The Rise and Fall of “Woke” with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi – The Assignment with Audie Cornish

The Rise and Fall of “Woke” with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi – The Assignment with Audie Cornish
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What became of the “Awokening” of 2020? Three years ago, U.S. businesses and politicians basically got religion after the death of George Floyd.


Police body cam clip


Why are you having trouble walking? Because my hands hurt. Please, man. Please don’t do this. Take a seat. I’m going in. Oh, no, you’re not.

And there were a lot of statements about standing with the black community.

The moment has come for our nation to deal with systemic racism. To deal with the growing economic inequity that exists in our nation. To deal with the denial of the promise of this nation made to so many.

And even in some cases, getting on bended knee to prove their solidarity.

In a moment, we will have a moment of silence, actually, 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence in honor of George Floyd and so many others who lost their lives or were abused by police brutality. We will now kneel for our moment of silence.

And there were the claims about fighting racism.

Never again should the world be subjected to witnessing what we saw on the streets in Minneapolis.

Or cosigning that Black lives matter.

Because no matter your religion, gender, disability, age, race, all lives can’t matter until Black lives matter.

Now, in June of 2020, at the height of the demonstrations, support for Black Lives Matter was at 61% among white U.S. adults. That’s according to a Pew Research survey.

BLM supporter clip


I been living with racism our whole lives. It’s coming from a very small town and it’s just- it’s got to stop.

But those days were short lived. Just over a year later, polling showed white Americans were less supportive of Black Lives Matter than they were before Floyd’s death. And words like “woke” and “social justice warrior” were now considered insults.

They’re actually holding racially segregated training programs and then actually encouraging and training students to become social justice warriors, teaching them how to- and how to participate in violent left wing protests.

You can never be woke enough. That’s the problem. It will eventually get to “straight white men and not allowed of talk.”

One man who ended up at the center of this reckoning over race and its backlash; Ibram X. Kendi.

Ibram X Kendi clip


In many ways, being anti-racist is almost like overcoming an addiction. And the first process of overcoming an addiction is first admitting that you have an addiction to racism. And then secondly, spending every day of your life ensuring that you’re no longer going back to that, ensuring that you’re being anti-racist.

As an academic and author, his books, How to Be Anti-Racist and its follow up, a youth friendly version called How to Be a Young Anti-Racist, teach readers how to actively fight racism instead of passively acknowledging it. And they have become major flashpoints in the culture wars.

A subliterate pamphlet on how the United States is a disgusting, immoral country that must be changed immediately and forever. That tract is entitled How to Be an Anti-Racist. Not only is it embarrassingly stupid, it is poisonous.

So now that “woke” is a dirty word. What happens to the anti-racism movement? What’s it like to be at the forefront of a cultural backlash? And what’s next for Ibram X Kendi? I’m Audie Cornish. And this is the Assignment. I spoke with Dr. Ibram X Kendi in front of an audience at the Crosscut Ideas Festival in Seattle. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation. Let’s start with just the idea of anti racist as a definition. When did that come to you in your scholarship? I don’t know if there was an ah-ha moment, but it’s a linguistic term that has taken on a whole other scholarship. So when did that come to you?

It actually came when I was writing this book, “Stamped From the Beginning,” this narrative history of anti-black racist ideas. And as I was writing the book, I realized it was really important to show that over the course of history, there were ideas that were challenging those racist ideas. And so I started to think about a term that I could use to describe those ideas that were challenging racist ideas. And and I came across the term anti-racist, and it’s a term that some scholars have been using for quite some time. You know, Angela Davis said in the late 1970s, “it’s not enough to be not racist, we must be be anti-racist.” But it hadn’t necessarily been defined or its history had necessarily been explored. And so I, I wanted to really show that contrast over time between racist and anti-racist ideas.

So the definition that I’ve heard you say is in the most simplest way, a not-racist is a racist who is in denial and an anti-racist is someone who is willing to admit the times in which they are being racist and who’s willing to recognize the inequities and the racial problems of our society. So how did you want this definition to live out in the world versus the reality of how it has lived out in the world?

