Never Silent: Dr. Ibram X. Kendi on race and racism, becoming a parent and learning how to raise an antiracist
By Lou Fancher
When it comes to conversations with kids about race and racism, the most dangerous choice parents and caregivers make is saying nothing at all. Unpacking the “silence is best” suitcase reveals one primary emotion and its neighbor: fear and ignorance. White parents misguidedly worry their white children might blurt out hateful racist words if they talk to them about the most injurious slurs to avoid. Parents of Black, Brown, Asian, East Indian and Indigenous children in the United States who talk to their children of color about centuries of racist history and behavior in American society fear their kids will have all joy crushed, curiosity killed, all hope and self-love erased. Ignorance about the science disproving these misconceptions means to them that if the subject of race is broached, tiny young people will turn into angry little beings or wither into victim mentality in the course of one conversation or classroom lesson.
The joy-kill fear loomed large in the life of historian and writer Dr. Ibram X. Kendi after he became a first-time father. Kendi is a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship recipient and National Book Award–winning author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Along with regular essays in The Atlantic, Time magazine and others, and a podcast, Be Antiracist, he has authored five #1 New York Times bestselling books, including How to Be an Antiracist, Antiracist Baby and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (co-authored by Jason Reynolds). Kendi is a professor in the humanities at Boston University and the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. His latest book, How to Raise an Antiracist (One World), was released this month.
As Kendi and his wife, a pediatric physician, began to parent their daughter, Imani, he thought of himself not as a heralded scholar, but as a father hoping to shepherd his child through the early stages of development without inflicting harm. The research he engaged in daily as part of his career as a scholar specializing in the study of race and racism became an overture for deep self-examination and eventually, his realizations and scientific discoveries found form in his new book.
In a Zoom interview, Kendi says, “In many ways, the book was a tremendous learning experience. One of the most fascinating aspects was just the century of research that scholars have conducted really trying to understand how kids are experiencing race at every single stage of their development. From infants to toddlers to preschoolers to school kids and tweens and teens, all the way up, that (research) has been a tremendous help for me being with my daughter, who’s now six years old. I have an understanding of what she’s likely going to be thinking or asking or seeing, so I can respond and engage accordingly.”
Kendi, while writing the book, also learned details about his childhood. “Half of the book is about my life as a child, and larger details around my parents and teachers. Many of whom I had to research about or interview to get a more wholesome picture of my own childhood, specifically as it related to race and the ways in which I was impacted by my parents and teachers.” He begins How to Raise describing the racist behaviors of medical professionals encountered by his wife, a Black doctor with a degree from Yale, as she sought care during her pregnancy and the delivery of their child. Moving to their daughter’s preschool years, he outlines “childproofing” policies that integrate antiracist structures and environments in schools, homes and communities, policies he wishes he had supported long before becoming a parent. The big ticket childproofing steps include actively working to create more equitable housing, job creation, public funding for schools, and social justice alternatives to incarceration and police. Practical suggestions for parents involve examining the books, friends and social media in their homes and working toward diversity.
In the most compelling parts of the book and when he is less preoccupied with scolding himself about mistakes he has made—downplaying or ignoring his wife’s difficulties during pregnancy and failing with his daughter to recognize his own “color blindness,” one of four predominant forms of racial socialization he addresses—Kendi writes about his young life. We learn he attended eight different schools as his parents attempted to protect him from racism, such as being labeled by teachers as a behavioral problem when his behavior was no different than his white peers. Chapter nine begins with a story about his brother and introduces the issue of ableism. His brother was labeled as having a learning disability, and Kendi writes, “I always wondered if my brother would have been diagnosed differently if he had been a white child.”
Ultimately, the research and history of race and racism in America and the ways it has impacted his life leads to a fundamental philosophy: All children benefit from antiracist instruction.
“Many white parents have been misled into believing that they will make their child racist by talking about racism. They fear talking about race or racism because they don’t know what their child is going to say. They fear their child blurting out something that ‘sounds racist,’ and it then brings shame upon the family,” he says.
“Then there’s the fear of white parents that if they talk to their children about white racism, their child is going to feel uncomfortable or guilty or think less of white people. Those fears, which are distinct, prevent white parents from engaging with their children about racism. Indeed, to not engage your child about a racist idea, to not teach them what a racist idea is and to give them examples, is to leave them vulnerable to racist ideas. Then, if they play a multiplayer video game and a white supremacist is expressing a racist idea, they’re not go to know it’s racist, they’re not going to know it’s wrong, because no one has taught them that.”
