Kendi: "Anti-woke" Part of Backlash Against Antiracist Protest MovementsHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Protest, Woke
Few scholars have experienced the fickle nature of fame as dramatically as Ibram X. Kendi in the past three years.
Kendi, author of the New York Times #1 bestseller, “How to Be an Antiracist,” became an intellectual celebrity in the summer of 2020 after his books became a go-to source for millions of Americans trying to make sense of the murder of George Floyd. He was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” became a sought-after commentator on race and helped add a new word to the way we talk about it: antiracist. The term means to actively fight against racism rather than passively claim to be non-racist.
Then came a backlash. Kendi’s books were banned by some school libraries and he was accused by conservatives of corrupting children and offering a grim view of America that casts everyone as a racist. He also became the central villain in a GOP-led campaign to purge the teaching of systemic racism in American public schools. The campaign took off following the massive wave of racial protests that swept across the country in the wake of Floyd’s death, which drew the support of many White people, including students.
Kendi says the current campaign against what one conservative commentator calls “systemic wokeness” is an effort to halt the antiracist momentum generated by the Floyd protests. When asked what happened to that momentum, Kendi gives a wry chuckle.
“The momentum was just crushed by a pretty well-organized force and movement of people who are seeking to conserve racism,” he says. “Who’ve tried to change the problem from racism to antiracism. And who’ve tried to change the problem from police violence to the people speaking out against police violence.”
Are people taught racism, or are human beings born with this instinct to assign value to skin color? Some people think racism is just part of being human.
This is hotly debated among scientists and scholars, particularly the instinct part. Based on my research, I don’t think that people are born racist or antiracist. But I think depending on the environment that they are raised in, they go in one or the other direction.
I think human beings are taught instinctually to protect ourselves. When you grow up in a racist society where you’re taught that those “other people” are the source of your pain, those “other people” are not like you because they look differently or because they have different hair texture, it can then lead to people instinctually wanting to protect themselves from those “other people.”
But what if we taught that skin color is as irrelevant as the color of one’s shirt? What if we taught that hair texture is as irrelevant to the underlying person’s humanity as the glasses that they are wearing? We can teach people to think differently about people who look different to the point where they’ll see the humanity in that person, despite different skin color and hair texture.
That’s very optimistic. It reminds of something else I read in your book. You said racism isn’t this all-powerful deity that can’t be defeated. What do you mean by that?
Researching the history of racism — who created it, for what purpose, how its evolved over the last nearly 600 years, how it’s spread around the world, how it’s impacted people — it’s allowed me to really take a step back and see the structure, which then allows me to believe that it can all be deconstructed. Somebody built this (racism). And they’re rebuilding it. But you can actually deconstruct it. Anything that can be constructed, like racism, can be deconstructed.
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