Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us. Today, I’m talking with Professor Ibram Kendi. He’s a number one New York Times best-selling author and the Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. He’s also an ideas columnist at The Atlantic and a correspondent with CBS News. He is the author of four books, including Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. He has another book called, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, which he co-authored with Jason Reynolds, and it’s a remix of the Stamped from the Beginning book that is meant for YA, teen readers – an incredible, incredible book. And he’s got a new book coming out called Antiracist Baby, which is a board book that will be published this month in June. Completely evidence that it’s never too early to start talking about anti-racism.
BB: He’s also the author of How to Be an Antiracist, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today. We’re going to talk about all those books, but we’re going to really focus on How to Be an Antiracist, which is a groundbreaking approach to understanding and uprooting racism and inequality in our society and in ourselves. It’s an incredible conversation. I welcome you to the table to sit with us, talk, think, feel, ask, question, and lean in really, really far to what we need to learn about ourselves and the world. I want to start this conversation with a quote from Professor Kendi: “By not running from books that pain us, we can allow them to transform us. I ran from antiracist books most of my life, but now I can’t stop running after them, scrutinizing myself and my society, and in the process changing both.” Let’s jump in.
BB: Alright, first let me say that I am incredibly grateful for you joining us on Unlocking Us, thank you for that.
Ibram X. Kendi: Of course, I’m so happy to be on.
BB: I always start these podcasts with not the perfunctory, but the honest, “How are you?” How are you doing right now?
IK: I’m okay. This is quite the time in American history, and as someone who studies anti-Black racism, I’m simultaneously enraged to see the deathly effects of that racism, but simultaneously energized to see all of the people resisting that racism.
BB: How are you holding up with the COVID-19 pandemic on top of all of this, as the underscore to all of this?
IK: I think that that has been difficult for me, partly because my colleagues and I, we partnered with the COVID Tracking Project to build this COVID racial data tracker. And so we’re… It’s like the premier tracker of racial data on COVID. And so I’m seeing the data coming in and the disparities all over the country, and so that’s been difficult. And then simultaneously, my wife, Sadiqa, her family is… Her hometown is Albany, Georgia, and Albany, Georgia and that general area of Southwest Georgia has one of the worst outbreaks in the country. And simultaneously, it’s a trauma desert, it doesn’t have a tremendous amount of high-quality healthcare, in contrast to New York City, which also of course has been a major outbreak. And so, seeing and hearing those stories firsthand of people suffering, obviously, it’s been difficult. And this is a primarily Black area.
BB: I want to get into… I want to talk a lot about How to Be an Antiracist, your book that I think is life changing. I want to talk about your new book that’s coming out in a couple of weeks. Tell us the title of that new book.
IK: Antiracist Baby. It’s a board book.
BB: I can’t wait. I want to start because when we talk about the pandemic, when we talk about what’s happening right now in the world with a rebellion, the protest, you wrote an article that went up on The Atlantic this morning.
BB: It’s called “The American Nightmare: To be Black and Conscious of Anti-Black Racism is to Stare Into The Mirror of Your Own Extinction.” I want to… Can I read a piece of this to you and ask you about it?
IK: Sure, yeah.
BB: Would you rather read it or would you… Can I read it to you?
IK: Yeah, you can read it. That’s fine, yeah.
BB: Okay. You’re using as an epigraph, a quote from Malcom X from 1964, “We don’t see any American dream. We’ve experienced only the American nightmare.” And then you write, “A nightmare is essentially a horror story of danger, but it is not wholly a horror story. Black people experience joy, love, peace, safety. But as in any horror story, those unforgettable moments of toil, terror, and trauma have made danger essential to the Black experience in racist America. What one Black American experiences, many Black Americans experience. Black Americans are constantly stepping into the toil and terror and trauma of other Black Americans. Black Americans are constantly stepping into the souls of the dead because they know that could have been them, they are them. Because they know it is dangerous to be Black in America because racist Americans see Blacks as dangerous. To be Black and conscious of anti-Black racism is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction.”
BB: This is not just about the police brutality; this is not just about Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd; this is about the tens of thousands of Black victims of Covid.
BB: Talk to me about this article. What do we need to understand?
IK: Well, I think first and foremost, the article revolves around a very, very prominent book that was written in 1896 by Frederick Hoffman, who, basically it was a book of statistical tables and racial data that showed not only racial disparities in crime rates, but also racial disparities in infection rates and racial disparities in mortality, or I should say death rates, and so he took this massive amount of racial data to proclaim that Black people were not subjected to racist policies. That wasn’t the cause of Black disease, of Black death, and even Black people being disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. He made the case that this data shows that Black people are headed towards gradual extinction, and it’s their fault. They are by nature or behavior, a dangerous, diseased, dying people, and to recognize anything else is to not recognize the facts. And so this idea, normalizing Black pain and suffering and death has only continued to this day, and so essentially when you normalize, when you just believe that Black people should be disproportionally dying of police violence or even COVID-19, you’re thereby not going to challenge, let alone look for the policies that are actually behind this disproportionate Black death.
