June 17, 2022

Fresh Take: Dr. Ibram X. Kendi on Raising Antiracists

It can feel scary to discuss racism with our kids. But it’s the best way for us to protect them from its harms– and as Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of HOW TO RAISE AN ANTIRACIST, explains, kids can approach this work more easily than we might expect.

This week's guest, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, is the author of many highly acclaimed books including Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. In 2020, Time magazine named Dr. Kendi one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Dr. Kendi was awarded a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as the Genius Grant. His new book, released just this week, is How To Raise An Antiracist.

In this interview, Dr. Kendi explains:

  • why caregivers cannot protect young people from racism by ignoring what’s happening to our children
  • why teaching antiracism is the best way to protect our children from racism's harms
  • why children have an easier time understanding these ideas than we might think
  • how putting off conversations about race, or giving kids the message that racism is unmentionable, can make our children prey to more sinister messaging

It is never too early–or too late– to start raising our kids to be antiracist.

Get How To Raise An Antiracist in our Bookshop store: https://bookshop.org/a/12099/9780593242537

and find out more on Dr. Kendi's website: ibramxkendi.com


What Fresh Hell: Dr. Ibram X. Kendi interview

Margaret: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to Fresh Take from What Fresh Hell: Laughing in the Face of Motherhood. This is Margaret. 

Amy: And this is Amy, and today we’re talking to Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. 

Dr. Kendi is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University and the founding director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. He is the host of the new podcast "Be Antiracist." Dr. Kendi is the author of many highly acclaimed books including Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and five straight #1 New York Times bestsellers. In 2020, Time magazine named Dr. Kendi one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He was awarded a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as the Genius Grant. His new book, released just this week, is How to Raise an Antiracist, a book that's packed with vulnerability, hope, research, and love. Welcome, Dr. Kendi! 

Dr. Kendi: It's a pleasure to be on.

Amy: So excited to talk to you today. One of the [00:01:00] things I loved most about this book is how you come to it as a fellow parent, struggling with how to do this. I certainly struggled with how to discuss racism with my kids and probably got it wrong in some ways, along the way. And it was very touching to me to see that you as a new father had a similar struggle, even though you know, a lot about antiracism: How am I gonna bring this into my daughter's world? Can you talk about that a little bit? 

Dr. Kendi: Yeah, it was so striking that when my daughter was born in, in 2016, literally she was born two weeks after my book Stamped from the Beginning came out and the book was obviously directed towards adults, and I was thinking about how difficult it was to really engage with adults, you know, about race and racist ideas. And so for me, the thought of, like, trying to engage with my child, I just assumed it would be even harder. Right? If it's hard for adults, it must be so much harder for children. But what I realized through experience, and more [00:02:00] importantly with research is that it's actually easier to talk with our kids about these topics.

First, kids have a very clean and clear sense of right and wrong. As we grow older, it gets a little blurry, you know, and secondly, they don't have the baggage we do.

Margaret: Right. Amy used the word hope in the introduction. And I think the hopefulness, I think sometimes parents come to this work or this idea with, “Well, I don't wanna introduce the idea of race to my kids somehow. I don't wanna hand them something that feels heavy to me,” but that your point of view in this work and in this book is that this is something kids are already aware of. This is not some heavy weight that we're handing to kids and we can do it in this kind of hopeful way and from this starting point with kids. So can you talk a little bit about that? 

Dr. Kendi: I'm happy you asked about that because I think that's one of the central internal battles that we have. And if we start from the [00:03:00] premise that our kids are living in a dangerously racist society. And the reason why I call our society dangerously racist is first we have a whole bunch of racial disparities and inequities in our society and our kids can see that darker people are living on the poor end of society, generally speaking. People are then saying that those people have less because they are less or other people have more because they are more. This is what our kids are hearing directly and indirectly, and those are dangerous ideas.

