Ibram X Kendi’s Stamped From The Beginning is an exploration of the history of racist ideas in America. Kendi uses the device of examining five key historical figures in their time: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. DuBois, and Angela Davis.
OK, that’s the dry description.
If you are a white American, you are accustomed to being protected from the word ‘racist’. Other people are racists. The founding fathers were not racist, they just lived in a different time. Above all, there is something called “The Race Card” that is used to end arguments, but America has moved beyond racism. These are articles of American faith, and anyone who challenges them is a faithless American.*
Kendi turns that all on its head by using the words ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ to describe actions and ideas, not just people. Because if the word is only a pejorative to be flung at other people, it will have little use in the diagnosis and treatment of America’s poison. Read the recent NPR interview in which Kendi explains why many Trump supporters avoid the word.
IBRAM X KENDI: I think we imagine that the term racist is an identity, is a fixed sort of category.
INSKEEP: It’s a label.
KENDI: Is a label, is a tattoo and is a representation of our bones, of our heart. And that’s just blatantly not true. Racist is a descriptive term. It’s a term that identifies someone based on what they’re saying or doing. And so if you’re saying something that’s racist, if you’re supporting policies that are racist, then you’re being a racist.
“Being a racist” is different from “are a racist”, but only just so far. How would you describe a society of racist institutions, and people who are being racist, with the result of racist policies and social expectations?
It would be a disservice to try and distill the book into a few paragraphs, but the reader will encounter some unfamiliar and difficult concepts. Racism has both personal and institutional dimensions, and took popular forms in the guise of benevolent segregationist and assimilationist ideas. Kendi fills out this narrative:
“This history could not be made for readers in an easy-to-predict, two-sided Hollywood battle of obvious good versus obvious evil, with good triumphing in the end. From the beginning, it has been a three-sided battle, a battle of antiracist ideas being pitted against two kinds of racist ideas at the same time, with evil and good failing and triumphing in the end. Both segregationist and assimilationist ideas have been wrapped up in attractive arguments to seem good, and both have made sure to re-wrap antiracist ideas as evil.” (Kendi, Ibram X.. Stamped from the Beginning (p. 4). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.)
Stamped From The Beginning is not an easy read; my advice is to set aside time. But if you find yourself avoiding the use of the word ‘racist’ when looking at racist actions, it might be exactly the right medicine.
- Kendi is Director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center.
- Denying the relevance of racism is like saying that other people have lead poisoning, but not you, even though you lived right alongside them, breathed the same air, ate the same food. You are never going to get the lead out of your tissues that way.