IK: And so then those who are experiencing those policies that are then leading to that trauma and terror, and even toil, they’re going to be experiencing the American nightmare. And the reason why I use the term the American nightmare is because Black people are constantly told that America is this land of equal opportunity, that police officers protect and serve, that we too have access to the American dream. And obviously, based on the experiences of Black people, we’ve really, as Malcolm said, 50 years ago, experienced the American nightmare.
BB: When you talk about the Hoffman book, it’s such a devastating reminder to me, because I see this a lot right now of how statistics, academics, science can be dehumanizing tools as much as kind of the language that we use.
IK: Yeah, without question. And let me give an example. So when we first were able to start getting states in early April to release racial data, and then we saw these racial disparities. We saw that Black people were disproportionately being infected and even dying, of COVID. The first response of people to that data, of many people to that data, was to say Black people are not taking the virus seriously, Black people are not socially distancing, there’s something wrong with Black people, and then we were able to disprove that. Basically survey data in mid-March had already proven that actually Black people were taking the virus more seriously than white people. So then it’s zeroed in to, well, it must be the result of Black pre-existing conditions.
IK: And then those pre-existing conditions are caused by Black people making disproportionately bad or unhealthy behaviors. So it just always, essentially, you take these racial disparities, and we’ve been arguing over their existence, even before Frederick Hoffman. Is it because there’s something wrong with Black people, or is there racist policy? And those who believe we live in a nation that’s post-racial, that there’s equal opportunity, they’re not going to ever see the racist policies that are even in many cases, hard to see, instead they’re just going to blame Black people.
BB: It’s almost, and I don’t think it’s almost, it is the confirmation bias of racist beliefs.
IK: It is, yeah, it is. And that’s what’s striking about Frederick Hoffman, because he opens his book arguing that, “I am free of bias. I am free of prejudice or sentimentally.”
BB: Which should be our first flag, right?
IK: Exactly, right. And then, ends the book stating that the gradual extinction of Black people is only a matter of time, and it’s based on the data. And to give another example, you have many people arguing that police violence, disproportionate police violence is the result of Black people being disproportionately violent, and Black people are disproportionately violent, they say, because, well, just look at the violent crime data. There’s this widespread belief that Black neighborhoods are more dangerous because of violent crime data, the same violent crime data that Frederick Hoffman in this book in 1896 really popularized. But what Americans don’t realize, and this is what I’ve been trying to get people to see, is that there’s no relationship between the violent crime in those neighborhoods and the Blackness of the people.
IK: In other words, people believe that the reason why those neighborhoods are violent is because there are Black people there, and that’s why when they see Black neighborhoods, they assume that those neighborhoods are violent because the Black people and their culture and their behavior and even their genetics are predisposed to violence. But if that was the case, then all Black neighborhoods would have the same levels of violent crime. In other words, higher income…
BB: Because that would be the… Yeah, that would be the consistent variable.
IK: Precisely. And so, higher income Black neighborhoods would have the same levels of violent crime as extremely impoverished Black neighborhoods. That is not the case. And it’s not the case in white America, it’s not the case in Asian America, Native America, Latinx America. In every America, if we want to split up America racially, you have higher levels of poverty, long-term unemployment, you’re going to have higher levels of violent crime, whether you’re talking about a white community or neighborhood with higher levels of violent crime or Latinx or Black. So we know statistically that actually what is the consistent variable is poverty and unemployment. But people still want to call these dangerous Black neighborhoods as opposed to dangerous unemployed neighborhoods.
BB: One of the things that I find so powerful about your work, there are many things, but one of the things I find so powerful is your ability to unpack things, lay them out, and the steps always lead back to policy. It always leads back to systemic policy.
IK: And I think that’s one of the things I’m trying to get people to realize, and especially, I think one of the things that happens with our discussions on race is we personalize groups, meaning we make groups into individuals, and, even though every group is made up of individuals, we say, “Oh well, this group is disproportionately obese, so therefore, why can’t this group “diet or exercise more” in the way I used to do when I weighed a little bit more. But that’s actually… We can’t think of groups as individuals, when we think of… Especially we can’t think of disparities as the result of the personal choices of the individuals in groups, because I think that’s what happens, that’s how we have been misled into believing, but when we actually… All of the data points to and all of the analysis points to, is that when you have two groups, there’s going to be all different types of behaviors in both groups, whether that…
BB: Complete variance, right?
