine that these people are dangerous. But police officers certainly do the same thing. And then they're backed by a state and a set of policies that allow them to imagine, to essentially claim they're fearing for their life and get away with murder. That they're in sort of a culture that is not valuing Black life and American policing are essentially recruiting people, I should say, people are attracted to becoming a police officer from a George Zimmerman to the type of person who killed those protesters in Kenosha, and I think American policing needs to think about why are we attracting those types of folks?

Taylor: So what do we do about that? Because so many good police officers of all races are out there trying to protect us on a daily basis, and they're up against this kind of attitude of feeling amongst the Black and brown community that they're not being protected.

Kendi: I think that first and foremost, we should not be looking to police officers to solve social problems. And I think we've been doing that for far too long and that makes the job of all police officers too difficult.

If we truly believe that the way you reduce levels of violent crime is by increasing levels of police and levels of prisons, then we must not know anything about social science, right? We must not know anything about the relationship between higher levels of poverty and higher levels of unemployment and higher levels of violent crime. We keep imagining these neighborhoods as dangerous Black neighborhoods as opposed to dangerous unemployed neighborhoods and then we send police officers into those neighborhoods and expect them to do something.

I think we should take the burden off of policing, and actually those who are seeking to transfer funding, that's precisely what they want to do. But then other Americans think that it's going to make this nation less safe when that's not the case.

WATCH: Full episodes of Facing Race

Taylor: You brought up one of the racist ideas you talk about in your book, this idea of dangerous neighborhoods, and one of the most dangerous racist ideas you say is the idea of that dangerous Black neighborhood.

Kendi: Well, low income and impoverished Black neighborhoods do not have the same levels of violent crime as high income Black neighborhoods. But people imagine that the violence in some of these low income neighborhoods is the result of the people, the Black people. If that was the case, then again, all Black neighborhoods, no matter their economic makeup, would have similar levels of violent crime, but that's not the case. And so I think that we should realize that these are dangerous, unemployed neighborhoods, these are dangerous, impoverished neighborhoods, and poverty and unemployment is the problem, not the people. We need to be solving these problems of poverty and unemployment and not imagining that the people are dangerous.

Taylor: To those scholars who would argue that this intense focus on race that we see right now, for example, is a dead end to progress, you would say what?

Kendi: I would say, so, how do you solve a problem if you ignore the cause? If the cause of racial inequities is racist policies, you can't eliminate racial inequities unless you acknowledge and eliminate racist policies. Just as the cause of gender disparities is sexist policies. You can't be talking about race when it's a gender issue. Just like the cause of massive amounts of economic inequality is our economic policies.

I think you just have people who don't want to face the reality of racism and are constantly looking for other problems and other issues when indeed, it's very simple. If you have a racial inequity, that's a racial problem that needs to be solved by antiracism.

Taylor: What is the difference between not being racist and being antiracist?

Kendi: I think the difference is, to be antiracist, is to be willing to admit the times in which we're racist. Those who are saying they're not racist are never admitting the times in which they are racist. To be antiracist is to recognize the racial groups as equals. Those who say that they're not racist typically characterize something being wrong with a racial group. And then when they're challenged on it, they say they're not racist. To be antiracist is to support policies that lead to equity and justice. Those who claim that they're not racist are supporting racist policies. And then when they're called on it, they claim they're not racist.

Taylor: You've said the heartbeat of racism is denial and the heartbeat of antiracism is confession.

Kendi: And what that means is slaveholders denied that they were racist. So did Jim Crow segregationists, even lynchers. Certainly Ku Klux Klansmen deny that they were racist, just as everyday Americans, whether you're talking about Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, moderates, northerners, southerners, westerners.

You know, you have people who think that there's something inferior or wrong with Latinx people or Asian people or Native people or a particular racial group. But then they also believe that they're not racist. You have people actively supporting policymakers and policies that are maintaining racial inequity, that are leading to racial injustices. But then they also believe that they're not racist, just as those policymakers believe that they're not racist.

And how can we move forward as a country if we're not willing to admit the ways in which our ideas and our policies are racist? How can we move forward? We can't.

Taylor: Do you believe anyone can be racist – Black people, white people, brown people?

