That’s where we’re headed with today’s guest, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. He’s the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, founding director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, CBS News racial justice contributor, and the host of the Be Antiracist podcast. Dr. Kendi is also 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, making him the youngest-ever winner of that award. He has also produced five straight #1 New York Times bestsellers, including How to Be an Antiracist, Antiracist Baby, and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, co-authored by Jason Reynolds. In 2020, Time magazine named Dr. Kendi one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He was awarded a 2021 MacArthur Genius Grant. And his new book, How to Raise An Antiracist, take us into the core ideas around bringing kids up – as caretakers, parents, educators and community members – in a way that opens their minds, hearts and eyes to both our history and to the work still to be done to decrease inequality and increase equality.
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Jonathan Fields: Introduction One of the things I have come to believe during the now ten year journey of a Good Life Project and also my life more broadly, is that there truly is no individual good life without there also being a more collective and inclusive path for a societal good life, we are all interconnected and a key part of this more expansive aspiration is about planting seeds, starting with younger generations. So how do you raise kids to create a more equitable and inclusive society? One where we’re not afraid to acknowledge and discuss beautiful experiences while also addressing hard truths in a way that steeps us in reality, invites everyone into the conversation and compels us from the earliest days to start thinking about and then doing the work needed to create more possibility, equality and opportunity for all regardless of Race, socioeconomic status, religion age, ability or beyond. And that’s where we’re headed with today’s guest, Dr. Ibram, X Kendi. He’s the Andrew W Mellon professor in humanities at Boston University, founding director of the Pew Center for antiracist research, a contributing writer at the Atlantic, CBS News racial justice contributor and the host of the be anti-racist podcast. Dr. Kendi is also the author of many highly acclaimed books, including stealth, from the beginning, the definitive history of racist ideas in America, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction, making him the youngest ever winner of that Award. By the way, he’s also produced five straight number one New York Times bestsellers, including how to be an anti-racist antiracist baby, and stamped racism and cism, and you co-authored by Jason Reynolds in twenty, twenty Time magazine, named after Kennedy, one of the one hundred most influential people in the world, he was awarded a twenty twenty one MacArthur genius grant, and his New Book how to raise an anti-racist. It takes us into the core ideas around bringing up kids in our roles as caretakers, parents, educators, community members in a way that opens their minds, their hearts and eyes to both our history and to the work still to be done to decrease inequality and increase equality so excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.
Jonathan Fields Congrats on the new book by the way, it is so deeply wise and needed at this moment in time.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi Well, thank you and I’m so glad we’re able to talk about it.
Jonathan Fields Yeah. Know me as well. You know, I think an interesting starting point for our conversation. What I’d love to do is actually take a small step back and center a few of the ideas from how to be an anti-racist kind of set up the conversation that will take us into the newer book. In that book I think, you know, one of the, the central premises is this notion that there’s no such thing as, quote, not racist. There’s only racist or anti-racist. Tell me more about this.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi Sure. So let’s break it down in different elements. There are racist ideas and these ideas suggest that a particular racial groups is superior or inferior to another racial group in any way. And so essentially, racist ideas connote racial hierarchy. What’s the opposite of racial hierarchy? It’s racial equality. So there are ideas that explicitly express that the racial groups are equals. If we think about policies, you have policies that are leading to or maintaining racial inequity or even injustice. And the opposite is policies that are reducing racial inequities or creating equity. You know, and justice between racial groups. And then you have individuals who are either in any given moment expressing racist or anti-racist ideas when talking about sort of race or supporting policies that are leading to inequity or equity. Oftentimes when people express a racist idea or support a racist policy, and someone else pointed out, the typical defensive posture of that person is to say, I’m not racist. That’s really been the only conception that I’ve been able to truly find that’s consistent about the term not racist. And so that’s why I’ve urged people to understand that the opposite of racist isn’t not racist. It’s anti-racist.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, I mean it’s interesting also the way that you describe it. The language you use is very precise and it feels like it is pulling it away from an identity level thing. And also saying, let’s talk about behavior. Rather than saying I’m quote “are or are not” a racist, you speak more to at scale policy, but also on an individual level, individual choices, individual actions, individual behaviors as being either racist or anti-racist rather than saying somebody is inhabiting the sustained identity of either.