Authors: Ibram X. Kendi
ROM 1434 TO
Gomes de Zurara estimated, 927 enslaved Africans landed in Portugal, “the greater part of whom were turned into the true path of salvation.” It was, according to Zurara, Prince Henry’s paramount achievement, an achievement blessed by successive popes. No mention of Prince Henry’s royal fifth (
), the 185 or so of those captives he was given, a fortune in bodies.
The obedient Gomes de Zurara created racial difference to convince the world that Prince Henry (and thus Portugal) did not slave-trade for money, only to save souls. The liberators had come to Africa. Zurara personally sent a copy of
The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea
to King Afonso V with an introductory letter in 1453. He hoped the book would “keep” Prince Henry’s name “before” the “eyes” of the world, “
to the great praise of his memory.” Gomes de Zurara secured Prince Henry’s memory as surely as Prince Henry secured the wealth of the royal court. King Afonso was accumulating more capital from selling enslaved Africans to foreigners “
than from all the taxes levied on the entire kingdom,” observed a traveler in 1466. Race had served its purpose.
Prince Henry’s racist policy of slave trading came first—a cunning invention for the practical purpose of bypassing Muslim traders. After nearly two decades of slave trading, King Afonso asked Gomes de Zurara to defend the lucrative commerce in human lives, which he did through the construction of a Black race, an invented group upon which he hung racist ideas. This cause and effect—a racist power creates racist policies out of raw self-interest; the racist policies necessitate racist ideas to justify them—lingers over the life of racism.
Black Americans of Achievement series onward, I had been taught that racist ideas cause racist policies. That ignorance and hate cause racist ideas. That the root problem of racism is ignorance and hate.
But that gets the chain of events exactly wrong. The root problem—from Prince Henry to President Trump—has always been the self-interest of racist power. Powerful economic, political, and cultural self-interest—the primitive accumulation of capital in the case of royal Portugal and subsequent slave traders—has been behind racist policies. Powerful and brilliant intellectuals in the tradition of Gomes de Zurara then produced racist ideas to justify the racist policies of their era, to redirect the blame for their era’s racial inequities away from those policies and onto people.
HE TEACHER SOON
overcame her surprise at a seven-year-old questioning her about the paucity of Black teachers. After searching my parents’ faces, she looked back at me. “Why are you asking that question?” she asked nicely.
“If you have so many Black kids, you should have more Black teachers,” I said.
“The school hasn’t hired more Black teachers.”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you know?”
My parents could see my agitation growing. Dad changed the subject. I didn’t mind. My train of thought had taken me away, anyway. I was thinking about what Ma had just said. I am Black. I am Black.
I ended up attending a private Lutheran school closer to home, White third-grade teacher and all. I did not mind until I noticed.
One who is expressing the idea that the races are meaningfully different in their biology and that these differences create a hierarchy of value.
One who is expressing the idea that the races are meaningfully the same in their biology and there are no genetic racial differences.
CANNOT RECALL HER
name. So very odd. I can recite the names of my Black fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade teachers. But the name of my White third-grade teacher is lost in my memory like the names of so many racist White people over the years who interrupted my peace with their sirens. Forgetting her may have been a coping mechanism. People of color sometimes cope with abuse from individual Whites by hiding those individuals behind the generalized banner of Whiteness. “She acted that way,” we say, “because she is White.”
But generalizing the behavior of racist White individuals to all White people is as perilous as generalizing the individual faults of people of color to entire races. “He acted that way because he is Black. She acted that way because she is Asian.” We often see and remember the race and not the individual. This is racist categorizing, this stuffing of our experiences with individuals into color-marked racial closets. An antiracist treats and remembers individuals as individuals. “She acted that way,” we should say, “because she is racist.”
I know that now, but that knowledge won’t bring back the specific memory of that teacher. My parents do not remember her name, either. All we remember is what she did.
My third-grade class was mostly made up of Black kids, with a handful of Asian and Latinx kids. Three White kids—two girls and a boy—kept to themselves and sat toward the front of the class. I sat toward the back near the door, where I could see everything. I could see when the White teacher overlooked raised non-White hands and called on White hands. I could see her punish non-White students for something she didn’t punish White students for doing.
This was not a problem specific to my school or my childhood—it’s a problem that cuts from private to public schools and through time. During the 2013–14 academic year,
Black students were four times more likely than White students to be suspended from public schools, according to Department of Education data.
