That was when he knew he needed to write a new book, he says, not just for those parents and teachers, but also for himself. Despite his groundbreaking study of racism and its origins — Kendi has received the National Book Award and a MacArthur “genius” grant for his work, and serves as director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research — he was also the father of a then-4-year-old daughter, and he realized there was more he wanted to understand about how to raise her to become someone who would fight for equality.
The result of that epiphany is “How to Raise an Antiracist,” published Tuesday, a book that is both an instructive guide for parents and caregivers and also a reflective memoir. Kendi spoke to The Washington Post about his latest work and his own experience as a father. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: When you set out to write this book as a research-based road map for parents and caregivers, what made you decide that you also wanted to include your own story?
A: I thought it was important for parents to be able to move past our discomfort around the mistakes that we make as parents. To be a parent is to be imperfect, to be a parent is to be human. And so we’re going to make mistakes, but we’re also very sensitive about the mistakes that we make, particularly towards our children, and I felt by providing my own personal story as a parent and the mistakes that I’ve made, as it related to race with my child, I thought it could help other parents to be self-reflective as well. I also thought by sharing my story as a child, it could help teachers to really begin to understand what they’re doing or not doing from the perspective of a student.
Q: In my reporting over the years I’ve talked to a number of White parents about race — including a lot of Gen Xers and older millennial parents who were actively trying to overcome their own “colorblind” upbringings — and something I’ve often heard is anxiety about saying the wrong thing, giving a wrong answer to a question that a child asks, or not being informed enough to offer a complete answer in the moment. I’m wondering what you would say to parents who are experiencing that worry and insecurity.
A: First, I think the sources of the worry and insecurity is this belief that if we somehow get it wrong, meaning if we say the wrong thing, in the wrong way, in response to our child engaging us about race, that we’ll somehow make them racist — so the best solution is to just not say anything or to shut down the conversation. When in reality, it’s the other way around. If we don’t say anything, then they’re going to get an answer from somewhere else, and chances are that answer is more likely to be a racist one.
Now, when they ask us questions or they say things that we don’t understand or we don’t feel like we can answer that question, that is a space in which we have to model critical thinking. And scholars have shown that to raise a critical thinker is to raise a child who is going to be more likely to protect themselves against racist thought. And how do we model a critical thinker when a child asks us a question about race that we don’t know? We say we don’t know, and then we say, ‘Let’s discover and investigate together.’ And then we do that with our child. And then we relay to our child, ‘This is something I’m learning too,’ or ‘I had a different perspective about this, and now this evidence is showing me that it’s something else.’ So we’re also modeling for the child not only discovery, but also changing our minds, which is also indicative of critical thinking.
The final thing I would say — White parents, and non-White parents too, I suspect, have this perspective that the term ‘racist’ is an identity, it is who a person essentially, fundamentally is, and so people want to project themselves as ‘not racist,’ what they imagine to be the opposite of racist. The conception is, ‘I don’t want to say something that’s wrong and racist because then that would mean I am a racist.’ But what I argue and show in my work is that ‘racist’ is a descriptive term, and ‘anti-racist’ is a descriptive term. So the key to the issue is not whether we’re saying something that’s racist, the key issue is what we do after we say something that’s racist. Are we changing? Are we growing, are we seeking to learn? Are we acknowledging when we’re saying something that’s racist? And if we are, then we’re actually being anti-racist, and we’re modeling that for our children.
Q: There’s often a lot of focus on questions that children might ask and how we should respond to them as parents, but you also write of the necessity of parents asking children questions about race, starting when they’re preschoolers or kindergartners. Can you tell me more about why that’s so important? And, since your own daughter is now that age, what kinds of questions have you been asking her, what have those conversations been like for your family?
A: I think it is incredibly important to ask questions of our children, not just to model critical thinking but also to raise empathy, to encourage a child to be empathetic. So when a child does something wrong — let’s say your child hits another child, instead of us just saying, ‘Don’t do that!’ we can say, ‘Why did you hit the child?” We can ask, ‘How do you think that child felt?’ That is more in line with what scholars call inductive discipline, and inductive discipline is more likely to teach a child to be empathetic, and a child that’s more empathetic is more likely to be anti-racist. So it’s all sort of connected in that way, whether we’re raising a critical thinker or raising a child to be empathetic, we should be consistently asking them questions.
