“I think that to be antiracist and even to raise a child to be antiracist is not a static sort of thing. It is indeed a journey. It’s a process. It’s a behavior.” #1 New York Times bestselling author, professor, and activist Dr. Ibram X. Kendi joins Zibby to talk about his new book, How To Raise An Antiracist, which combines research with parenting advice and pieces of Ibram’s own memoir. The two discuss moments in Ibram’s life that he uses to highlight everyday inequalities, why it is so significant that children start understanding empathy at age two, and what it really means to create an antiracist world for your children to grow up in.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dr. Kendi. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss How to Raise an Antiracist and also Goodnight Racism.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi: Thank you for having me on.

Zibby: I have to tell you, I read this book to my kids. My daughter was like, “But no one’s racist.” I was like, that’s so great. I was like, “You know, some people used to be. In the olden days, people did feel badly.” They’re like, “But people just have different skin tones now.” I’m like, well, learning moment here, which you would have lots to say about. If you were in that moment with my daughter, what would be the perfect thing for me to have said?

Ibram: First, that’s one of the beauties about books. It sparks those conversations with our children. I would’ve actually asked her, what do you think it means to be racist?

Zibby: I did ask her that. She knew the definition.

Ibram: Really just talk through the definition, especially if she says that. Then start maybe providing examples of people or instances in which the definition may apply or it may not apply and to really get her or to get our child thinking , which also is great for critical thinking, which is great to prevent prejudice.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to start by totally putting you on the spot there.

Ibram: No problem.

Zibby: Now that we’ve worked our way through that, your book was not only really helpful and instructive and interesting, thought-provoking, all that good stuff, but there was so much memoir in this story. There was so much personal experience weaved throughout, which I found so compelling. The story that you talk about with your wife and her pregnancy and having to stay in the hospital for all those months — I had twins, so I relate to the bedrest thing. No fun at all. The fear and the NICU, all of the things that you went through and then how you could use every moment as an example of something else, through when your daughter was born and the playgroup or daycare that she went to, everything in your life, and then your cancer, which I didn’t — that was horrible. I’m so sorry you had to go through that too. I feel like I went on this whole journey with you in this book, which I wasn’t expecting. I thought it would be more like a nonfiction — I just didn’t expect to find so much of you and your heart and soul versus your academic thinking in this book. Why did you do that? Tell me about it. Tell me how this whole book came to be.

Ibram: I think that to be antiracist and even to raise a child to be antiracist is not a static sort of thing. It is indeed a journey. It’s a process. It’s a behavior. It is us reflecting on the times in which we made mistakes and we need to say things better or do things differently. I wanted to convey that movement, that process. Particularly as a parent who also studies racism and talks, engages with people all the time about being antiracist, I wanted to talk about how this was difficult for me too. The difficulty and the fear that parents face is normal. It’s even something that I had, but that shouldn’t prevent us from having these tough conversations with our children and protecting them by teaching them about racism.

Zibby: Interesting. Throughout the book, you gave many examples, health care for Black women and pregnancy and statistics related to fetal health and all of these things, everything related to something personal in your story, and even your brother’s misdiagnosis at first. I loved that story — you could tell it, probably, better than me — of when the teacher called home and said, why is your son not talking? I guess your dad was like, what are you talking about? Are you crazy? He talks all the time. What’s going on? Speech impediment, all this stuff, tell me about that moment and how that’s an example, a learning moment that you shared in the book as well.

Ibram: My brother, I believe when he was in fourth grade, ten years old, he was not speaking that much in class. We suspect he wasn’t speaking that much in class because the teacher was thinking that there was a problem. She was thinking that because he was Black. What we find, according to studies, is that when young children are experiencing bigotry, it typically leads to depression. It typically causes them to close up. It certainly doesn’t allow them to be expressive. We suspect that’s what was happening in that class. For seven and a half years, my brother had been diagnosed with having a learning disability and was going through special education classes as a result. That teacher, we suspect, was very pivotal in that school actually trying to change his diagnosis to what’s known as intellectual disability now or what was then mental retardation, which was a more serious and stigmatizing sort of diagnosis. We think it was all because of their relationship, because he was responding. It just goes to show how, particularly for kids with disabilities who may not have the ability to express what’s happening to them, we have to protect them too. We have to actually be even more protective of them because they’re facing racist discrimination. I wanted to really document how all different types of kids are facing it. If you’re a teacher who is white and you believe that white people are naturally smart and you have a child who indeed has a learning disability, you can’t even fathom that because the child is white. You’re not going to allow that child to get services and help that that child would need.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. You had so many amazing passages in this story of your life, basically. Tell me more about when your daughter started daycare and she would only play with the white doll and what that brought up with you and your wife and all of that and how it started with you guys laughing. Then she kept playing with the doll.

