The subtitle on Stamped From the Beginning is “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” And Ibram X. Kendi is not fucking around on this one. This book took me an unusually long time to read—not because it was unpleasant, or even overly dense (as sometimes history books are), but because there’s a lot there, and the subject matter is extremely challenging.
I’m really glad I read it. Really, really glad. I encourage you to take the time to read and digest and mull it over as well. Buy the book, check it out from the library like I did, but go get it.
I’m going to think out loud on a couple of the points Kendi made that drew the most blood from me. But my mulling things over out loud should not be in any way a replacement for reading the book and getting Kendi’s thoughts first hand. Goodness knows I’m missing nuance and have my own major blind spots.
(Here I’m going to be capitalizing Black and White the way Kendi did, since I’m talking about his ideas.)
The book does a really excellent job of classifying three major types of positions, two of which are inherently racist:
- Segregationist: Blaming Black people for all racial disparities, thus justifying segregation and racist treatment by saying it’s the fault of the people being mistreated. (Racist)
- Antiracist: Blaming racism and racist ideas for racial disparities. (Not racist)
- Assimilationist: A little of both, blaming racism, but also Black people. EG, “Jim Crow was bad, but Black people really need to act more responsibly if they don’t want to get shot by police.” (Racist)
There’s a lot more nuance in particularly what Kendi classifies as assimilationist thinking, and I recognized a lot of it as shit I said and thought myself not that long ago, like maybe a little over a decade. Which is not to say I have magically transformed into a perfect antiracist, but at least I’m not longer spouting shit like, “Well they shouldn’t dress like thugs.” The notion of the “melting pot” also gets called out as an assimilationist one, since it supposes that the dominant (White) culture is superior and also promulgates the notion that American culture is colorblind or above color, which has not historically been the case. (The history Kendi shows is one in which Black people are blamed for not assimilating enough, while simultaneously being prevented from assimilation by racist barriers in a system in which no amount of assimilation would ever be enough anyway.)
I’m glad Kendi emphasized racism as being found in any kind of thinking that classifies Black people as a whole as the problem, rather than there being, say, a problem with a singular Black person. But he also points out how racist it is to try to recast the entire group as spiritual and angelic (which assimilationists like to do in the 19th century, say) because it again makes Black people a homogenous group rather than allowing for the same level of individuality and spectrum of humanity that White people get by default. This was a concept I understand already, but I certainly appreciated having it explained to me again in different language because that’s the way things tend to make a mental impression.
I also appreciated the walk through US history that was utterly devoid of a “social progress” narrative. In fact, Kendi clearly shows waves of racist backlash against any social progress, with the most recent starting while I was in high school. Which is an eerie thing to consider, when you’ve been fed all your life about how much better and less racist we are now than we used to be, and that’s shown to be quite wrong using events and quotes that I recall having witnessed via current media.
But anyway, the thing that struck me the most about Kendi’s book—and it is really his main thesis—is that it’s not ignorance and racist ideas that lead to discrimination, but rather the other way around. The discrimination comes first, and is then justified by ever-modified and evolving racist ideas, and the promulgation of those racist ideas are what lead to the ignorance and hatred we see on display. I think he makes a really compelling case for this, that it’s the disparities that came first, and then people produce racist ideas to justify them and protect their own social or economic interests that they see as hinging on these disparities. Most of the book is going historically through the US from its colonization and showing this progression of the generation of racist ideas to protect discriminatory practices and thus economic advantages.
The thrust of this is that educating the ignorant is not some kind of silver bullet. He closes the book saying he’s not going to claim that no one’s ever been educated out of their racist ideas—and there are probably a lot of individual examples. He comes back to the point several times that the civil rights gains (now being steadily eroded) made during the Civil Rights movement were not really about persuading those in power that they had been wrong in their racism, but rather embarrassing the United States repeatedly on the world stage by giving lie to its bombastic claims about being the paragon of absolute freedom and a leader in the world in comparison to the oppressive horrors of the communists – so rather than convincing anyone to change their beliefs, it was a matter of forcing them to see their racists actions of the time were not in their social best interest.
(Sadly not the same as convincing them that all the racial disparity was not in their best interest. It just transformed the racism into a new shape.)
Which is, in its own way, a super depressing thought. Because we all want to believe that if you can just teach someone, holy enlightenment will shine down on them and they’ll stop being horrible people. And yes, individually that can happen. But coming at this from the angle of being a queer person, and also being someone peripherally involved in climate science… if you spend much time talking to people who are committed against your reality, you get disabused of that hopeful notion very, very quickly. The ability people have to convince themselves of the rightness of a horrifically wrong position is boundless if it’s in their perceived self-interest – and often times, just not wanting to face the social embarrassment of having been loudly and publicly wrong about something is more than enough self interest.
But he does offer a solution as well: convincing the people who wrongly believe discrimination is in their own interest that it isn’t, and then the racist ideas will die when there’s no longer discrimination that needs to be justified. And he’s of the opinion that the only people who have a true economic and social self-interest in the continuation of discrimination are extremely wealthy white people. Unfortunately, the extremely wealthy white people are the ones who are really good at playing others, but that’s not a surprise. (Thinking here of Jay Gould saying in 1886, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”) So I’m really not sure how one goes about this, other than we do need to try. Because racism really isn’t good for anyone involved. Convincing needs to be positive, since asking people to give up what they have (particularly those who aren’t wealthy, who feel the pinch of societally manufactured scarcity) is generally a non-starter.
And since I’m a writer, the real question on my mind is how I might be able to show this in the worlds I build.
A super interesting, intellectually chewy, and at times deeply depressing book. I’m going to be thinking about what Ibram X. Kendi had to say for a good long time.