“Race is not a social construct, it is a political construct, [and] power construct.” Prof. Ibram X. Kendi presents at virtual Clarke Forum

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Deanna Findlay '22, Guest Writer

Professor Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” expanded on many of the ideas in his book during a virtual Clarke Forum lecture on Thursday, Sept. 17.

Kendi, who is also a CBS News Correspondent and the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, promoted informed action in the midst of the current 2020 Presidential election hoping to emphasize that “race is not a social construct it is a political construct, [and] power construct.”

Kendi’s lecture was part of the annual Winfield C. Cook Constitution Day Address, which aims to host figures to speak on contemporary issues related to the Constitution through the Clarke Forum. According to the Forum’s website, “the event celebrates the signing of the United States Constitution and commemorates Dickinson’s connection to that document, through John Dickinson’s participation as an original signer.

Kendi defined both what it is to be racist and to be anti-racist in the beginning of the talk. He explained that “producers of racist ideas don’t like to be called racist.”

Kendi also described how racism is performed in a person as “the return of conscience and unconscious denial.”

The discussion was moderated by Dr. Vincent Stephens, director of Dickinson’s Popel Shaw Center for Race & Ethnicity. When Stephens asked Kendi if his book was for white liberal scholars, Ibram Kendi said that he wrote for non-white people, explaining that “many non-white scholars can’t get white people out of their head” and that experiencing his text was aimed to do just that. His goal was to centralize the Black experience and not compare experiences and perspectives with white people as readers traditionally would. 

Kendi also discussed the discourse on the role of police in the United States today. Prompted by Stephens, Kendi was able to share why the emerging concepts of abolishing the police and defunding the police are treated differently in political discourse.

Kendi explained that there are people who have never been exposed to what police work looks like when it is reformative and helpful to the communities being protected. The confusion surrounding the role of police today causes desperation to push solutions that look like giving less economic power to the police, or trying a new system altogether. 

However, in answering the question Kendi shared that demonstrating will not have the same impact that planning with an organization and then leading informed protesting could have to promote political change on police brutality.

“It was really good and thought provoking,” said Sara Soba ‘21. “The student Q&As had some really great questions and I think Kendi handled them all very well.”

When asked what the role of a book can be to scholars wishing to organize for political change, Kendi emphasized the role of gratitude for the acquired information that these times have to offer. 

“People have never been so aware of racism” he said, adding that people can move in a way that is informed with this acquired knowledge. He added that there will always be people who are not acting, but it is the responsibility for those who wish to see political action taking place to put themselves in the position to do so. Kendi later emphasized that to combat systems of injustice he is not in disapproval of going through the state, nation, or international level for organizing for a cause.

“Given that it was remote, I would say it was successful for sure,” said Neil Weissman, Provost and Dean of the College. Regarding the event’s attendance, which was estimated to be about 1,000 viewers, Weissman said “that’s probably more than we would have gotten on campus,” although he added that live on-campus events are streamed online as well.

“Kendi’s philosophy is so crucial to the student body at Dickinson because we are active learners and a lot of students identify as ‘not racist’ but do not understand what it means to be actively anti-racist,” said Kyra Ramos ’21.

Coming this Feb. 2, 2021 will be Ibram Kendi’s new book Four hundred souls: A community history of African Americans from 1619-2019. Kendi uses the voice of 80 different Black writers and 10 unique Black poets to explore the lives of Black folk who shared this land over the course of 400 years centering not only Black life, but Black longevity and communion.

This event was hosted by the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues and was live streamed on Youtube. The program was also sponsored by Penn State Dickinson Law and co-sponsored by the Popel Shaw Center for Race & Ethnicity, the Office of the Provost, the First Year Seminar Program, and Center for Spirituality & Social Justice, Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness , the Churchill Fund, and the departments of English, political science, history, sociology, and American studies.