Reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist”

I recently had the amazing and surprising privilege of being a guest panelist in a conversation hosted by Oprah Winfrey with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and four other panelists (more on this in a later post). The purpose of this conversation was to hear from each of the five panelists as we have been grappling with racism in our own lives and in the world around us. Specifically, we discussed how some of Dr. Kendi’s ideas in his latest book, How to Be an Antiracist, have shaped our understanding of racism and what we will do about racism moving forward. I was intentionally chosen for the panel because I am a White, male, “evangelical” pastor.

The purpose of this article is not to talk about this conversation I had with Oprah, Dr. Kendi, and the other panelists. Instead, I want to use this space to address what I have found helpful in Dr. Kendi’s ideas, as well as what I disagree with and must ultimately reject from his ideas. As a Christian, I am committed to the clear teachings of the Bible. God’s common grace, truth, righteousness, and justice have been revealed to all human beings to some degree (Romans 1:18-20). Christians should strive to find common ground with their fellow man wherever the light of God’s character can be found.

At the same time, we must be clear when necessary where we cannot find agreement with secular or non-Christian ideologies. I am generally very slow to critique or criticize secular or non-Christian ideas. As a confessional Presbyterian pastor, I have vowed to uphold the teachings of the Westminster Standards. Therefore, it ought to be clear where I stand on cultural issues. Members of a confessional church who take their theological tradition seriously will find great relief in that they don’t need to get caught up in every great controversy of their day.

While I hope this article might serve as a guide for other Christians as they read Dr. Kendi for themselves, I do want to clarify where I stand on his ideas. I’m well aware of the fact that we live in a highly polarized, divided, and emotional age. When I first learned that I would be on a televised broadcast with Ms. Winfrey and Dr. Kendi, I instantly recognized that many Christians would not be happy with me. Simply by being on the program, many Christians will assume that I have bought wholesale into secular ideologies surrounding race. The assumptions that will be made about my participation in this conversation are too numerous to list here. In summary, many people will (and already have) assume that I am now a card-carrying social liberal, that I am fully onboard the “white guilt” train, that I believe in cultural Marxist principles, that I am intentionally sneaking liberal theology into my church, and so on. More seriously, many Christians will assume that by my participation in this conversation and by my speaking up on the issues of race and justice, that I have abandoned fidelity to the gospel, to Christ, and his church.

I do not take these accusations lightly. While I’m not going to occupy any more space addressing such accusations and assumptions, I want to be honest up front about the intentions of this article. So, while I hope you may find this article instructive and helpful in your own engagement with Dr. Kendi’s ideas, I also want the reader to know of the defensive, and perhaps even selfish, intentions of why I am writing (a lengthy article at that).

In the remainder of this post, I’m going to address some big ideas from Dr. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist that I have found helpful as a Christian and as a pastor in addressing race and racial injustice. I will then speak to some areas of disagreement with Kendi where Christians must tread carefully. Finally, I will speak briefly as to why I think Christians must grow more comfortable in engaging non-Christian resources on the subject of race if we are going to be a light to the world on racial injustice as Jesus is calling us to be.

Who is Ibram X. Kendi?

Ibram Kendi, born Ibram Henry Rogers, is an author, historian, and leading scholar on race, racism, and racist policies in America. He was raised in New York City and later moved with his family to Manassas, Virginia. His parents are now retired ministers of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Kendi gives no indication where he stands in his religious faith, although he does say: “I cannot disconnect my parents’ religious strivings to be Christian from my secular strivings to be antiracist” (pg. 17).

Dr. Kendi has his PhD in African American Studies from Temple University. In 2017, Kendi began teaching at American University in Washington D.C., where he also founded the Antiracist Research & Policy Center. It was recently announced (June 2020) that he will be moving to Boston University. There he will serve as the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research.

His first major publication was titled Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2016. A recent version of this book was published for a teen/Young Adult audience titled STAMPED: Racism, Antiracism, and You. How to Be an Antiracist was published in 2019, and he also recently published a children’s book titled Antiracist Baby.

How to Be an Antiracist has been widely recognized as a leading book in helpfully addressing racial issues in America today. It was listed at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List for several weeks and is currently sitting at #3.

