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'Being antiracist is a journey, not a destination': Ibram X. Kendi delivers final talk of Racial Equity Speaker Series

Kendi discussed his hope that America can actually become antiracist and the work required to dismantle racism

<p>This year, the series aims to bring topics of equity and inclusion to the University through semi-structured conversations with individuals such as professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and author Ijeoma Oluo.</p>

This year, the series aims to bring topics of equity and inclusion to the University through semi-structured conversations with individuals such as professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and author Ijeoma Oluo.

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The Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’s Racial Equity Speaker Series concluded Wednesday with a discussion featuring author and activist Ibram X. Kendi. Moderated by Nicole Jenkins, dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, and Ian Solomon, dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, Kendi answered questions relating to his vision of antiracism, the difference between racism and a racist and how to take on a radical choice to fight white supremacist forces entrenched into American systems. 

This year, the series aims to bring topics of equity and inclusion to the University through semi-structured conversations with individuals such as professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and author Ijeoma Oluo.

Kendi is the renowned National Book Award-winning author of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” and “How to Be an Antiracist.” An avid op-ed writer, Kendi also spends time teaching at Boston University while heading the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research.

The talk centered around laying the intellectual groundwork for understandings of modern day antiracism and the work required to build a more equitable nation.

“We too often use the term racism and racist interchangeably,” Kendi said. “Racism is indeed structural, meaning we can define racism as this powerful collection of policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by ideas of racial hierarchy … racist is individual, you have an individual policy, individual use or individual person who is being racist.”

With a tendency to work within definitions, Kendi began the talk distinguishing between racism and racist, adhering to a belief that the term “structural racism” is redundant because of the inherently systemic nature of racist systems. 

The bulk of Kendi’s work in his two most popular books supports his argument that common conceptions surrounding the causes of racism are incorrect. Instead of understanding racist policies as caused by racist individuals imbued with racist ideas, Kendi noted that Americans need to instead recognize the role of self interest in policy making. 

“I found we got the life cycle wrong, that it was the very opposite — that you had people who out of their own political or economic or cultural self-interest were instituting racist policies, and to justify those racist policies or to defend them, they were producing racist ideas … and then people were consuming those racist ideas, which lead to ignorance and hate,” Kendi said. 

Despite beginning his research for “Stamped from the Beginning” with an admittedly unhopeful mindset as he believed it would be nearly impossible to change the hearts of individuals spreading racist ideas, Kendi said he found hope in reframing racism in America to focus on policy rather than individuals. 

“That actually gave me hope because if it’s coming out of policy and interest and power, it’s possible to shape policy — it’s hard as heck but it’s actually possible — so that actually gave me hope,” Kendi said.

The work of anti-racism is never ending, Kendi said, and a portion of Kendi’s talk focused on the importance of individuals acknowledging the way in which they have internalized racist beliefs and the radical choice that comes with confronting racial disparities. 

“I’m mentioning challenging [racism] as an active phenomenon because for far too long people imagined all they have to be is not racist,” Kendi said. “Being antiracist is a journey, not a destination ... it isn’t a fixed category.”

Throughout the discussion, Kendi also addressed criticisms of his work, such as the claim that if Americans stopped talking about race things would be better. 

To this, Kendi made an analogy to cancer and the necessity with which people must confront harmful systems of power. Through this, Kendi asserted that if society ignores cancer, that doesn’t mean the problem goes away — it simply means that the problem is allowed to spread unchecked — and Kendi said that racism in America will follow the same pattern if ignored.

“To me, that is actually the worst possible way we can eliminate racism … the solution of let’s just not use the c-word, no doctor, do not go into that room and diagnose that person with cancer — you know why? — because it’s going to hurt them,” Kendi said. “There are certain groups that need more resources and opportunities and protections, but we are not providing for those people because in our minds they are not suffering because we cannot see it.”

Kendi could not fully disclose his next project, but did hint that audience members should be on the lookout for a new book project coming out next month. 

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