Bestselling author talks antiracism, the Capitol riots and color blindness

Ibram X. Kendi’s work has focused on how being anti-racist differs from being ‘not racist’ and how one can implement anti-racist principles and practices in their lives, at both personal and institutional levels. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

For distinguished activist and bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi, the pandemic has brought racial disparities and Americans’ denial of racism and promotion of ‘color blindness’ front and center. At a Zoom event Wednesday, Kendi explained that refusing to talk about and identify race will not make racism disappear. Ignoring race during the pandemic would amount to ignoring the fact that Black and Indigenous people and people of color have been dying at disproportionate rates, he said.

“When we identify racially it allows us to collect racial data, and if we have racial data that allows us to see racial disparity …we can start to now figure out what are the policies and practices and conditions and structures that are causing those disparities,” he said. “The worst thing we can do is have a deeply unequal society that nobody can see, let alone challenge.”

In partnership with Culture Journey, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion week team hosted a dialogue with Kendi, who is also the founder of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. The discussion focused on the practice of anti-racism and how it applies in the context of recent events in the United States and promoting change at USC. 

Black Lives Matter protests and marches following the murder of George Floyd in May last year served as a catalyst to further expand the conversation on racism in the U.S. Books such as Kendi’s “How to be an Antiracist” saw an exponential increase in sales during this time. His work has been a significant contribution to the plethora of work done by Black and Indigenous people and people of color activists and academics for years.

“I think to bring in one of the most renowned scholars in this work helps us navigate this intellectual territory around racism, because he also helps us see racism through many lenses,” said Renée Smith-Maddox, a clinical professor, diversity liaison in the School of Social Work and chair of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee, “I don’t think we could have made a better choice than to have Kendi come and talk with us at this point in time.”

Smith-Maddox is also the co-founder and co-chair of DEI week, a week dedicated to building a ‘tool kit’ of equity and inclusion through a series of events and programs that draw on the insights, expertise and experiences of various experts both within and beyond USC. 

“It was an opportunity, in our minds, that we could create this learning space for the Trojan community to have this ongoing environment that will cultivate their understanding and learning of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Smith-Maddox said in an interview with the Daily Trojan.

In conversation with Kendi was professor Camille Gear Rich from the Gould School of Law, who co-founded and co-chairs DEI week with Smith-Maddox. Rich is also the founder of PRYSM, the USC initiative for the study of race, gender, sexuality and the law. The pair started DEI week five years ago and have been working diligently to make the week a meaningful source of growth for USC. 

“For the past five years we’ve been bringing people together to teach new skills to have difficult conversations and really to celebrate the members of our community who do this hard work, all year long, and to invite more people into the conversation,” Rich said.

Kendi is one of these people. His work has focused on how being anti-racist differs from being ‘not racist’ and how one can implement anti-racist principles and practices in their lives, at both personal and institutional levels. Rich and Kendi’s conversation opened with a discussion on what the difference between anti-racist and ‘not racist’ means. 

“To be anti-racist is to figure out a way for us as individuals to challenge that system of racism,” Kendi said. “But also the way in which we go about challenging that institutional racism is really coming to grips with and being honest and vulnerable with ourselves, and recognizing the racist ideas we’ve internalized that cause us to see the problem as people, as opposed to that racism we should all be fighting.”

Their reflections on the U.S.’ journey with racism led to an impassioned conversation about the storming of the Capitol in January, an event that blatantly showcased the threat of white supremacy. For Kendi, it was proof of two things that the U.S. public can no longer deny. 

“First, that the greatest domestic terrorist threat of our time are white supremacists. Secondly, that police officers have the ability to show restraint,” Kendi said. 

The latter point addressed public discourse around police brutality towards Black and brown people that argues bias training and other such reforms are part of the solution.  

“If they can show restraint to an armed mob who is sacking the U.S. Capitol, then they can show restraint to any American,” Kendi said. 

The storming of the Capitol has also been evidence of what Kendi identifies as the course of racism. While some typically think ignorance and hatred inform racist thinking which then leads to the institution of racist policies, Kendi identifies it as the other way around. Elected officials use voter suppression policies targeted at Black and Indigenous people and people of color, and thus encourage the spread of racist ideas, he said.

“This is what’s critical, thinking about the attack on the Capitol, you had the mass consumption of those ideas. So you had American people who were misled into believing that indeed the election was stolen by those Black and Brown voters,” he said, “And then that caused them to be ignorant and hateful and thereby stormed the U.S. Capitol.”

Rich and Kendi also discussed the compassion, vulnerability and transparency involved in the anti-racism process and in the process of holding other people and institutions accountable for their racist behavior. Kendi’s own experiences as a cancer survivor have informed his observations on this, he said. 

Kendi compared being held accountable for racism to being diagnosed with cancer. Despite receiving devastating news, patients still view the physician as someone who wants to help and view those who pushed them to ignore the problem, as if everything was okay, as not having their best interests at heart. 

“What if we as an American people stated that those people who are willing to diagnose racism in institutions and individuals are actually those who love us the most, are those who want us to get healing, are those who will actually make this nation great and these institutions great,” Kendi said.  

Rich offered a similar point of hope for members of the USC community that continue to work and fight towards institutional change, and a word of advice for those that may have seen the fight for equity and justice as divisive.

“Accountability is partially about love. You don’t try to hold people accountable unless you still care about them,” Rich said. “And so if that dynamic goes away, if people stop trying to hold folks accountable, it is a very bad sign to the institution.”