Ibram: If many white parents fear their child one day saying something that’s racist and sort of embarrassing and bringing shame to the family, then what many Black parents of Black children fear is their child internalizing the idea of white superiority. When my child was a little over one year old, I remember going to pick her up from daycare. She was playing with a white doll. I put the doll to the side. She sort of cried, but she came. We went home. The next day, it was harder to get the white doll out of her hands. Each successive day that week, it got harder and harder to the point at which she had an all-out temper tantrum and didn’t want to leave the doll and didn’t even want to come home, which was different because whenever we would arrive, she’d be happy to go with us. We were like, what’s going on here? Is this a symbol that she is internalizing this idea of white superiority? We didn’t know.

What we found out the fifth day, which was a day that both of us came — she loves it when both of us come to pick her up, so she actually put the doll aside and came and hugged us. We feel like we won at least one round. After that, I actually went around to the toy chests in the daycare and saw that every doll that they had looked white. She didn’t even have another option. I use that in the book to talk about that for even a one-year-old, the environment that we’re raising them in, the dolls that we’re choosing for them, the books that we’re choosing for them, even the people that we’re choosing to be around them are making a difference or could be making a difference. It’s shaping them to understand who they value. They may not even have a choice in the matter, which in that case, happened to my daughter. We should allow our children, young children, to see the beauty of the human rainbow by allowing them to see us all.

Zibby: Very true. What did you end up doing? Did you get the daycare any more dolls? What’d you do?

Ibram: Oh, yeah, I let them know. They made a change.

Zibby: Does she still go there, or no? She’s too old now.

Ibram: She continued to go there. They made the change. I think they recognized that that was a problem.

Zibby: Making changes. This six months of chemotherapy followed by surgery that you went through and having to recover, the scene at home when you got back and you were on the couch and your daughter was so sad and crying seeing you laying there in your robe, tell me about that moment and how it feels to parent through pain of your own and fear for your own mortality. You had stage-four cancer. That’s so terrifying. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.

Ibram: After the surgery, I came home. After not only the surgery, but also a week in the hospital, I came home. Of course, I had bandages on my belly. I’m sitting on the couch with a robe and my chest open. My daughter came and can see the bandages. She started looking at the bandages. I believe she was about two, two and a half years old. She just started crying. I was asking her, “What’s wrong?” She wouldn’t say. Eventually, I asked her, I was like, “Do you want some bandages like Daddy?” She stopped crying and started sniffling and said yes. My partner, Sadiqua, who was there went and got her bandages. She started putting them on her belly in the same place that I had mine. Really, for the next few months, there was no gift she liked more than band-aids. In a way, we healed together. That story, I shared in the context of empathy and how studies show that at two years old, our kids start understanding and learning empathy. They can feel what other people are feeling. Studies show that we also have the capacity to either nurture empathy or sort of block its growth. To nurture empathy is to nurture a child who can look at someone who doesn’t look like them, who doesn’t worship like them, who doesn’t live near them, and when they see that person hurting, they hurt. That’s the type of antiracist empathy we have to nurture in our children.

Zibby: My daughter is so sensitive that the other day she said, “Sometimes I don’t like to draw the number eight because an eight just seems sad. I start feeling sad for the eight and crying.” I’m like, oh, my gosh, I can’t.

Ibram: That is great. Can you imagine if all humans were like that, if we felt that deeply?

Zibby: No. Imagine, even, if all my kids felt like that. I would never get out of the house. It’s impossible. In the beginning, you set up your whole construct, which many people were already, I’m sure, familiar with from your other book which everyone in the world probably has at this point, which must make you feel really good. It’s not enough to not be racist. You have to actively be antiracist, which is something different altogether. For anyone who’s not as familiar with this, could you just explain what the difference is? Take a scenario and explain if you were being racist, not racist, and antiracist in such-and-such a setting and what you should really be doing or what the main takeaway is for people who want to raise antiracist children.

Ibram: The starting point of any serious conversation about race and racism should be about racial disparity. Black people being disproportionately impoverished in this country, the question is, why? Some people are going to express a racist idea to explain that disparity by saying Black people are poor because they’re lazier. They don’t work as hard. There’s something wrong or inferior about Black people. To take an antiracist position is to say that the cause of that disparity between those groups — we’re not talking about individuals, but between groups — is this history and even the presence of racist policies and practices that are causing these disparities. Going back to the first person who would say it’s because Black people are lazy, when people point that out, the typical response that we have is, no, no, I’m not racist. When somebody says, you know what, you just said a racist idea, the typical response is just to deny it. There are times in which someone who’s striving to be antiracist expresses a racist idea, and they have a different response. That is to think about it, reflect on it, and admit, you know what, yes, that was a racist idea. I’m going to change. I’m going to be better. That’s another reason why, in How to Raise an Antiracist, I wanted to really show the mistakes that I made as a parent, even some of the mistakes that my parents made in terms of raising me, and certainly teachers, so that people can see people making mistakes and growing and developing and changing. That’s really the process of being antiracist.

Zibby: Did you see yourself as a child becoming this advocate and lightning rod — I don’t even know the right words; expert, I guess that’s a better word — complete expert and changing world thinking around this topic? Would you have predicted that when you were eight? What’d you want to be then?