Both he and his spouse Sadiqa are cancer survivors. His battle with stage 4 colon cancer plays a role in how he addresses racism in America. I also believe it adds to his gentleness and humility displayed throughout How to Be an Antiracist.

What is helpful about How to Be an Antiracist?

There are many aspects of Kendi’s work that I found helpful. His numerous examples of racial inequity today show just how far we have to go to address racial injustice. The ways he addresses common misconceptions and counterarguments were also very instructive to me. While I wish I had space to discuss those aspects of the book further, I instead want to address several big ideas in How to Be an Antiracist which I have found helpful in addressing the topics of race, racism, and racial injustice in America. When I say that these ideas are helpful, I also mean that I believe they can be reconciled and fit into a Christian worldview and Christian approaches to addressing racism. The list below is not exhaustive but contains some of the more helpful insights which I gleaned from How to Be an Antiracist.

The Origins of Racism – The commonly accepted idea in American society today, both in Christian and non-Christian circles, is that racism emerged because of hatred or ignorance in the human heart. This hatred led to racist ideas about other people who are different from us, which then led to racist policies and practice.

Dr. Kendi helpfully shows that this is most often not the correct pattern for racism. History has shown time and again that racism has a very different starting point: the abuse of power. Kendi illuminates how the correct chain of cause and effect is first the abuse of racist power, which leads to racist policy and practice out of self-interest and greed, which then leads to racist ideas to justify the racist policy and practice. Abuse of power leads to racist policies, which are justified with racist ideas. Kendi believes – and I agree – that we must correctly understand this chain if we are to adequately address racial injustice today.

If you want a full treatment of this idea, you will need to read Stamped from the Beginning which thoroughly traces this pattern throughout history. However, consider a brief account of the transatlantic slave trade (what follows is taken from pages 39 to 42 of How to be an Antiracist). It was not until the 15th Century that Prince Henry in Portugal created a slave trade system which exclusively traded African bodies. He did this to circumvent Islamic slave traders. It was Prince Henry’s biographer, Gomes de Zurara, who first grouped Africans into a single group of people who were worthy of enslavement.

It was the French poet Jacques de Brézé who first used the term “race” in 1481, and Jean Nicot who defined race for the first time in 1606. Nicot defined race as descent and began to use his racial categories to establish hierarchy. Later, other writers such as Carl Linnaeus in 1735 used these racial hierarchy ideas to begin attaching attributes to race which then justified the abusive treatment of those who were lower on the hierarchy. Whites were, of course, at the top.

When we observe the slave trade in the United States, this abuse of power – and the racial practices which followed – always came before the racist ideas that were used to justify them. Racist ideas continued to develop throughout the centuries to justify evolving forms of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. But the pattern was almost always the same: abuse of power lead to racist policies that were justified by new racist ideas.

By seeing the origins of racism in this way, Kendi is able to apply racism more broadly than people often do. While much of his work is focused on White-on-Black racism, he also addresses the reality that Black persons can, in fact, be racist (pgs. 128-129). To deny the ability for Blacks to be racist is to deny that Blacks have any power in our society. While they may have – in some cases – less power than other racial groups, to deny that they have any power at all and therefore claim that they cannot be racist is itself a racist idea. As such, Kendi also addresses Black-on-White racism as well as various forms of Black-On-Black racism.

How does this square with a Christian understanding of racial issues? Christians typically view racism through the lens of the sins of hatred and partiality. They are right to do so. But what if this is not the correct starting point? What if there is a sin which gives power to racism before the sins of hatred and partiality?

Unfortunately, evangelical Christians do not have a very good theology of power. I have written briefly about a theology of power here. Since we do not have a good grasp on what power is for or how it can be abused, we often fail to spot the abuse of power dynamics until it is too late. Yet it is the abuse of power which we see on display in the fall of mankind. Satan abuses his power of knowledge to deceive the woman. The man abdicates his power and responsibility and sits idly by while this happens. Both Adam and Eve are motivated by a sinful grasp for power to be like God.

Through the sinful use and desire of power, sin enters into the world.

