Resilience, Belief in Change Crucial for Racial Progress

Ibram X. Kendi served as the inaugural speaker for GW’s “Race in America” speaker series and kicked off the 2018 Diversity Summit.

April 5, 2018

Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, speaks Tuesday to GW community members attending the 2018 Diversity Summit. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

By Kurtis Hiatt

An expert on the history of racism, Ibram X. Kendi offered some advice to the George Washington University community during remarks that opened this year’s Diversity Summit:

“You have to be able to distinguish between something that is offensive and being offended,” said Dr. Kendi, professor of history and international relations and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.

Author of the award-winning book “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” Dr. Kendi spent years investigating horrific events of racism and discrimination—and trying equally as hard not to internalize the negativity that came with it.

He tries to turn any anger or rage he may feel as a result of others’ racist actions into something productive and continues to believe that change is possible, evoking what he said was an important message from Martin Luther King Jr., on the eve of the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

“That is a fundamental aspect of being an activist or a leader,” Dr. Kendi said. “Can you imagine leading people but you don't believe you’re going to go anywhere? It’s impossible.”

During a wide-ranging discussion Tuesday with a large audience at the Jack Morton Auditorium, Dr. Kendi, who served as the inaugural speaker of the GW Race in America speaker series, also detailed important themes from his book.

One was an update to the belief that America’s racial history could be seen as one march toward racial progress.

“America’s [racial] history is not a singular force,” he said. “It’s actually a dual force or, better yet, a dueling force between racial progress and racist progress.”

It’s this framework that brings understanding to how over the years some racist ideas have become debunked while others have simultaneously become more “sophisticated and insidious,” Dr. Kendi said.

Meanwhile, defining a racist idea has become overly complex, he said, arguing the simplest approach is the most accurate: “any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group in any way.”

Identifying the source of racial inequality is similarly simple. It occurs, he said, because of the belief that something is wrong or inferior about a group, there are discriminatory policies in place or a combination of the two. And that applies to any group disparity, including with class, gender or sexuality, he added.

During the two-day summit, now in its third year, hundreds of GW participants heard from keynote speakers and participated in workshops and poster presentations as well as learned about a variety of diversity topics, including gender bias, interfaith and civic dialogue in politically charged times, LGBTQ+ health, socio-economic and income inequality and other issues.

The summit closed Wednesday with remarks from Symone Sanders, CNN political commentator and former national press secretary to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

On Tuesday, GW President Thomas LeBlanc emphasized in opening remarks that GW’s excellence “relies wholly on the ability of all of us to work together.”

“That means as students, faculty and staff we must truly accept one another, embrace our individual differences and understand how those differences make us stronger collectively,” he said.

Dr. LeBlanc also said that, as promised, GW would release a comprehensive action plan next week with the steps the university will take in the wake of a racist social media post and after hearing broader concerns about racism and inclusion, especially from GW’s black students. The GW community has been actively involved in contributing ideas to the plan.

In her opening remarks, Caroline Laguerre-Brown, vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, said GW’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and accessibility is critical.

“The immense challenges that we face come with a tremendous opportunity for us to be present, to be vocal and to be active about who we are and what we value,” she said.

The Diversity Summit, she said, would help to show just that.