It's dangerous that we have inequality. And it's dangerous that that inequality is being justified as “What's wrong with those people?” And so that's what our children are navigating. And I think if we start with the premise that that's what they're navigating, right? Then the question becomes, how are we going to protect them from it. How can we introduce a different idea that people don't have more because they are more, or people don't have less because they [00:04:00] are less that the problem is bad rules, not bad skin colors, or bad sort of people, so that they can see that inequality from a different vantage point so that they can work towards, you know, eradicating it when they get older.

And I think that also studies show that by one years old, our kids have an understanding of what we understand as race. So they see skin color, they attach, skin color to different groups. By three years old, according to studies, our kids are attaching behavioral characteristics to skin color. And so if we're just assuming that our kids aren't doing that, then how are we gonna protect them from the environment that's shaping those outcomes?

Amy: And you bring up in the book that when kids are, say, six to eight years old, you say that they are externally motivated not to talk about racism, that if they bring it up, they're shut down by caregivers. It's impolite, it's inappropriate. And then around 10, they sort of get the message that this isn't something I'm supposed to talk about and they take it inside? 

Dr. Kendi: Yeah. They [00:05:00] first major lesson that kids learn about race, particularly in racism between about seven and nine years old, is that you don't talk about it. And the reason why that happens is because by seven to nine years old, our kids have the cognitive ability to understand and talk about and express what they're seeing about sort of race and racism and to ask questions. And so the common response of parents is to just shut down those conversations. I remember recently, my daughter was watching a video of a medical school graduation, and my wife is a physician, and so she knows there are dark people who are physicians. And so she asked “Why aren't there more brown people who graduated.” Right? And we could have easily said, oh, don't talk about that. She's six years old. But we explained to her. We didn't want her to think there was something wrong with dark people or there's something right about, let's say white people--special. And that is the reason for that, because that's the assumption that a kid will have if we don't talk about bad rules. We don't want any child thinking there's something wrong or special about them because of their skin color, but that's what they're gonna assume if we don't share with them, the reasons why there's inequality that they actually see. So we have that conversation, you know, with her.

Margaret: This work does start with ourselves. So we're trying to parent our children differently than we've been parented, let's say. We have to do work on ourselves and we have to be honest with ourselves, and that work is very intimidating. And I think that the work of antiracism feels that same way. I had a conversation with my kids. We were, I think, at the airport maybe, and they said there's a lot more black and brown people here than there are where we live. And I was like, whoa. You're right. This is something we have to have a conversation about that, frankly, I am not maybe totally ready to have a conversation about, but we had a [00:07:00] conversation about, like, why historically we do not live in as diverse a place. But that conversation is intimidating for me to have as a parent. There is a certain amount of sort of self-reflection in this work that I think people feel scared to do. And the idea of presenting yourself as being part of any sort of racist system or having your own racism, it's scary to do that in front of your kids, because you want your kids to admire you.

Dr. Kendi: We want our kids to admire us, but we also want our kids to learn from us that we're not perfect, and that we can grow, and that we can learn and that we make mistakes, but we pick ourselves back up and so we have to model that, and we have to ensure that our kids--and let me just also say, and I think this really sort of is just very unsettling to me--that we just assume that if our kids ask us a question, and we shut it down, then they're not gonna ask someone else.

Margaret: Right. Right. We always say that they can learn it from you or they can learn it from the playground or a sitter, but they're gonna learn it. 

Dr. Kendi: Exactly. And if you, for instance, you know, are, you know, if you're parenting a 12 or 13-year-old, white teenage boy, and if they have questions about memes that they're seeing that were created by white supremacists on IG, who do you want them asking that question and talking about it? You as a parent? Or the white supremacist who may be getting into the multiplayer video game? Who do you wanna have that conversation? You know, if you are a parent of a native girl, and they have questions about sort of native history, who do you want to be answering that question?