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi And the reason for that is again, just like the former it’s, it’s based on, on research and, you know, in studying, particularly the history of racist ideas and anti-racist ideas. What I have found is there’s been so many people over the course of history who have expressed racist and anti-racist ideas, sometimes in the same speech in the same paragraph. And so how do you identify that person as a racist or anti-racist inherently? Like that, that’s who they are. How do you identify a person as racist, or anti-racist when it comes to criminal legal system? They’re supportive of policies that maintain the injustices. But when it comes to education, they’re supportive of equitable policies. Well, what you can do is say when they’re supporting racist policies, they’re being racist when they’re expressing anti-racist ideas, they’re being anti-racist. So you can understand this as a descriptive term, as almost indeed like a behavior. The question is, what is a person doing or saying or being, or not doing at any given moment. And you can then recognise that people have the capacity to change. They have the capacity to be racist one moment and anti-racist, you know, in the next moment
Jonathan Fields By sort of bringing it to the conversation that way. It feels like when you dissociate from this identity level, almost quote, trait like capital T trait, it opens up the conversation to change, to evolution. Because it says, this is a part of who we are, it’s, it’s how we are. And that is subject to constant questioning, challenge and evolution. You also talk about a couple of misperceptions that I think are important to explore a little bit. Also. One is this notion that racist policies lead to racist behavior. Not the other way around, which I think is counterintuitive. The first time I read that from you. But then it really as you deepened into it, it makes so much sense. Tell me a bit more about this misperception and why you sort of reverse what folks may think.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi I guess when specifically I was doing research conducting research for a book prior to How To Be An Anti-racist from the beginning. And I was researching racist ideas. One of the other things I realized I had to do was distinguish between a producer of racist ideas and a consumer. And I specifically and explicitly decided to really chronicle the people who were producing these ideas. And so one side zeroed in on those people who were producing racist ideas. It became pretty apparent why they were producing racist ideas. And oftentimes it wasn’t because they were ignorant or hateful. Oftentimes, it was to either defend an existing racist policy or to justify a campaign for a new one. And typically those policies benefited them. Whether it was someone who was enslaving people and making a tremendous amount of money, and they wanted to continue to have the legal ability to do so. Whether it was somebody who was an elected official based on disenfranchised black voters. And they wanted to continue to have the ability to do that or other sort of powerful people in our society. And so it became blatantly apparent to me that Indeed the ideas were emerging to justify the policies, but more specifically the ideas were emerging to normalize the racial inequities that were coming out of those policies. So that everyday people, the consumers, could then see, let’s say, black people as the cause of inequities, meaning their behaviors and their cultures as opposed to the actual policies that were their true roots. And so what it did for powerful people, it deflected, it allowed for them to deflect the, you know, what, or even who was the problem. And now I think for the consumers, it’s a little bit of a different calculus. But I think when we think of the really the roots of racist ideas and policies, those roots are not ignorance and hate, as we’ve long been taught or even behavior. Those roots are power. You know, and policy
Jonathan Fields It makes sense when you lay it out that way. One of the other misperceptions that was really part of what I saw as the Corby argument and in that earlier book How To Be An Anti-racist is also similar to a conversation I’ve had with a good friend of mine, Rev angel Kyodo williams over a period of years which is this notion of questioning, like who is actually harmed by racism. And the community is broader than I think so many realize it’s, it’s yes, it’s the people who are directly subject to the policies and the behaviors in the language. But it’s bigger than that as well.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi It is, and I think in recent years, more and more writers and policy experts and scholars have pointed out how historically and currently white people in particular when compared to, let’s say people of color or I should say people of color are more likely to be harmed but when you compare the effects of racist policies on white people versus the effects of anti-racist policies on white people, white people typically benefit more from anti-racist policies. So to give you an example, many of the voter suppression policies that have particularly emerged over the last year. Those policies studies are showing are directly going to make it harder for black, brown, and indigenous people to vote. It’s going to be the hardest for them, but it’s also, those policies are also going to make it harder, though not as hard, for many white senior citizens to vote for many white low income people to vote for many white students, you know, to vote for many white liberals for their votes did matter. And so it actually has a broader effect than merely, you know, people of color. And I think that allows even white people to see, for instance, how racism is harmful to their livelihood as well.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, I mean it’s really, it’s interesting when you really start to look at how broad the impact can be and how deep it goes into the fiber of so many different people’s lives. You hate to think, well, some folks might need that external motivation of self-interest or seeing how they’re affected, to do something beyond being driven by a sense of right action or empathy or compassion. But it’s interesting to just sort of like add that to the combination of acknowledgements and arguments when you’re saying, okay, so what is, what are the things that would really open your eyes to stand in the place of effecting change?