Not by malicious actors. I just mean like people who like the idea and are well-meaning. But how how it actually played out?

I think I wanted it to live as an affirmation of what people can strive to be, how people can strive to think in terms of what ideas they can express in the sense of anti-racist ideas being notions that the racial groups are equals, or people recognized an anti-racist policy as one that’s leading to racial equity or justice. So instead of people just saying what they’re not, it would give people the ability to understand what they could strive to be. But most importantly, see all those people in this country and others who have been that way or str- or attempted to be that way over the course of centuries.

So you wanted to connect us in a very literal way to a legacy of activism?

Precisely. But the way that it’s lived is, I think in certain cases, people have used the term to replace the term, not racist. So before 2020, they were saying, I’m not racist. Then after 2020, they’re saying I’m anti-racist. Or it’s the old white supremacist talking point, that anti-racist is code for anti-white, has also gone mainstream.

What’s wrong with all of a sudden just saying you’re anti-racist?

Because I try to demonstrate in my work that anti-racist, like racist, isn’t an identity. It’s not who a person essentially is. It’s a descriptive term. It describes what a person is being or striving to be in any given moment. And and so when the person says I’m anti-racist, they’re they’re not necessarily thinking about it in the way that at least I I’ve framed in my work. And the reason why I framed it in that way is because when you study complex people, you see that people can express both racist and anti-racist ideas in the same speech.

But let me come to this for a second. It sounds like what you’re saying is action is the issue. And so when you hear someone describe themselves as anti-racist, what happens? Do you probe a little further and find out they’re not doing much else?

What’s that conversation like?

Well, I ask them, well, what makes you think that you’re being anti-racist? Is it just something that you want to be or is it something that you have demonstrated yourself to be by based on what you’ve said and done?

I- don’t you think? Like so like people are probably coming to you like, oh, this is the guy. He’s going to tell me I’m not racist. And then you’re like, with your eyebrows. But yeah. Is it awkward?

I think it can be awkward, but I actually am through my work, really trying to give people the tools to describe themselves and describe their elected officials and describe their ideas as opposed to the typical scenario in which we’re lecturing to other people. I really think people need to think about themselves, and that’s one of the reasons why I wrote How to Be an Anti-Racist in the way that I did, in which it was largely a book in which I was describing myself.

And if we think back to the summer of 2020, there was this feeling that a conversation was happening, that there was progress. People had the little signs on the lawn. Certainly people of color were like, okay, we’re doing this now. You know, this is the conversation in this moment, despite there having been numerous murders, prior. Right? Police-involved killings, prior. Did you have a moment where you felt like you were feeling change so you were sort of like hopeful?

I mean, I think it’s hard not to feel a sense of tremendous hope. Particularly in-

But like putting yourself back there, like if you can put yourself back there, did you think, oh, okay, people are like, maybe this is happening right now?

So it was weird because I think even as early as June of 2020 when when people in this city and in towns all over the country were were marching and demonstrating against police violence, the opposition to those demonstrations and the talking points and the narrative to undermine those demonstrations had already began. And so I was in a way, sort of seeing both simultaneously. And and so but I certainly felt hopeful. I wanted people- and it seemed as if people were interested in not only sort of coming together, but thinking about a way in which we could radically transform the society and finally create equity and justice for all. But obviously, in many ways, that momentum was crushed.

When did you realize you would be at the center of it? A lot of people have written a lot of books, right, about prejudice, racism, history. When did you realize, oh, wait a second, that the scrutiny is coming towards the ideas I’ve put out in the world?

Well, I think by June of 2020, I had like three or four or five books that were on bestseller lists. And so it was it was hard for me to deny as much as I want to, you know, that that people were were gravitating, you know, to my work. And it was quite overwhelming because that’s not something I ever even imagined was possible.

What was overwhelming about it?