Kendi: I think I'm seeking to ask a different question. And that is I'm asking every single person, no matter the color of their skin, are they being antiracist? Do you believe that there's nothing wrong or right with any racial group? Are you supporting policies that are leading to equity and justice? You know, are you recognizing that if there's racial inequities, it must be because there's something wrong with bad policies as opposed to bad people? That should be the question, you know, are we being antiracist? Whether the person is Black or white or Asian or Native or Latinx. And that's what I'm asking Americans to be – antiracist.

Taylor: People who support President Trump, are they racist and that they are supporting racist policies in your view?

Kendi: So again, racist is a descriptive term. And so when they, for instance, go to the polls in November and they decide to vote for somebody who has ran a racist campaign and who's trafficked in racist ideas and have tried to make white Americans in particular believe that he will protect them, and that if they vote for Biden or another candidate, that Black and brown people will overrun this country and that he will make it great and white again, if they vote for that type of person, when they vote in that moment, they're being racist. When he says racist ideas, if they believe in them and agree with them, they're being racist in that moment. When he is pushing racist policies, and they're supporting those specific policies, in those moments they being racist.

Just as in other moments, when he says racist ideas and they disagree with them, they're being antiracist. Just like in other moments when he is opposing antiracist policies to expand voting, as an example, and they're opposed to that, they're being antiracist.

Taylor: What you're really saying is, all of us at any given moment, regardless of the parties we support, the candidates we support can be antiracist and racist, that we can move in and out of these two things.

Kendi: Exactly. And I am not going to pigeonhole someone as a racist, because I don't know what they're going to do 10 minutes from now or a month from now or two months from now. I don't know whether they're going to express hierarchy or equality. I don't know whether the policies they're going to support are going to lead to equity or inequity. But what I do know is when they do those things, I have a clear way of describing what they're doing.

Taylor: It does seem that more and more people are embracing this idea that they do have privilege – white people. Do you feel that we are seeing a reckoning on race with people accepting their privilege?

Kendi: I think some of the polls are showing that particularly white Americans are beginning to recognize the ways in which they're privileged.

I mean, I think what happened in Wisconsin, I think for many white people, is yet another lesson in their privilege in which you have a Black male who is unarmed who's shot in the back at least seven times in front of his children. And you know, you have a white male who's carrying an AR-15, who had just shot people, who people are calling out to police to say he just shot someone, and the police let them on by.

I think that sort of, as well as other sort of images, is really demonstrating for white people that even when they're armed, to many police officers, they are certainly not suspects, that even when people are saying they just did something wrong, they don't match up that they are a suspect, but a Black person, as soon as they walk out of their house, they're a suspect.

Taylor: For those who are denying this idea of privilege, are they in denial about the racism that exists in this country?

Kendi: Yes. And I think that it's critically important for people to understand how privilege works. We're not saying that there aren't white people who have a hard life, but their life isn't hard because they're white. We're not saying that there are not poor white people who struggle, but typically poor white people are more likely to live in mixed income neighborhoods where it's not just a case that they're poor and their neighborhood is poor in the way it is for too many Black poor people. And we're not saying that there aren't people who are struggling.

And I think the difficulty about understanding privilege is because it's so normal to you that you can't even sort of see it. It's hard to really step inside of a Black body if you're a white person and live and see, whoa, this would happen to me differently if I was Black, and that too, it's hard to do that because you're white.

Taylor: How do you explain privilege to those families you're talking about who've been struggling possibly for generations, who are white and poor?

Kendi: Well, I think if you're white and poor, all we can do is show the data. Again, to reiterate, if you're white and poor in the United States, then you're far and away more likely than if you're Black and poor, to live in a mixed income neighborhood. And so you're more likely to have economic opportunities in your neighborhood that a Black poor person is not going to have, and so thereby you have privilege that those Black poor people do not.

And even as a poor person or if you're a poor white person, and you decide that you're going to scream at or curse out the cop or tell a cop that you're going to kill them, the cop is far and away more likely to use restraint for you than they would a Black poor person. And I think that this is something that I think it's critically important for people to realize.

Taylor: How does the Black Lives Matter movement win over those people who deny privilege, who feel that they're not privileged, who are poor and white, if that movement is going to be successful in changing the systems that are broken and racist?

Kendi: Well, I think that what's happening is you have many folks who are not necessarily concerned about winning over those people. And I think that there are poor white and wealthy white people who are open-minded. And there are those who are closed-minded. It's very hard, if not impossible, to transform the mind of someone who is closed.

