Last week, I wrote a column about Ibram X. Kendi’s series of Stamped books in response to a reader who authored a One View in which he appeared to have misinterpreted some of Kendi’s arguments.
The responses we’ve gotten to that column since then have been puzzling because they assume that Kendi isn’t doing history, that he’s pushing a political narrative — and that District 97 students are reading one man’s propaganda piece designed to make white people feel badly about themselves.
As someone who was actually subjected to years of schooling that resulted in my lowered self-esteem, I can’t stress enough how insulting it is to have white people all of a sudden claiming to be victims of curriculum-induced self-hatred on the basis of a book that essentially outlines this country’s centuries-long history of victim-shaming and gaslighting Blacks.
These responses also reveal a stunning lack of familiarity with just how obvious the history that Kendi outlines is to just about any professional historian. Let me be clear. As with climate change, there is a professional consensus on what sound historiography is and isn’t.
As the historian Julian Hayter told NPR’s Scott Simon, in “education or the teaching of history, we’ve moved away from heritage history,” which is what most Americans conflate with actual history.
Heritage history is “a romanticized version of the past, usually devoid of the darker chapters. You know, these are the feel-good stories and, in some cases, stories that don’t really deal with historical evidence, which isn’t to say, by the way, that things don’t happen in history.
“Of course, there are historical facts. The interpretation of those facts, however, is precisely what historians do. And I think a lot of people aren’t necessarily familiar with that process.”
What’s also interesting about those reader reactions is that I’ve been put in the awkward position of defending a body of work (Kendi’s Stamped series) about which I actually have growing reservations.
For instance, I’m not mad at Kendi or anyone else for making money by helping white people work through their issues related to race and racism, but at this point my Stamped cynicism grows with every slickly marketed derivative product (the other day, I stumbled across Kendi’s Be An Antiracist journal in a bookstore that also sold copies of Stamped: For Kids, which is not to be confused with the remixed Stamped for teen students). What’s next, a Stamped for teething toddlers?
There are many other valid criticisms of the Stamped series and the anti-racism cottage industry it has helped spawn. One is that, despite the growing prevalence of anti-racism, I don’t think there’s been enough public debate about a key question: Who ultimately benefits? Will the woke-ness among whites translate into less Black suffering? That question seems always and forever unanswered.
So, I am not holding water for Kendi and others who are making boatloads of money from this anti-racism craze, which may or may not be effective at ameliorating the systemic racism it so slickly decries.
I just think when writers go through the pain and, oftentimes, torment of publishing a book, they should be repaid by a critical reading that grapples with what they actually wrote. Our current Trumpian era notwithstanding, I still believe in something called reading comprehension.
But there’s a much deeper reservation I have with the Stamped series. Its emphasis on “anti-racism,” meaning the ways that people can actively resist racism as opposed to simply being “non-racist,” doesn’t deal directly enough with the fact that racism and prejudice are social phenomena that work largely on the level of unconscious emotions — not conscious thought.
It isn’t enough to know about racism and the history of it. History is vitally important, but you can’t read your way out of being biased. We should think of systemic racism not as a liberal ideology, but as the historical accumulation of habits and patterns of group behavior that have condensed into harmful policies and practices. And we need to treat this reality with the dispassion of a clinician.
Unfortunately, whites seem to be able to much more easily accept this position when it comes to non-racial biases, such as gender or class biases. But all biases operate similarly.
The emphasis on unconscious bias, as opposed to conscious “anti-racist” action, also forces people — who may place ideas about race and racism on the left-right political spectrum — to think deeper about these issues.
Moreover, it allows us to engage in this conversation by simply bypassing politically charged and loaded words (like racism) that have been distorted beyond recognition in favor of much more precise and targeted cognitive terminology that helps us understand how our behavior and patterns of behavior affect other people.
Bias really isn’t about liberals and conservatives, because liberal whites and conservative whites have racial biases that work toward the same end of harming Black people. I’m sure I have gender biases that work to perpetuate all kinds of gender-based disparities. This isn’t an issue of who is on the right or wrong side of history. This is about how our current actions are affecting other people living in the present.
