How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi is a #1 New York Times Bestseller. Each person who serves on Project Transformation’s staff and Board of Directors has committed to reading and learning through this book. Below is a conversation with Rev. Dr. Vona Wilson, chair of the Project Transformation Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Team, which is made up of staff, board members, and young adult alumni.
Q: How did you feel when you saw this title of this book? Now that you’ve read it, what does the word antiracist mean to you?
A: Great question! The title made me feel, in two words: resistant and hesitant. I will confess that I didn’t really know anything about Kendi (the author) so my “bias” was already at play. Anyone who titled a book with an “anti” word framing must be coming at me with an argument to challenge or judge me; I need to be on guard. What a surprise! He had me in the Introduction with this quote: “This book is ultimately about the basic struggle we’re all in, the struggle to be fully human and to see that others are fully human.” Now that I’ve read the book, the word, “antiracist”, to me, means to actively engage in the practice of preventing, responding and dismantling our human contributions that indirectly and directly support racism and racist behavior.
Q: Kendi describes the Gospel proclaimed by Tom Skinner, a young evangelist of Black liberation theology: Jesus wasn’t in the Rotary Club and he wasn’t a policeman. Jesus was a “radical revolutionary, with hair on his chest and dirt under his fingernails.” [This] idea of Jesus was born of and committed to a new reading of the gospel. “Any gospel that does not…speak to the issue of enslavement” and “injustice” and “inequality—any gospel that does not want to go where people are hungry and poverty-stricken and set them free in the name of Jesus Christ—is not the gospel.” Back in the days of Jesus, “there was a system working just like today. But Jesus was dangerous. He was dangerous because he was changing the system.” Do you believe those who follow Christ are called to be antiracist?
A: I need to answer that within context. I love this quote. I appreciate it’s clarity and call. I believe antiracist living matches the baptismal vows and profession of faith that shape our lives as followers of Christ. In the United Methodist expression of this ancient witness, the three specific questions are:
(1) “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?” (2) “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression and in whatever forms they present themselves?” (3) “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ as opened to people of all ages, nations and races?”
To me, answering “yes” to these questions proclaims, by definition, antiracism. I am called only to be a follower of Christ, and as I do that, I hope my actions are more and more what Kendi names as “antiracist”. Repenting of my sin includes turning away from silence when I see injustice and oppression at work and turning toward my God-given call to work for liberation.
Q: How is all of this relevant to the work of Project Transformation?
A: Project Transformation touches this antiracist work from every aspect of our ministry. Every day, we invite people across different racial and economic environments into relationship with one another. And we see ourselves as agents of transformation in communities where children and families do not always have the resources needed to have equal footing in our educational and social structures.
If we are not intentionally pursuing equity, Project Transformation’s approach to connecting children, college-aged young adults, and churches within a community can fall into approaches that foster behavior that supports, rather than inhibits, racism. It sounds impossible when our intentions are so completely different from anything we would name as “racist”, but the ideas Kendi urges us to consider help us look from another’s perspective and constantly evaluate our actions as either “racist” or “antiracist.”
Q: Do you recommend this book to others? If so, who in particular should take the time to read it?
A: I would recommend this book to anyone who is serious about loving others as Jesus loves us. The discussions I have shared with others around Kendi’s material have been some of the more profound conversations I’ve experienced about following Christ in our world today. I am a practical theologian so I’m always moving toward practice in any theological endeavor. The strength of this book is that you can take the teachings of Jesus and put them in conversation with Kendi’s journey in a way that really deepens what it means to love like Jesus in the 21st century, and in our local context. In this way, the book lends itself to spiritual formation in a very real way.
I would also recommend this book to anyone who hears the word, “antiracist” and has preconceived notions about what it means. This book is rich in historical fact, varying perspectives, and a man’s journey of becoming who God created him to be. It is a beautiful gift that I believe God placed inside Ibram Kendi to share with us at a time we need it.
Rev. Dr. Vona Wilson is the Senior Associate Pastor at Franklin First United Methodist Church. She serves on the Board of Directors and as chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Team at Project Transformation Tennessee.