You can say Racist: my review of Stamped From The Beginning

Cover picture, Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X KendiIbram 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.



e-waste on the sidewalk

You see ‘vaping litter’ more and more on the sidewalk; little plastic pieces, some with electronic components. Here’s one I found while walking across campus. It was shaped like a flat yellow aluminum cigarette.

I tore it open to see the innards. Left to right there’s a silicone seal, pressure sensor, lithium-polymer battery of respectable energy, silicone seal, fiberglass tube with heating element, cellulose filter pack soaked with flavored nicotine-delivering oil, and another silicone seal.

There is no provision to recharge or reuse any of this; it’s meant to be discarded when done. So I found it on the sidewalk.

It’s long past time to bring back littering laws, and take them seriously. Because throwing e-waste on the sidewalk is not acceptable.


  • See also: all litter, what the hell is wrong with people stop throwing crap all over the place. But today I’m lookin’ at actual electronic waste discarded. Hey, nicotine is a stimulant it should give you energy to find the goddamn e-recycling bin.

Stress Test

Medical treadmill and testing control equipment

OK so here’s how it went down. You remember that scene in “The 40-Year Old Virgin” where they tear off all his chest hair with tape? Pretty much me as they tore off about a dozen ECG contact pads. They had me wired up like some kind of cyborg. Only not a cool cyborg. More like a bald, overweight cyborg. Like, you’d design your cyborg that way if you wanted no one to ever guess…

After they got an IV set up, the technician brought in a tiny, battered metal case and opened the lid, which was lined with an inch of lead. She lifted out a hypo with a lead shield around it and lit me up. Then I had to go sit in the waiting room and irradiate other people while it perfused through my circulatory system.

Then they packed me into some kind of scanner I’d never seen before (with no room to move) and took 5 minutes of radioactive heart video. OK, it’s stress test time now!

Cardiologist: (watching, giving orders)
Me: (walking along like a normal person on a white GE treadmill hooked up to their system) It’s cool, I feel fine.
Nurse-tech: “OK, now we’re going to turn up the elevation and speed. You sure you’re OK?”
[Repeat several times]

Cardiologist: “More, more! I’m still not satisfieeed!”
Nurse-tech: “Are you OK? Any chest pains? Any pain in your arm?”
Me: (at full ‘running-from-wild-boars’ level of exertion, have my undersized lungs near bursting, sweat building up)
Nurse-tech: “Are you OK? You can’t just step off, we have to ramp it down, any chest pains?”
Tech: Injects something into the IV that burns like hell
Me: (between breaths) “Pile it on, I’m good”
Treadmill: (doubles)
Cardiologist: “Almost got it… 30 more seconds”
Me: (feet pounding, hallucinating the hyper-drive scene from 2001, a Space Odyssey)
Nurse-tech: “Can you make it 15 more seconds?”
Me: “I’mgoodgetthedata”
Nurse-tech: “5 more seconds”
Time: (slows down tremendously at light speed)
Nurse-tech: “That’s it! We’re slowing down now.”
Me: (walking slowly, lungs on overtime for another full minute)
Me: “Did you get the data? Did we get it?”
Cardiologist and nurse-tech: “We got it. We got good data.”

Then there was some other stuff about studying the readings and the radiologist’s report and my doctor and something…

Another scan, this time lying on my stomach, a position in which I am not comfortable.

OK all done! So we went home.


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  • Test machine is running Windows XP
  • *(I never saw that movie, but I saw that clip. Since it was in the trailer I figured most people would remember it. If I do this again I’m giving my chest a buzz-cut first.)