IK: Precisely. So you take white people and Black people, you have white people who eat unhealthy, you have white people who are vegans, you have Black people who eat in an unhealthy manner, and then you have Black people like me who are vegans. And so… And then you have vegans who are white, who don’t really eat vegetables. Right? And so it’s so much variable, and so we emphasize the negativities that we see among those individuals who are Black, and then ignore the negativities among the individuals who are white. And so we say, “Oh, those Black folk and their soul food, that’s why they’re unhealthy,” as if you don’t have white people who gathered this weekend and had hamburgers and hot dogs only on their barbeque menu. So I think that it’s critically important for us when we think of groups and group inequality, to recognize that what changes communities, what changes groups, it’s not their individual behaviors, it’s policy change.
BB: I want to slow down here and go into slow motion for a moment, because, what you’re saying is so profoundly important at the crux of, I think, of your entire book. And for me as a researcher, it’s… We take groups and we take stereotypes and characteristics of groups, and what it seems to me that we do, and I think you write about this, but I want to check in with you to make sure I’m understanding it correctly because this is what I see. We see the most kind of negative, socially agreed upon, not good characteristics of groups of color, and we assign it to the entire group. Then we take the best characteristics of one or two people in the white folk group and assign it to that entire group. That’s true, right? You see that…
IK: Exactly. So that’s what I talk about how we generalize the individual negativities of people of color while we individualize the individual negativities of white people.
BB: And you know what keeps coming back to me, and I’m going to date myself with this because this was a huge raging issue as I was in school and then graduate work: the bell curve is such an example of the manipulation of statistical data to confirm a racist hypothesis. Okay. Yeah, I just… You know what? We do that. We do that. I can think of times when I do that, maybe not about race, but I do do that with… I’ll tell you where I do it. I do it with political identity. I take the best part of the people I see in my group and assign it to everyone in my group. And the worst part, and it’s so self-protective and self-destructive at the same time, isn’t it?
IK: It is. It is. And I know How to Be an Antiracist, in particular, I remember giving a talk about this book, I believe I was in Gainesville, Florida, and this woman who was obviously a Republican or a conservative, got up during the Q&A and basically challenged me, basically by saying, “You’re just another liberal who is just criticizing conservatives completely and never being able to look back on the problems of things that liberals do.” And I was like, “Did you read the book?” [laughter] Because obviously, you didn’t read the book, because the book was just as critical of people who identify as liberals or Democrats as people who identify as conservatives and Republicans.
BB: I want to read something from the book, early-on pages. Is it weird when I read to you? Is it okay?
IK: It’s fine, yeah.
BB: Okay. “The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and be an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race in each moment determines what, not who, we are.” And you write, “I used to be racist most of the time. I am changing. I am no longer identifying with racists by claiming to be not racist. I am no longer speaking through the mask of racial neutrality. I am no longer manipulated by racist ideas to see racial groups as problems. I no longer believe a Black person cannot be racist, I am no longer policing my every action around an imagined white or Black judge trying to convince white people of my equal humanity, trying to convince Black people, I am representing the race well.” This book is incredibly vulnerable in terms of you sharing your own experiences. Why was that important to you as you were writing this?
IK: So, I remember when I was thinking about this book and I was sort of thinking about the pulse of the book, even the heartbeat of the book. I recognize that the heartbeat, historically, of racism has been denial, has been to deny that one’s ideas are racist, one’s policies are racist, and certainly that one’s self and one’s nation is racist, and so then I was like, “Okay, by contrast, the heartbeat of antiracism is confession, is admission, is acknowledgement, is the willingness to be vulnerable, is the willingness to identify the times in which we are being racist, is to be willing to diagnose ourselves and our country, and our ideas, and our policies.” And the reason why that’s the heartbeat is because, like with anything else, the first step is acknowledging the problem. We can’t even begin the process of changing ourselves, of acting in an antiracist fashion, if we’re not even willing to admit the times in which we’re being racist. And so I realize that essentially to be antiracist is to admit when we’re being racist. And so I realize that in order to really give voice to that, in order to really model that for people I had to do that to myself and for myself.
BB: And you do it, and you do it throughout the book and you move forward a bunch and you slide back, and you share that with us. To me, that is the heart of the book, that there is such a deep humanity in this book. Was that intentional on your part? Did you write it from a perspective of, “This is what it means to be in the human struggle?”
IK: I think so. And I mean, I think that, to be honest, the first few chapters were a huge struggle for me to write, precisely because of how vulnerable I had to be and how many… I had to basically admit and chronicle some of the most shameful moments of my life, especially as someone who was raised in a home to value and love Black people, to be able to have to write about those times in which I did not value or love Black people, let alone other groups, was very, very difficult. And so it really wasn’t… And so I think I struggled and it actually… I think the first few chapters, it took me almost like a year to write, and it really wasn’t until as I write about in the end of the book that I was diagnosed with cancer, that I just wondered whether indeed I would even live to see the book come out, and I think because of that, in a way freed me to be vulnerable and to be completely sort of open and naked in writing the book.
