Home » Ibram X. Kendi’s Refusal to Debate Critics Was an Act of Surrender

Ibram X. Kendi’s Refusal to Debate Critics Was an Act of Surrender

Dr. ’s Kelefa Sanneh recalled how Kendi had at various points characterized Barack Obama and W.E.B. Du Bois as racist, for being insufficiently antiracist.)

Even before Elon Musk rebranded the site as X and made it a safe space for overt racists who paid $8, Twitter was a cesspool of trolls, mob pile-ons, and mean-spirited bile. So it was perhaps naive that I thought I could expect a substantive conversation when I jumped into Kendi’s mentions to ask: “Genuine question for Dr. Kendi: If you’re an adoptive parent and you don’t care whether the child is of your ‘race,’ is that ‘racism’ or ‘antiracism’?”

To my surprise, Dr. Kendi promptly replied: “Good question. It could be either. I’d need more information on what ‘not caring’ actually means. Is not caring being ‘colorblind’? Is not caring not devaluing darker children who are the least likely to be adopted? This is not a convo for Twitter.”

Kendi is 100 percent correct that Twitter is the last place a topic requiring considerable nuance and latitude should be conducted. However, this highly provocative conversation was started on Twitter by the preeminent antiracism scholar of our time. And yet in short order, Dr. Kendi deemed it “not a convo for Twitter.”

Responding to my emailed request to continue the conversation off Twitter, Kendi’s assistant told me his “schedule is at capacity at the moment so he’s unable to connect.” (I made many more attempts over several weeks to speak with other experts at the Center for Antiracist Research, but was ultimately told by a communications rep that Kendi and everyone at the center was essentially too busy to talk to me until the end of time.)

A photograph of Ibram X. Kendi speaking on stage at an event.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi speaks at the Toronto International Film Festival. Sept. 9, 2023.

Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for Netflix

I was a full-time opinion columnist at another publication at the time, and this seemed like an obvious opportunity for commentary on a direct exchange with the thought leader representing the biggest social upheaval in a generation.

Without taking any position on his philosophy, I wrote a 3,000-word essay about how this massively influential public figure would not debate critics, address criticism, or even clarify some of his more confusing absolutist statements.

I spoke with some of his supporters, I spoke with some of his critics—and cited more examples of both. And I ultimately concluded: “Kendi’s ideas may very well be proven correct and ahead of their time. But to protect them from rigorous inquiry is to miss the opportunity to address any contradictions, offer clarifications, and persuade skeptics.

“Antiracism, and all it now encompasses, is changing education, workplaces, and basic human interaction. It is too important a subject to not be afforded a wide berth of debate and discussion. Revolutionary ideas cannot be deemed too important to explore in granular detail.

“People want to be ‘antiracist.’ But it’s pretty hard to do the right thing if they’re told the wrong thing is essentially, everything.

“When words are sacrosanct, they’re no longer ideas, they’re gospel.”

The piece was bumped back by my editors for months, before ultimately being spiked entirely without explanation. But I didn’t want to push the issue any more than they wanted to confront it. I knew the explanation.

The unfortunate reality of that brief, overwrought era of unthinkables was—unless you were ensconced in the right-wing or the most obscure corners of the socialist left—polite society’s unwritten rule in 2020 was Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Kendi.

It didn’t feel right then, and it seems plainly absurd now.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t a shrinking violet. Neither was Malcolm X or Frederick Douglass. They found the time to debate critics and argue ideas in public. Their ideas did battle with the forces of racism and regression in plain sight. That’s how they won hearts and minds and fostered progress.

James Baldwin was a seminal author of both fiction and nonfiction, and was also one of the preeminent racial justice activists of the 20th century. Baldwin participated in a televised debate with William F. Buckley—an opponent of the Civil Rights Act, the founder of National Review, and arguably the preeminent conservative intellectual voice of his generation. And the world is better for the fact that Baldwin advocated for justice and put his own ideas on the line against an formidable opponent, rather than retreating to exclusively sympathetic platforms.

For a time Kendi’s aura was shielded by a culture of ideological compliance and fear of rocking the boat (no one wants to be accused of being a bad faith whataboutist for “just asking questions”—even when it’s completely appropriate and necessary for certain questions to be asked!). But it seems the fever of 2020 has broken, however subtly.

Just as I did in 2020, when my column arguing for the virtues of public debate, free inquiry, and dissent was buried out of fear, I don’t intend to make it my place to pass judgment on Kendi’s philosophy or scrutinize his rise to stardom. There are plenty of other worthy voices in academia and activism on that job already.

But three years later, a deep breath and some added perspective ought to allow us to recognize that it’s always the time for debate and dissent—whether it’s during the upheaval of 2020 or the security panic after the September 11 terror attacks. Mainstream institutions should have never accepted Kendi’s ideas as sacrosanct, nor should they have anointed him as a perfectly unimpeachable messenger on one of the most crucial issues of our time.

This isn’t to say that every bad faith actor or question deserves the same consideration, some simply aren’t worth engaging. But surely it’s an act of surrender, not strength, for an intellectual giant whose ultimate goal is nothing short of a revolution to declare all critics or criticism as inherently malevolent and not worth his energies.

Honest critics and skeptical interlocutors should not be summarily dismissed as tools of the oppressor. Movements demanding revolutionary social change cannot succeed by simply declaring the debate to be “over.”

Radical ideas must be put through the gauntlet. That gives them the strength and authority to inspire radical change. Anything less is a disservice to the cause, and blind devotion to gospel.


October 2023