Sliding on the ice

Some of you may remember I did a joke post a couple weeks ago, where my doctor called me and said “We need to talk” and I said that was never a good sign. I posted a Star Wars reference where Han Solo says; “Never tell me the odds!
Well they told me the odds anyway. My left anterior descending artery is badly clogged. Cardiologists playfully refer to this artery as “The Widow Maker” because the human heart goes haywire when that artery doesn’t make its delivery schedules. I have a big test this coming Friday to help determine the best treatment. (Oh man, will it be multiple choice? Essay? Will there be math involved?)
Dear friends, several things. This condition is well-understood in medicine, and of course I have already read extensively about it. While it is true a whole lot of people die every year from this condition, it is also true that a whole lot of people get treatment and _don’t_ die. I hope to be in the latter group. Thanks to the diagnosis my odds are now better than even. At the moment I am still very much alive.
While everybody has their own approach to danger, I prefer silliness. I would rather receive reassurances in the form of inappropriate jokes and movie references. When the guy in the dark robe and the scythe finally shows up, there is no more defiant response than laughter.
It’s the weekend. Go outside and enjoy the weather, even if it’s bad weather. Read a good book. Watch a movie YOU like even if someone told you it was too silly or sentimental or whatever. Clean something or mess something up. In the words of Sidney Freedman; “Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice. Pull down your pants, and slide on the ice!”
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  • Extra points if you read that last quote in the voice of Sidney Freedman, the psychiatrist on M*A*S*H

Story time about caves

Remember the Thai soccer team that got stranded in a cave with rising water, and a global effort was required to rescue them? That story felt a little personal to me. I had a cave experience once that clued me to how fast and unexpectedly you can get in trouble, in a cave.

Back in, maybe, 1977 or ’78, I was caving with a friend in Tennessee. We went down a long, twisting incline, walked around the perimeter of a subterranean lake, and crawled through a low horizontal passage. Its ceiling was so low we had to take our packs off and pull them behind us.

The horizontal passage opened into a chamber with a vertical wall. Which we scaled, and found a labyrinth of delightful new passages we’d never found before. These we explored for a couple hours (seeing only a small part of them), and returned to climb back down the vertical wall.

Which we did, and setting a foot down onto the level of the horizontal passage, felt… water.

The passage, maybe fifty feet long, had about four inches of water in it.

Outside, it had begun to rain. We could hear water pouring down the incline leading to the lake. Shining a light down the horizontal passage, we could see small waves coming toward us. The water was rising.

We could have climbed the wall and stayed in the high part of the cave for an undetermined period of time. Days? Longer?

How fast can you crawl? My answer to that right now would be “not very fast and not very far”. But when I was twenty? A lot faster, and a lot farther.

We race-crawled through the water in the passage to the lake. The walkway we had taken around the lake was now submerged. The incline had become a creek, feeding the lake.

Fortunately the water was very clear, so we could shine our lights through it and see the walkway. Then we climbed the incline back to the surface. When we emerged the rain was tapering off. It had been a brief event.

I have another story to tell of that cave, sometime. And others near it.


  • By the way, what a moving, amazing story the Thai cave rescue was. When I look at the hate and fear in a world bristling with pointless weapons, I wish we could all grasp the common fate of humanity and pull together for each other and the future like this.
  • Sadly, one of the rescuers just succumbed to an infection he contracted during the rescue one year ago.
  • In the excellent NOVA documentary, Elon Musk’s goofy plan to deliver an aluminum submarine for rescue got exactly the amount of attention it deserved.


It took forever to walk that road, icy feet torn and bruised in the dark
Dismantling fear with little hope of comfort or safety
Scraping at prejudice etched into my child brain and always felt to be the pattern of truth
And now, you want me to retrace those bloody steps for your benefit?
To go back on every discovery, to visit again the humiliation of finding out I was wrong?
To share with you this treasure, the spoils of battle against my worst self
So you can mock me? So you can throw talking points at me?
I finally won some understanding of human value
I can finally see humanity and beauty where before I could not
At last I am beginning to understand that the history I learned has been sanitized
You are not interested, not really
You are not seeking
You could say; “Please recommend a book that helped you understand”
You could ask me to suggest a movie title, or an experience, but all you want is an argument
Well, no.
My friends are not up for discussion. That issue is closed now.
I am not going back just to carry you kicking and screaming
And I have much farther to go to as it is.
Go on your own damn journey.