BB: Yeah, there’s just courage on every page. I mean, really, and I have to say you don’t see that very often in books. You don’t see that very often in the world, so thank you for that. I think the central message is that the opposite of racist isn’t not racist, The true opposite of racist is antiracist. Can you break that down for us and help us understand how the opposite of racist is not, not race… Not racist is not the opposite of racist.
IK: Sure, so I think… Let me say it in this way. So when you think of… So I define a racist as someone who is expressing racist ideas or supporting racist policies with their action or inaction, I know we’re not supposed to use terms in the definition, but I think what’s critical about understanding what it means to be racist is understanding what a racist idea is, and what a racist policy is. And once you understand what a racist idea and racist policy is, you begin to realize that there’s a fundamental contrast to that, and that contrast is not some sort of neutrality. And so if a racist idea is any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group… In other words, a racist idea connotes racial hierarchy, then what’s the opposite of that? The opposite of that is ideas that connote racial equality, that challenges directly that idea of racial hierarchy and says, “No. All the racial groups are equals.”
IK: And there’s no in between racial hierarchy and racial equality. Either all the racial groups are equals, or certain racial groups are better or worse than others. And so there’s no not racist idea, there’s only a racist idea and an antiracist idea. And the same thing with policy. If a racist policy is leading to racial inequity, then an antiracist policy is leading to racial equity. There’s no in between inequity or equity, and if racist policies lead to injustice, then by contrast, antiracist policies lead to justice. There’s no in between injustice or justice. And so then when you take a person, you have people who are either expressing racist or antiracist ideas. So in any given moment, they’re either being racist or antiracist, there’s no not racist sort of category.
IK: And then I should also add very quickly that when people typically say, “I am not racist,” it is in response to someone challenging something that they just did or said that indeed probably was racist. So again, I mentioned how the heartbeat, or in order to be antiracist, we have to be willing to admit the times in which we’re being racist. By contrast, in order to be racist, we never admit the times in which we’re being racist, and instead we say we’re not racist.
BB: I have a couple of questions. So what do you say to the person who when you say we’re either racist or antiracist to the person who says, “That’s a false dichotomy. There can be neutrality between antiracist and race, there can be neutrality between injust and just, between inequality and equity or equality.” I can’t find what that neutrality is. But I would really love to know how you answer that because I get that a lot, especially when I quote you, but I can’t think of a single example, because the systems are already in place. So if we were at net zero, how does that… I mean, it may be so but we’re not, so what do you answer?
IK: Yeah so I state that are you… I would… So people have asked me asked that, and typically what I state say is, “Are you stating that because from a defensive posture?” In other words, you don’t want to identify as racist, and you view those antiracists in some way that you don’t want to sort of identify with. So this is fundamentally defensive so you can create a category for yourself. And typically, we know when people are creating categories for themselves because you can’t define your category. And so are you creating this category for us, or are you creating this category for yourself? And if you’re creating it for us, then define it for us, so we can understand it.
IK: What does it mean to be not racist? I know what it means to be racist. I know what it means to be antiracist. What does it mean to be not racist? And if you can’t provide a very clear and consistent definition, then that shows me that you’re fundamentally being defensive, and you’re fundamentally seeking to create a category for yourself.
BB: That is so powerful, and starting with the defensive posturing that I think there are people that don’t want to be in the racist category of course, because there’s so much shame attached to that.
BB: And they don’t want to be in the antiracist category because there’s so much frickin work attached to that.
BB: Do you know what I mean?
BB: Like antiracism work is, no joke, exhausting and vigilant, and there’s shame in it too because it’s… So it’s interesting because – can we dig into something that is kind of at the intersection of your work and my work to help me figure out something?
BB: You don’t seem to be… And I’ve only read this book and a couple of articles that you’ve written or maybe three or four articles from The Atlantic, but I will be getting the baby board book for sure. And it’ll become my new go-to, like, I’m looking at Barrett, who’s in here with me. She’s like, “This will be the new. Every baby we know will be getting this book.” You don’t seem to be a proponent of shame as a social justice tool.
BB: So, let me ask you this question because I think this goes to the creating categories out of defensiveness. One of the things that I’ve seen and I see it a lot, I see it a lot in my social feeds, I see it a lot when I have really difficult Q&As when I’m on book tours. Let’s say you and I are talking, and I share a racist idea, or I make a racist statement, and you hold me accountable for that. Right? Which is fair. You question and we dig in. But you say… I am going to feel shame about that, for most, I think most, maybe not all, but most white, I hope, most white Americans, or maybe Americans in general will feel shame about being held accountable for racist thinking or thoughts or speaking, then I go into shame. But what I’m struggling helping people understand and maybe you can share your thoughts on it with us is being held accountable for racism and experiencing shame around that, is not the same as being shamed about racism.