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi Well, yeah, and I mean, the way in which racist power or racist policymakers have sold these racist policies to white people has been to say, you’re going to benefit from them. I mean, they’ve said that directly and indirectly, now they’re more likely to dog whistle it. But, you know, over the course of history that has been the primary refrain to everyday ordinary white people who are low and middle income. And historically, scholars of racism have reinforced that idea. And I think what we’re showing now is that actually that idea is not even true.
Jonathan Fields Yeah. When you are working on that original book and actually there was a stint before that. It seems like there’s been this five or six year window or so we’re in addition to your work in academia as a historian in policy development and in teaching you have been writing and writing and writing and writing. The pace and the volume of what you have created and are offering out to the world over the last five years. Is stunning. It really is breathtaking and you have, you know, this new book, How To Raise An Anti-racist, and I want to dive into that and the motivation behind it, I want to ask a broader question because it’s on my mind during this same window over the last chunk of years. You become a dad. You also were diagnosed and treated for stage four cancer. Do you feel like beyond the immediacy and the urgency of the need for a call to action given the state of society that your personal health diagnosis, the fact that it happened simultaneously with you becoming a dad… It feels like there’s a bigger urgency to the work that you’re doing today. And I’m wondering, you know, from the outside looking in, that’s what I perceive is, does it feel that way to you from the inside out?
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi Oh, without question. I mean I, I always had a sense of urgency about this work. But certainly after being diagnosed with a disease that kills nearly nine out of ten people. And, you know, in five years it forced me to reckon with my own mortality. It forced me to realize that I don’t have necessarily time or I may not have time. And so the concept of, Oh well I’ll do this in ten years or five years from now or no longer sort of registered with me in the same way. And so I think that, you know, certainly the cancer diagnosis and still being within that five year window has, you know, has certainly led to a greater, you know, amount of, of urgency. And I also think moving into recognizing the importance of speaking to, or writing to children or even the caretakers of children have sort of opened new lanes that I could be sort of writing for or writing with simultaneously. But it’s made it much harder because, you know, writing a picture book as an example like Goodnight Racism is, is very different than writing a book for adults like How To Raise An Anti-racist. So that’s been extremely difficult. But I think the combined urgency of, of our society and what’s been happening in the last five years with my own personal urgency based on, you know, my diagnosis with cancer has combined to, to lead to sort of what I’ve been doing.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, I’m stunned just by the volume and the pace and the depth of what you’ve been offering and also the breadth of it like you just share and you know, you have this deeply wise academic heavily research you know, pointed to a certain group of people and then you’re speaking to kids and then you’re speaking to caretakers, which is as a writer just like looking at from that perspective. It’s not full throttle lane changes, but it’s enough so that it’s and it’s challenging to be functioning and operating and speaking in all those different ways to all different people. Yet the way that you’re doing it is really powerful and complimentary. Which I think really does bring us to the newest book, How To Raise An Anti-racist. And it sounds like maybe what you were just sharing is part of the basis for why this book needed to exist. But I’m wondering if there was, was there something specific that triggered you to say like this book this time?
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi I think that the most specific thing that really triggered me to, to write this book was the realization that the very people who are the most vulnerable to racist messages to the harm that comes about in a society where there’s harmfully racist policies are the very people who are the least likely to engage and teach about racism, which is young people. And like that realization, like that crisis really, is I think what ultimately motivated me to write this book. And I think young people themselves, particularly in the summer of 2020 as they were speaking out about that very issue, particularly to their teachers and parents who then in turn, speaking to me, it sort of was a further motivator to produce this.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, I would imagine that that many were coming to you saying we’re not entirely equipped to handle this and what are the important parts of this conversation and how do we step into them? This feels to me like it’s, it’s almost a response to that urgency in those types of questions.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi And actually what was striking was, I was asking myself the same questions as well since I became a father and in which. And so I, I realized that writing such a book would not only be helpful for, for other families and other sort of schools and teachers but, but it would be helpful for, for me and my daughter. Because I could have this sort of platform, you know, research that really serves as the backbone of this book to understand the types of decisions that I should be making. You know, with my daughter on a daily basis. And I of course, thought that I knew as many parents, you know, I think we think that we know, but to really come face to face with a century of research that scientists and scholars have conducted on the racial attitudes of children from newborns all the way up to teenagers about to leave our homes and to be able to operate from the standpoint of research. So we will know that what the decisions that we’re making actually do have the capacity for our kids to, you know, to be anti-racist. I think fills me with a tremendous sense of knowledge because I think in many ways as parents, we oftentimes feel like we’re at a loss like we just don’t know. And I think we second guess ourselves. And so I just feel much better armed to have these conversations with my daughter to build an anti-racist environment to raise her own.
