Bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University and founding director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. He won the National Book Award for his 2016 release “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” His widely read “How to be an Antiracist” offers a blueprint for antiracist activism.
This week, Kendi launched the first episode of his new weekly podcast, “Be Antiracist,” in partnership with Malcolm Gladwell’s Pushkin Industries, and iHeartPodcast Network. In conversations with scholars and activists, Kendi explores topics ranging from disability rights to immigration policy. He discussed the podcast in a Zoom call with the Globe.
Q. How did the inspiration for this show come about?
A. It stemmed from thinking about a new way to reach a different audience. Even as someone who has written many op-eds or done public speaking, I know that there are people who may not have the time to read an essay in The Atlantic, to read a book, or to go to a public talk. But they do have the time to listen to a podcast on the way to work or while they’re cleaning. It was also a way for me to learn and to expose the American people to the incredible amount of expertise we have in this country.
Q. How does the podcast complement the reading experience of “How to be an Antiracist?”
A. It allows us to think, dig, and reflect in depth about how we can eliminate different forms of racism — the policies, platforms, and narratives that are antiracist that we can rally around right now to create a just and equitable society. In “How to be an Antiracist,” I wasn’t able to have that level of precision about different forms of racism and the ways we can confront or challenge different structures. It’s one thing to read something on a page. It’s another to join a community and experience it in action.
Q. What do you think is special about the podcast format and oral storytelling that allows us to share and learn about an antiracist practice?
A. I’m a Black American and I come from a tradition where oral storytelling was just as important as the written word. Acting on that tradition within the Black-American community is important to me. There’s something about the human connection that oral storytelling facilitates. I’m able to more closely connect with the listener in ways that I can’t with the reader.
Q. What do you hope audiences will bring as listeners to your conversations?
A. I hope listeners bring precisely what I brought to the conversations, and that’s an open mind. That’s questions. That’s seeking to grow, learn, and be transformed. In having these conversations, I’ve learned so much. I’ve been inspired. I’ve been informed about different policies and platforms that we should focus on. I encourage listeners to approach the podcast in the same way.
Q. You talk about this “open-mindedness” with Malcolm Gladwell. Is being open-minded the only requirement to learn how to be an antiracist?
A. We also have to develop a level of empathy for people who have different experiences and worldviews. It’s not about changing minds. It’s about each of us entering these conversations not only with an open mind but also in openness to transform ourselves. We transform ourselves so we can transform our society.
Q. In your conversation with Rebecca Cokley [founding director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress], you talk about how many Americans don’t have a clear definition of racism or ableism. What’s the importance of developing a shared and consistent vocabulary?
A. If you and I disagree on whether an idea is racist, then what’s probably happening is that we disagree on the definition of a racist idea. It’s more constructive for us to ask: how do you define a racist idea? How do I define racist ideas? Can we come to a common definition?
Q. In that same episode you talk about normalization: how white people think of themselves as the norm, able-bodied people consider themselves to be the norm. How do we change that?
A. In many ways, we have held up assimilation as a virtue. We have said to the “others,” the different people, the new people in a particular space, the different-looking people, the people of different cultures who speak different languages, or whoever is not dominant within the society that they should assimilate and become like more dominant forces.
To me, that is antithetical to the beauty of humanity. Humanity’s greatest strength is its difference. To try to create sameness out of difference because it’s easier to relate to someone who acts like us and looks like us is to do away with the most beautiful aspect of humanity.
Q. Do you have a favorite episode?
A. I can’t say I have a favorite. I’m very proud that in the collection, we were able to discuss racism in many different forms: racism and ableism (Rebecca Cokley), the collateral damage of racism onto white people (Heather C. McGhee), racism through voter suppression (Ari Berman), racism and homophobia (Don Lemon), racism in sports (Jemele Hill), race and class (Robin D.G. Kelly), racism in immigration (Julián Castro), racism and policing in prisons (Mariame Kaba), and anti-native racism (David Truer). Through listening to each episode and season, I think people are going to learn a lot, as I did.
Interview was edited and condensed.
Kyung Mi Lee can be reached at email@example.com.