IK: Mm-hmm, yeah.
BB: Does that makes sense to you at all? Or am I off? I don’t know.
IK: No, I think it makes sense. And I think that… Well, two things I’m trying to think of what to say first because I feel like I’ll forget the other. Do you ever feel that way?
BB: All the time.
IK: So I think one thing is that… So if we talk about racist ideas, to grow up in America is to grow up, and for racist ideas to constantly be rained on your head and you have no umbrella. And you don’t even know that you’re wet with those racist ideas, because the racist ideas themselves cause you to imagine that you’re dry.
IK: And then someone comes along and says, “You know what, you’re wet, and these ideas are still raining on your head. Here’s an umbrella.” You can be like, “Thank you, I didn’t even realize I was drenched.”
BB: Yeah, yeah.
IK: And then with all these ideas, and then the question, this is why I don’t think people should feel ashamed, is there were other people and very powerful people in a history that was constantly raining those ideas on your head, and so what that means is, for instance if you’re a white American, who has racist ideas, and then you, let’s say, perpetuated those ideas by, let’s say, not hiring a Black person because you thought they were lazy. You were simultaneously a victim and a victimizer. And so I think it’s critical for people to recognize that literally, and as I talk about in How to Be an Antiracist, there’s a specific reason why you had so many powerful Americans trying to convince white Americans that Black people were inferior; it was out of their own self interest.
IK: And so then, white Americans and other Americans were tricked into believing that Black people should be enslaved in 1855, and then meanwhile poor whites, whose poverty was directly the result of the riches of white slaveholders were like, “Yeah, it should be this way.” And so then those people were able to get richer and richer, and so me coming to that poor white person who believes Black people should be enslaved and then who have even sort of worked on slave patrols and brutalized Black people trying to run away, I’m basically coming to them and saying, “Here is the way you were a victimizer and here is the way you were a victim.” And it’s critically important, I think, for people to understand, people have been tricked, they’ve been manipulated, they’ve been hoodwinked, and that’s why I think, that’s what I’d want people to realize.
BB: Yeah, thank you for the umbrella. I didn’t know I was wet. I think that might be where we lose people.
BB: Wow. Do you ever… I think about this, I think my background is in social work, so I have my master’s in social work and PhD in social work, and my bachelor’s too, and so I’ve probably taken 20 classes on the nature of oppression. I guess the thing that always strikes me about oppression as a construct, and I know I’m going to personify it, and I know this is probably not right, but I would love your thoughts on it because I’ve tried to figure it out for so many years is, God, it’s so hard to fight because it has an answer for everything, like it is…
IK: Yeah, yeah.
BB: Do you know what I mean?
BB: Like, it’s such a formidable foe. It’s like every time, like when you said to me, I got goosebumps when you said, “It’s raining on you. But part of what it’s raining on you is the message that you’re dry.”
BB: It is such a formidable foe, isn’t it?
IK: It is, and that I think that it’s critically important. What I’m trying to do is bring people back into reality, right? So they can realize that it’s being rained on them, that that rain is coming down on their head, that they’re slipping and falling and harming people in ways that they don’t even realize. And when you step that back into reality, then you can actually recognize what’s actually happening to you and what you’re doing to other people. And then you can also begin to see how and why you have people protesting all over this country and why people are enraged and why that resistance is going to continue. Literally racist ideas, literally separate people from reality, and it prevents people, even too, from helping themselves.
IK: And so I talked a lot in my book about the ways in which even you have Black elites who believe ideas about the Black poor and who sort of reproduce racist ideas about the Black poor, not realizing that racist policies against them are being justified through ideas about the Black poor, or you have white Americans who are believing in racist ideas that these people of color will just use and abuse and take advantage of so-called social entitlement programs like Medicare for All, or increasing Social Security funding, or basic income, or other… Or paid leave, things that other countries have. And so therefore, I don’t want none of that. And then it results in them not having the social safety net when they fall, their friends not having it, their family not having it, and then when they fall and become hurt, then they’re told it’s immigrants’ fault. And so it’s this constant sort of people being hurt…
IK: And then they believing that it’s these other people who are the source of their pain, as opposed to the people who they actually support, who are the source of their pain.
BB: I’m a terrible podcast host, because I’m sitting here with my hands over my mouth, and that’s not… I can’t do that, but that’s my response to this. I read an article, I think it was during the 2016 election, all I can remember is an MD-PhD, public health person, and I think the name of the article is: “Racism is Killing White People.” And it’s because they were voting against the very things, the services, and the safety nets that they themselves will need just because of the racist rhetoric that they attached to it.