You, or their friend in class who has called native people "savages" because that's what they've heard other people say? Like, who do you want to have those conversations with your child? And that's one of the things that pushes me, because it's hard for me still to engage with my child. Who do I want to have this? Us, in this safe, loving space, or someone, you know, outside?

Amy: Such a good point. We're gonna take a quick break. We're talking to Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, and we'll be right back. 

Amy: Dr. Kendi, I wanted to ask you about critical race theory, because I think that it is misconstrued purposefully and misunderstood, and sort of set up as this sort of straw man for why doing this work with kids is dangerous. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Dr. Kendi: Yeah, I think it's quite unfortunate because two years ago to this day, one survey found that 76% of Americans were recognizing racism as existing and being a big problem. And obviously that was when tens of millions of Americans from the largest of cities to the smallest of towns were demonstrating against racism. So there was this clear, widespread recognition that racism was a problem. And indeed in June of 2020, there were many teachers and many parents, and more importantly, many young people who were like, I wanna learn more about this problem. I wanna understand what happened to George Floyd. And so unfortunately there were elements in our society who wanted to change the existential problem, who wanted to get people to think that the problem was not racism, but the problem were those people who are challenging racism, who are speaking out against racism, who are identifying racism, who are trying to eliminate racism.

And so this whole crusade around what people define or call critical race theory --and the straw man is I think a great analogy because what's happened is the people who imagine that they're critics of critical race theory define critical race theory in a way that critical race theorists don't recognize, then they attack it, and then they expect people to respond. Like, do you say to that, Right? And then they say I'm a critical race theorist, or I'm the father of critical race theory or I'm the founder of critical race theory when critical race theory was literally born before I was born. And so it just becomes this circus. 

Margaret: Looking at the timeline, it makes it complicated that you could be the father.

Dr. Kendi: Yeah, yeah. 

Margaret: Going back and really drilling down on this idea of antiracism I feel like at this point, people have heard this term of antiracism, but I'd like to get into the definition of it for people who might still be kind of clinging onto their own life raft of, “Well, we don't need that. We don't do that. We don't see color. We raise our kids to be good people, and therefore we're done.”

Dr. Kendi: So the whole construct that we don't see color and we don't raise our kids to see color is indicative of where people prefer to start the conversation about race. And that starting point is: Should we be identifying by race? What I would argue is we should be starting the conversation about race with: Why are there racial disparities and inequities in our society? Why are, let's say, black people more likely to be impoverished or incarcerated or be killed by police or die of heart disease and cancer? If we start there, then that allows us to see two perspectives. That allows us to see two structures. That allows us to see essentially either those who are claiming that black people have less because they are less and others saying that Latinx people have less because of racism. So then it allows us to see the crux of the debate, right? And for us to see that those who are saying that the cause of those inequities are racism are being antiracist, and those who are saying that white people have more wealth than everyone else because they’re superior are being racist.

And then it allows us to be like: Okay, you know what? The problem are those policies about racism, not any racial group of people. So let's collectively together create policies and practices that are equitable. Let's realize the racial groups are equals. And what that is is antiracism. 

Margaret: And as you said, that kids fill in the blanks for themselves, if you don't fill them in, so that if you think that you're not talking about race, but you are living in all-white area and going to a place where they see more black people who are living in an urban area, they are going to make definitions if you are not helping to contextualize and to say, this is a problem that we have an actual role in being part of as good people, that closing our eyes and hunching over does not make us good people, that somehow being part of the solution does.

Dr. Kendi: Exactly, and if our kids see that let's say we're not talking about racism, and so they're just assuming that there are more black people in prison because black people are more dangerous than white. And then in their actual curriculum, they are seeing a paucity of, let's say, authors or experiences of people of color, and so they're being told that people are literally less. And then those people are literally showing up less in their curriculum. So it's almost reinforcing this without ever saying anything. We don't say anything, but we're reinforcing racial hierarchy in the minds of our children. 

Amy: There were three steps you talk about in the book for sort of teaching children about themselves and about others that I loved, because I thought it was the kind of thing that you really can start at a pretty young age. Can you walk us through that process? 

