- Tracie Guy-Decker
Stamped OR Sometimes it just isn’t *for* you
Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America was a foundational work on my personal antiracist path. It gave me language and ideas to describe what I was waking up to in myself and in the world. When people ask me to share the short list of antiracist resources I think they ought to consume Stamped from the Beginning is among the first that comes to mind. (For what it’s worth, I really dislike making such a list. I worry it will imply that you can read 2 or 3 or even 10 books and be done. As I’ve written before, more than once, I believe the work of racial justice is not a task to be completed but a practice, a lifestyle to be adopted.) And, even though the book is absolutely brilliant, I often hesitate to recommend it because it is so very long (515 pages before the notes in my copy).
That’s why I was so excited when I saw the release of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, a young adult title from Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, touted as “a Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning.” I figured it would be sort of Kendi-lite; a more conversational version of the masterpiece that I could recommend to my students and listeners as an entry point for Kendi’s thought.
That is not what this is. Jason Reynolds did not write this book to make it easier for middle-aged (and older) white folks like me to more easily digest the masterpiece. Jason Reynolds is an award-winning and bestselling author of fiction and non-fiction for middle grade and young adult readers. He doesn’t write for me or middle-aged (and older) readers like me. He writes for young adults, and that’s who Stamped is written for. It is definitely more conversational than its original source, but it is not a conversation into which I naturally code switch. This is not a critique of the work. In fact, it might be a critique of me.
Sometimes you’re just not the target consumer of a particular piece of art. I realize as I type that sentence that it is, in fact, more revolutionary than it might appear. White folks are used to being the target consumer of art. It strikes us as odd or uncomfortable when we’re not, which is maybe why I assumed this book, clearly marketed as young adult might actually be for me, despite the fact that “young” has not been an accurate adjective for me for many many years.
Please don’t misunderstand me, this version of Kendi’s work is wonderful. I’m so grateful that it exists, and it does provide some pithy articulations of the concepts, as I hoped it might. Notably, I really loved Kendi’s use of the three approaches to racism and antiracism: antiracists, assimilationists, and segregationists. Kendi defined them this way: “A group we can call segregationists has blamed Black people themselves for the racial disparities. A group we can call antiracists has pointed to racial discrimination. A group we can call assimilationists has tried to argue for both, saying that Black people and racial discrimination were to blame for racial disparities.” In Jason Reynolds’ hands, these definitions were distilled to their essence: “The antiracists try to transform racism. The assimilationists try to transform Black people. The segregationists try to get away from Black people.” (xiii)
That’s in the Introduction. In the first chapter, Reynolds defines these terms again: “Segregationists are haters. Like, real haters. People who hate you for not being like them. Assimilationists are people who like you, but only with quotation marks. Like…”like” you. Meaning, they “like” you because you’re like them. And then there are antiracists. They love you because you’re like you.” (3-4 emphasis in the original)
These “conversational” definitions are not ones I would ever write, but they ring with accuracy. In the latter definition I see echoes of the Intercultural Development Continuum that my colleagues at Joyous Justice and I use to guide our work with individuals and organizations. Stamped is a primer, as I thought it might be, but not the way I was expecting. In fact, it is doing much more important work than I had had in mind. With Reynolds’ charming and unapologetic prose applied to Kendi’s framing, insights, and historical through-line, Stamped is one tool today’s youth can access to help them recognize racism and its long history. It is arming Black kids and other kids of color against the gaslighting of racism, and interrogating oppressor patterns white kids are inheriting--from their literal family or from the culture that surrounds them.
It isn’t for me. And I’m grateful for that.