To that end, I’d recommend two books published this year that examine bias, particularly racial and gender bias, in ways that are incredibly practical and that work to short-circuit the charged and overly simplified culture-war context in which we’re so often primed to think about racism.
Jessica Nordell’s The End of Bias: A Beginning and Shakil Choudhury’s Deep Diversity: A Compassionate, Scientific Approach to Achieving Racial Justice are excellent starting points for thinking about racism dispassionately and scientifically (which is not to be confused with scientific racism, a long-disgraced intellectual tradition that is nonetheless making a comeback).
The books follow a path blazed by pioneers like Black social psychologist Claude Steele, whose 2010 book, Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, first opened my eyes to the fact that we can think about prejudice, bias and systemic racism as social phenomena that can be scrutinized scientifically like any other phenomena.
Particularly, Nordell and Choudhury show that often what people profess (“I don’t have a racist bone in my body”) contradicts their unconscious behaviors. In the early chapters of her book, Nordell briskly covers the vast empirical terrain that convincingly demonstrates this reality over and over again.
For instance, surveys of white and Black people’s beliefs about race — conducted by the National Opinion Research Council, Gallup and other groups from World War II to the 1980s — show an about-face in racial attitudes. By the late 1980s, after civil rights laws were passed, “most White people disapproved of housing discrimination and segregation and responded that Black people should have the same job opportunities as Whites.”
But time and again, psychologists also found that the “gap between word and deed,” proved vast, with whites denying their prejudice even as they were observed “displaying all sorts of discriminatory behavior.”
Racial bias isn’t exclusive to whites either. Choudhury — a well-respected anti-racism and social-justice advocate of South Asian descent — shares his own testimony in the opening of his book. He once hesitated when a local optometrist handed him a business card with an ethnic-sounding name. He hesitated because of his own biases.
“I share this story to illustrate how vulnerable we all are — vulnerable to prejudice, racism and bias,” Choudhury writes. “Also, because it holds some deep lessons about discrimination and inclusion, I am certain that if the ‘plain, unimpressive’ business card had said Adam Wright or Ellen Goldstein, I would not have hesitated. And I would not have needed a referral, either, to take a chance on an unknown quantity with the ‘right’ name.”
I gravitated toward Choudhury’s book particularly because of what he writes about the unconscious mind and his book’s focus on ways that we can change our behaviors by first confronting how deeply our unconscious shapes our conscious action.
“Fundamental to this discussion is understanding that our unconscious mind — which is automatic, reactive, emotional, and intuitive — easily dominates the conscious mind, the realm of logic, language, reason and abstraction,” Choudhury writes. “In the words of a respected researcher, Joseph Ledoux of New York University, ‘consciousness may get all the focus … but consciousness is a small part of what the brain does and it’s a slave to everything that works beneath it.’”
Unconscious biases and automatic brain processes, Choudhury writes, “frequently favor those most ‘like us,’ creating hard-to-see racial discrimination that becomes systemic against ‘them.’”
Neither author demonizes bias, however, with each explaining just how essential bias is for humans operating in a complex world. They nonetheless offer practical, actionable ways that allow all of us to deal with the aspects of our biases that directly and indirectly harm others.
I should add that this cuts across ideological lines. In-group bias is a blatant factor driving politics on the right, but it also operates within progressive circles, even if to a less obvious degree, Choudhury writes.
Progressives can many times rely too heavily on “strategies that alienate, diminish, shame, blame, ‘call out,’ and push away potential allies. Highly academic jargon, self-righteousness, invisible codes of conduct, and the politics of purity often get pushed forward in the name of social justice, making it difficult to talk about issues for fear of ostracism and punishment.”
There is room to talk about race and racism that respects the nuance, complexity and analytical rigor with which many thoughtful people have handled these issues, Kendi included. That’s the conversation I hope we can have more often.