Thursday, December 19, 2019


Listening to Ibram X Kendi read his book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, and these are some notes along the way.

The introduction starts out with his humble admission of a speech he shared for a Martin Luther King Jr Day competition/celebration which he now views as racist. This leads into his focusing on the word racist, and how it has become viewed as an attack or a slur instead of a descriptor. Anything that blames a whole group for its problems is or can be racist. The struggle is to both be fully human and to treat others as fully human.

Which I love as basically the central problem of human existence. In a recent Zadie Smith interview, she responded to a question:
"You recently wrote about Toni Morrison that the thwarting of human potential was her great theme. What is yours? My own feeling is that it’s about the failure to be human. Everybody’s born and everybody exists. But to be fully human takes a little bit of effort. I think my novels are about the challenge of actually being human and not avoiding the responsibility of being human, which is very heavy. There’s a responsibility of the single person, the responsibility of the married person and of the person with children, the person without, of the dog lover — each tiny path has its kind of demands upon you, which are incredibly hard to fulfill."

Dr. Kendi points out that racist acts or statements are often followed with denial. When we say we're not racist, we're joining in denial and warping the meaning of the term as a descriptor. The distinction is not between racist and not racist, but between racist and anti-racist. Not racist, Dr Kendi points out, is a denial, and racists are the first to deny. So denials are no way to distinguish. Denial is akin to colorblindness, and antiracists aren't ignoring important characteristics of people that have affected their lives. They are seeing the effects and working to counteract racist thought and action. 

Each chapter covers a different specific kind of racism and antiracism. Starts with definitions, tells stories, often personal, sometimes historical, and supports with science and statistics. Then he illustrates the definitions with examples of what a racist and antiracist do or say. It's a robust structure that really supports the book's aim, which is really just the title.

Group vs individuals is a major theme of the book. Racism is the historical most harmful way of grouping individuals that we have manufactured. Dr. Kendi makes clear that every time we think or use 'because they are <fill in race>' we are being racist. To be anti-racist is to break those narratives, to treat people as individuals, to work against the consequences that racism has caused. One of the major shifts in this way of thinking is that black people can be racist if they are engaged in this kind of thinking and action. His motivating example is his own anti-black racism, and he shares anti-white racism from his story as well. Including himself in this analysis is humility and truth speaking in action, and it is powerful. 

In most of the diversity and inclusion learning I have had up until this point, the focus has been on the inequities produced by individual and systemic oppression of non-white (even as that definition has shifted) people. In this view, the minority groups can not be racist because they have no authority or power to oppress. Bias has come to be the identifier for individual racial preference, explicit or implicit.  Dr. Kendi's vision is more powerful to me because it addresses the cause of the oppression and fights against the core of what went wrong as racism was constructed.

Recently, a friend and colleague asked me for resources for anti-racist math education resources and I couldn't really think of any. I made a Google Doc to gather the resources I do now about: Please feel free to add or comment. We do have people in the math ed community working toward this and I know I don't know the half of it.

As Dr. Kendi discusses education, he is particularly concerned with the "racial achievement gap". The whole concept is, necessarily, in his framework, a racist idea. To be antiracist is to believe that individuals face greater challenge in schools and each learner is capable of achievement. Here is a blogpost where he details the enraging history of the idea and the tests which maintain it today.

I've taken long enough to write this that Mindshift has a post today about these ideas applied to education.

This book was specifically helpful to me this semester. One of my classes was driving me a little crazy. Pre-service teachers who were not engaged, who didn't listen to instructions, who didn't seem to care even when it involved working with kids. But this book made me realize I was treating them monolithically. I was not treating them as individuals, I was not seeing and encouraging the work of those who were engaged, and I was lowering expectations. I am a spoiled college teacher with low numbers of classes and small class sizes and I was struggling with this most fundamental of my responsibilities. This realization helped me have a better attitude, helped me individualize my thinking towards the learners. 

I love the synergy between this view of antiracism and call to action. It feels of a piece with the call to rehumanize mathematics from Rochelle Gutierrez from Sam Shah's and Hema Khodai's Humanizing Mathematics Conference

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