IK: Yeah, Jonathan Metzl and that’s based on his book Dying of Whiteness. And he talked about…
BB: Is that the who that… Is he an MD? Is that the one I’m talking about?
IK: MD-PhD, yes, yeah.
BB: My husband’s a pediatrician, I think I read it in, there was an excerpt of something in American Pediatrics or something. So tell us who that was and what that book was, and we’ll put it on our show notes.
IK: So yeah, it’s Jonathan Metzl, who’s a MD-PhD, I believe at Vanderbilt, and his book was entitled Dying of Whiteness, and he looks at the white resistance to the extension of ObamaCare or even the extension of Medicaid in particular states and how that not only harmed, obviously people of color disproportionately, but even white people, and how the resistance to creating more insurance and affordable healthcare has harmed white people, let alone people of color, or even probably the most striking aspect of that book was so he not only looked at healthcare, but even the massive debate currently over gun control.
BB: Gun control.
IK: And gun safety and gun rights, and how first and foremost, you’ve had white men who have been advocating for the reduction or elimination of gun safety laws so that they can arm themselves, so that they can protect their families against Muslim terrorists and Black criminals and LatinX invaders as they call them. And what’s fascinating is those very states where they’ve been able to successfully eliminate these gun safety policies, it’s led to a massive surge in people being killed, white men being killed by hand gun via suicide, so the very people, white men who’ve been pushing for the reduction in gun safety laws have then led to them, given them greater ability to accumulate guns, and they’ve used those guns to kill themselves, so literally, people are dying of whiteness.
BB: Can I just ask you just like a no bullshit question here?
BB: Why does that make so much sense to some of us and no sense, it seems, to other people? Why do some of us see the through line and some of us don’t see the through line? Do you understand what I’m asking? It’s a weird question.
IK: Yeah, yeah. I think first and foremost, because we’re living in different sort of realities, and so, for many of these white men who are advocating, who are proud card-carrying members of the NRA, who are advocating for the accumulation of weapons by white men, they believe… I should say they’ve been made to believe that the cause of their own personal pain, the reasons why they’re struggling in society or they do don’t have more than they already have, is because of these immigrants and these people of color. They also generalize, when there’s a Black person who commits murder, or a LatinX immigrant or a terrorist who commits murder, in their mind, those are the central sort of problems that are harming America and are threatening them. And so they’re in tremendous amounts of fear, because they’re constantly told by their politicians, by the people they listen to, that these are the people you should fear, and then they’re told, “Your rights are being taken away. White men are being chastised and criticized, and demeaned by women, by people of color, by everybody, and so we are your defenders and you need to defend yourself through these weapons.”
IK: And, but then what’s happening is they’re actually getting these weapons and killing themselves, and then all of those individual suicides are individualized, so there’s not this collective national outcry about the incredible level of white men who are committing suicide, because, again, if something bad happens to white people, it’s individualized.
BB: I’ve just been thinking a lot about your book around the How to Be an Antiracist book, and I’ve been thinking about how there is a very short distance in my mind between the dehumanizing dog whistle language from this administration to calling the cops on a bird watcher, to George Floyd. And it’s my training, again, I think in social work systems theory, that these things lie on a continuum, but that that walk is very short between these things. Do you agree with that or disagree with that?
IK: Oh yeah, I agree. I mean, I actually tweeted out last week after we heard about what happened to George Floyd, that we should be seeing that, I think I said something to the… Well, let me just say the idea, and that is, when it comes to police violence, oftentimes the beginning of police violence is someone, and in this case, a white woman calling the police saying, “A Black male is threatening my life. I need your help, come help me,” when indeed she is actually the person who’s threatening the other person, but anyway, she calls up the police, and then the police come, imagining that there’s this so-called Black super predator who’s preying on this innocent white woman, and that it is their job principally to protect them, and so, then they come imagining the need for force. And then Christian Cooper ends up as George Floyd in Minneapolis.
BB: In a split second.
IK: In which an unarmed person is now dead. And so, there’s a very straight line from Central Park to Minneapolis, and we understand because that was essentially the lynching era, but that lynching era has continued.
BB: And I think I would back the line up, because I think for me, a big part of my studies was dehumanization and the process, and the very invisible process of dehumanizing, which every genocide in recorded history starts with dehumanizing and starts with language. So when we hear things like, when we talk about immigrants and the White House uses words like infestation, and when we use words like… I don’t even think I’ve ever heard white people referred to as thugs in my life. It’s people have a very hard time understanding that once we move people outside of what we believe is humanity, that it’s possible to do anything to them.