Rather than viewing racism through the accurate but somewhat vague categories of hatred and partiality, Christians can – using Kendi’s framework – take the origins of racism back all the way to the origins of sin in the human heart. I believe this helpfully allows Christian to apply the full biblical story of redemption to the problem of racism, rather than a few isolated verses about hatred and partiality.

On Racism Itself – I found Dr. Kendi’s treatment of racism both humble and honest. He is transparent about his own racism – toward other Whites and Blacks – both in the past and the present. Kendi is able to do this because of how he views racism, antiracism, and our need to address racist policy and power in our society.

Kendi defines a racist as “One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea” (pg. 13). A racist policy “is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between groups…By policy, I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people” (pg. 18). A racist idea is “any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas argue that the inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society” (pg. 20).

Working from these definitions, Dr. Kendi thoughtfully explains why it’s not enough to simply say that we are “race neutral” or “I am not racist.” What’s the problem with simply saying that we are “not racist”? Kendi answers: “It is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’…There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism” (pg. 9). How is “not racist” a mask for racism? By ignoring or failing to see and address race and racial injustice, we become complicit in ongoing abuses of power and racist policy.

In order to actively engage with racism, Kendi argues that we must take the term “racist” back to its proper use. We must no longer see the term “racist” as such a pejorative or slur. We have come to see it as one of the worst words in the English language, as a word which could potentially end someone’s career or chance at success if it was ever used. Instead, we must see that “racist” is simply descriptive. “The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it – and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction” (pg. 9).

Two quick connection points to make as a Christian. First, I find that much of the distinction Kendi draws here between racist and not racist is similar to Dr. King’s critiques of the white moderate in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Dr. King wrote:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

A Christian who is serious about God’s justice must not simply say what they are against, but what they are for. Justice delayed is justice denied.

Second, by humanizing and normalizing racist as a descriptor rather than a pejorative, Christians can rightly fit the idea of racism better into our understanding of sin in the Christian life. In Christ, we are not defined by our sin but by the union we share in Christ (ex. Ephesians 1:4). We have been cleansed of our sin and made righteous in God’s sight (ex. 1 John 1:9). Therefore, we need not fear words like racist, nor fear that we might have to publicly confess our complicity in racist policy or racist ideas. We can never address our sin until we are willing to name it and confess it.

On Antiracism – The true opposite of racist isn’t not racist, it is antiracist. What is the difference? “One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequalities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequalities, as an antiracist” (pg. 9).

An antiracist strives to identify racist policy and ideas in their own lives and in the world around them. An antiracist fights for racial equity and realizes that it might come at significant sacrifice. An antiracist believes in the equality of all people and strives to see equity among all racial groups.

Antiracism, quite simply, is rooted in the belief of the imago dei. All human beings bear God’s image, all human life is equally valuable. An antiracist Christian is passionate in their beliefs about the image of God and fights for life – all of life – and equitable treatment under the law and in society.

On Race – Many Christians are familiar with the arguments about race being a social construct, not a biological or scientific one. Christians often say things like, “Grace, not race!”, or “Sin, not skin!” We are quick to point out that race, and therefore racism, does not properly exist in any biblical text in the Bible.

Christians might be surprised to find common ground with Dr. Kendi here as well. First, I want to briefly point out that at no point does Kendi appear to target Christianity in a biased way, as many secular writers do today. In fact, he calls biblical justification for racism a “misreading” of the Bible (pg. 51) – which I greatly appreciated. Second, Kendi agrees that race is a construct, what he calls a mirage. The passage below, which I will quote at length from Chapter 4, powerfully communicates why race is simply a social construct but is nevertheless one that we must address. He writes:

Race is a mirage but one that we do well to see, while never forgetting it is a mirage, never forgetting that it’s the powerful light of racist power that makes the mirage. So I do not pity my seven-year-old self for identifying racially as Black. I still identify as Black. Not because I believe Blackness, or race, is a meaningful scientific category but because our societies, our policies, our ideas, our histories, and our cultures have rendered race and made it matter…

Race is a mirage but one that humanity has organized itself around in very real ways. Imagining away the existence of races in a racist world is as conserving and harmful as imagining away classes in a capitalistic world – it allows the ruling races and classes to keep on ruling…

Assimilationists believe in the post-racial myth that talking about race constitutes racism, or that if we stop identifying by race, then racism will miraculously go away. They fail to realize that if we stop using racial categories, then we will not be able to identify racial inequity. If we cannot identify racial inequity, then we will not be able to identify racist policies. If we cannot identify racist policies, then we cannot challenge racist policies. If we cannot challenge racist policies, then racist power’s final solution will be achieved: a world of inequity none of us can see, let alone resist. Terminating racial categories is potentially the last, not the first, step in the antiracist struggle.

