The work of antiracism is “fundamentally focused on looking in the mirror” with the goal of transforming society, scholar and National Book Award-winning author Ibram X. Kendi told a packed auditorium in Charlottesville on Tuesday night. And, he added: “Because we live in a racist society, it is extremely hard to be antiracist.”
As Kendi’s conversation with Mayor Nikuyah Walker at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center made clear, there are particular challenges in a city he referred to on Twitter as one of the centers in the American battle between racism and its opponents.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Kendi—author of the newly released “How to be an Antiracist” and of 2017’s award-winning “Stamped from the Beginning,” a history of racist ideas in America—emphasized that torch bearing Unite the Right ralliers and hooded Klansmen are far from the only ones implicated in systems that disadvantage minority groups.
“I’m not concerned with whether someone is consciously recognizing that the policy that they’re supporting is leading to racial inequity,” he said. “I’m not worried about whether they intend to create that racial inequity, as much as the fact that the policy that they’re supporting, or not challenging, is leading to racial inequity.”
At times during the conversation, Walker pushed back on Kendi’s argument that there is no such thing as a non-racist: that all people, of all races, are either racist or anti-racist, either fighting unjust systems or tacitly supporting them.
“As a black woman who has seen people try to survive in this climate, inaction doesn’t necessarily mean that you are upholding or wanting to perpetuate racist ideas,” she said, drawing a contrast between her grandmothers, “who learned to keep their head down, to not make any noise, to just try to get through and survive,” and a figure like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who has had an active role in producing policies.
At points in her own life, “I tried to use all the power that I had, which was a lot, but it was also exhausting and it also took moments for me to just kind of retreat to heal from the environment that I was subjected to,” she said. “And I don’t know that everyone has the ability to do that. … How do people survive and do the work? I think if people were more sure of those answers, they would be more willing.”
Kendi argued that different people can play different roles in fighting racism, depending on their circumstances. That includes white people, who also suffer from systems that enforce inequality, he contended.
“What we have now is a massive hoarding of resources and wealth, by extremely wealthy and powerful white people, and they’ve long been using racist ideas to essentially divide and conquer the rest of America,” Kendi said.
In particular, “you have white people now who are worshipping Confederate monuments,” even as those monuments commemorate a war waged in the South largely on behalf of a small land-owning class, he argued. “This is delusional.”
“This racial struggle, this struggle between racists and antiracists, is not a struggle fundamentally over morality, although morality is part of it,” he said. “It’s not fundamentally a struggle over ignorance and hate, although that’s a part of the struggle. What’s fundamental about the struggle is that it’s a power struggle, and it always has been a power struggle.”
In Charlottesville, Walker said, some people are still drawn to a “return to what is normal” two years after Unite the Right – a concept that she said looks like an “escape route” from accountability.
Near the end of the night, an audience member put a finer point on the matter.
“This conversation is happening now because you wrote a book and it’s being presented to us,” she said. “But among ourselves here, this conversation, I have found in Charlottesville, to be impossible. Because white people do not see themselves as a racial group.”
“I think that first and foremost, the heartbeat of racism is denial, and it always has been,” Kendi replied. “I think we have to recognize just how deep-seated the denial is.”
Walker said some people’s reluctance to have uncomfortable discussions presents a challenge in Charlottesville. With a new City Council election approaching in November, “I feel like the community is moving back towards that very comfortable status quo: ‘What I used to have, what I used to be like, and who on this ballot can get me back to that space,'” she said.
“What’s happening here is happening in other places, but at the same time what’s interesting here is, people imagine themselves as liberal and progressive,” Kendi said. In reality, he added, “If you are not part of the movement and the struggle to challenge racism, then you’re being racist.”
Walker said many voters are motivated by a desire to challenge her prominence.
“Not ‘What do we want our city to look like, what is true equity, what is antiracist?'” she said. “But ‘Who can I put in place with my vote that can challenge her, who won’t stop having the conversations, who won’t stop talking about racism, and who won’t stop calling it out when she sees it?'”
“So, they don’t want to be healed?” Kendi said.
“Listen, you have to ask,” Walker replied, laughing.
“But,” he said, “pain is essential to healing.”