Jonathan Fields You know, that so resonates with me and it, it’s funny when you see in many ways as parents, we feel that well, and I’m thinking to myself in every way as a parent. Yes. It’s like, it’s just like waking up every day and doing the best I can, you know? It’s fascinating to me also because when you write, you draw on incredible levels of research. And at the same time, you’ve made a decision in the writing process and the publishing process to also bring yourself to bring your own humanity, your own struggles, your own thoughts, your own personal stories, and those of your family into the narrative. You know, so this weaves between here is really powerful academic research that shows us we don’t have to guess. And at the same time, you’re showing your own personal exploration of these “sometimes getting it right “”sometimes struggling “”sometimes getting it wrong”. And I think that, that dynamic you bringing yourself into it in that way. And then bolstering with research is sort of like, you’re teeing this book up and how to be an anti-racist and other work. I’ve been fascinated by the mechanism of almost you saying I’m on a personal quest because I had this need and these questions. And these have been things that have gone on in my own life. And it’s an interesting frame to say, rather than here’s a book of research and I’m telling you, I have it all figured out. And this is what to do. You’re kind of saying like, I’m walking alongside you in no small way and figuring out this with you. And I happen to benefit of having built my life in my career in a way that allows me to really go deep into this and share what I’m learning. And I was curious about the decisions as a writer and as a somebody who’s creating these things in that interplay of personal narrative, personal quest, personal journey, and powerful academic research that points us all in a better direction.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi So I think for me, certainly I’m more inclined to just write a book outlining the academic research being academic. But at the same time, when I was really trying to parcel out based on the research, the difference between being racist, being anti-racist, one of the defining features of being anti-racist was having the capacity to, to really truly self-reflect to be self-critical to recognize that being anti-racist isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. And particularly if you’re starting the journey as an adult, it’s hard to imagine we’re not going to make mistakes. And so I didn’t know how to convey that without showing it and so on. I think that’s the reason why I conveyed that in that way and How To Be An Anti-racist. But I think specifically with How To Raise An Anti-racist I know as a parent in particular and certainly you know, as an educator, it just doesn’t for me, when somebody is writing a book on parenting or teaching or caregiving and they present themselves as having figured it all out, it just doesn’t seem authentic to me.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, I hear you.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi And so I think to me conveying that as a parent, certainly there are many mistakes that I’ve made or that I would have made differently. I think, to me seemed more more authentic to caregivers. But then I also think it would also allow people to, if I’m sharing my struggles, I think it opens people to think about their own struggles. And I just don’t think lecturing to people has that same effect.
Jonathan Fields Hmm. Yeah. So I agree that your vulnerability and your personal stories, I think, allows people to step into that same space themselves to a space of self-examination and say, okay, I’m going to ask some questions as well.
