Sheldon C. Good, executive director of The Mennonite, Inc., interviewed Ibram X. Kendi about antiracism and the church by email Sept. 3. The interview, edited for clarity, appears below. The editorial in the October issue of The Mennonite, available here, includes part of the interview.
Kendi is author of How to Be an Antiracist. He won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction for his book Stamped from the Beginning. He is the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C.
1. You make the case in How to Be an Antiracist that the word “racist” has been removed from its proper usage. How did that happen?
The most virulent racists define racist as anyone who uses the r-words, race or racism. They say, racist is a pejorative term, it is the equivalent of saying I don’t like you, as Richard Spencer once said. Anyone who categorizes people by race, who calls someone racist, is the real racist, they say. Obviously, they are deeply defensive, and deeply in denial. As such, they don’t want to be called racist. They shut down and close up when they do. Some racial reformers have agreed and view “racist” as an attack. So they don’t use the term either. But racist is a descriptive term, not an attack. It describes when a person is saying there is something wrong or right with a racial group. It describes when a person is supporting racist policy with their action or inaction.
2. Some make a case that racism exists primarily these days in individual acts of racism. You seem to suggest that racist policies and ideas are most problematic. In what direction should antiracists be putting their energy?
Antiracists should be putting their energy towards eliminating racist policies, which are the cause of racial inequities in our society. They should be putting their energy towards stopping the mass circulation and consumption of racist ideas that normalize and rationalize those racial inequities in our society, that convince Americans, for instance, that White people should have more because they are more.
3. What role does interrogation of ourselves—in addition to our laws and leaders—play in our journey toward being antiracist?
Interrogation of everything—ourselves, our laws, our leaders—is central to being an antiracist. As opposed to racists who are constantly denying their own racism and the racism in society, antiracists are confessing their own racism and the racism in society. But in order to confess, we must interrogate. We must ask ourselves: Do I think there is something wrong or right about a racial group? What am I doing to stop racial inequity from passing to another generation?
4. What role does the church, or do Christians, play?
Too many churches are based on what I call civilizer theology: the idea that the role of the church and the ministers and the congregants is to civilize individuals away from their sins. This civilizer theology reinforces and is reinforced by racist ideas when applied to racial groups, or when it says the problems of our societies are the deficiencies of people and not the deficiencies of policy and power. I think churches should be based on liberation theology: the idea that the role of the church and the ministers and the congregants is to liberate humanity from the powers and policies that oppress them. As James Cone told my father in the spring of 1971 after my father asked him to define a Christian: “A Christian is one who is striving for liberation.”
5. At a time when it’s easy to feel helpless, how do we not become hopeless?
As I write in the final lines of How to Be an Antiracist, “Once we lose hope, we are guaranteed to lose.” We are guaranteed to lose humanity to racism, to let humanity die of racism. But we must have hope. We must believe change is possible in order to bring about change. Every Christian should believe in miracles. We will defeat racism. And it will be a miracle.