Author and educator Ibram X. Kendi burst into our consciousness in 2016 with Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, becoming the youngest National Book Award winner for nonfiction. Since then he has published five bestsellers, including How to be an Antiracist, and is an outstanding voice who not only understands the deep roots of racism in our society, but also the obligation of each of us to fight against it on an individual level.
In his latest book How to Raise an Antiracist, Kendi takes us on a personal journey through the birth of his first child, Imani, and how becoming a parent has helped him to deepen his work.
Ahead of his June 22 talk at the LA Times Book Club, Kendi spoke about fatherhood, empathy and what he thinks readers will take away from his book.
Much of this book is about becoming a father and how it has changed your attitude towards racism and our individual ability to change systemic problems. Can you talk about how your daughter changed your perspective?
Like all parents, like every mother or father, I want to protect my child first and foremost. And when my daughter was born, I initially thought, or assumed without thinking, that the way to protect her was to keep her away from the toxicity of racism, if that’s even possible. But through my own journey, and certainly through my journey through a century of research, I’ve found that it’s actually the opposite, that I’m preparing her all the more for the negative messages she might get about people who look like her prepare to realize that blacks don’t have less because they are fewer, the more a parent prepares their child to realize that inequality is not the result of bad people but bad policies, the more we can protect them, make sure live a healthy life. Achieving that motivates me even more to do this work and have these tough conversations with my daughter.
Did any of these conversations with your daughter surprise you?
I think what’s surprising is when she starts conversations, because like any human being, you just never know. And with a 6-year-old, you never know. Recently, my wife Imani showed a video of a medical school where one of my wife’s mentees graduated. My wife is a doctor. And my daughter looks at it and then she asks why aren’t there more brown people here? high school, you know? And we would never know that she would see that and notice and ask us for an explanation as to why. And of course that prompted us to talk to her about why, because we didn’t want her to think brown people aren’t there because there’s something wrong with brown people. We don’t want her to think there’s something wrong with her because there’s something wrong with Black [and] brown people. We don’t want any white or brown kid to think like that. So that compelled us to have this conversation. But we just never know when that conversation will happen. But we always have to be prepared as parents.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) held up one of your books during the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Ketanji Brown Jackson. Can you tell me how you found out about it and how you feel about it?
I was shocked that Sen. Ted Cruz could literally read a line in my book, a line that says, you know, [do you want to be] racist or anti-racist? And then he transformed that for me and said that it was inherently racist. That’s a racist baby. And what do you think about it? It was just unsettling. But for me it was a symbolic moment of what I had to experience and what other people had experienced. We try to encourage teachers, parents and carers to have these active conversations with their children. And that is our work. It was distorted and misrepresented. And people have attacked their own distortions of our work. And it created a situation [like] how do you react to it? How do you react to criticism of your work that bears no resemblance to your actual work?
You recently said, “I didn’t realize in writing ‘How to Raise an Antiracist’ that the research would point to one finding: Raising them antiracist and talking to them about race protects our children.” Could you talk a little bit about what you mean and how you think that is playing out in our schools today, where we now have an almost constant fear of violence, some of it based on race?
Let’s think about it. As of the summer of 2020, only a small percentage of teachers, around 15-20%, felt they had the training and resources to provide anti-racist education to students. Anti-racist upbringing was therefore rare. It was rare for students to actively talk about racism. It was common for students to see racial differences in their communities. So that meant the students were trying to figure out why. Why are black or brown people at the bottom of my society? Do they have less because they are less? You know, how can they not assume certain people are less when no one else gives them any other explanation? And then they look into their actual syllabus and see that people of color are literally less on their syllabus. So this almost constantly reinforces the racial hierarchy that people of color are fewer without anyone ever speaking openly about race. but [there is] all this non-verbal communication about race. And that was the way of schooling. And that remains the norm.
What do you hope readers will take away from this work?
One is that it really is never too early. Or you know, a child is never too old for us to start the process of raising them anti-racist. And I think especially for younger kids if we think about it [modeling] anti-racist behavior, it is behavior related to consideration or sharing. We try to emulate this behavior and instill it as early as possible because we understand that we can instill more complex ways in our children as they grow. It’s the same when you’re anti-racist. And so it’s just one more thing that should be in our toolbox. And the great thing is that many parents and teachers also try to instill qualities like empathy. And raising an empathic child is actually raising an anti-racist child. And also critical thinking. Scientists consistently show that critical thinking is like the opposite of biased thinking. And so, the more we raise a critical-thinking and empathetic individual, the more likely we will be raising a child who genuinely appreciates the people around them and can follow in their footsteps and seek to understand the beautiful diversity of our world.
They also just released a second book, a children’s book called Goodnight Racism. What inspired you to write this?
As a parent, as an educator, and as a human being, I know that in order for us to create something, we must first imagine something. I’m just looking forward to writing a book that envisions what a world without racism would be like, an anti-racist society, and really bringing it to our youngest with the biggest and brightest imaginations. And of course, as part of a good night, it helps our kids actually fall asleep and dream of what another world looks like.
What’s on your reading list this summer?
I’m reading a book by Dorothy Roberts called Torn Apart. Basically, she’s arguing how harmful the “child welfare system” quote is to children. She is an author. Every time she writes a book, I read it. That’s why I was so excited to see her new book.
What are you reading to escape?
I don’t read to escape. I prefer to drink sangria.
If you go: book club
What: author and historian Ibram X. Kendi discusses “How to Raise an Antiracist” with a columnist sandbanks at the LA Times Book Club.
When: 7 p.m. Pacific June 22nd
Where: In person at USC’s Bovard Auditorium. Tickets at Eventbrite.
Join us: Sign up for the book club newsletter for the latest events and updates: latimes.com/bookclub
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-06-14/ibram-x-kendi-how-to-raise-an-antiracist Ibram X. Kendi on fatherhood, empathy and dreaming of better worlds