In an interview Ibram X. Kendi says racism so infuses society that even liberals like Ruth Benedict couldn’t escape its assumptionsHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Ibram X Kendi
Ibram X. Kendi has written a book that is vitally important for several reasons. It is unapologetic in its debunking of racist ideas and its willingness to call them just that. It reveals the extent to which those racist ideas have arisen out of the need to justify existing racist policies, not vice versa, thus making efforts to end racism by changing public attitudes alone doomed to fail.
Stamped from the Beginning is unflinching in showing how racist ideas have been accepted and repeated throughout US history by everyone, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, even from Frederick Douglass to W.E.B. Du Bois (whose intellectual journey from a "double-consciousness of racist and antiracist ideas" to "a single consciousness of antiracism" is one of the book's most powerful arcs). In particular, the book is brilliant at identifying and skewering what Kendi classifies as assimilationist ideas -- ideas often employed by well-meaning people in the service of causes as noble as the abolition of slavery, yet racist ideas all the same since they have been predicated on the belief that Black people are somehow inferior or to blame for their own oppression.
Kendi discusses these ideas and others from the book with Truthout in the following interview.
Joe Macaré: One of the core ideas in your book, which is such a useful tool for people's understanding of the history of racist ideas, is the categorization of segregationist, assimilationist and antiracist. Can you talk a little about those categories and what in particular the significance is of assimilationist thinking? How has it not been recognized historically?
Ibram X. Kendi: I think first and foremost, assimilationist thinking hasn't been recognized historically as racist ideas because assimilationists themselves have primarily written the history of racist ideas. In writing that history, they have also been at the forefront of defining and popularizing the term "racism" itself. The term itself was really coined by a Columbia anthropologist by the name of Ruth Benedict, from her book Race: Science and Politics in 1940. It's sort of a late-blooming term.
Ruth Benedict and her colleagues in social science and humanities were recoiling against eugenics in Germany and even in the United States, a eugenics movement that they classified as racism. They, of course, did not think their own ideas of cultural hierarchy or even behavioral hierarchy were racist ideas. That story is indicative of the long history of racist ideas, in which every group of racists has identified their ideas as being outside of racism.
Segregationists, when they embarked on making the case that we are all created unequal, stated that that's not prejudice -- that's God's law, that's nature's law, that's science's law.... The same thing happened when assimilationists said that we are created equal but that Black people became inferior due to their inferior cultural environment, their climatic environment or even their oppressive environment. They stated that was science -- that was based on observation -- that was certainly not racism. ...
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