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Ibram X. Kendi Faces a Reckoning of His Own

Ibram X. Kendi Faces a Reckoning of His Own

During her entry interviews, Redwood asked each employee what the organization’s values were, and many of them responded by saying something along the lines of “I’ve been wondering that myself.” She encouraged Kendi to hold a retreat to talk through the mission as a group. Kendi was hesitant because he found work retreats “uncomfortable” — “sitting in a room with a large group of people all day long is exhausting for me,” he told me — but he committed to holding one anyway and solicited staff comments on a document he wrote laying out his theory of social change and the center’s role in it. “I was happy to receive all this great feedback,” he wrote to Redwood. “I think the changes will make the document much stronger and clearer.”

On a spring day in 2022, the staff met at a conference center a half-hour’s drive from campus. The day’s agenda, though couched in the gentle jargon of nonprofits, contained hints of the mood: The organizers on staff had scheduled time for an acknowledgment of the center’s growing pains, for a “healing justice moment” and for a period of “wicked questions” when concerns or challenges could be raised. At the start of the day, Naima Wong, an outside facilitator, encouraged the staff not to hold back. “We’re here to really get into this,” she said.

Late in the afternoon, when it was time to wrap up, the group assembled at tables arranged in a circle. Saida Grundy, a sociologist, was seated across from Kendi. She had never been on board with Kendi’s understanding of racism, subscribing instead to the “power plus prejudice” view. Grundy had forwarded Kendi’s email about security to colleagues with the note “The paranoia is INSANE.” “Ibram is so lily-livered he probably jumps when the biscuit tin pops,” she told me. Grundy was the one who, back in November, had made the anonymous complaint, in which some charges carried a hint of paranoia of her own, like the idea that Kendi “despises academia” and had “gotten satisfaction out of pulling academics out of their own research.” She had accused the center of being an exploitative workplace and, after having conflict with her supervisor, had already mostly stepped back from her role. Grundy had told the compliance office that the center might explode, and now she was ready to blow it up herself.

Her voice raised, Grundy laid out an indictment of the document Kendi wrote. “This is a mile wide and an inch deep,” she said. She argued that the center needed to be more specific about its goals; “fighting racism” was such a broad mission that it felt cynically strategic, allowing the center to take in money for all sorts of projects. “If there is a grant for antiracism on Jupiter, great,” she said. “We do extraterrestrial antiracism.” Grundy, unlike most of the staff, thought the center should become a resource for university faculty members and students; her parents were Black student activists in the 1970s, and she believed that real change starts where you are. “If you lined up 99 Black students at B.U.,” she said, “99 will tell you the center’s made no difference to their experience.”

When she finished speaking, the room was silent. Several people were crying. Dawna Johnson, the center’s financial director at the time, called it an “explosion.” “People didn’t know what to say after that,” she said. “It just left you so unhappy and uptight.” Kendi, his face inscrutable behind a Covid mask, said nothing, and the facilitator wrapped up the session. “Scholars who study the experience of Black leaders find that the No.1 racist challenge Black leaders face is contested authority, even from other Black leaders and staff,” he wrote to me later. I asked him what he remembered from that day. “It’s almost like trying to remember a day in which you were really happy, but then something horrible happened at the end,” he told me. “It’s hard to remember anything else other than that horrible thing.”

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