The Human Rainbow | Dr. Ibram X. Kendi on Antiracism

Back to school means time to revisit Dr. Ibram X. Kendi's How to Raise an Antiracist. This New York Times bestseller is his answer to the many questions parents and educators have on how to bring children into conversation, about how to be better citizens in the world, and how to treat their peers with compassion and inclusion.

The following article is from a conversation that was recorded in August 2022 and has been edited for length and clarity. The unedited recording is available here.


Back to school means time to revisit Dr. Ibram X. Kendi's How to Raise an Antiracist. This New York Times bestseller is his answer to the many questions parents and educators have on how to bring children into conversation, about how to be better citizens in the world, and how to treat their peers with compassion and inclusion.

Fakih: Americans are known for sweeping conversations about racism under the carpet for way too long. When did you know that you needed to bring this information to parents? It's such a big conversation. How did you just plunge in?

Book cover is white with yellow and red typeface: How to Raise an Antiracist by Ibram x. KendiDr. Kendi: It was almost like a story before the story, and then the actual story. I think that the story before was when I became a parent. My daughter was born in 2016. Like any other parent, I was trying to think about how I would raise her to be an equitable human being and citizen, and I didn't know exactly how to do that. And like other parents, I was like, well, I have time. It wasn't until the summer of 2020, when so many teachers and parents and other caregivers started the summer asking, how can I be antiracist? And in many ways ended the summer asking, how can I encourage my kids to be antiracist? I felt it was necessary to dive into the research and figure out how to answer it.

Fakih: I married a brown-skinned man, and I had a ‘funny last name,’ and I figured I had the stamp of approval—I was never going to be a racist. I'd proven it. I just thought I didn't have assumptions that maybe other people had. And then one day my daughter was in the playground, and she said she was going to play with the little girls ‘like me,’ was her quote. I glanced over and saw some children and went about what I was doing. She meant little girls who were all wearing red Keds. She was three. I had made different assumptions, and I knew I had to just go start doing the work. I heard the Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn't belong,” and I wondered if I was teaching her about differentiation.

Dr. Kendi: Another Sesame Street line is, “We are all different, and we are all the same.” It is in many ways what we should be teaching. We do look different. We do act different. Different people do practice different cultures. People do worship or engage in different religionsbut they all have skin. The people who talk different all talk. The people who practice religion, practice religion, and obviously below our different skin colors we're the same. Part of the challenge is equating difference and figuring out how to ensure that our children, who may see that they're a different skin color than another child, do not think one skin color is better or worse, or uglier than another, in that they aren't attaching negative or even positive qualities to particular skin colors. Unfortunately, that's what they're being taught directly and indirectly. When we don't actively teach them to not do that, that’s what they learn.

Fakih: We're introducing such hard concepts that we don't want them to think about. But you talk about teenagers being recruited online. If we don't talk to them, other people are going to talk to them for us.

Dr. Kendi: That was actually a huge struggle for me in that, I don't want to, like, introduce this topic, or talk about this topic, or get them seeing the world—recognizing early that there are bad things in the world, you know. I want them to have joy, but in many ways we do that with other things. And so in How to Raise an Antiracist, I use this analogy: we teach the youngest of kids to look both ways when they cross the street, and we explain to them what will happen if they don't look both ways. Which, of course, they don't like because they're scared about that, right? But we have to. We have no other option, because we have to. We never know that day in which they're not going to be holding our hands, and they'll just run into the streets. If you do not do that, these are the bad things that can happen.

I think it's the same thing as it relates to teaching kids: no, you do not attach dirtiness to darkness like that, it’s not right, you know. All skin colors are part of a human rainbow, and we especially should do that because we don't actively teach them that. Then we're going to open them up, as you stated, to being taught by others, and especially if they are a white child, especially a male child, by the time they're a preteen, and especially a teenager, chances are they're being targeted very aggressively online by white supremacists. Whether that's through games or direct messages, whether that's white supremacists who are literally jumping into multi-player online video games with thirteen or fourteen-year-old white male teenagers, and then they're going to start preaching to them about white superiority, about what's wrong with women, about—you know, other topics, and if we haven't already spoken to them, how will they be able to even recognize them?

Fakih: I just feel like you're making parents very alert to listening for the cues that you have to be antiracist and listen to the words. And hear them.

Dr. Ibram Kendi, a Black man in a blue shirt in front of a book shelfDr. Kendi: And when we're thinking about the home, the first and foremost person we're thinking about is ourselves. That's why in many ways, you know, the book has quite a bit of personal narrative sharing how I've parented and mistakes I've made, and oftentimes the  concern or the issue isn't necessarily what we're doing. It's what we're not doing.

When we buy dolls for our children, are all those dolls the same color? When we buy books for our kids, are the characters—do they all look the same? You know those types of things that parents do all the time, they may not even be thinking about the critical importance of ensuring the toy box and the small home library is reflective of the human experience you know of. The multicultural world. One of the most fascinating studies that I came across as I was researching How To Raise an Antiracist was that babies between three and nine months old are already responding to homogeneous environments. They're not able to recognize individual faces among people outside of that homogeneous environment, while kids who are exposed to a more [varied] group of faces are more able to essentially discern individual faces that are not like their own. That's three to nine months old, so it just goes to show how critically important it is, even in the home, to be ensuring that our youngest children are seeing all the beautiful faces that make up human heart.

Fakih: Have you seen Alicia Williams's book The Talk? Her child is going to have to learn to behave a certain way with his other Black friends so that people don't have an excuse to pull him aside. It’s about this terrible moment in an African American parent’s life of altering the natural outpouring of joy that a child has. A friend who said, oh, it’s too bad 'they' have to think like that, but this is all of us. I don't think we can have a we/they anymore. I don't know how to break that down.