The segregationist sees six biologically distinct races. The assimilationists sees one biological human race. But there is another way of looking, through the lens of biological antiracism. To be antiracist is to recognize the reality of biological equality, that skin color is as meaningless to our underlying humanity as the clothes we wear over that skin. To be antiracist is to recognize that there is no such thing as White blood of Black diseases or natural Latinx athleticism. To be antiracist is also to recognize the living, breathing reality of this racial mirage, which makes our skin colors more meaningful than our individuality. To be antiracist is to focus on ending the racism that shapes the mirages, not to ignore the mirages that shape people’s lives. (pgs. 37-54).

In other words, yes, race is a social construct – a mirage. However, it is a powerful mirage that has gripped the social imagination of Western society. As a result, we cannot simply ignore the mirage and hope that it will go away. If we do so, then we will be unable to identify and address ongoing racial inequity. We must continue to work within the constructs of race and racism to dismantle it before we can begin to do away with its terminology and existence.

The Christian is right to see racism through the lens of the sin of partiality (James 2:1-13). This is the sin which the Apostle Peter committed which the Apostle Paul had to rebuke him for (Galatians 2:11-14). As Paul wrote, the sin of partiality is “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (verse 14). Christians must be able to name this particular sin of partiality if they are going to address and dismantle it.

What do I disagree with and reject in Kendi’s Work?

I am going to strive to be much briefer in my thoughts here, as I do not feel the need to spend as much space on critique. What follows should be plain to any Christian who is rooted in a solid, biblically faithful church and tradition.

Intersectionality – While Kendi is no apologist for intersection theory, it is clear from the outset that this is the framework he is operating from. If you are unfamiliar with intersectionality, this brief article may be helpful for you. Almost every chapter of the book is devoted to a different intersection of race, gender, class, and sexuality to define and address racism.

Much of this was helpful. For example, it was helpful for me to read how Kendi addressed racism between Light people and Dark people in the Black community (chapter 9). It was helpful for me to read about how racist policies affect genders differently (chapter 14). As Joe Carter says in the article linked above, intersectionality can help Christians understand how different forms of oppression have a “multiplier effect” which can cause greater levels of harm to different people.

However, when it is fully embraced, intersectionality leads to a new ideology and worldview. Such a worldview comes with its own explanations for good and evil, and the telos of human life. In addition, unchecked intersectionality can lead to an unending amount of division between people groups, rather than helpfully pointing out multiplying forms of oppression. Intersectionality, in addition to critical theory, can also lead to the idea that different oppressed groups have better access to “truth” than unoppressed groups. As such, intersectionality can lead to prioritizing subjective truth over objective truth.

Overstating His Case – Although not often, I felt that Kendi might be overstating his case. For example, I found his chapter on class (chapter 12) unconvincing. The premise of this chapter seems to be that “Antiracist policies cannot eliminate class racism without anticapitalist policies” (pg. 159). Does that mean capitalism is inherently racist? What is the alternative? Dr. Kendi acknowledges that “some socialists and communists have pushed a segregationist or post-racial program” (pg. 159). What then is the solution?

What’s Missing? – Perhaps the biggest critique from a Christian perspective is not the presence of ideas that cannot be reconciled with a Christian worldview, but the absence of ideas that we long to see.

Absent from his pages are any beautiful examples of reconciliation or real hope for a better future. Absent is the mention of racist policies surrounding abortion, which has especially targeted Black bodies in the United States. Absent is the power to be humble about racism and confess our faults, which only a true confidence in the righteousness of Christ can provide. The list could go on.