Jonathan Fields One of the things that you, you bring up fairly early in the conversation, is this notion of how we raise a child depends at least in part on how we racially socialize a child. And you introduce these four forms of racial socialization two of them being anti-racist and two of them racist. Walk me through these four different things, if that’s good with you.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi Sure. So the most well-known racist form of racial socialization of, of children is called we e can understand that it’s promotion of mistrust. When you actively share to say to your child that a particular racial group, that there’s a problem with those racial groups or a racial group. But in our days, in our time, I should say, people typically don’t say, don’t play with those black kids. They say don’t play with those kids even though all those kids happen to be black and their kids can see what they’re actually saying. And this promotion of mistrust. There is also preparation for racism, which is an anti-racist form of racial socialization, which is you actively talking to your child about racism about skin colors, about all the skin colors being equals about this recognition that certain people are going to say that certain skin colors are better or worse, figuring out ways through books and other means to have these conversations so that the child is prepared when they hear those racist messages. They can know that they’re wrong. And then there is cultural socialization, which is another anti-racist form of socialization if it’s done right. And that is, you know, teaching your child about their own culture and their own history, no matter their sort of racial or ethnic background, but not only teaching them about their own culture. And what’s unique and distinct about their own culture and history. Also figuring out ways to immerse them in the cultures of other peoples and the histories of other people so that they can understand what’s distinct about those cultures and histories. And then finally, most importantly, teaching the child, what’s the same about their own culture and the cultures of others. So, building those conceptual bridges so that they can recognize that we’re all different, but we’re all the same. And then finally, the second form of racist socialization is what’s called colorblind parenting. Which is the very opposite of the anti-racist form of socialisation, which is preparation for racism. It this belief that kids don’t see color to talk to a kid about race is to make them racist. And it’s the belief that when a kid asks questions about race, the response is don’t talk about that. When in fact, when we socialize in that way, we’re actually creating conditions in which our kids are the most vulnerable to hearing and internalizing racist messages. And they’re not going to talk to us about them because we’ve told them to not do so.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, and I mean that last one in particular, that ends up becoming a larger topic of conversation throughout the book. And it is this broad idea that there’s this thing that we “just don’t talk about.” And I wonder what your take is on why. Like, what’s the why behind people saying we don’t talk about it? Is it more rooted in a lack of skills and understanding is it, is it rooted in a lack of knowledge? Like, I don’t actually know enough to have a constructive conversation about this. Is it something broader cultural or a weaving of all these things?
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi I think it’s a weaving of all of them. I mean, certainly there are many.. when we think about many different topics, typically when we recognise we don’t know something about it, we don’t feel comfortable talking to our kids about it. And then with some of those topics, we’re like, okay, it’s important for me to have this conversation, so I need to learn about it. And then with other topics, we’re like, it’s not important so I’m not going to learn about it and I’m not going to talk to my kids about it. Certainly there are parents who don’t want to make a mistake, and are fearful of saying the wrong thing. Because they think the wrong thing will then lead their child to be racist which they don’t want. So the solution is just to not say anything. There are certainly parents who have internalized the idea that no one should be identifying by race. And those, the people, who identified by race are the true racists. And because we know that race doesn’t exist scientifically and the response to that is race doesn’t exist scientifically. But racism does. And the only reason we’re talking about race is because you can’t talk about racism without talking about race. And I think other parents, particularly parents of color, are concerned about affecting the joy of their kids. Like they don’t want to expose their kids to one of the most ugly aspects of our society and what could happen to them because of their skin color or because of their background or white parents don’t want their child to feel guilty. So they’re all these feelings that are wrapped up into, and thoughts, as to why we don’t engage them. And we imagine that we’re protecting the kids by not engaging them. And I think that the central argument of my book is actually we’re protecting them by engaging them.
Jonathan Fields Because if this is the reality of the world around them, you know, at some point they will leave the protective environment of the family, the protective environment, to the extent that it is. And it’s almost like at some point, all of these things are going to be learned and experienced. Are they going to be learned through your own, sometimes brutal experience in the real world without the benefit of the influence of a caregiver or a teacher or parent? And maybe the ability to build knowledge and skills earlier on that might help navigate the world to come.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi Exactly, and I think we assume also as adults, that if it’s hard for us to talk about race and racism, it must be even harder for kids. But it’s actually much easier, they don’t come with the baggage that we do. And they have a very clear sense of right and wrong fairness and unfairness. By the time we become adults, that becomes more muddled, which makes it harder for us to have these conversations. And so it’s actually easier for young children, it’s easier to learn something than it is to unlearn and learn something simultaneously. And just like with learning a new complex language, if we’re immersing it’s easier for young people to learn a complex language than it is for adults. And finally, I think that we just have to accept that study after study shows that young children, whether we’re talking about white children or children of color on average, typically have one recent scholar called White Bias in which they view white people as superior. That’s what’s normal, like most kids, particularly by the time of preschool have that perspective. This isn’t a theoretical exercise of what could happen. This is an actual, there’s actual data about what is happening because we’re not counteracting those ideas with young children because we’re assuming that race is too sophisticated for kids to understand. Because we don’t recognize that dark is ugly, dark is bad, is a simple idea that even a two year old can understand.
