Antiracism is the opposite of racism, Keynote speaker Ibram X. Kendi, PhD argues

Professor Ibram X. Kendi, PhD

By Lisa Braverman

Bestselling author, professor and activist Ibram X. Kendi, PhD, shared a hopeful vision of antiracism in Monday’s second Keynote Address. Professor Kendi participated in an engaging hour-long conversation with ASTRO member Curtiland Deville, MD.

Answering questions from Dr. Deville about his nationally regarded books, essays and activism, Professor Kendi put forth a meticulous argument that the opposite of racist is not “not racist,” but rather antiracist. Antiracist ideals suggest racial groups are equal and antiracists proactively work to end racist policies, he said.

Professor Kendi, a cancer survivor who said he “would not be here if not for a radiation oncologist,” used medicine and cancer treatment as metaphors for fighting racism. Much like in the treatment of complex medical conditions, experts on race and racism should be consulted as the country and world combat racist systems that have become deeply entrenched in every area of our lives.

Turning to the gravity of the current moment, including global changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread protests brought on by the murder of George Floyd and others, Dr. Deville and Professor Kendi discussed racial trauma and disparities in various aspects of the public sphere. Professor Kendi explained that contrary to widespread attempts to discredit antiracist public figures and antiracist activists, 93% of the year’s protests have been peaceful. According to one poll, in the United States more than 70% of people this summer said racial and ethnic discrimination was a big problem — the highest percentage ever.

Such discrimination, Professor Kendi explained, is evident in so many areas of life, including in health care through the pandemic. He served as a primary architect of the COVID-19 racial data tracker, which has brought stark disparities in COVID-19 outcomes to the fore. Black individuals are dying from COVID-19 at 2.3 times the rate of white people. These data show there is something wrong with the system, rather than underserved populations themselves, Professor Kendi was quick to point out.

The speakers spent significant time interrogating what everyone can do to act in an antiracist manner and create more equitable spaces. Professor Kendi said, “every one of us has the ability to recognize policies that are creating racial inequity,” be it voter suppression, racist hiring or standardized testing and admission policies. Change happens when we support organizations that are doing antiracist work, such as organizations that work to combat voter suppression. Additionally, antiracist work occurs through the creation of equitable spaces — spaces where it is commonly conceived that antiracist ideas and ideals are valued, and individuals are allowed to make and correct mistakes.

In the final portion of the Keynote, Professor Kendi answered questions from the ASTRO audience. One attendee noted that in medicine, racism often hides in professionalism and asked how we might address it. Professor Kendi explained how he received two very different treatment plans for his cancer when he visited doctors at two hospitals that historically treated different patient populations. The doctors at a hospital that typically treated more affluent patients offered him a more aggressive treatment plan, whereas the team at a less affluent hospital essentially told him there was nothing they could do. Self-awareness in patient interactions is especially important.

Responding to questions about unconscious bias and common mistakes organizations make when addressing workforce diversity, Professor Kendi said he focuses more on racist ideas as opposed to biases. Racist ideas, he argued, may manifest themselves in ways such as refusing to prescribe, for example, Black patients pain medication because a doctor assumes Black patients may handle pain differently or better than other populations. He noted that in organizations, pipeline programs may not be enough because they largely help individuals in the programs rather than communities more broadly. Professor Kendi also cautioned against “feelings advocacy,” whereby individuals undertake acts of activism because they feel bad in order to make themselves feel better.

The keynote ended on a decidedly hopeful note, with Professor Kendi explaining he is encouraged by history. Much of his work is historical, and he gave the example of chattel slavery in the United States. In the mid-1800s, the country was controlled by slave owners — but after the conclusion of the Civil War, chattel slavery was entirely abolished. “Anything is possible,” he concluded.

Published on: October 28, 2020

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