Professor Ibram X. Kendi, author of the best-selling ‘How to Be Anti-Racist’, returns with a parenting title aimed at protecting our children by teaching them the realities of racism and the myths of race.
“How to Raise an Anti-Racist” (published by One World, available June 14), which stems from Kendi’s experience of becoming a parent (and facing decisions about how best to raise a family), includes chapters suitable for all stages of a child’s development.
Read an excerpt below – and don’t miss Nancy Giles’ interview with Kendi on “CBS Sunday Morning” June 12!
Birth of denial
The severity of the emergency hit Sadiqa when she arrived at the hospital. She walked into the labor and delivery unit, where days earlier a nurse had told her everything was fine. Several nurses surrounded her now, knowing that something was very wrong. Doctors rushed into the room almost as soon as she was brought in. As a pediatric emergency physician, Sadiqa knew that when a mass of nurses and doctors rushed into your room, it was a problem.
She got scared.
When my mother, Ma, entered the room, Sadiqa let out her tears. “I’m really, really scared, you know,” she said.
My mom was at the beauty salon when I called. Ma put on a sleep cap and rushed to the hospital. You know it’s serious when an older black woman shows up in public wearing a sleep cap.
Ma cradled Sadiqa’s tears and fears in prayer. She offered earnest prayer at the patient’s bedside – overriding the clamor of footsteps, voices and machines – calling on the Almighty Lord to intervene. Stop delivery.
“In the name of Jeee-sus-uh!” she closed as she always does. “Amen! Amen! Amen.”
That is to say, I believe! I believe! I believe.
“We’ll get through this,” Ma said, holding Sadiqa’s hand. “We’ll get through this okay.” Sadiqa heard the conviction in Ma’s voice.
Sadiqa’s parents lived three hours away. I called and asked them to come. But I wasn’t there yet! When Sadiqa and I spoke before the ambulance arrived at the clinic, she expressed concern about the dilation, about our baby. But above all, she kept talking about her car.
“What will happen to him? she asked me on the phone. “We can’t leave him here. They won’t let me drive it!
She was upset. The car, its immobility, an allegory. Most of the time, Sadiqa was in disbelief. She saved babies to live. How could she entertain the idea of losing her baby? Who could?
Perhaps the thoughts of the car allowed her to hold a deeper denial as she drove to the hospital. She worried out loud about the car and continued to joke with the paramedics, laughing with them so as not to cry.
I didn’t want Sadiqa to worry about the car. I called dad and asked him to pick me up from my house. We would take Sadiqa’s car and drive to the hospital. Recovery gave me something to do for my partner. Maybe I was in denial too.
Picking up the car saved me time. Before I could hold her back, I had to stop blaming myself for not going with her to the date. When we have been through past medical emergencies, we were physically and emotionally yoke. When she faltered, I faltered. When I weakened, she weakened.
Months after our wedding in 2013, Sadiqa was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. Surgery and chemotherapy cured her. We did not expect to conceive after her chemotherapy. Now we didn’t know if our baby would survive. Still reeling from the terrifying fear of her cancer diagnosis, I silently battled thoughts of the worst throughout the pregnancy. I convinced myself that everything was fine when she noticed her discharge for the first time, when it was not. A feigned optimism hid a contained fear, and prevented me from a measured realism.
The tension between outward optimistic denial and inner fear is probably familiar to any caregiver. This tension applies to how we approach teaching racism to our children. Caregivers want to believe, optimistically, that their children don’t need to learn about it. But this belief is often motivated by a fear – the fear of having to face the disturbing truth. We convince ourselves that it’s better for our children if we don’t teach them racism.
Or is it better for us? How many times do we put off those tough conversations and say it’s about protecting our children when it’s really about protecting ourselves? When our babies are born, is our denial born with them? The sound of this denial: racism is not around my child. Or: My child will not be affected by the racism around him. No matter what is actually around our child, no matter what we don’t do, no matter how the child is affected, the sound of our denial remains.
We deny the harmful structure of racism as surely as we do not want to be identified as racists. It’s not who we are. But racist and anti-racist do not describe who a person is in an absolute sense; they describe us from moment to moment, in terms of what we do and why we do it. Racist and anti-racist are descriptive terms, not fixed categories, not identities, not reflections of what’s in someone’s bones or heart.
The popular perception that racist and anti-racist define a person rather than describe a person at a given time ignores human complexity, individuals living in contradiction, individuals with both racist and anti-racist ideas. If there’s anything I’ve learned from researching the history of racism, it’s that the individuals who construct or deconstruct it are profoundly complex. Countless people advocate for both racist and anti-racist policies at different times. And so how can they be identified as essentially racist or anti-racist? Humans can change from moment to moment or grow, even after being raised to be racist, like many of us are, without even realizing it. The way to account for this human complexity is to say that what we do or don’t do at each moment determines whether we are racist or anti-racist at that moment. When we say that blacks are no more dangerous than whites, we are anti-racist. If in the next moment one supports a policy that maintains the racial wealth gap, then one is a racist.
Racist and anti-racist describe individuality – an individual idea or policy or institution or nation or person – while racism and anti-racism describe connectedness or that which is systematic, structural and institutional. When a cop pulls me over for suspecting wrongdoing because I’m black, that cop is racist. If I try to hold him accountable for my racial profiling, I have to deal with the power and political structure that empowers and protects cops like him as they continue to racially profile, arrest, brutalize and kill black people like me at the highest rate. Racism manifests as a powerful set of policies that lead to racial inequality and injustice and are justified by ideas of racial hierarchy. Meanwhile, anti-racism is just the opposite: a powerful set of policies that lead to racial equity and justice and are justified by ideas of racial equality.
To build anti-racism, to be anti-racist, you have to admit the times when you are racist. To raise an anti-racist, Guardians must first overcome that inner voice of denial. They need to recognize the gravity of the emergency – our society is dangerously racist – and the gravity of their power – I can still raise a child to be anti-racist.
Excerpt from the book “How to Raise an Anti-Racist” by Ibrahim X. Kendi. Copyright © 2022 by Ibram X. Kendi. Published by One World, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
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