Jonathan Fields And it’s interesting, you describe a moment, I think you call it the doll test in the book. Where in this one very specific way, the absence of education, the absence of conversation is a big part of this. And then there are all these other indicators. There are all these other things that weave into the experience of young kids, especially share your experience with your daughter, Imani, early on, and sort of like your observations around her playing with dolls in the classroom and some assumptions and what, what ends up being the broader truth.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi Yeah. Imani, was at our daycare when she was a little over one year old and I came to pick her up one day and she was playing with a doll that looked white. And you know, I tossed it out to the side so we can leave. And of course she was, she was not happy. Or I shouldn’t say of course, because typically when we would arrive, she’d be happy to leave no matter what she was playing with. But this doll she was particularly connected to and as each day went by whether my wife and I picked her up became harder and harder to get her to leave the doll to the point at which she had a tantrum. You know, I think on the fourth day on the fifth day, the two of us came to pick her up and she really loves it when both of us come and pick her up. So she actually tossed the doll to the side and came and got us. I should say came and hugged us, but then that’s when I decided to go look around the daycare to the toy box. And that’s when I found, because I mean, let’s take a step back, we were assuming we didn’t know what to make of her being so connected to this white doll. We were trying to figure out what she connected to the doll or was she connected to the whiteness of the doll? And we had no idea and we were concerned that she may have already internalized this idea of white bias, which of course could have led her to be so attached, you know, to this white doll. And so on that fifth day, when I actually looked at the toy box, I found that all the dolls pretty much looked white. So she didn’t even have a choice between different looking dolls. And I think it became a metaphor for the fact that in too many cases our kids do not have a choice. You know what they’re seeing in their communities. What they’re seeing in the toy boxes, what they’re seeing in their media, what they’re seeing in their curriculums, what they’re seeing in the books that’s being read to them. The people, the characters, the dolls are typically white. And what we don’t realize is we’re conveying to kids very directly who or what colors or what skin color we value and simultaneously conveying to them who we don’t. And then we wonder they’ve internalized, you know, these notions of white bias by preschool.
Jonathan Fields It just makes so much sense. Yeah. You also, in that conversation, you also describe, you sort of zoom lens out and say, you know, if you look traditionally at the history of toys and how we engage kids with play, the post-war era, you know, that black people are almost entirely excluded from representation. Broadly in games and toys and in imagery around it. So it’s, as you’re saying that the thing that interestingly or oddly popped into my mind was, at least in my, from my knowledge, the very recent introduction of Band-Aids that are not just light. But you know, of a full spectrum of color on the Band-Aids. And if you have little kids who are often getting scrapes and boo boo’s and bruises and, you know like the parents, the way that you make them feel good is to put a Band-Aid on it? And that Band-Aid simply the color of the Band-Aid represents a color that’s different from them. Like, what’s the subliminal message that’s being conveyed there? Is that it’s, is it just the Band-Aid, or is it the fact that now I have something lighter on my skin? And it’s not explicit, but it’s there.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi It is there. And we as adults, if we just assume it’s not a big deal, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a big deal for young people. And it doesn’t mean that it’s part of a larger ecosystem of similar things that they’re seeing because it isn’t just, you know, a dark skinned child who’s putting on a Band-Aid that is more pertinent to somebody who, you know is white. It’s also the white child looking at their arm with their Band-Aid and the dark skinned child, their arm and their Band-Aid, and seeing that the Band-Aid is normalizing them and denormalizing the dark skinned child which then leads to the white child not coming home and saying, I want to be dark. While the dark skinned child comes home, as many do, you know, particularly by the time they’re three or four or five or six years old, saying I want to be white or I want my eyes to be different or am I here to be different? And then their parents, particularly parents of color. How do you even respond to that? It’s typically devastating for many, you know, parents.
Jonathan Fields Yeah. Which kind of brings us also to I think that the topic of empathy, which is something that you write about as well. And the notion that if, if we’re really looking at raising empathetic kids, then caregivers, parents, teachers, we’ve got to look at ourselves also. And you also say research that shows how empathy or at least the building blocks for empathy touch down really early in a kid’s life.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi Yeah, I mean, at this earliest, two and a half years old, particularly between two and a half to about three years and nine months. That’s a critical period of, you know, children building and understanding empathy. You know, during that period, kids are starting to see like when, when someone else hurts their hand, they’re beginning to look at their own hands. And they’re being able to connect the pain of others, or I should say, feel the pain of others. The question though is, who are they being raised to have empathy for? And so are they being raised to have empathy for everyone? No matter their skin color or background or the language they speak or how they worship? Or are they being raised to just have empathy for people who look like them and live like that? And I think as parents and teachers, we have to be very explicit to ensure that they can maintain or gain empathy for everyone. Because that, you know, studies show that to be anti-racist, obviously, is to be empathetic, and to be empathetic lends itself to being anti-racist. So that’s one of the reasons why, you know, Indeed, you know, a chapter was built on empathy. Particularly when I was in the hospital after my major surgeries for cancer and my daughter came in to the hospital room and I could tell she was about two years old and I can tell and see that she was feeling the pain that she saw me feeling.