Back in my third-grade class, the unfair punishments and overlooking did not seem to bother the other Black students, so I did not let them bother me. But one day, before Christmas break in 1990, it became unavoidable.
A tiny and quiet girl—tinier and quieter than me—sat on the other side of the back of the room. The teacher asked a question and I saw her slowly raise her dark-skinned hand, which was a rare occurrence. Her shyness, or something else, generally kept her mouth closed and arm down. But something roused her today. I smiled as I saw her small hand rising for the teacher’s attention.
The teacher looked at her, looked away, and instead called on a White hand as soon as it was raised. As the Black girl’s arm came down, I could see her head going down. As I saw her head going down, I could see her spirits going down. I turned and looked up at the teacher, who, of course, was not looking at me. She was too busy engaging a favored White child to notice what was happening in the back row—neither my fury nor the sadness of the girl registered for her.
Scholars call what I saw a “
microaggression,” a term coined by eminent Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970. Pierce employed the term to describe the constant verbal and nonverbal abuse racist White people unleash on Black people wherever we go, day after day. A White woman grabs her purse when a Black person sits next to her. The seat next to a Black person stays empty on a crowded bus. A White woman calls the cops at the sight of Black people barbecuing in the park. White people telling us that our firmness is anger or that our practiced talents are natural. Mistaking us for the only other Black person around. Calling the cops on our children for selling lemonade on the street. Butchering Ebonics for sport. Assuming we are the help. Assuming the help isn’t brilliant. Asking us questions about the entire Black race. Not giving us the benefit of the doubt. Calling the cops on us for running down the street.
As an African American, Pierce suffered from and witnessed this sort of everyday abuse. He identified these individual abuses as microaggressions to distinguish from the macroaggressions of racist violence and policies.
Since 1970, the concept of microaggressions has expanded to apply to interpersonal abuses against all marginalized groups, not just Black people. In the last decade, the term has become popular in social-justice spaces through the defining work of psychologist Derald Wing Sue. He defines microaggressions as “
brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.”
I don’t think it’s coincidental that the term “microaggression” emerged in popularity during the so-called post-racial era that some people assumed we’d entered with the election of the first Black president. The word “racism” went out of fashion in the liberal haze of racial progress—Obama’s political brand—and conservatives started to treat racism as the equivalent to the N-word, a vicious pejorative rather than a descriptive term. With the word itself becoming radioactive to some, passé to others, some well-meaning Americans started consciously and perhaps unconsciously looking for other terms to identify racism. “Microaggression” became part of a whole vocabulary of old and new words—like “cultural wars” and “stereotype” and “implicit bias” and “economic anxiety” and “tribalism”—that made it easier to talk about or around the R-word.
I do not use “microaggression” anymore. I detest the post-racial platform that supported its sudden popularity. I detest its component parts—“micro” and “aggression.” A persistent daily low hum of racist abuse is not minor. I use the term “abuse” because aggression is not as exacting a term. Abuse accurately describes the action and its effects on people: distress, anger, worry, depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, and suicide.
What other people call racial microaggressions I call racist abuse. And I call the zero-tolerance policies preventing and punishing these abusers what they are: antiracist. Only racists shy away from the R-word—racism is steeped in denial.
ACK IN THE
classroom, I needed some time to think about the racist abuse I saw. I watched my dejected classmate with her head down when we all began the walk through the long hall that led to the adjoining chapel, where we were to have our weekly service. Her sadness did not seem to let up. My fury did not, either.
The chapel had a postmodern design but was simple inside: a small pulpit and dozens of rows of brown pews, with a cross looming over it all from the back wall. When the morning service ended, the teacher began motioning my classmates out. I didn’t move. I sat at the edge of the pew and stared at the teacher as she approached.
“Ibram, time to go,” she said pleasantly.
“I’m not going anywhere!” I faintly replied, and looked straight ahead at the cross.
I looked up at her, eyes wide and burning: “I’m not going anywhere!”
“No! You need to leave, right now.”
Looking back, I wonder, if I had been one of her White kids would she have asked me: “What’s wrong?” Would she have wondered if I was hurting? I wonder. I wonder if her racist ideas chalked up my resistance to my Blackness and therefore categorized it as misbehavior, not distress. With racist teachers, misbehaving kids of color do not receive inquiry and empathy and legitimacy. We receive orders and punishments and “no excuses,” as if we are adults. The Black child is ill-treated like an adult, and the Black adult is ill-treated like a child.