A parent worried a white child will feel guilty if taught about white racism can also teach the child about white people who challenged racism, such as the eight white men who with eight Black men in 1947 climbed aboard buses in Washington, DC during one of the first “freedom rides” that challenged segregated busing. “If you teach them about white people who enslaved Black people, your child can still relate to the white abolitionists over the slaveholder.”
Specifically, the “white people have more because they are more” idea, Kendi says is insidious and must be one of the first ideas discussed and eradicated before it is entrenched in a young person’s psyche and self-identity.
“One of the things important for parents to nurture and model is critical thinking, the antithesis of prejudicial thinking. Prejudicial thinking is the basis for racial ideas. To nurture a critical thinker is to protect a child from internalizing ideas of racial hierarchy. One of the ways we approach critical thinking is we actually model for young people our not knowing, our discovering, our research, our changing our minds. All of that is a praxis of critical thinking, and clearly, if we’re doing that with a child, there’s no better way. They ask us a question and we say, ‘We don’t know.’ It’s (imperative) for a critical thinker to acknowledge when we don’t know. Then secondly, we work with that child to figure out an answer. And thirdly, if that answer counteracts something else, we acknowledge that. We say this is not just something I’m learning; it changes my mind about some other thing. That changing of our minds, based on new evidence, is also a praxis of critical thinking. By contrast, to be racist is to constantly look for evidence to substantiate the idea that supposedly, racism doesn’t exist and is the problem of those people of color.”
Asked if material profit, privilege and structures must be given up in order to make gains while raising an antiracist child, Kendi says, “It’s important to distinguish between privilege and material resources, particularly as it relates to white people. In other words, what W. E. B. Dubois once called the psychological rage of whiteness. Which is a belief that to be white is to be superior, more beautiful, smarter. Certainly, in a different type of world where no racial group is smarter or more beautiful or better because of the color of their skin, those white people who believe that about themselves will have to give up that racist idea. They’ll have to give up the idea that white people have more because they are more. But when you look at white Americans more broadly, not everyone who is white is wealthy. The vast majority of white people are working class, poor and middle income. The effects of structural racism disproportionately harms people of color, but relative to an equitable society, it actually harms white people too.”
At the same time white people benefit from racist policies relative to Black people or Native people, they would actually benefit more under more equitable policies, he suggests. “To give an example, it is the case that with voter suppression policies, Black, Brown and Indigenous people are the most likely to be disenfranchised and their votes to be suppressed. But white people, particularly students and elderly people, are often in situations where it is harder for them to vote as well. Similarly, there are all sorts of health disparities in Black people who are more likely to die in eight of the ten leading causes of death in this country. But if we add a more equitable health care system, if there is medicare for all, if everyone had access to high quality health care—all policies that have been prevented due to racist fear-mongering—there would be less white people dying of heart disease and cancer and Covid and on and on.”
About racial reparation as it relates to children, Kendi says, “I wrote about this larger punishment-oriented society we live in, the way that impacts children with imposing punishment instead of inductive discipline. There have been efforts over the last 10 or so years to reduce the number of children suspended or expelled, just as there have been efforts to have alternatives to police when somebody has a mental health crisis. Having mental health professionals called can reduce the interactions between people experiencing a mental health crisis and police, people who are trained to punish and arrest, not trained to defuse many situations. That has helped young people to not be herded into early deaths at the hands of police violence or (in schools), not suspended and put into the prison pipelines. There’s also effort to systemically diversify curriculum, because if we’re going to teach children about the world, and this world is multiracial and multicultural, we can’t only be teaching them about the history and culture of white people.”
And silence? “If you live in a society with all sorts of racial disparities as we do, Black and Brown people are more likely to be impoverished, incarcerated, killed by police, dying of diseases. Asian Americans are constantly targeted for violence. Asian poor people are almost erased in a way white poor people are not. If a child in this society sees all those inequities and then no one is talking to them about racism? All these messages are telling them white people have more because they are more. If they’re going to school and there’s a removal of works by or discussion about people of color, if all they’re seeing is white people in their curriculum, they’re literally being told and internalizing—by not talking about racism—all the notions of racial hierarchy.”
Kendi says that success for him and the legacy left by his work will arrive less from awards than from two structural changes. “First, that people committed to creating equitable policies for all are in positions of power. And they are installing those policies. And secondly, those policies are having impacts and are reducing if not eliminating disparities and inequities and injustice and violence in our communities. Having those committed people in place is important, but even more important than the people are the actual practices and policies and ensuring they are antiracist, equitable and just.”