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How anti-racism is a treatment for the ‘cancer’ of racism

The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor have sparked a renewed dialogue on racism in America. Reform advocates want policy and institutional changes, but individuals are also asking how they can address their own inherent racism. Amna Nawaz talks to Ibram X. Kendi, author of "How to Be An Antiracist," and Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Protests over the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor have sparked a renewed dialogue on racism in America.

    Advocates for reform want policy and governmental changes. But there are also questions about what we can do as individuals to recognize our own inherent racism, and to work to change that.

    As part of our Race Matters series, Amna Nawaz spoke earlier with two scholars to explore racism in America and the concept of anti-racism.

    Ibram X. Kendi is the author of "How to Be an Antiracist." And he is a professor of history and the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. Robin DiAngelo is the author of the book "White Fragility," and is a consultant and educator on racial and social justice issues.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

    Let's jump right in, because words matter when we have this discussion. And I want to talk about definitions.

    So, Ibram, let's start with you. A lot of people will say, look, I'm not racist. But, in your book, you argue, that's not enough. You have to be anti-racist. So what exactly does that mean? What's the difference?

  • Ibram X. Kendi:

    So, I define anti-racist as someone who is expressing an anti-racist idea or supporting an anti-racist policy with their action.

    And very quickly, an anti-racist idea suggests that there is nothing wrong or right, superior or inferior about any racial group. And anti-racist policies are policies that are leading to equity and justice.

    So, the people who are expressing those types of ideas and supporting those types of policies, in those moments, they're being anti-racist. And part of being anti-racist is having the willingness to admit the times in which we're being racist, while to be not racist is always to say, even after we just said something that's racist, I'm not racist.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, just to clarify that, even though your book is entitled "How to," this isn't some status you achieve, right? Once you're anti-racist, you're always anti-racist?

  • Ibram X. Kendi:

    No, anti-racist isn't a fixed category. So I don't urge people to become anti-racist. I urge people to be anti-racist.

    In many ways, being anti-racist is almost like overcoming an addiction. And the first process of overcoming an addiction is first admitting that you have an addiction to racism, and then, secondly, spending every day of your life ensuring that you're no longer going back to that, ensuring that you're being anti-racist.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Robin, let's talk about white fragility, then.

    You talk in your book about the need to embrace anti-racism. How does white fragility fit into this conversation?

  • Robin DiAngelo:

    The answer to that is connected to what Ibram had just said about denial.

    We have to start with breaking denial. And one of the challenges is that we have been taught to think about racism as only occurring in individual moments, perpetrated by individual people who consciously and intentionally mean to harm other people. And as long as we define it that way, the average white person is not going to see themselves as complicit.

    When you understand that it's actually the system that we're in, that it's infused across the society, that changes your question from if you are or are not racist to, how am I either upholding or challenging racism?

    But that denial sets us up to be incredibly defensive. And the defensiveness functions to repel any challenge to our complicity. So, we're fragile in our inability to withstand those challenges.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's fair to say there's been a surge of interest in both of your writings, in recent weeks, for certain.

    Do you think that that surge of interest means that people are more willing to consider these ideas, to reflect in a way that they haven't before?

  • Robin DiAngelo:

    Certainly, there is an openness. There's a sense of urgency.

    It's very clear that this idea that we are post-racial has been stripped away. And if we don't put support around us to keep our attention on this, we will inevitably slip back into comfort with the status quo.

    Let me just say it. The racist status quo is comfortable for white people. I move through a society in which racism is the norm, not an aberration.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ibram, you're very specific in your language about the need to address racist policies and racist institutions. But I think a lot of people are wondering, on the grassroots molecular level, what does that mean? How can I be anti-racist in my everyday interactions?

  • Ibram X. Kendi:

    So I think you have people who are reading our work and who are policy-makers and can recognize they have the power to change policy within their neighborhoods, within their institutions.

    Then you also have people who manage policies, as — they are almost like middle managers, and they can thwart policies that they know to be racist. And then you have every single one of us, who can join local organizations that are challenging racist policy.

    We can fund local organizations and centers that are uncovering and challenging racist policies. We can figure out ways to contribute to that local movement for anti-racist policies.

    Every single one of us has something to give. And I think we need to figure out what we're going to give to this larger movement.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Robin, I wanted to ask you.

    I have talked to a lot of people who — white people in particular, who, in this moment, say, you know, I'm not racist, but I will tell you one thing, I am not going to be made to feel guilty for being white.

  • Robin DiAngelo:

    Well, the first thing I would ask someone, a white person who lives their life in segregation, which most white people do, is, how do you know that you are not racist, one?

    That is never put to the test, that, if you don't have any accountability, how can you be so confident about that? Again, it's not a comfortable examination.

    But I am clear that, as a result of having been raised in this society, that I have internalized racist ideologies and biases, and that I do act on those in various ways.

    I don't feel guilty about that. I didn't choose that socialization. What I feel is responsible for the outcome.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ibram, it's worth pointing out that, as you were writing this book, you yourself were diagnosed with a very serious, very late-stage cancer.

    How did that inform how you did the work? And you also draw a parallel between cancer and racism in America.

  • Ibram X. Kendi:

    When we diagnose individuals as being racist, they typically hurt really badly, and they typically view us as attacking them, attacking who they are.

    By contrast, when I was diagnosed as having stage four colon cancer, you know, it was devastating to hear, but I didn't view that doctor as seeking to attack me, or I didn't view that doctor as seeking to hurt me. I actually viewed that doctor as seeking to help me.

    And so I think that's the first parallel, for us to realize, when you're being diagnosed as racist, the purpose is to help.

    And then when we think about the way in which we go about treating cancer, particularly metastatic cancer, that's how we can treat metastatic racism, particularly within a society. And so there's typically a local treatment, in which doctors go in and surgically remove the tumors, in the way we can go in and surgically remove racist policies.

    And doctors do a systemic treatment, in which they flood the body with the chemotherapy, which is equivalent to flooding the body with anti-racist policies that have been proven to reduce racial inequity.

    But I think it's critically important for us to recognize that this nation has metastatic racism. And in order for us as a country to be healed, there's going to be pain, and there's going to be a tremendous amount of pain. But we recognize, like when we go through the pain of healing from a serious illness, that there is joy, that there is equity on the other side.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There is a lot of work to be done, and hopefully joy ahead, then.

    That is Ibram Kendi, the author of "How to Be an Antiracist," and Robin DiAngelo, the author of "White Fragility."

    Thank you to you both.

  • Robin DiAngelo:

    Thank you.

  • Ibram X. Kendi:

    Thank you.

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