By: Stephanie Hyde | April 15, 2021
On April 7, UAlbany had the honor of welcoming back Ibram X. Kendi as the latest guest in the “UAlbany Speaker Series” dedicated to bringing compelling conversations with notable leaders about contemporary issues.
Kendi served as an assistant professor in the UAlbany Africana Studies and History department from 2012 to 2015. He is the author of three New York Times Best Seller books, including “How to Be an Antiracist” which was the focal point of the conversation.
He is the founder of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist research and was the recipient of BU’s Andrew W. Mellon Professorship in the Humanities in 2020. He is also a contributing writer to The Atlantic and a CBS News racial justice contributor.
In a conversation with UAlbany’s Dr. Alfredo Medina Jr., the Associate Director of UAlbany’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Kendi first explained the reason for changing his last name. Without feeling much connection to his surname Rogers, he decided on a name change after marrying his wife, Sadiqa Kendi. Together they decided on the name Kendi, which means “loved one” in the Meru language of Kenya.
According to Kendi, the first step towards becoming an antiracist starts with understanding how racism influences all levels of life.
“The term racism is systemic, structural, and takes a body of people to hold it up. But the term racist is individual. It's an individual idea, individual person, and an individual policy,” Kendi said.
Kendi hopes his work challenges individuals to question if their power is used to resist policies that uplift structural racism. He explained the importance of understanding the policymakers individually, the policies themselves, and the ideas that justify such policies that work together to uphold structural racism. But to understand structural racism, we have to look at each part separately.
Kendi’s antiracism work helped him recognize that treating people with humanity, compassion, and empathy helps to increase our relatability to each other.
“What I realized is the more that I equate different racial groups, the more I open myself up to leveling and accepting differences,” Kendi said. “The more that I level differences, the more I recognized everyone spoke humanity.”
As the public continues to challenge racist law enforcement policies, Kendi explained it starts with eliminating the widespread idea that dangerous people come from Black neighborhoods, and the only way to combat the violence is with more police officers.
“The solution is not to incarcerate or segregate,” Kendi said. “The solution is these people need what we need — resources and opportunities. If you starve people of that, then it is going to create danger.”
As the country continues to fight two pandemics—racism and COVID-19, the battle continues to wage on in 2021. Kendi related the conversation to the Derek Chauvin trial, as the country awaits a verdict as to whether he is found guilty for the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
“If Chauvin is acquitted, then it will completely destabilize the criminal justice system and continue to strip away faith people have in the criminal justice system holding police officers accountable. It will be yet another indication that we need to completely reimagine our justice system,” Kendi said. “If he is convicted, all should still happen, but it may not happen as quickly and as viscerally.”
He also explained the connection to the 1992 Rodney King trial in Los Angeles, with the verdict acquitting the four officers who were caught on tape beating King. The riots afterward led to a massive movement against racism met with an equally large police response. Kendi believes the nationwide response to the Chauvin trial may be similar to the destruction seen in Los Angeles in 1992.
As Kendi reflected on his time in college, his best piece of advice for undergraduate students is to take advantage of the culturally diverse social life on campus. Attending different events and meeting new people increases a student’s effectiveness in successfully navigating the growing diverse population.
“Going through this journey, shifting, changing, and reflecting, [both] personally and professionally, is what college is all about,” Kendi said.