Can Ibram X. Kendi Help You Grow?

Amiel Handelsman
7 min readJan 5, 2023

Ibram X. Kendi is an easy thinker to admire and just as easy to dismiss. Enthusiasts appreciate the new language he provides and his courage in applying the same standards to everyone. These have made How To Be An Antiracist a bestseller. Critics point to the rigidity of these standards and the ideological fervor it sparks.

There is a third option. Assume you’re less interested in building a political stance than in growing as a person. Your project is neither to embrace nor reject others’ ideas but instead wrestle with them. I tried this in my two-part review of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. With Kendi might there be value in honoring the partial truths he offers and naming what’s missing?

Do inner work and engage with the ideas themselves

My home community of leadership development would appear a promising place for this endeavor. Yet many practitioners who see complexity everywhere else accept Kendi’s thinking as received truth. It’s the strangest thing. Instead of exploring its strengths and limitations, they immediately interrogate their own sensemaking: What inner work must I do to open to this perspective?

It’s not a bad question, just incomplete. A more integrated approach to what I call race-as-topic (the umbrella of conversation topics, not the false belief in biological races) goes beyond looking within yourself. It also involves engaging seriously with the ideas themselves — expanding what Buddhists call your “view.”

Expanding your view through new perspectives is a core capacity of the self-authoring mind.

Yet somehow race-as-topic causes many folks to temporarily lose this capacity. They don’t think it’s their role to question the antiracist teacher. If racialized as white, they assume they lack moral legitimacy to disagree with someone with darker skin. Or they avoid wrestling with Kendi’s ideas out of fear of censure from others.

Let’s stretch ourselves. I’d like you to join me in asking an unusual question:

Can Ibram X. Kendi help you grow?

Kendi himself says he is done trying to change minds. He believes that combating racism starts not with changing people but with better (“antiracist”) policy, which in turn requires power. First power, then policy, then people’s ideas.

Yet my interest here isn’t how Kendi wants to change the world but how you can become a better changemaker. To what extent does How To Be An Antiracist support this project?

Let’s explore this through ten questions about the book:

  1. Kendi is a historian. Is it fair to assess how well he helps you grow?

Yes. First, the book’s title starts with “How To.” Second, Kendi writes that the measure of success is “by how radically it transforms open-minded people.” Finally, millions of people are approaching his ideas with this intent.

2. Does it offer more depth than a typical self-help book?

If most “How To” books strike you as simplistic, you’re in luck. Kendi offers little prescriptive guidance. The book’s 241 pages are devoted to making the case for a particular approach to combating racism. A better title would be Why To Be An Antiracist.

3. Does it offer language that helps you see in new ways?

Absolutely. Kendi offers dozens of new distinctions. First, his core message: there is no such thing as race-neutral. Any policy or idea that isn’t antiracist is racist. Then, the three players in American history: segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists. Finally, each chapter shows how this story unfolds around different themes: power, biology, ethnicity, body, class, gender, etc.

4. How much nuance does this language permit?

Some of the nuance he presents might surprise you. Unfortunately, it’s bound up in a rigid framework that weakens its value.

The good news: Kendi avoids several excesses of progressive antiracism. rejects the idea that black-identified people can’t be racist because they lack power. “This,” Kendi writes, “underestimates Black people and overestimates White people.” No Racism equals power plus prejudice here. Unlike Robin DiAngelo, Kendi doesn’t single out “Whites” for critique. Unlike the 1619 project, he doesn’t describe antiracist heroes of history as largely “Black.” Also, Kendi is against attributing people’s behavior to their group status: “An antiracist treats…individuals as individuals.” Finally, he describes differences and tensions among “Blacks,” e.g. beauty ideals around skin color and immigrants versus home-grown Americans.

The bad news: Kendi’s central idea — you’re either antiracist or racist — creates a rigid standard for categorizing ideas, policies, and people. There’s no gray area, no space for human complexity and fallibility. As a result, Kendi reduces complex experiences in U.S. history and his own life to simplistic A equals B equations. Most importantly, he treats as facts what are assessments about which reasonable people can disagree.