Dr. Kendi: I agree with you. It shouldn't, particularly if the talk is around Black preteen and teen boys, around police and their interactions with the police. I mean, certainly Black adults are more likely to be subjects of police violence than any other racial group. But white Americans are more likely to be subjected to police violence than groups of people in other countries. So it's a huge issue, police violence across the board. It just so happens to be even worse for for Black, brown, and Indigenous people. And so in many ways everyone should be having the talk with their children about police, but especially, obviously, parents of Black children and brown children. But I think part of what I was trying to even convey in this book is trying to allow parents of white children to recognize that there's going to be messages that are going to convey to your child that there's something better about them because they're white, and it's important for you as a parent and teacher to protect that child from those harmful messages. And similarly, if you're a parent of a Black or brown child, there's going to be messages from that police officer or from somewhere else conveying to your child that they are dangerous, or that they're bad because of their skin color, and it's important for you to protect that child. And the way you protect that child is, you say to that child, "People are going to think this about you, and when they do, they're the problem, not you."

Fakih: You have given people actions. So take that deep breath, as one of the reviewers of your book said. You know in the first conversation about how to be an antiracist if you’re talking to a seven-year-old? What do you say? Just go be an ally?

Dr. Kendi: Well, I'm happy you ask about a seven-year-old, because the answer to this question is that it’s based developmentally. But my suspicion is that if you have a seven-year-old, they are likely already asking you questions about race, and you've likely already been shutting them down. The first lesson kids around seven or eight years old receive about race is to not talk about it.

So your first action set is to answer those questions. Let your child know that this is a topic of discussion. And for you as a parent to think back, “Okay, what question have they asked?” Take the opportunity right now to to engage them on that question. Or if they haven't asked a question, chances are they have some in their minds, but they don't feel comfortable asking you for whatever reason. So you can propose the conversation to them. “What questions do you have?” By seven years old, kids not only have the awareness about race, but they also have the cognitive ability to ask questions about it.

If your child is one year old, the focus should be on what I call in the book sort of child-proofing the home for race. So that goes back to the making sure there's, as I talked about earlier, that the characters in the books that you bought them are of different skin colors, and the dolls that they're playing with. That ensures that the people that they're literally seeing aren't just all one complexion.

If the child is fifteen, you can have very sophisticated conversations about race. You can say to them, "You know what? In our community Black people are twice as likely," if this is the case, "to be impoverished. Why do you think that is?"

Fakih: And in some ways, that’s not even a conversation for parents. That's like, do I go to the Board of Education? Do I write my Congressperson? Do I?

Dr. Kendi: First and foremost, protect their own child. So, depending on what's happening with their child, whether their child is Black, and because of the teachers or the school counselors, are there racist ideas that connect in their minds Black people with intellectual lack?

They're not learning less quickly than other students because they're Black. They're learning less quickly than other students because they may have a learning disability. Or, if your child is white or your child is Asian, and there's almost a refusal to essentially test the child for a learning disability. Asian students have received the least testing, the lowest [because] teachers have such high expectations for them. Racist ideas and a connection to disability is hurting all of our children, whether our children are not being diagnosed or being overdiagnosed, as opposed to focusing on those individual children and what they're facing and what they're presenting.

Fakih: What do you think parents can do? At the PTA level, the local level, we're seeing school boards being overtaken by sort of, let's say, extreme opinion makers who are forcing the removal of books.

Dr. Kendi: There's a number of different routes. First, if you are a parent who wants all children, including your child, to receive a very high quality, truth-based, complex, critical-thinking oriented, multicultural, antiracist education, then you should be running for school board. You should be seeking to put yourself in a position of power where you can, and people like you can make that happen.

If that's not something for you, if that's not your calling, then you can organize a banned book club. As you know, many parents and even students are doing [that]. You could organize parents at your school. Parents organized can put quite a bit of pressure on the local school to ensure that your kids are receiving a high quality education.

For me, it’s either about organizing something, or you as an individual deciding you're going to run for school board or a position of power so you can change the course of education in your district.

Fakih: If you're a parent, there are so many competing forces; parents are growing their children, working, trying to not watch the planet burn down. It feels like we have to turn this over to the oldsters. It's what coastal grandmothers are for, maybe.

Dr. Kendi: There’s few forces as strong in this world as the grandmothers.

Fakih: Your work is evolving. Are you writing for yourself? Are you writing for us?

Dr. Kendi: As a writer, you're going to spend a tremendous amount of time researching, and it has to be a topic you should feel very passionate about, something you should be very interested in. At the same time, I don't write to write. I write for people to read and learn and transform their society. And so you have to be aware of what people are seeking, or what people need, where people you know are at. And so I try to figure out a way to balance both, and that's, in many ways, that balancing is why I'm doing books for adults and children.

I'm working on books that are more in line with my training as a historian, but then also books that are extremely accessible to people; I have to really extend and push myself, because I think both are important and necessary.

Fakih: The human, the brain, and the heart are aligned, and you know you're taking care of your children and taking care of the future. It feels like a real work in progress, and it's changing the way people are thinking.

Dr. Kendi: I'm just really excited to work on How to Raise an Antiracist, particularly as a parent and an educator. It's a book just as much for teachers as it is for parents, and I'm a college teacher. It so clarified so many things for me, and I know it will do the same for others. And I am just, in many ways, grateful to readers, because in many ways they pushed me to think about the importance of this book. I feel like I'm putting it into use in my own personal life, as I know others are.

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