a politician, each and all
An Interview with ibram x. kendi
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, a New York Times bestselling author and a leading scholar of race and discriminatory policy in America, is the National Book Award-winning author of 2016's Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. His next book, How to Be an Antiracist, is slated for publication in 2018. Dr. Kendi is a professor of history and international relations at American University, where he also founded the Antiracist Research and Policy Center. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram and Facebook at @ibramxkendi. More information can be found at ibramxkendi.com.
TMR: What are the origins of your interest in journalism and non-fiction?
IK: Initially I wanted to become the next Bob Costas. In the 90's, he was a play-by-play announcer. He would call the New York Knicks vs. Chicago Bulls games. I love basketball, and I knew I wouldn't be able to make the NBA, and so I thought calling the games would be the next best thing to being in the games.
When I got to Florida A&M University, I realized that I may be a better writer than speaker, and so I transitioned into sports journalism, and ultimately into journalism, and into racial scholarship.
TMR: What was the process of transitioning into racial scholarship?
IK: I decided to pursue graduate school in African American studies, and first get my Master's. I wasn't sure what I was doing: go back to journalism, or pursue my PhD. Basically, when I got there, when I got to see the life of a professor—particularly the freedom that professors have to choose what they want to study and write about—I decided to pursue my PhD and become a scholar.
TMR: In researching for Stamped from the Beginning, did you explore the fiction and poetry of the Harlem Renaissance writers you were writing about?
IK: Certainly. I had to research them and read their work as I was writing. I also like to read fiction while I'm writing non-fiction because it, of course, models for me the way in which I should be writing. I think we should all figure out what works best for us, and that has certainly worked well for me.
TMR: In an interview with the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, you stated that the book changed the way you think about racism. Could you expand on that?
I realized that racist ideas were actually coming out of racist policies, and the consumption of racist ideas were leading to ignorance and hate.
IK: I entered into writing the book believing the common idea that racist ideas emerged out of ignorance and hate, and through the research and writing of Stamped, I realized that racist ideas were actually coming out of racist policies, and the consumption of racist ideas were leading to ignorance and hate. That's a fundamental thesis that I showed in the book. I didn't realize when I entered into that book until, in writing it, it changed me too.
TMR: What kind of emotional journey was the book for you?
IK: I think that the way that I got through it was, in many ways, making light of the extremely difficult ideas that I was reading and portraying. What I mean by making light is, they, to me, seem so ridiculous I could only laugh at them. And so I'd go and tell a friend, or tell my wife, "Listen here at what this person said about black people," and I would laugh about it. I think laughing about it made me get through it, because either you laugh about it or get extremely angry about it. I think that laughter allows me to get through it. I laugh at its ridiculousness.
TMR: What do you take on some of the extreme events that happened in the past year, like the Nazi rally in Charlottesville? Because it's happening now, can you apply that mentality, or is it harder?
IK: I don't know if a specific event or incident is laughable because so many people clearly felt terrorized, and somebody was killed. This is specifically for how I dealt with ideas—ideas that were, in most cases, hundreds of years ago or decades ago. I don't know if that can necessarily be applied today.
If it can be applied, the way it would be applied is: I think there's a distinction in recognizing that an idea is offensive, and being offended. I try to not feel offended as much as recognize that an idea is offensive, and challenge it.
TMR: In another portion of the interview with the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, you're quoted as saying, "I try to tell the truth the best that I can and I try to engage in work that I feel is going to make a difference, because every piece of work is going to make a difference either in a positive or negative way." We are in an era where the truth is being criticized and called into question by people in positions of power—what is your take on "fake news," and how do we convince people that the truth is the truth?
I think we have to distinguish between people who are open-minded and people who are close-minded, and focus our efforts on people who are open-minded.
IK: I think we have to distinguish between people who are open-minded and people who are close-minded, and focus our efforts on people who are open-minded. People who are open-minded are not people who we have to convince the truth is the truth. People who are close-minded, no matter what you say—even if you say the truth—they'll just say the truth is not the truth. There's enough people out there who are open-minded, and who are well-meaning, that if we spent our time educating them as opposed to knocking up against the brick walls of close-minded people, I think that'd be a lot more effective. I don't waste my time with close-minded people.