Ibram: No, I would not have predicted that. If it was up to me, I’d be — when I was eight years old, I would’ve been preparing to play with Steph Curry in the NBA finals. Even by the time I got to college, I wasn’t necessarily thinking that this route was for me. Once I really started studying just the vast amount of inequities and injustices and violence and young and old people thinking there’s something wrong with them or superior about them as opposed to the problem being more policy and structural, the more I gravitated to understanding it, to wanting to speak about it, to wanting to abolish it.

Zibby: Did you find this path easy or hard to achieve? You essentially created a niche, if you will. You are also a historian of African history. You’ve written five best-sellers. What can you not do at this point? Did the path seem clear to you as you were going through it, or was it difficult to pave the way?

Ibram: It was difficult. It remains difficult. Even now, because I think my work has sort of broken through and is reaching everyday people of different backgrounds, different ideologies, there are people who would rather things to remain as they are. Instead of engaging with me and engaging with the work, they distort and misrepresent the work and then attack it. How do you respond to that? I can’t respond to something I didn’t say or don’t believe. That’s what’s been probably the hardest part. I also know that there’s a history to this. As a historian, I know that. During the enslavement era, slaveholders and even Jim Crow segregationists literally legislated for ignorance, and not just ignorance of Black people, even ignorance of many white people to keep us divided, to keep us thinking that we’re each the problem as opposed to those .

Zibby: This is heavy intellectual critical thinking. What do you do to get away from this? Do you still play basketball? What do you like to do when you’re not engaged in this? How do you release, let go, have fun, whatever?

Ibram: I think I’ve hung up my sneakers. I don’t play basketball as much anymore, but I, of course, watch sports. I watch basketball and baseball and football. I read a ton. Reading, for me, is probably the most peaceful thing that I do. I exercise, try to enjoy family and friends. My wife, it’s always interesting whenever, in public light, someone says that I’m so serious because privately, she says I’m a goofball. Life is certainly one where we should create joy. It’s that joy and that closeness to joy that I have that I want everyone to have. More so, I want to ensure that no one is being blocked from that joy by the injustices of our society.

Zibby: When you read for fun, what do you like to read? What’s something good you’ve read lately?

Ibram: I tend to read books on race or racism or American history or novels. I’m reading a book called Torn Apart by Dorothy Roberts, which is a really serious investigation of what’s known as the child welfare system. Even though this system is supposed to protect children and families, Professor Roberts actually finds that it’s not. It’s actually doing the very opposite. She calls for a complete overhauling of it, if not elimination of it. Because I’m thinking a lot about children now, those are the types of books that I’m reading.

Zibby: Do you let your daughter watch TV, YouTube, Instagram? Where are we on the screen stuff with her?

Ibram: She watches TV from time to time. Obviously, we don’t want to just sit her in front of the TV if possible. I think that sometimes that’s all we can do as parents, especially during the pandemic. We try to move her away from that or to have constructive things for her too.

Zibby: I think my kids are the biggest YouTube addicts. It’s embarrassing at this point. My son wants to be a YouTuber when he grows up. He’s seven. I’m like, I don’t think that’s a thing, but it’s okay. Anyway, having written so many books yourself, what advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Ibram: I would first give aspiring authors the advice that when it comes to the book idea, we have to really be able to be extremely self-reflective and self-critical about the type of book that we, based on our talents, could produce and that, obviously, the world could receive. We can’t land on a book idea and then run with it even though it may not match our writing style or our expertise. Making sure we’re marrying who we are and our expertise with our book idea is incredibly important. As a nonfiction writer especially, I do a ton of research and preparation and outlining before I ever start writing. Once I get to the point at which I’m writing, I want to feel as if, literally, that’s all I’m doing. I’m not having to think about what I’m going to write. I can just focus on the craft of writing itself. That helps me tremendously to actually write, but it just takes a tremendous amount of preparation. I would encourage writers, if you want to go down that route, to really prepare to write. Like anything else, we have to prepare. Then finally, there’s the process of writing the book, and then there’s the process of talking about the book. It’s almost a completely different animal and necessitates different sort of muscles that we have to train and use as writers.

Zibby: People don’t necessarily warn you enough about that.

Ibram: They don’t.

Zibby: Congratulations, you are now going to be a full-time marketing person. That’s your job now. Go ahead. Have fun. Thank you so much. I really was quite moved by your book. You’re such a good writer. Your story’s so powerful. Your ideas are powerful. It was just really amazing to get a chance to chat with you and discuss all the great things you’re doing. Thanks.

Ibram: It was great to chat with you. Thank you for your work that you’re doing. It’s an incredibly important time. I’m so glad you have this podcast.

Zibby: Thank you. If you want to talk sports, though, you have to call my husband. We have something on every night. I was literally just saying to him last night, I was like, “It must be so nice that you can organize your whole life around what game is on and that there’s always something.” He’s like, “I almost didn’t find something tonight. Then finally, I went to this channel, and there was this game on.” I was like, “Phew. I’m so relived for you.” Take care. Thank you so much.

Ibram: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


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