Jonathan Fields In that conversation. You also introduced this notion of something you describe as inductive discipline, inviting caregivers to practice this. This was a new phrase to me. I thought it was fascinating.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi Yeah. So I think it’s important for us as parents, to have an understanding that how we punish is going to lead to us either teaching our kids to be bullies or teaching our kids to be empathetic. And so I should say not how we punish, I should say there are really two approaches to responding to a child when they misbehave. There’s a punishment approach. And there’s the approach of inductive discipline. And with inductive discipline, let’s say if Katie hits Johnny, there are two ways we can respond. We can respond by saying, don’t hit Johnny, go take a timeout, or spank , or, you know, take something away, punish the child. Or we can respond, how do you think what you did made him feel, and that then starts a conversation that causes the child to first be empathetic to the person that they hit and then potentially allows the child to repair or restore whatever harm they have caused, like it becomes on them to address the harm that they caused in the world while also having an understanding of that harm. And that then, you know, according to researchers makes a child less likely to A: engage, hit somebody because they’re thinking about that impact. And secondly, it makes the child less likely to hit someone else because they have a growing sense of empathy.
Jonathan Fields That makes so much sense.
Jonathan Fields We were recently talking to one of our daughter’s friends who was at this wilderness school in the middle of the mountains in Colorado. And it was a small sort of self-contained thing. And, and sort of the early indoctrination into the school was the kids were all taught a series of processes for handling conflict. And one of them was similar to, I guess it probably falls into this category of inductive discipline, whereas if somebody does something that is harmful to themselves, but also harmful to the community rather than this sort of like punishment or expulsion. Part of the solution was, you know, the whole community got called together including the students, the aides, the teachers that you know, everybody, administrators in a room there about fifty of them. And the student would hear from every single one of them about how the behavior affected them and how, you know, it wasn’t just about this one person. Which sounds similar in a lot of ways. It’s like, like, let’s actually see how we don’t exist in isolation and how other people look and speak and walk and believe and talk differently can be really powerfully affected by what we do. I wonder why things like that or things like what you were describing these processes aren’t just baked into the fundamental things that kids are taught at the earliest age because it just seems so logical that they should be.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi I wish it was. But I think the major reason why it is not is because we live in a punishment oriented society. And even our criminal legal system has a punishment orientation. You know, of course there was a time in which rehabilitation or restorative justice was something that was on the national radar. But particularly over the last fifty years, sort of this carceral punishment for a sort of oriented state in which people are deemed essentially to be criminals. Who thereby need to be who are dangerous and need to be locked away. If that’s our perspective, with adults, of course it’s going to be our perspective as we raise our children. So in a way we’re being socialized to respond to conflict with punishment and exclusion. And certainly that’s how we respond to our children.