What was overwhelming was that- just the sheer amount of attention. And particularly as someone who decided to become a scholar for a reason. I’m an introvert. I actually am most comfortable in an archive or in a library.

You don’t want like a woman in hot pink yelling at you in front of front of a crowd. That doesn’t excite you? That’s fair.

So it wasn’t I wasn’t the person who was seeking the spotlight. And so it sort of ran after me.

You know, critics have looked at your definition in a different way. I’m going to read something from the National Review, where they say “Kendi’s aim is to broaden the privilege of those entitled to fling the word racist around and to extend its power to ever more marginal misdeeds.” And they talk about the idea of the word race as being kind of a powerful disciplinary tool. And I wanted to ask you about this comment, because there is this perception of people being canceled, of people having to be renounced for whatever reason or past misdeeds coming to light. What’s your response to that characterization?

Well, that that’s a characterization based on talking points and not what I actually write. So actually, in my work, I make the case that we shouldn’t see the term racist as a pejorative term, as a term in which people are going to people use it to sort of hurt people, that it’s a descriptive term. It’s a word like everywhere, like every other word, and that we should have a very specific definition.

Who makes that distinction? Like who is in judgment?

Well I think there’s probably a court of public opinion. I think people can see like who is doing- and this isn’t to me necessarily just as it relates to when we do something that’s racist, even when we do something that mean, right, or we do something that’s not right or we do something that’s helpful, or we do something that’s that’s hurtful. We can recognize when a person is acknowledging the wrong and someone is denying it. And what I’ve been arguing is that the heartbeat of being racist is that denial that to be anti-racist is actually to acknowledge those times in which we did wrong so we could be better.

We’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, Dr. Kendi on the backlash to anti-racism. Okay, back to my conversation with Ibram X Kendi, recorded at the Crosscut Ideas Festival in Seattle. I want to bring to you some questions from the audience now. One of them is, what should activists do when their advocacy is too far ahead of public moral consciousness and causes a backlash?

So I think when we look at the history of so many advocates and activists in the past, so many of them that were ahead of public consciousness. And so I think the job of the activists is and I try to sort of show this in my work is to transform policy and thereby transform conditions, which I think is actually going to be much more likely to transform consciousness. But we have spent more time trying to transform consciousness than transform conditions for people that will allow them to see that that policy change that those activists are pushing for are better for their lives.

Are we still doing that with the concept of anti-racism?

I think in certain ways people are. And but I think in many ways there are- there are local organizations and activists who are who are razor focused on transforming conditions.

Another question is how can the idea of anti-racism be better marketed, shared in a way that doesn’t allow extremists on the right to define it for themselves in unhelpful ways?

I mean, I’m not a marketer. And so I think well, let me just say this. I think and part of the challenge I mentioned the history, right? Many Americans don’t know that history because we’re not necessarily taught American history. We’re certainly not taught America’s racial history. And so it creates a condition whereby our political actors and politicos and propagandists can use old talking points, old efforts to decimate movements again and just keep using them generation after generation. And and so I think one way-

It’s sort of an interesting question then, because it gets at that idea of rebranding.

Yeah. And so that’s actually what’s happening. And so I think it would be harder-

So should anti-racists rebrand?

I mean, I think it would be harder for anti-racism or racial justice work to be demonized in the same way each generation if the American people were actually taught their history.

But we are now- this directly ties into a movement that’s happening across the country against, quote unquote, CRT, critical race theory. And a great example of that is, of course Florida, Ron DeSantis, who helped pass legislation which was called the Stop Woke Act. Much of it was struck down by federal courts. But one of the things that was interesting about that bill, is it sort of got at the idea that people shouldn’t be made to feel bad about their race. And what’s interesting is it kind of is a prototype for other legislation in other states. This is specifically about history and it’s specifically about teaching history and how it’s taught. It seems like it’s getting right to the point of what you’re saying. Like this thing you’re saying is supposed to help is actually under attack.

