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david wilson for the boston globe

Ibram X. Kendi starts his book “How to Be an Antiracist” in 2000, when he was a high school senior delivering a speech in an oratorical contest. “The ideas that I shared in that speech were racist,” Kendi said. “That speech that I gave while in high school was probably the clearest indication of just how many anti-black racist ideas I had consumed.”

Looking back on his talk, which lambasted fellow black teens for alleged poor choices, Kendi said, “I came to see the speech differently, based on how I ended up ultimately defining a racist — as someone who either is expressing a racist idea or supporting a racist policy with their actions or inaction. Any idea that suggests a racial group is superior, or that there’s something wrong with a racial group, is indeed a racist idea.”

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Kendi, who won the National Book Award in 2016 for “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” said there’s a distinction between non-racist and anti-racist ideas and actions. Most of us think of ourselves as not racist, he added, “But ‘not racist’ has historically been a term of defensiveness and denial,” while anti-racism is about taking actions to foster racial equity.

“The heartbeat of anti-racism is confession,” he said. “If we realize that we actually do harbor racist ideas, we admit them. And we seek to change them. If we are doing nothing in the face of racial inequity, doing nothing in the face of racist policies, then we are in fact allowing racism to persist.”

Despite the racism all around us, Kendi said, “I’m actually feeling quite optimistic. To see the number of people of all races and ages who have picked up the book, and have stated that they want to change, they want to learn, they want to heal — really showed me there’s a critical mass of Americans who are serious about transforming themselves and this country and are really looking for a path forward.”

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Ibram X. Kendi speaks in conversation with the Globe’s Renée Graham at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at Coolidge Corner Theatre. The event is sold out, but a standby ticket line will form at the theater on the day of the event. 


Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.