The University hosted a discussion about antiracism with Dean of the Wharton School Erika James and author and activist Ibram X. Kendi on June 18.
Kendi, author of the book "How to Be an Antiracist" and director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, spoke with James about topics ranging from racism as a power construct to the power of an individual to challenge racial ideas and structures. The hour-long webinar, which was hosted to commemorate Juneteenth, began with an introduction from Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett.
Each year on June 19, many Black people across the United States celebrate Juneteenth or Jubilee Day, in remembrance of that day in 1865, when the formerly enslaved people in Galveston, Texas received news of their emancipation. Juneteenth is now recognized as a federal holiday, after former Penn Presidential Professor of Practice and President of the United States Joe Biden signed it into law on June 17.
“In a way, it’s a day of memory, and it’s a day of celebration, and it’s even a day of inspiration in which we think clearly about — in our moment, in our time — the continued efforts of African Americans to be free,” Kendi said.
Kendi and James discussed the definition of antiracism — a concept that Kendi writes at length about in his book. Kendi defined racism as a system of oppression comprised of institutions and policies that make life more difficult for Black people to navigate. Antiracism, by contrast, is actively working to break down systemic racism, he explained.
“It’s important for us to understand that racism is a powerful collection of policies and practices that lead to racial inequities and injustices and are substantiated by ideas of racial hierarchy," Kendi said. "And antiracism is the very opposite of that. It’s creating a powerful collection of policies and practices that lead to equity and justice for all, and are substantiated by ideas that the racial groups are equals, so there should be equity because we’re — despite any sort of differences — equals.”
Both James and Kendi addressed the need for constructive dialogue in educational institutions, specifically highlighting the role that universities play in antiracism. James remarked that in today’s polarized climate, it has become increasingly difficult to engage in debate with varied perspectives.
“Often, the reputation of colleges and universities is that they are bastions of liberalness. And you and I also both know that there are all sorts of people on a college campus: people who are Democrats and people who are Republicans; people who are black and people who are white; people who have differing ideas, and views, and perspectives, and experiences," James said. "And yet it feels like it has become much more difficult to create opportunities for constructive conversation.
Kendi added that there is a need for universities to be the setting where these debates can happen.
“If there is a place and a space where that should be happening — where first we should be finding shared facts and then arguing different positions based on those shared facts — if there’s any place that should be happening, it should be at the university," he said.
Kendi also talked about his experience being a Black person in academia and his concerns about having civil and constructive discussions about systemic racism and antiracism.
"As a Black person entering into that space, I should not have to feel as if I am now going to be demeaned and degraded just because I want to debate about race and racism," he said.
As the event came to an end, Kendi concluded with his hopes and aspirations for a future where antiracist work is no longer necessary.
“I think since we’re celebrating and remembering Juneteenth, my hope is the hope that enslaved Africans had in 1860, or in 1825: that within 40 years, slavery would be no more," Kendi said. "Black people started talking about the Day of Jubilee hundreds of years before it ultimately came. And so it’s my hope that in 40 years, we would finally and truly be free, in this case free of racism.”