Which is the very point. Right? When when you- the most effective way to consistently be able to manipulate people with racist ideas is when those folks don’t actually know what that they’re being manipulated because they don’t know their history. The most of- the way in which you’re able to manipulate people with racist ideas is if you’ve taught them that the source of their pain are those other people who don’t look like them. And so, I mean, the attack on history, the attack on education opens the door to mass ignorance. And when you have mass ignorance, it allows people to be better manipulated for political gain.

Is the left taking that threat seriously?

I don’t think so. No, I mean, I think certainly they’re-

It’s like, oh, that’s something going on with schools. It’s not health care.

I think there are those I mean, there are many, many obviously people on the left who are fighting against book bans and who are fighting against these laws. At the same time, these laws that really the censuring of teachers, the chilling, you know, of education, the refusal to allow teachers to do their job is just as much an existential threat as anything else we’re facing in this country. And I think you have people who are thinking about their own access. Oh, I have access to resources and to books, oh I already know. And they’re not necessarily thinking as much about that 12 year old child who looks like me, who based on what they’re reading, or more so not reading, thinks that there’s something wrong with them. And the books that would have told them that there’s nothing wrong with them are being taken out of their classrooms. And what that’s causing and how that’s impacting that 12 year old child.

What do you wish that 2018 Ibram X Kendi knew, that 2023 version knows now?

Wow. I think. I think. I wish. I would have known how much people could not like you even though they’ve never read you, they’ve only read talking points about you. And so coming to grips with that, it just took me a long time to come to grips with the fact that there are so many people who have serious issues with me, but they’ve actually never read my work. Right? Because as a writer, you just assume if somebody is going to be critical of you, it’s because of something they read. Right? And so you can then debate from a particular standpoint. But but I never I mean, I knew that this was possible, but I never imagined that it would be possible and so widespread as it related to me, which is why I spent so much time and care on every word, you know, that I write.

Do you mean other people in the media or intellectually? Hate mail? What are you referring to?

Have you gotten all of the above?

Have there been any critiques that hurt?

I think there certainly have been.

Have there been any critiques that actually made you lay in bed and think they’ve got a point?

Oh, of course. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I updated How To Be An Anti-Racist. And my- the new edition I actually decided to even have some annotations to describe some of the updates that I made to that book.

So you felt like “I hear you guys.” When you talked earlier about the scrutiny and people attacking you personally, what kind of effect has that had on you and your family?

So I think the biggest effect that has had on my family, because they know all of the sort of violent threats that I receive, it, of course, causes them to to to fear for my safety, you know, wherever we’re going. And it’s something we have now, no matter where we’re going, we have to be aware of. I think for me, certainly, you know, I have to be much more cogniscant- I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, so I-

But we know, being in the center of a maelstrom in the US today, I mean, it can mean death threats. It can mean a lot of things. What has it meant for you?

I think in many ways it has fueled me. And and so I think I, I wasn’t necessarily even expected to be here in the middle of this maelstrom, you know, I- you know, five years ago, I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. And I feel like in many ways I’m living on borrowed time. And I feel that the more people attack me, particularly- not necessarily attack me, but attack this construction of me that is utilized to malign those of us who are engaged in racial justice work, the more I know that I’m onto something and the more that I write and research, you know, and produce.

Dr. Kendi, thank you so much for your time, for spending that time with us.

Dr. Ibram X Kendi is the author of 14 books, including “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” and “How to Be an Anti-Racist.” Our conversation was recorded at the Crosscut Ideas Festival in Seattle. Special thanks to Jake Newman and all the folks at Crosscut. You can learn more about them at Crosscut dot com. The Assignment is a production of CNN Audio. Our producers are Madeleine Thompson, Jennifer Lai, Lori Galaretta, Carla Javier and Dan Bloom. Our associate producers are Isoke Samuel and Allison Park. Our senior producers are Matt Martinez and Haley Thomas. Mixing and Sound Design by David Schulman. Dan Dzula is our technical director. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. Special thanks to Katie Hinman. I’m Audie Cornish. And thank you for listening.

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