Katrina V. Willis, who’s studying medical coding at Madison College, was taught by her parents as a child that anyone, including Black people, could be racist.
Her nuclear family has always been “antiracist,” she said, even before the word was brought into the national conversation about race.
Willis, who is Black, said she has extended family of different backgrounds whom she considers racist.
Willis is a member of a student book club at Madison Area Technical College, also known as Madison College, reading Ibram X. Kendi’s bestselling book, “How to Be an Antiracist.”
Kendi, 38, is making a free online appearance at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival. MATC book club members will attend and get to ask Kendi a question.
The event is presented as part of Madison College’s “Journey Toward Anti-Racism” and is part of its “Madison College Talks” series. Lucía Nuñez, the college’s vice president of equity, inclusion, and community engagement, will facilitate the discussion.
In July, Kendi, a National Book Award-winner, became director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. In his 2019 book, Kendi said that he’s been a racist his whole life.
Jeffrey C. Stewart, in a review in the New York Times, calls “How to Be an Antiracist,” a 21st-century manual of racial ethics.
Stewart said Kendi’s mission is to push people who believe they’re not racists to become “antiracists.”
Antiracists support ideas and policies affirming that “the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences — that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group.”
Kendi doesn’t believe in nonracists. There are only racists — people who allow racist ideas to proliferate without opposition — and antiracists — people “who expose and eradicate such ideas wherever they encounter them.”
Willis, who didn’t want to give her age, describes herself as “human and African American.” She said that while she grew up with the terminology and concepts described in Kendi’s book, her parents used less explicit language. “I have learned and lived most of the concepts covered in the book because my parents raised me with similar ideology,” she said.
The book helped her reflect on her own experiences and gave her “clarity,” Willis said, adding that she’s always had “an insatiable thirst for knowledge” and she’s been “willing to share” it.
That quest for knowledge, she said, has led to “African Americans, including some of my relatives, referring to me as ‘too white to be black and too black to be white’ as a way to derogatorily refer to me being overeducated compared to others who look like me.”
That’s led to her “never perfectly assimilating into either group,” she said, adding that Kendi’s book has helped her see that the “ignorance” of those who view her that way is not her burden.
Willis, who’s a student senator and president of a statewide campus business group, was born in Chicago and raised in towns across northern Illinois. Her parents grew up in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s. As children, with Willis’ grandfathers, her parents trained adults to pass voter literacy tests in the 1960s.
Since her upbringing and education align with the book, Willis said “How to Be an Antiracist” hasn’t changed the way she looks at race and racism. Still, it’s empowered her commitment as “an ally to ensure others recognize that we all have unconscious biases.”
Jenna Boyd, another book club member, said Kendi’s book has challenged the way she defines and identifies racism. Previously, she saw it on an “individual level,” and viewed the issue as a “lack of exposure” or “lack of education.” But that view, she said, doesn’t account for the “policies and procedures in place that perpetuate systemic racism.”
Boyd, 34, who’s white and studying to be a paralegal, said the book club has provided an open dialogue and she feels fortunate for a glimpse through the “different lenses” with which her book club peers have experienced the world.
From “How To Be An Antiracist,” Boyd said she’s learned that there’s a significant difference between actively being an antiracist versus passively “not supporting” racist ideologies. The passivity involved in “not supporting” often lends itself to the support of racism by “operating within, and conforming to, systems inherently designed to disproportionately impact low-income and/or racial and ethnic minorities,” she said.
Boyd said she was struck with Kendi’s discussion of disparities in health outcomes and voting rights.
“There may be no more consequential White privilege than life itself,” Kendi wrote. “White lives matter to the tune of 3.5 additional years over Black lives in the United States, which is just the most glaring of a host of health disparities, starting from infancy, where Black infants die at twice the rate of White infants.”
Kendi details how racist voting policy has gone from disenfranchising with Jim Crow voting laws to disenfranchising through mass incarceration and voter ID laws.
Rogelio Encizo Jr., a student support adviser at the college, helps facilitate the noncredit club, which has 10 to 12 student members. Attendance varies because of students’ other time commitments, he said.
Kendi’s book was selected this semester as part of a larger campus read program. Discussion of “How to Be an Antiracist” took place over hourlong Thursday afternoon sessions in October using Microsoft Teams video conferencing.
Book club member Nikki Johnson, who’s studying hospitality and tourism, said what stood out to her from reading the book is that “racist” and “antiracist” aren’t fixed identities. “We can be racist one minute and an antiracist the next,” she said.
Johnson, 24, who’s white, said she’s paid attention to the Black Lives Matter campaign since it reignited in June. The movement “has constantly been a learning platform for me” and has changed how she looks at race and racism.
“I had planned to just go on with my life without trying to educate people on why it’s important,” she said. “I didn’t want to cause an unwinnable argument with family and friends.”
Then, Johnson heard the statement “white silence is violence” and she said it made her realize that turning her back on the issues was “just allowing it to happen.”
Instead, Johnson said she did her best to educate others. Some people she knew on Facebook had changed their profile pictures to “BLM: Burn, Loot, Murder,” and she tried to explain to them why the riots were happening. It’s why she joined the book club, she said: To be more prepared for those types of situations.
Book club member Benjamin Nash, who’s studying information technology mobile application development, said the book shows how racism is heavily tied with racist policies that need to change for a society to become antiracist.
Nash, 40, who’s white, said the book has taught him “how broadly racism is embedded in our culture.” It’s helped him see what type of work needs to be done to overcome it.
In almost every chapter, Kendi gives an example of racist ideas, followed by what antiracism would look like in the same case, Nash said.
For instance, Kendi writes that every time someone describes something as “Black behavior’ they are expressing a racist idea.
“To be an antiracist is to recognize there is no such thing as racial behavior,” Kendi writes. “To be an antiracist is to recognize there is no such thing as Black behavior, let alone irresponsible Black behavior.”
Johnson said one important question the book club discussed was whether “How to Be an Antiracist” stood as a mirror or a window for them. “We have such a good variety in this club,” she said, “that the book stood as either, and in some cases, both.”
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