IK: It is. And I think that is the reason why when you have those racist ideas that cause you to demonize people of color, and then that is combined with racist policies that are over-policing their neighborhoods, or allowing police officers who kill them to not be prosecuted, or to get off, it only continues this cycle that not only do they not matter to me, they don’t even matter to the state.
BB: Right. You wrote something, I think this was a quote from the New York Times, and I feel like I could talk to you for… I hope you come back again, and we can talk more about all the great policy change that’s happening. That’s what I’m hoping.
IK: That’s what I’m hoping, too.
BB: But I want to read this quote because and it says, “By not running from the books that pain us, we can allow them to transform us.” This is a quote from you. “I ran from antiracist books most of my life. But now I can’t stop running after them, scrutinizing myself and my society, and in the process changing both.”
IK: That’s what we need to be doing. I think many of us have learned, even from your work, we have to be constantly growing. We cannot harden ourselves, and certainly our children into, “They’re stupid or we’re stupid.” We have to say, “You know what, that was not a smart thing that I did or said. That was a racist act. But I am not essentially a racist.” No one is. Everyone has the capacity to change, everyone has the capacity to be antiracist. Everyone has the capacity to grow. And if we’re not growing as human beings, then what are we? What’s distinguishing humans from other beings? It’s that capacity for self-awareness and growth.
BB: That’s right, meaning making. I always go back to that quote from Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” And I think if you’re not learning and growing, which can be painful, stretch marks, bruises, you’re dying in a way. Okay, Ibram, walk me through, because I really want to get one of your books for my soon to be 15-year-old son, and so tell me about the sequence of Stamped from the Beginning. Is there a YA version?
BB: So how does it work?
IK: So when I wrote Stamped from the Beginning, which again, chronicled this history of racist ideas, literally from their origins to the present, so upwards of 600 years of history, people would come up to me and say, “You know what, I wish I would have learned this in middle school, in high school. I didn’t understand and know this history.” And so, people kept telling me that, “You know what, this book needs to be before every middle schooler and high schooler.” And so we decided that, “Let’s create one.” And Stamped from the Beginning is upwards of 500 pages, and so we decided we needed a specific book. And so I asked Jason Reynolds, who’s, he’s probably one of the more gifted YA novelists, who historically has written on race and racism, and he has his own voice and his own style. And I asked him a couple of times, he said no a couple of times, but eventually he agreed, and so he took Stamped from the Beginning, and completely rewrote it for young people in their voice, in his patented lyricism. And yeah, they’ve fallen in love with it. It actually debuted number one New York Times, so yeah, people are really responding to it well.
BB: You know what I love, is it’s never too early to talk to our kids about this. And now you’ve given us the gifts of a board book, a YA book, and then books for adults.
IK: And that’s, I want, especially in this moment, when there are a lot of people who want tools for not only understanding racism themselves, but even teaching and instructing their kids, and I’m hoping also that people realize that they should be having these discussions with their children. Their children are not color blind. The data shows that children as early as six months recognize race, and children as early as two to three years old have begun to consume racist ideas. And if you’re not teaching those children antiracist ideas, if you’re not challenging those racist ideas, and they’re only going to grow up and then one day say something, you’re going to feel completely embarrassed. Because like with anything else, people have to be taught to be antiracist, just as they’re taught, indirectly, by so many things they see and experience and hear, to be racist.
BB: And I think it’s been also my experience that, when you don’t… The biggest mistake a lot of people I see making, is we don’t talk about race, but we’ve raised nice and kind kids, so we assume that that’s going to translate to something, and it translates to nothing, except the messaging that it’s scary and not okay to talk about race.
IK: Exactly. Yeah, if the modeling… Can you imagine, there are adults, and many adults who struggle to talk about race and racism, and… But could you imagine if those adults were talking about these issues as early as 2 or 3, or 1, or as soon as you can speak, then… And I think, part of this also, is, as I’m learning on thinking through how to parent my child, of course, we’ve learned from you, and one of the things we’re trying to model for her, is how to have difficult, uncomfortable conversations and how necessary those conversations are for her having a healthy, happy, and productive and impactful sort of life. And so this talking about race and racism is one type of difficult conversation we need to teach her how to have.
BB: Yeah, and, God, I just don’t think there’s a bigger gift that we… On top of knowing that you’re loved and worthy of love and belonging, I don’t know if there’s a greater gift that we can give our kids, than the ability to lean into difficult conversation and to be vulnerable. Yeah. Okay, I have this last 10 rapid fire, and it’s really important, it’s more lighthearted, but it’s about getting to know you as a person, and I think, sometimes, one of the hardest things about being an activist is not being seen as a person and can be sometimes dehumanizing in its own way. So if you would allow me, I’d love to ask you these 10 questions.
IK: Sure. Yeah. Let’s do it.
BB: Okay, ready? Number one’s fill in the blank. Vulnerability is?