But there are many white people who have open minds, and they've opened up during the course of this year to the reality and the persistence and the pervasiveness, you know of racism, and that's the majority of Americans. The majority of Americans in June, as an example, one survey found that 76% of respondents stated that racism was a big problem. And if that's representative, you're talking about 76% of Americans recognize racism is a big problem.

So, the closed-minded folks, I don't think we necessarily need them to transform this country.

Taylor: I want to talk a little bit about code words, words like ghetto, thugs, mobs. Are these dangerous and if you believe they are, why are these words that we need to get out of our vocabulary?

Kendi: The words are dangerous if we are basically racializing them. In other words, if in our mind, a poor community is Black. Because in our minds, only Black people are poor, then that's dangerous, because we're erasing all of the poor white people that we've been talking about who exist in this country. And if we believe, for instance, that when a young Black person engages in violence, they are a thug, but when a young white person engages in violence, we ask questions: Well, what's wrong with you? Why are you engaging in that violence? Then that's a problem. That's a demonstration of our racist ideas. But that's typically how these terms are being used. They're typically racialized. They're typically only attached to certain racial groups, and that's what makes them a problem.

Taylor: Some say that silence is violence and that to be neutral is to also be racist. If you're not actively fighting racism, you're part of the problem. Is that an idea you agree with?

Kendi: Yeah, because studying the history of racism in this country, what slaveholders wanted people to do in the Northwest – and the Northwest was different during the enslavement era – but what they wanted people to do in the northeast, what they wanted people to do in the non-slaveholding states, was to do nothing. What Jim Crow segregationists wanted people to do in Chicago or Philadelphia, was to do nothing, because they knew by you and I doing nothing, Jim Crow and slavery and mass incarceration and police violence and voter suppression and racial health disparities would persist. And to allow racism to persist is to be complicit in its persistence.

Taylor: To the millions of people who are sitting home on their couch, and they're watching what's unfolding in our country, and they're saying to themselves, "I don't know what to do. I just don't know how I can participate." And so they would say that they're antiracist, but they're neutral in their participation to end racism. Are they part of the problem?

Kendi: Yes, it's not enough to be aware. We need you as part of this struggle. I mean, if an American can look out at their country and not see a country that's unraveling, not just a country that's unraveling for people of color, but for white people, for everyone, then I'm not sure what they're looking at.

And why is it unraveling? Because you on the one hand have people who are very aggrieved because of the racism that they are experiencing or because of the racism that they're seeing, and then you have other forces that are stoking racist fear. And so that confluence thereby is leading to the unraveling of our country.

And I think that how can we just sit around while the country is unraveling? We need every single person to be a part of this struggle to save and rebuild this country and to make it antiracist.

Taylor: Increasingly, we're seeing this canceling out of people who are saying racist things or posting racist things. Is that an effective solution?

Kendi: So, on the one hand, there are people who say racist things, and when we point it out, they admit it, they seek to repair. They seek to transform themselves, and you can obviously see the ways in which they're doing that. I don't think those people should be canceled.

There are other people who say racist things and do racist things and continue to do it over and over again. And we continue to point it out over and over again. And then they continue to say they're the least racist person you've ever interviewed over and over again, and to me, those folks should be canceled.

Taylor: Race is not easy to talk about, and especially with our white friends. One of the dilemmas I had with your book in wanting to recommend it to my white friends is the use of the n-word often in your book. Can you tell me the strategy behind that?

Kendi: I think that term was primarily used in the chapter called “Black,” which was largely a chapter written for Black people. If there was a chapter that directly was written for black people, it was that chapter. And I think Black people, particularly Black people who are over 30, can remember that critical differentiation in the '90s between Black people and the n-word and how Black people themselves were classifying other Black people in a pejorative fashion through using the n-word and saying they love Black people, but they hate those n-words. And I think it was critical for Black folks to see that and for even, you know, non-Black folks to see that, because I think it was critical for me to really show that form of internalized sort of racism.

But on the other hand, you know, this is a term. It's a word, and there are words that I read that I would never say. And I think we can distinguish between words we read and never say,

Taylor: You have also written a children's board book, "Antiracist Baby," and a teen edition of "Stamped From the Beginning" – "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You." Why write a book for babies?