People are people. Some people just refuse to change their minds on things. And we have to understand that in changing their minds, they're not just changing their minds. They have to change their whole sense of self; they have to change the way they view themselves, they have to change the way they view their country, they have to presumably eliminate the social relationships that they have, they have to pull themselves out of their social circles. Asking people to do all of these things, it's not just changing their minds. They literally have to change their whole lives. When they change their minds, their ideas are pretty determined of the social circles that they're in.
TMR: Due to your scholarship, are there any works of fiction that you can think of that contributed to the fostering of anti-racism in America?
IK: There are many classic anti-racist novels, from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, which I think was critical in displaying southern black people within all their imperfections, as normal people. You also have books like Beloved by Toni Morrison, which was critical in terms of discussing the conditions of enslavement.
I think there are many novels that certainly do that. Of course, Jesmyn Ward's work is incredible in doing that. She just won her second National Book Award for for her latest novel.
TMR: Do you think that American literature as a whole is becoming more diverse? From your experience, do you think that we're getting on a path of more diversity?
IK: In certain types of ways, but I don't know whether it's specifically because people are becoming more interested or aware of racial issues that they're then creating a demand for books on race, and a demand for books on race is more likely to demand books by people of color, who sometimes, if not most times, are writing books on race. But even many of the books on race are written by white people, so it's not necessarily automatically resulting in the authors being diverse. Certainly the topics are, in that sense. I know in non-fiction it's sort of hard to say.
TMR: What are your thoughts on authors writing about those that are like them? There are authors writing about race that might not be of that race, so what is your take on that? Is it something that has the potential to be good?
IK: I think white authors have been writing about white people for a very long time. I think what is different is when they identify those people as white people, as opposed to normalizing those people. White writers, when they write about white people, shouldn't be identifying those people as white.
One of the reasons why there's a lack of an understanding about whiteness and white privileges and white people is because white people simply do not want to write on that topic. But there has been a growing number of white people writing on that topic; there's been an explosion of what's called "whiteness studies" in the United States. I don't think you can expect people of color to write about white people—even though some of them have, and some of them can do it effectively—but I think it's incumbent upon any group of people to write about their people. I think books can be very crucial.
TMR: You've said that your next book How To Be an Antiracist "utilizes your personal story, your own intellectual trajectory," in telling readers how to be an anti-racist. What was your journey, going into anti-racism?
IK: In the book I try to simultaneously tell my own story of how I was raised in racist ideas, and the experiences and insights that lead me to develop a more anti-racist perspective, while simultaneously telling the reader the series of intellectual steps that I had to take. These were several steps, because when you think about being an anti-racist, it's quite a complex phenomenon.
TMR: What could somebody could do right now, starting today, that would help foster the movement of anti-racism?
IK: I think, first in terms of as an individual, our own individual ideas: For us to recognize that the racial groups are equal, and that there is racial disparity in our society, that that racial disparity is caused by racial discrimination, and discriminatory policy that we may be able to identify or we may not be able to identify.
the focus of anti-racists is on basically changing and eliminating racist policies, and the way they do that is by supporting organizations and individuals who are doing so.
In terms of what people can do right now, the focus of anti-racists is on basically changing and eliminating racist policies, and the way they do that is by supporting organizations and individuals who are doing so. For people to think about organizations in their community that they can either donate their time or money to, that would be most effective.
TMR: You helped open a new center at American University, the Antiracist Research and Policy Center—how did that get started? Do you have any direct goals regarding what you'd like to do and accomplish there?
IK: When I realized that our focus should be on policy change and identifying and eliminating discriminatory policies, I clearly wanted to be involved in that work myself. That was the impetus for me founding this Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. And ultimately, what we're going to seek to do is just that. We're going to seek to identify discriminatory policies, we're going to seek to envision policy correctors, and we're going to raise campaigns of change to get those policies instituted.
TMR: Would you ever enter politics?
IK: I'm personally right now focused on building this center. We are all involved in politics, whether you're a politician or you're a citizen, through your voting or non-voting, through your prepping of your politicians or through leaving them alone. Whatever you're doing is leading to policies either changing or sustaining themselves. And so for me, in many ways we're all politicians. We're all people who are making or maintaining policies, and so clearly I want to use my work and my platform and organize people who are going to eliminate policies that discriminate against people.