Dr. Kendi: Sure. One of the beauties of humanity is all of our different cultures, right? And we have to ensure that our kids know about their own culture and their own history. So whether you are Korean American, Irish American, Jamaican American, Indian American, it's important to teach your child about your own cultures, you know, and your own history and what's distinct about it. It's also important for us to teach--you know, my daughter, for me to not just teach her about African American history and culture, but to teach her about Jewish American history and culture, and what's distinct about that other culture, right? And then it's important for us to teach--which is the third step--it's important for us to teach our children about what's the same. So it's important for us to teach our kids about what's unique about them, what's unique about other people, and then what's the same about you and that other person. So it goes back to the Sesame Street book: We're Different and We're the Same. 

Margaret: We do talk to a lot of parents of teenagers who may not be aware of the online sort of pull of racism and white supremacism that is going on online.

Can you touch on that briefly, just in terms of what's going on with people actually trying to recruit, especially white teens?

Dr. Kendi: It is an epidemic, like, it is a literal epidemic. And, you know, the number of white middle-aged, white supremacists, largely men, who are creating memes, who are jumping on multi-player video games, who are sending direct messages to white pre-teens and teenagers, who are constantly asking those kids when they engage them: “How are things going in school?” And if they ever express that they had a problem with something or someone:  “Well, you see that's, what's wrong with women. You see that's, what's wrong with gay people. You see that's, what's wrong with black people.” And then sort of start feeding them sort of evidence, so-called evidence, that supports that. It's an epidemic. And the reason why we're not talking about it is because when parents realize it or when a kid realizes they're being duped, there's a tremendous amount of shame. 

Amy: Yes. 

Margaret: Yes. 

Dr. Kendi: So when people are ashamed of something that happens to their child, they don't wanna talk about it, right? But that doesn't mean it's not happening. And so what have studies shown protects white male children, from being recruited or duped or manipulated by a white supremacist lurking online? Antiracist education. 

Margaret: Having that knowledge before they go in, right? Before they start those conversations.

Dr. Kendi: Because think about it: if you have been taught about a racist idea, if you've been taught that a car can hit you, and that a car hurts, when you cross the street, and that car is coming, you're gonna see it and stop. 

Amy: Yeah. Stay out of the way. 

Margaret: Yeah. I saw it just with the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial, like some of the things my kids were seeing on YouTube and, “Oh, do you know she's this? And he's that?” And I'm like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, where is this?” I'm thinking they're watching, you know, goofy Roblox stuff on YouTube. And they're suddenly coming at me with thoughts on the Johnny Depp trial that I think are bonkers, you know. It's another reason we have to dial into what they're hearing from strangers. And believe me, I've done a lot of anti-sexism work in my household and they still were susceptible to it. 

Dr. Kendi: And what's interesting is particularly for older children, they don't talk to us. 

Margaret: Right. 

Dr. Kendi: And so, because they don't talk to us, the protective work that our teachers are doing, that we're doing, it becomes even more important because we're just not gonna know what they're doing like we would when our kid, you know, is six years old. I'm actually trying to appreciate my daughter right now being six.

Margaret: Oh yeah, enjoy it while you can! I mean, some things get a lot easier, but some things get a lot harder. Well, Dr. Kendi, we are such admirers of your work. Please tell our audience, especially the moms and dads who are listening, where they can find your work, especially your work for kids.

Dr. Kendi: Well, they can find How to Raise an Antiracist and even my new picture book, Goodnight Racism wherever books, you know, are sold at the local independent bookshop, and they can even find those books and other elements of my work on my website, which is ibramxkendi.com. 

Amy: We'll put the link in the show notes. Dr. Kendi, it has been a real honor to talk to you today. Thanks for being with us. 

Dr. Kendi: Oh, it's been an honor to talk to each of you, and thank you so much for the work that you do.