Jonathan Fields We’re all seeing how well that’s been working. Another notion that you raised, which I thought was fascinating, was this idea. You know, we’ve been talking about things that you can sort of explicitly engage in. But the more subtle that the non-verbal ways that we model behavior that we do things, there’s research that you share that show that it really powerfully in the context of race and behavior in action. Those things when we think we’re not actually communicating something, but the way that we are moving through our world in the presence of a child, actually is incredibly powerful in transmitting behavior and, and knowledge to them. Even though we might not realize that we’re doing it and sometimes in very destructive ways.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi Yeah. And I think that was for me, particularly as a father, one of the most revealing aspects of the research. Because I think to know that we’re really always speaking to our kids about race based on the environment, we put them in, based on things we’re not saying based on even the choices we’re making of like who we befriend. One study found that the racial attitudes of white children are more consistent with the number of interracial friendships the mother has, the white mother has and the racial attitudes of the mother. And why would that be the case? Well, I mean, it makes sense if you bring who you bring to your home, who you befriend is an expression of who you value. And so we’re speaking to our kids, even the racial makeup of our friends, and certainly we’re speaking to kids when we walk down the street and a black male is approaching. And unlike the white male, we just passed, our child sees us get scared. We’re speaking to our kids about who is dangerous, when pretty much all of the books or the vast majority of the books, the characters in those books are a particular race we’re speaking to our kids about who’s, who matters. That was sort of striking just how much nonverbal communication is impactful. And Indeed what’s also striking is because we don’t actively talk to our kids, particularly young kids, about race and racism. That leads to their perceptions of our racial ideas being more impactful than our actual racial ideas. And they’re determining those perceptions based on all this non-verbal language.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, it’s like we don’t realize that we’re actually speaking to them without speaking to them. And then the absence of explicit conversation, then it just the only message that they can get is that is what our actions are telling them, which may be the exact opposite of what’s, what’s helpful and healthy for, for them and for society at large. You know, another thing that really struck me in the conversation you offer is the role of expectations with kids, especially in the context of school and teachers. And how can be profoundly different and how that can really powerfully affect the trajectory of a child through their educational experience.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi Indeed, you know, studies have been recent, academic research has been finding for instance, that, that black students tend to have more a better long term effect when they have a black teacher in elementary school, in particular, or even a single black teacher that’s going to lead them to be more likely to graduate from high school and to go on to college, you know, as an example. And one of the reasons that researchers are finding for that is because very simply, black teachers tend to have higher expectations for the same black student as white teachers do. And obviously your expectations for a student are going to come across. We just talked about non-verbal ways in most of non-verbal, you know, in verbal sort of ways that ultimately is going to be helpful or harmful, you know, to that child. What was also fascinating is, teachers generally had the highest expectations for white and asian students. And one of the ways that actually can be harmful to white and asian students is when you have a white and asian or asian student who is sort of expressing or conveying, let’s say that they may have a learning disability. They’re less likely to be recommended for testing and for special care, because the people aren’t necessarily looking out for that. Actually, teachers that had the highest expectations for asian students are the least likely to be referred for testing. And I think that one of the causes of that is indeed, these expectations were looking at children in terms of their race and making determinations, as opposed to looking at the individual qualities or what individual behavior, you know, student. And that’s having a host of effects for all students.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, I mean, across the board, on the one hand, you’re ignoring people who need help. On the other hand, you’re sort of classifying people as rising to lower set of expectations. It’s incredibly fraught. What you, you write in because you have a whole chapter on preteen disability and the relationship between ableism and racism. Sharing a story about your brother actually and how he was diagnosed early on with a speech impediment and learning disability. And that was changed at some point to an intellectual disability which radically changes the expectations and the availability of resources. And your parents said no, no, no, no. We need to fight this because yeah, our kid needs these resources and is fully capable. And we’re able to have the diagnosis reverted back to what was appropriate. But there does seem to be this fascinating and fraught relationship between the notions of ableism and racism. I mean, and I would imagine that’s both in kids and just across the board as adults as well.
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi There is, and I mean when you look at all of the studies and the data of particularly what kids with disabilities face, but even more specifically, kids of color with disabilities face. I mean, it is, it is just an incredible sort of crisis from, from the greater likelihood to diagnose them with more serious or stigmatizing disabilities, to the inability to provide because of their background care for disability. Because they assume if they are not intelligent, as opposed to recognizing that no, we’re all equals and maybe this child is not struggling to learn because they’re black but because of a disability. To a whole host of others, you know, matters. And that’s why it was very important for me to talk about this in How To Raise An Anti-racist.
Jonathan Fields Yeah, I mean there’s, we’ve sort of dropped into a number of, of the ideas and topics and invitations throughout the book. And I think it’s powerful and there’s so much more to explore, such a powerful book, a book that I feel like you know, it should be in the hands of educators and parents and caregivers. And just anyone who wants to understand how we might think differently about expanding the way that our kids step into adulthood with more empathy and more of an orientation towards Anti-racism. I always wrap with the same question. So in this container, the Good Life Project, if I offer up the phrase to live a Good Life, what comes up?
Dr. Ibram, X Kendi For me, what comes up is a good society. A society where we have policies and practices that ensure that people with the greatest needs receive the greatest amounts of resources, a society where there’s truly equal opportunity, you know, a society where there’s an orientation to ensuring that power is being leveraged so that people can indeed live a Good Life.
Jonathan Fields Hmm. Thank you.