My wife recently was out with my daughter and they were at an airport, in one of the airline clubs, and my daughter asked, “Why are there no Brown people in here?” My daughter was 5 at the time, and instead of shutting down that question, my wife, Sadiqa, answered the question and tried to explain to her. So I think it’s important for us to answer those questions, and ask those questions, but I also think it’s important for us to bring our children into situations where they will ask questions, and where we can ask questions. Just to give an example, say we live near a place where a lot of homeless people are gathered, and many of those people are Black and Brown, we could go there and ask our child, “Why do you think so many of those people who are houseless are Black and Brown?” We can provide an answer — racism, bad policies — and we can get them thinking, and that’s the key, because to be racist is to be a believer, and to be anti-racist is to be a thinker.
Q: I thought you made a really compelling point about the teen years specifically as a time when kids are especially vulnerable to both conceit and insecurity, which you described as “the twin children of being racist.” Can you tell me more about that — and how parents can help their teens learn to interrogate racist ideas?
So if you are, let’s say, a parent or a teacher of a White teenager, and because of the recent wave of anti-history or “don’t say race” legislation, there’s even less books written by people of color or discussions about race, and the White child sees that and notices that there’s inequity in their society. If no one is telling them that the inequity is the result of racism, and then they’re thinking that White people have more because they are more, and then literally White people are more present in their curriculum — it creates a situation in which they think that White people are better than they really are. A White child can be thinking that because their environment is telling them that, without even making a sound. So then they’re becoming conceited about their own race, and they’re thinking that people like them are special because they’re White. Similarly, say you’re raising a Latinx child, and that same Latinx child is being told that Latinx people have less because they are less, and Latinx people are less visible in their curriculum, then they’re being told the opposite idea — they’re being told to be insecure about their race, that there’s something wrong with Latinx people. And both conceptions are very difficult for a teenager who is trying to gather her sense of herself in this deeply racialized world.
I think it is so vitally important for those teenagers to be reading books about racism in particular. When we’re talking about a 3-year-old or 4-year-old, I think it’s important for them to have books with different characters of different colors, and to see those different colors as on the same level. When you’re talking about 11- or 12- or 17-year-olds, they have a very sophisticated understanding of racial inequality. They know racial inequality exists. They’re trying to decide why it exists. So they need to be engaged in conversation, and reading literature, and having discussions about racism, because the only other explanation for why racial inequality exists is that there’s something superior or inferior about a particular racial group. And simultaneously, if you’re a White, particularly male teenager, you’re getting targeted by white supremacists. If you are a Black teenager, according to one study, you’re witnessing or experiencing five instances of racist discrimination per day. And it’s easy for you, as a Black child, to say, “This is happening because there’s something wrong with me.”
Q: I’ve spoken to so many parents over these past couple of years — about the pandemic, police violence, gun violence, climate change and the intersection of racism with all of those things — and in many of those conversations, parents have expressed deep fear, sometimes even despair, about what’s happening around us right now. But they’ve also often noted that parenthood doesn’t afford the luxury of hopelessness, that we owe these kids something better. I wanted to ask you how parenthood has affected the way you relate to this current moment, and how has it shaped your sense of what is possible?
A: When we realized that my partner, Sadiqa, was pregnant, we went about searching for a name for our daughter, and ultimately we decided to name her Imani. Imani means “faith” in Swahili. When we decided to name her Imani, we just really loved the name Imani, and we also loved that it means “faith,” but we weren’t thinking at the time that she, through her presence in our lives — particularly her coming in 2016, when for many people the despair started to emerge or even grow — that she would become one of our anchors, if not our principal anchor, for hope and for believing that we can transform this world anew. Just witnessing a young person coming of age and navigating her world and just seeing how she doesn’t have all the racial baggage that adults have, that I have, and knowing that all the things that we’ve gotten wrong as adults, our children could get right.
As a personal example: It seems like, every year, Imani has a different favorite color. And this year’s favorite color is the rainbow. And she, of course, won’t even entertain an argument over whether “rainbow” is a color. But when we ask her “Why is ‘rainbow’ your favorite color?” you know she says, “Because it has all the colors!” and she’s almost looking at me like, “Of course rainbow is the best color!” It just reminds me that maybe we could create a world where our kids see all the colors, a collection of colors, particularly human colors, as beautiful. And that’s what I’m hoping that we’re able to create.