Skip to Content
Salesforce Culture

A Conversation With “How To Be an Antiracist’’ Author, Ibram X. Kendi

Our BOLDforce employee group hosted an event to educate, empower, and uplift with bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi.

On Friday, June 19, we honored Juneteenth —  the oldest national holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. Juneteenth marks the date in 1865 when Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, and announced to the slaves there that they were free. During this time, we honor the freedom of Black Americans and celebrate their legacy and resiliency while acknowledging the continued delay in true justice and freedom.

As the global events chair of BOLDforce, Salesforce’s Black Employee Resource Group, I’m proud of the way we have been able to honor this day at Salesforce over the last few years through educational programming. This year we curated a day of events to educate, empower, and uplift our employees — especially needed during this time. In the empower session, Jessica Ross, senior vice president of finance, Office of Transformation moderated the session that looked at the impact systemic racism has had on the Black community, and the importance of building Black wealth. 

“Empowerment is about leveraging our platforms and ensuring they’re about taking action for change,” said Salesforce board member Robin Washington.

“One word comes to mind, Boldness. You have to be bold and you can’t operate from fear.  You have to really embrace whatever comes your way. By being bold we will do some of the best work of our lives,” said Craig Cuffie, senior vice president, Global Sourcing and Procurement during the session.

In the Uplift session, we heard from DJ Kenneth Kyrell who closed the day with the healing power of music.

During the Educate session, we had the honor of hosting historian and New York Times bestselling author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” Professor Ibram X. Kendi.

The following are excerpts from our conversation with Kendi, in his own words. They have been lightly edited for clarity.

 

On the meaning of Juneteenth

Many Americans believe that on January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was passed that suddenly all enslaved Black people were free, but that’s actually not how it was. What we’ve been celebrating has largely been the abolition of slavery. We haven’t necessarily been celebrating this idea that Black people are free.

I think it’s critically important to distinguish between abolishing slavery and freeing people. Enslaved people were told they were free and then told they had to work for former masters. That was called freedom. They were left landless in an agricultural society and then told they were free. They did not have civil rights and they were told they were free. They were subjected to the terror of returning confederate soldiers and yet they were told they were free. And Black people have been engaged in a freedom struggle ever since.

On the difference between being a racist, non-racist, and antiracist

When most people declare to the world “I’m not racist.” It’s typically after they were challenged for something they said or did that was indeed racist. The only major and consistent utility that “not racist” has been for an individual is to deny their racism. It’s indicative of the history of the racist denial and the sound of that denial has always been “I’m not racist.”

By contrast, to be an antiracist is to be willing to admit the times in which we say racist ideas. It is me willing to admit this nation is deeply racist. It is me willing to admit the times I’ve supported racist policies. Someone who is antiracist is willing to admit the times in which they’re being racist by declaring, “Yes, that was a racist idea.” In order to be antiracist, we have to start with admissions.

On how racism is a global phenomenon

It’s critically important for us to recognize race is a global concept. We need to be fighting and understanding racism in the United States. We need to be fighting and understanding racism worldwide. Racist ideas and policies are a global phenomenon and we need to have a conception.

On whether it’s too early to talk to young children about racism

Do we ever ask how young is it too young to talk to a kid about kindness or love or respect?

No. We read books to kids about love when they’re coming out of the womb because we want them to love! That’s what we want. We want to surround them with that terminology and then we also know that the older they get, the more sophisticated and understanding they’re going to have about kindness and love. So we should be doing the same thing with being antiracist.

Ibram Kendi quote

On the responsibility of tech companies

I think it’s critically important for people within the tech fields to not believe that racial issues sit outside of it. We can’t say there’s no role for race in science and technology.

No, actually, I studied the history of racism and technology and they are long intersected.

Even something as simple as AI. It’s imagined that this development is going to allow for a completely unbiased form of thinking. But then who created AI? Humans — who are biased. People engaged in tech need to be antiracist. I’m saying that as a baseline because, as you know, many people don’t think that there’s no way in which tech can be racist and that’s just another form of denial.

Ibram Kendi quote

On how he maintains hope

I recognize that in order to bring about change, we first have to believe it’s possible. And so I’m going to believe that change is possible throughout my career.

On advice he has for Black employees

There’s nothing wrong with Black people, the only thing wrong with Black people is we sometimes think there is something wrong with Black people. The second thing I would say is that we should not function as if we’re representing the whole race. By viewing ourselves as race representatives, we carry this incredible burden, particularly in the majority-white spaces to, quote, “represent the race well.” It doesn’t allow us to be ourselves, to make mistakes. It constrains us. I want people to be freed. None of us represent the race. If you ever acted in a, quote, “negative manner” before white people and if they decide you’re representing that Black people, in general, are that way, then, you know, who is the problem? Not you. If I lose out, or white people don’t want to accept me being me, at least I didn’t lose myself.

Ibram Kendi quote on peace

On what peace looks like

(His middle name Xolani means “peace” in Zulu)

Peace means the ability for me, as a Black American, to walk outside my door and not fear the fact that so many Americans fear me because I’m Black. Peace means, to me, not having an occupied army within my community that is calling me dangerous. Peace means that Black children, Black women, Black transgender women are not consistently having to face traumatic experiences, or not consistently terrorized by racism. People view racial groups as equal. People treat Black people as individuals. There’s equal opportunity. Black people can feel safe because they have people protecting them, for once. That’s peace to me.

Takeaway

Just like Professor Kendi said, we all have a responsibility to be antiracists and take action against racism, violence, and hate — and toward racial equality and justice. Now more than ever it is important to commit to learning and better understanding the history of racism in America as well as around the world to help inform how we can be better allies to the Black community. Learn more, read 8 Ways to Stand in Support of the Black Community.


Lola is a Senior Director of Innovation Consulting with the Office of Innovation. In her strategy and innovation work, Lola helps large organizations achieve strategic goals through a blend of analysis, partnering, storytelling, and creative problem-solving. She uses the same thinking to address social issues and her personal passion for and commitment to serving others has led to her board work at various organizations. At Salesforce, she is also the BOLDforce Global President. 

More by Lola

Related Stories

Equality for Working Parents Starts With You

Working parents face a lot of career uncertainty when taking off after the birth of a baby. But these Salesforce execs took six-month parental leaves and returned to promotions. We lay out the steps other teams can follow to make this a reality for more working parents.

Astro

Get the latest stories from The 360 Blog, every week.

Get the latest stories from The 360 Blog, every week.

Enter a valid e-mail address
Select your Country
Select a state
Please read and agree to the Master Subscription Agreement

Yes, I would like to receive the Salesforce Weekly Brief as well as marketing communications regarding Salesforce products, services, and events. I can unsubscribe at any time.

Salesforce values your privacy. To learn more, visit our Privacy Statement.