My classmates were nearly out of the chapel. An observant handful stopped near the door, gazing and speculating. Irate and perplexed at this disruption, the teacher tried again to command me. She failed again. She grabbed my shoulder.
“Don’t touch me!” I yelled.
“I’m calling the principal,” she said, turning toward the exit.
“I don’t care! Call her! Call her right now,” I shouted, looking straight ahead as she walked away behind me. I felt a single tear falling from each eye.
It was chapel-quiet now. I wiped my eyes. I started rehearsing what I was going to tell the principal. When she came, she offered more commands that she thought could move me. She learned her lesson like her predecessor. I was not going to move until I recited my first dissertation on racism, until I had a chance to defend our Blackness.
am Black. I looked at the girl’s dark skin and saw my skin color. Saw her kinky hair, split down the middle in cornrows held by barrettes, and saw my kinky hair, my small Afro. Saw her broad nose and saw my nose. Saw her thicker lips and saw my lips. Heard her talk and heard the way I talk. I did not see a mirage. We were the same. Those three favored White kids—they were different to my eight-year-old racial understanding. Their whiter skin color, straighter hair, skinnier noses and lips, their different way of speaking, even the way they wore their uniforms—all marked a different species to me. The difference was not skin deep.
No one taught me that these differences were meaningless to our underlying humanity—the essence of biological antiracism. Adults had in so many ways taught me that these superficial differences signified different forms of humanity—the essence of biological racism.
Biological racists are segregationists. Biological racism rests on two ideas: that the races are meaningfully different in their biology and that these differences create a hierarchy of value. I grew up believing the first idea of biological racial difference. I grew up disbelieving the second idea of biological racial hierarchy, which conflicted with the biblical creation story I’d learned through religious study, in which all humans descend from Adam and Eve. It also conflicted with the secular creed I’d been taught, the American creation story that “all men are created equal.”
My acceptance of biological racial distinction and rejection of biological racial hierarchy was like accepting water and rejecting its wetness. But that is precisely what I learned to do, what so many of us have learned to do in our dueling racial consciousness.
Biological racial difference is one of those widely held racist beliefs that few people realize they hold—nor do they realize that those beliefs are rooted in racist ideas. I grew up hearing about how Black people had “
more natural physical ability,” as half of respondents replied in a 1991 survey. How “Black blood” differed from “White blood.” How “
one drop of Negro blood makes a Negro” and “puts out the light of intellect,” as wrote Thomas Dixon in
The Leopard’s Spots
(1902). How Black people have natural gifts of improvisation. How “if
blacks have certain inherited abilities, such as improvisational decision making, that could explain why they predominate in certain fields such as jazz, rap, and basketball, and not in other fields, such as classical music, chess, and astronomy,” suggested Dinesh D’Souza in his 1995 book with the laughably dishonest title
The End of Racism
. How Black women had naturally large buttocks and Black men had naturally large penises. How the “increase of rape of white women” stems from the “
large size of the negro’s penis” and their “birthright” of “sexual madness and excess,” as a doctor wrote in a 1903 issue of
How Black people are biologically distinct because of slavery. At the 1988 American Heart Association conference, a Black hypertension researcher said African Americans had higher hypertension rates because only those able to retain high levels of salt survived consuming the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean during the Middle Passage. “
I’ve bounced this off a number of colleagues and…it seems certainly plausible,” Clarence Grim told swooning reporters. Plausibility became proof, and the slavery/hypertension thesis received the red carpet in the cardiovascular community in the 1990s. Grim did not arrive at the thesis in his research lab. It came to him as he read
by Alex Haley. Who needs scientific proof when a biological racial distinction can be imagined by reading fiction? By reading the Bible?
that taught me that all humans descended from the first pair also argued for immutable human difference, the result of a divine curse. “The people who were scattered over the earth came from Noah’s three sons,” according to the story of the biblical Great Flood in the ninth chapter of Genesis. Noah planted a vineyard, drank some of its wine, and fell asleep, naked and drunk, in his tent. Ham saw his father’s nakedness and alerted his brothers. Shem and Japheth refused to look at Noah’s nakedness, walked backward into his tent, and covered him. When Noah awoke, he learned that Ham, the father of Canaan, had viewed him in all his nakedness. “May a curse be put on Canaan,” Noah raged. “May Canaan be the slave of Shem.”