As part of Butler University’s ongoing commitment to eliminate racism and discrimination on campus, the University kicked off the fall 2020 semester by welcoming bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi as the keynote guest in virtual Q&A sessions with students, faculty, and staff.
Dr. Kendi is Director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He is also a Professor of History and International Studies, an Ideas Columnist at The Atlantic, and a correspondent with CBS News. His four books have included Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America; How to Be an Antiracist; and STAMPED: Racism, Antiracism, and You (co-authored with Jason Reynolds). His newest book, Antiracist Baby, was published on June 16, 2020.
The conversation with Butler employees, held August 19 as part of a day-long symposium on anti-racism, was moderated by College of Communication (CCOM) Dean Brooke Barnett. The student session later that week was led by junior CCOM student Marcos Navarro García, alongside Gina Forrest, Butler’s Executive Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
Dr. Kendi says the journey to being anti-racist should start by defining racist policies as any policies that lead to racial inequity, and by defining racist ideas as any concepts that suggest one racial group is superior or inferior to another.
“And so, racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” he says.
The sessions focused mainly on the experiences of Black individuals within predominantly white institutions such as Butler, and on the role those institutions must play in combating racism. One of the most important things universities can do, Dr. Kendi says, is to use their intellectual resources to challenge the status quo.
“How can we assemble and organize experts on our campus who can really figure out the causes of racial inequities in our town, in our state?” he says. “We’re going to need that for this struggle to transform this country. We need intellectuals, we need scholars, and we need universities to support that level of public scholarship.”
Dr. Kendi also recommends that universities encourage anti-racist work by making it an explicit part of the employee review process, just as faculty are incentivized to publish academic journals. Spreading out diversity-related work will also give some breathing room to employees of color, who often shoulder the load of supporting students of color.
“Many predominantly white universities do not have many Black and Brown faculty members,” Dr. Kendi explains. “And so, typically, Black and Brown students are lining up at their doors, talking to them about their classes and about the racism they may be facing on campus. You know, just talking to them to feel valued, because in other places on campus, they don’t.”
All members of university communities need to put in the work to make sure people of color feel welcome and valued everywhere on campus. But Dr. Kendi acknowledges that even those who want to help might hesitate to speak up for fear of offending others. He says it’s important to understand that even anti-racist people will sometimes make mistakes, sometimes say racist things. The difference is in how they react.
“A racist person will deny it,” he says. “But someone who is being anti-racist reflects on what they said, based on the definition of a racist idea that they have learned, and will be like, ‘You know what, that was a racist idea. I was being racist in that moment, but I want to be different. I want to change. I want to learn. I want to grow, and I’m sorry for saying that. Let me repair the harm that I caused.”