BB: Number two, you’re called to do something brave, but your fear is real and it’s stuck right in your throat. What’s the first thing you do?
IK: Think about what the right thing to do is, and focus on that, rather than my fear.
BB: What is something that people often get wrong about you?
IK: That I’m very, very serious and angry all the time.
BB: Okay. What’s the last show that you binged and loved?
IK: That we binged, let’s see. Probably… Oh, God, what’s the show that was the… Probably the lead show on HBO, that just ended. I’m forgetting the name of it.
BB: Game of Thrones?
IK: Game of Thrones, yes.
BB: Okay, got it.
IK: Game of Thrones. So, literally… So, my wife and I, we hadn’t seen it at all, any of the episodes, and we just binge-watched it late last year, and we both really liked it, except the ending, of course, but…
BB: Now, that’s a binge, that’s a hella binge right there, if you watched it all. Okay, a film that you really love?
IK: So I think, one of the films that I really love, particularly in context to our conversation, is After Earth, which was a movie with Will Smith and his son, in which they are sort of lost on this mysterious sort of planet, and he’s hurt, and they have to figure out a way to elude people, or I should say beings and beasts that are trying to kill them. And Will is seeking to really get his son, and speak through his son, to get his son to essentially get them both to safety because he’s hurt. And I remember at one point, he’s trying to encourage him to face this dangerous, or horrible sort of villain beast that sort of makes up the movie, and he says something to the effect that, “Fear is not real. Danger is real, but fear is a choice,” and he obviously wanted him to make a different choice.
BB: God, what a quote.
BB: Okay, a concert that you’ll never forget.
IK: Probably… So I… One of my favorite groups in the ’90s, when I was growing up, was Jagged Edge, this R&B group, and so I was able to not only see them in concert, but even meet them when I was a freshman… Oh, not a freshman, when I was at FAMU, where I did my undergrad in Tallahassee, Florida.
BB: Favorite meal.
IK: So I’d say my favorite food now is probably avocado, and it’s fascinating because I only really started eating avocado probably in the last five years, and one day… And I’m the type of person, if it doesn’t look good to me, then I’m not going to want to eat it, and so, since it was green, I’m like, how could… It just looks weird. But then one day I tried it, and I haven’t looked back since.
BB: The rest is history, avocado history. Okay, what’s on your nightstand right now?
IK: Where… Oh.
BB: He’s literally looking at it.
IK: Yeah. What the Eyes Don’t See.
IK: Which is “A Story of Crisis, Resistance and Hope in an American city,” by Mona Hanna-Attisha, which essentially is the story of the Flint water crisis, and how this pediatrician was very critical in not only sort of breaking the problem or demonstrating the problem, but even seeking to lead its recovery.
BB: Okay, a snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that brings you real joy.
IK: Ordinary moment, is my 4-year-old daughter, I’m home after being somewhere, and she just jumps into a massive sprint, she comes and say hello and hugs me around my legs. That always brings me joy.
BB: Yeah. Last one. What’s one thing that you’re deeply grateful for right now?
IK: I think I’m deeply grateful for being surrounded by people, who sort of practice love with me, and who show their love as I seek to show my love to them, and so people… I believe people choose to love, and I’m sort of deeply grateful that people have chosen to love me.
BB: Well, your work is life-affirming and life-changing. Professor Ibram Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist. We just have a couple of short weeks to wait for Antiracist Baby, the board book, to come out. I’ll make sure that we profile that on all of our channels, and we’ll put it up on brenebrown.com. I think danger is real, to go back to your quote, I haven’t seen that movie, but that quote’s amazing. “Danger is real, but fear is a choice,” and I am grateful for you for choosing courage. Thank you for making us braver.
IK: Well, thank you, and of course thank you for all your work, and glad we had a chance to sit down and talk about this.
BB: Me too, thank you.
Again, I want to thank Ibram Kendi for joining us on Unlocking Us. I’m committed to having him back on the program, if he’ll join us, to talk even more, about antiracism and everything he has to teach us. If you want to follow Dr. Kendi, on Twitter, he’s Dr. Ibram, @-D-R-I-B-R-A-M, Instagram, @-I-B-R-A-M-X-K. You can also go to our show page, on brenebrown.com, and you’ll see all of his books, links to all of his books, and how to find him on social media, his website, and learn more about the work he does. I always sign these podcasts, I sign off on these podcasts by saying, “Stay awkward, brave and kind,” and I would add to this one, in addition to awkward, brave and kind, I know we have to make choices, we have to use our voice in service, and for me, that rarely means giving voice to the voiceless, I think the voiceless have voices, and they’ve been screaming, for centuries. I think our work is to show up, be brave, give ears to the earless, and that’s not easy, but right isn’t easy, very often. Take good care of yourselves.
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