In summary, there are many aspects of Dr. Kendi’s work which I believe a Christian cannot reconcile with their faith and must not accept. But let’s be honest – of course there are. Why should we expect someone who does not identify as a Christian to line up perfectly with our views? However, his work does, in my view, contain far more that is helpful than unhelpful. Any Christian who is anchored in biblical teaching and confessional thought ought to have no problem navigating Kendi’s work and using what is helpful to address the subjects of race, racism, and racial injustice today.

Reading non-Christian Books on Race

I want to close with a quick word on why I believe Christians must grow increasingly comfortable with engaging non-Christian works on race, racism, and racial injustice.

One of the first questions I was asked during my time with Oprah was about the challenges I face as a White “evangelical” pastor in addressing racism. While there were many things I could have said, I gave three challenges which I often face. They were:

  • Shame. It is human instinct to protect ourselves from shame. Doing the painful work of acknowledging our complicity in racism in the past or present is bound to produce shame. We protect ourselves by avoiding the subject, rather than facing the issue head on.
  • It has become a heavily politicized issue. White Christians in America have, as a whole, failed to approach race from a biblical and theological perspective but instead often approach it from a political and secular perspective. This is why Christians who want to talk about race and racial injustice are so quickly labeled with words like progressive, liberal, or cultural Marxist. It is also why Christians who want to avoid race and “just stick to the gospel” are labeled with words like conservative. Many discussions on race in Christian circles descent into a game of whataboutism, exchanging different political sides of the discussion, rather than thoughtfully biblical and prayerful discussions.
  • White Evangelicals do not have a great track record with race and racism, and thus we do not have a large library of resources on the subject to pull from. If you think about it, in the span of the last 400 years, many (if not most) of the Evangelical thoughts and resources produced on race and racism have been pro-slavery, pro-segregation, or pro-moderation in pursuing justice. It is only within the last half-century where we have seen larger numbers of White Evangelicals more willing to have conversations about race or produce more biblical resources to address race and racism. We are only beginning to see higher numbers of resources addressing race and racism from a Reformed perspective in the last decade or so.

It is especially for this last reason that Christians are going to need to grow comfortable in reading non-Christian work on race and racism. The fact of the matter is that the dominant research and history of racist policy and ideas in America are being written from non-Christian writers. The Church is woefully behind in this regard. If we are going to adequately understand the sin of racism and its consequences in society, we are going to have to read non-Christian writers.

This might mean we read authors who embrace critical theory, intersection theory, queer theory, and so on. But how else can we bring the Scriptures and the gospel of grace to bear on the sins of our culture unless we adequately understand these sins and the competing ideologies trying to address these sins? Of course, Christians must read such books with discernment and within the context of a faithful Christian community. But to avoid them altogether would do a great disservice to our ability to thoughtfully and winsomely engage with the issues of race, racism, and racial injustice.

In his book Center Church, Tim Keller gives a great illustration of what it looks like to bring the gospel to bear in a culture that is becoming increasingly out of sorts with a Christian worldview. Imagine a large boulder. What is the best way to blow up the boulder? You could either keep attaching dynamite to the outside of the boulder and blow it up small chunks at a time – which is very ineffective. Or you could strategically drill a hole deep down into the center of the boulder, drop the dynamite in, and blow it up from the inside.

It is this latter perspective, Keller says, that Christians should have to addressing culture. Rather than throwing grenades from the outside, we ought to so love our neighbor that we labor to understand them better than they understand themselves. We ought to labor to so understand the sins of our culture that we could provide the best gospel-informed solutions.

On the subject of race, too many Christians are content critiquing non-Christian thought from the outside rather than thoughtfully engaging and providing gospel-alternatives. Beloved, we will never be the shining light in our culture that we are called to be if we are content simply pointing fingers from afar. We’re going to have to get dirty, in the muck of all the sin and competing ideologies of the world. It is there, in that place, where we will best give witness to Christ and his gospel.

May we then, with complete confidence in Christ and his righteousness, rooted in biblical teaching and the historic faith passed down to us by the saints who came before us, with a passion to see God’s justice manifested in this world, run with fervor toward identifying and addressing the sins and effect of racism in our country and our world.

This is what it means to be a Christian Antiracist.

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