5. Does it role model the capacity to learn from experience?

Absolutely — up to a point. The book is a catalogue of interpretations Kendi made earlier in life that he now calls racist. The self-scrutiny is rigorous and at times brutal. It spans from grade school through an epiphany during the book tour for Stamped From The Beginning. “Once again,” he writes, “I had to confront and abandon a cherished idea.” In this sense, he’s onto himself.

At least his past self. With its binary thinking, the book embodies the same doctrinaire approach he decries. Is he aware of this? Not likely.

6. Does it view America’s past as a mix of brutality and resilience, suffering and heroism?

No. Kendi’s aim is to document the pervasiveness of racist ideas and policies. Missing from the story are human beings who survived abominable conditions with courage, grit, and grace. And the people who led the fight against slavery and Jim Crow? Kendi emphasizes not what they contributed, but how they fell short of his standards. Their virtues are absent.

Example: he cites shoddy social science that was partly behind Brown v. Board of Education. This is fair game. Ralph Ellison had the same critique. However, unlike Ellison, Kendi doesn’t recognize that the case was also about seeing the humanity of black-identified Americans and remaking democracy for all.

7. Does it acknowledge that progress, however uneven, has occurred?

Barely. Kendi employs the same terms, e.g. “assimilationalist,” for actions he took in high school and events in the 1850s. From his style of writing, it’s hard to tell that time has passed — harder still to see how dramatically laws, policies, and life circumstances have changed.

This conflation of past and present is a version of what Timothy Snyder calls the “politics of eternity.” It reflects Kendi’s goal: to highlight the continuous nature of racism.

8. Does it imagine the America that might be?

A big part of growing as adults is imagining how life can be better. Instead of reacting to problems, we envision the results we long to create. Kendi does not do this. In fact, his proposed metaphor, born of a recent health crisis, is cancer. Removing racist policies is like removing tumors. This is a deconstructive project. It does not help us envision what “better” looks like.

9. Does it promote self-authorship and liberation from victim/persecutor/rescuer dynamics?

Maybe, for some people. If you are ready to look anew at American history and your life and can hold his binary thinking lightly, Kendi offers much to work with. Five years ago, when I read Stamped from the Beginning, this was my experience.

For Millenial progressives or anyone centered in the socialized mind, the story is different. Kendi’s moral clarity, born from hard-earned life lessons, is seductive. You want to find racism where previously you saw virtue. You want to apply his high standards to everything. And you may be inclined to mimic his shaming. Consider these words about black-identified politicians whose ideas he considers racist: “We need to paste the racist card to their foreheads for all the world to see.” Ouch.

Kendi is not responsible for the recent explosion of shaming, oversensitivity, and cancel culture. These are expressions of minds still maturing. However, his work doesn’t make such toxicity less likely.

Then there are people who won’t grow because Kendi rejects who they are. In adult development, the “Achiever” is a stage we all have the capacity to grow into. It’s not the apex of our potential, but it’s an achievement. Millions of Americans live here. One thing you’ll find at the Achiever stage is a belief in race-neutrality and colorblindness. This is healthy and expected. Kendi calls this “racist.” For anyone centered at this stage, the message is You don’t have a right to be who you are. This closes minds and therefore hinders growth.

10. Are there alternatives?

Yes, yes!

Start with Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece novel, Invisible Man. You’ll viscerally experience brutal dimensions of American history like ritualized racial violence and police shootings. You’ll also witness the humanity and complexity of black-identified Americans. This tragicomic hero’s journey portrays a man fully held by the socialized mind and then growing beyond it. It’s also a page-turner.

Check out Isabel Wilkerson’s provocative and nuanced Caste. Listen to Cornel West describe the courageous love of Emmett Till’s mother in opening his casket for the world to see. Read the stimulating philosophy of Anthony Appiah and Danielle Allen. Dip into Henry Louis Gates’s massive oeuvre, Toni Morrison’s novels, or Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans. For histories of slavery, the Civil War, and reconstruction, look to Eric Foner, Annette Gordon-Reed, and David Blight.

Can Ibram X Kendi help you grow?

Perhaps, if you take his ideas with a dozen grains of salt. But you‘ll likely fare better starting elsewhere.

--

--

Amiel Handelsman

Executive coach, Dad, husband, reimagining American identity, and taking other fiercely nuanced stands on the world's big messes. More at amielhandelsman.com.