Kendi: According to studies, babies as early as six months start understanding race. According to studies, babies at two to three years old, start internalizing racist ideas, start discerning and making decisions based on racist ideas. All the while we don't even know that, right? All the while we're imagining, "Oh, they're one, they're two years old, they're three years old. They must be 'colorblind.'" You know, all the while we're allowing the nation, we're allowing our society to raise them to be racist.

And so, I wanted to have an intervention. You know, I wanted to ensure that parents knew that we need to be raising our children as early as possible to be antiracist. We need to be teaching our children the beauty of the human rainbow and how all those different skin colors are all equally beautiful. We need to be teaching our children as early as possible that white people don't have more because they are more. And we need to be teaching our children that Black people don't have less because they are less, because if we don't teach them that, and they're going to learn something else, something else that we don't want them to learn.

Taylor: How do you expect young people looking at the state of things right now to stay hopeful? How do you stay hopeful, and why should they?

Kendi: Well, what I tell my daughter is the same thing I tell myself, which is that you can't bring about change unless you believe change is possible. So no matter how bad it gets, no matter how dire it seems, no matter how big the odds are against you that change could happen, you must believe in that change, because it's what's going to fuel you.

Taylor: There are a lot of people who have very high hopes for the Biden-Harris ticket. Do you think that if they're elected, that that will bring real change? Or will liberals just feel much better about things?

Kendi: I have no idea, and what I'm hoping is that people do not believe, for instance, that one person embodied racism, and if you get rid of one person, you get rid of racism in America. I hope people don't believe that, because if people do believe that we're going to be back in this same situation four years from now.

Taylor: We have a segment on our show called Frequently Awkward Questions. We invite our viewers to ask experts questions that they may be too afraid or too embarrassed to ask others, so I'm going to bring some of those questions to you. Here’s one question. What can white people do as individuals to apologize or to try to make amends to people of color?

Kendi: If there are individuals that you recognize that you've been racist towards, and you would like to make amends and to apologize, you can just let them know. You should know that some of them may not want to hear your apology, and some of them may really appreciate it. You shouldn't put any expectation on that. But you should also be seeking to repair potentially any harm you brought.

I think to Black people in general, I think to Black or brown or Native communities, you should focus on supporting the organizations that are fighting for the rights and lives of these folks. You know, that's the best way to really apologize.

Taylor: Second question, how do average white people who want to grow in regards to race relations make progress?

Kendi: You adopt clear and consistent definitions for racist and antiracist. And you apply those definitions to yourself consistently and regularly and strive to be antiracist in the things that you do.

Taylor: What is wrong with saying "All Lives Matter?"

Kendi: It's equivalent to, let's say if someone came to me, and their child was just in an incredibly abusive, difficult situation. And they said to me, "You know, my child matters." And what if I responded, "Well, what about my child?" That's not a humane way to respond. When Black people are crying out that their lives don't matter, and it's clear that Black people are dying at higher rates from everything from COVID to police violence to respond with, "Well, what about my life? All lives matter," is to me inhumane, let alone racist.

Taylor: Why is it wrong to say that you're colorblind? I don't see color. I'm colorblind.

Kendi: Because it is incredibly important for us to see difference, to see human beauty. That's what we should be teaching our children. We shouldn't be teaching our children to not see the very colors they can see on people's faces. You know, we should be teaching them to value all of this human difference. I see those colors. I see that difference. And it doesn't mean anything other than the color folks see.

You know, I think that it's critically important for us to see color and even see race, because if we don't see race, we're not going to see racial disparities, and if we don't see racial disparities, how can we see racist policies and eliminate them?

Taylor: What is your final message to our viewers? If you had a call to action for them, or just something that you wanted to leave with them to think about?

Kendi: I think at the core of my work, I'm trying to encourage Americans to realize we have racial inequities all around us. And there's only two explanations, the racist and the antiracist explanation. The racist explanation says it's because there's something wrong with people. And the antiracist explanation is that there's something wrong with policy. And that's what I believe and that's what I'm fighting, because I believe that the racial groups are equals.

This story was produced as part of “Facing Race,” a KING 5 series that examines racism, social justice and racial inequality in the Pacific Northwest. Tune in to KING 5 on Sundays at 9:30 p.m. to watch live and catch up on our coverage here.