In one of the most highly anticipated events of the fall semester, the College welcomed Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of the New York Times bestselling book “How to Be an Antiracist,” to a discussion on race and racist policy in the U.S. on Sept. 16.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at Boston University, was unable to come to Mayflower Hill personally to give the talk.
The event was instead held over Zoom and attracted over 1,600 registrants. The virtual nature of the event made it accessible to not only to students and faculty at the College, but to alumni and parents as well.
The event was sponsored by the Center for Arts and Humanities, Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs, Lunder Institute for American Art, Oak Institute for Human Rights, and Pugh Center.
The talk was moderated by Assistant Professor of Government Carrie LeVan. Kendi was introduced by newly-appointed Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tayo Clyburn and then by President David Greene.
In his opening remarks, Clyburn stressed that he wants to spearhead dialogue and change at Colby on the racism and anti racism that Kendi writes about. Greene followed with glowing remarks about Kendi, saying that he “devoured” Kendi’s book in a day over the summer.
The hour-long conversation kicked off with a brief summary of “How to Be an Antiracist.” Kendi summarized the book in his own words:
“The core argument of it is that there are those who are being racist and those who are being antiracist. There is no such thing as being not racist.”
Kendi further explained that those who claim not to be racist are usually defending themselves against being called racist.
LeVan asked Kendi what Kendi has to say to those who call his argument too simplistic. Kendi responded that he takes it as a compliment because in many ways discourse around racism does not have to be as complicated as people make it out to be.
Kendi emphasized that becoming antiracist requires self-reflection and constant work. Antiracism is not a destination but a continuous journey.
“The pulse of being antiracist is to admit the times we are being racist,” Kendi added.
Kendi conceded that people will have slip-ups, but the ability to admit those mistakes is critical.
In regard to policy, Kendi asserted that racist policies precede racist ideas. Because most people are not in the room when such racist policies are being created, it is oftentimes difficult to fully see their significance.
LeVan followed up by giving the very apt example of COVID-19 disproportionately affecting minorities, particularly Black Americans, who oftentimes deal with an unjust and racist healthcare system.
The topics of police brutality and police reform were also discussed in light of the recent months of protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis and combined with entrenched and continuing police brutality.
Kendi said that throughout the more than thirty years of his life, he has come to think of violence and brutality everytime he sees police. When asked whether he believes there is hope for reforming the system or if dismantling it is the only choice, Kendi preferred the latter, saying that he doesn’t see how reforms would be effective at this point.
The conversation then shifted gears to disparities between white and Black Americans, particularly in education, healthcare, and economic opportunities.
Kendi cited an Atlantic article which found that the majority of Americans find racial tensions to be a big problem in the country. However, we have yet to see systemic change because it is unclear how many of those people want to see a big change.
This is called the principle-implementation gap—the idea that many white Americans support equality but do not support policy interventions to reduce inequality. Kendi said we must make a more targeted effort to put people who do want to transform policies in power.
An overarching theme in the conversation was what can be done for the future of the United States. One attendee posed the question to Dr. Kendi of what the movement for racial justice will look like twenty years from now. Kendi was optimistic that there will be improvements to the condition of all Americans but warned that people should be on guard to ensure that such changes are preserved.
In an interview with The Colby Echo, Professor LeVan, who teaches a course on race, ethnicity, and politics, said that one of her biggest takeaways from the interview was Kendi’s response to the aforementioned question.
“In the 1840s, no one would’ve thought that slavery would be abolished in twenty years. It was a radical idea, so it’s hard to say where the next twenty years could take us,” LeVan said.
One attendee, Sophya Guwn `22, came out of the talk with a newfound perspective.
“It’s not good enough to just not be racist,” Guwn said. “You’re doing more harm by being complicit and not speaking up in certain situations.”
In the final minutes of the call, Kendi shared a few closing thoughts. He said that it is too common nowadays for people to always focus on what other people are doing. Kendi reminded his audience that change starts with ourselves, and that no matter what obstacles we face, our own well-being comes first.
~Fiona Huo `23