Reading “How To Be An Antiracist” During a Pandemic
By the Rev. Hal Bruen, retired United Methodist Minister
For the PGUMC Church and Society Committee
How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.
It is unfortunate that the Covid19 pandemic interrupted the Church and Society Committee’s plans to begin a conversation on race at PGUMC on March 15. That is a conversation which, I believe, needs to be held face-to-face and I look forward to the time when we can talk about a topic which is now resounding throughout the world.
On rare occasions, but enough to be transformative to my life, I have read a book that has given me a new way of thinking about difficult, if not controversial, subjects. Ibram Kendi’s book did that for me the first time I read it. How to Be An Antiracist is a memoir born out of the experiences of a then 34-year-old African American who intersperses his life experiences with a discussion of types of racism that he has found in himself: ethnic racism, bodily racism, behavior racism, cultural racism, color racism, class racism, gender racism and LBGQT racism.
In reading his book I was struck by how he broadens the concept of racism beyond black/white issues to address a larger world of prejudices and stereotypes that threaten the human condition and, specifically as it relates to the Church, Christian living. While he does not minimize white/black racism, including its history and its violence, he enlarges the conversation in a way that, for me at least, is less judgmental and more meaningful. If there are judgments to be made, and there are, they begin with self.
His book is filled with definitions intended to help clarify and extend the conversation. “A racist is someone who supports a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expresses an idea based in racism. Racial inequality occurs when different racial groups do not share the same level of power in a society. Racism begins not with the prejudice of individuals but with the policies of political and economic power.”
Power is an important word here. It is important because I learned a long time ago, when training to be a church administrator and for marriage and family counseling, that power dynamics are involved in every human relationship. How we share power shapes the way we live together and the policies that govern our lives. For Kendi, the shaping of policies is a significant pathway to ending racism. An antiracist is someone who supports an antiracist policy through their actions or expresses an idea based in antiracism.
The most moving part of his book, for me, centers around he and his wife’s encounters with cancer at a very young age. She is diagnosed with what was believed to be life ending breast cancer and he received a diagnosis of Stage 4 colon cancer at age 34. Both are cancer survivors. Continuing to write his book throughout his cancer treatment, Kendi begins to make sense of racism through cancer, and to make sense of cancer through racism – essentially seeing both as diseases that can be systematically fought.
Writing through months of chemotherapy and recovery from surgery, taking naps when he was too weak to remain at his keyboard, then awakening to write some more, he told his wife, “I want to finish this book before I die.” His wife, a pediatric emergency medicine doctor, kept watch to see that at least he didn’t work himself to death. “I think even the book got better after his diagnosis,” she said. “I think he was writing for his life.”
Unlike his first book, a scholarly presentation on the history of racism, this book is intensely personal; based, as he says, on the errors and evolution of Ibram X Kendi. “Initially, I was like, the central character will not be me,” he told an interviewer for the Washington Post. “I’m too private. I don’t want to show all of my bones and all of my baggage and all those shameful moments that I’m still ashamed of….But the more I thought about it, the more I realized: How can I ask other people to share those shameful moments, to free themselves of their baggage, to confess the most racist moments of their lives, if I’m not willing to do that, too?”
His work and his life are an invitation to deeply personal and richly revealing conversations about the role of stereotype and prejudice in creating our personal and social environments. I look forward to the time when we can sit down together to explore Kendi’s book. In the meantime, if you haven’t yet done so, I encourage you to read it.
– Rev Hal Bruen. UMC minister, retired.