Raising antiracist children starts early and at home. In his latest release, “How to Raise an Antiracist,” Dr. Ibram X. Kendi offers parents a conversation-deepening guide for that work. Dr. Kendi will speak about his new book when he visits Town Hall Seattle, on June 23 at 7:30 p.m. (Seattle’s Child is the media sponsor of this event.)
Seattle’s Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s book released in 2018, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism” brought that term — white fragility — to the national discussion.
Here we present two leading voices in a dialogue about parenting and racism.
Dr. Robin DiAngelo: How did you think about the audience when you were writing a guide for raising anti-racists? Anti-blackness impacts all of us but, of course, differently depending on our positions. For example, as a white person I’ve received and continue to receive the message of superiority. That’s a different message than what people of color receive.
Dr. Kendi: That’s what made writing “How to Raise an Antiracist” so difficult. I did not want the book only to be for a particular parent who is trying to prevent their child from thinking that they are superior or inferior. I wanted parents of children of color and parents of white children to both find the book useful. So in the book I positioned both.
For example, in the introduction, I said ‘What if our kids realized that there’s nothing right about them because of the color of their skin?’ And, what if that was something that white children were raised on and internalized? There’s something right about them when they are nice; when they share. There’s nothing right about them by merely the color of their skin.
What if simultaneously we were also imparting there’s nothing wrong about you because of the color of your skin? And, what if that’s something that children of color internalized?
How much better would our children be?
Dr. DiAngelo: So there is a common misunderstanding that we need to address up front. This is the idea that children are racially innocent and if parents want to keep their kids racially innocent, they shouldn’t talk to them about race – that somehow it is conversations about race that introduce racist ideas.
Dr. Kendi: Scholars and scientists have found that by 3 years old our kids have an adult-like conception of race; that by 3 years old our kids are attaching negative qualities to dark people and deciding that they will not play with them because they are dark —particularly white children. This is the period in preschool and elementary school when parents are generally not talking to their kids at all about race. And that is actually showing up in studies that show most kids think that their parents hold —particularly white kids — more racist ideas than they really do. So their perceptions are partly because their parents don’t say anything. Their children are seeing their nonverbal behavior, which is likely racist.
Dr. DiAngelo: I don’t think a lot of us understand what we’re doing with our nonverbal behavior that’s communicating these ideas. Will you give a few examples?
Dr. Kendi: You’re a white parent with a white child. You have over a Latinx boy and something goes missing later in the day. The first thing you ask is “did that boy take it?”
But last week when you had a white boy over, that wasn’t your first sort of question. So why can’t that parent say “Do you wanna call your friend and make sure he didn’t lose anything too?”
Or, when you are walking down the street and a black male is approaching you and you are getting scared in a way that you did not get scared of the white man who passed you previously. Your child can see that. A study of racial attitudes of white children (shows) attitudes are actually more consistent with the number of interracial friendships that their mother has than the actual racial attitude of the mother. Why would that be? Because a child can see that if you are rarely bringing people of color to your home and you’re almost always bringing white people, you’re saying who you value.
Dr. DiAngelo: You name one of the racist myths in the book — this very idea that the whiter the space the better for a white child in the sense that white spaces tend to have higher status. You point out that the reality is the opposite of that idea: the whiter the space, the more harmful for that white child. I’d love to hear you say more about that.
Dr. Kendi: That was largely drawn from Heather McGee’s work and her new book, “The Sum of Us.” She cited a bunch of research that has found that when you compare white children who are going to predominantly white schools to those who are going to diverse schools, white children going to diverse schools perform better by almost every measure, including standardized tests — if that’s how you measure performance.
Students who go to predominantly white schools relative to students who go to diverse schools are more likely to hold racist ideas and less likely to have friends of people of other races. And so what’s fascinating is that you have parents who, indeed, think they are protecting their children by ensuring that they are living in a whiter space not knowing that they are harming their children. So who’s going to protect white children from white racism?
Dr. DiAngelo: One of my favorite quotes from you is that while we may not be the producers of racist ideas, we’ve all been the consumers. So can parents raise an anti-racist child if they have not addressed the inevitable absorption of racist ideas within themselves?
Dr. Kendi: It’s very difficult because of what we were just talking about — nonverbal behavior. Your racist ideas are going to come out in your nonverbal behavior, which is, particularly for children younger than 8 years old, actually more influential than your verbal behavior.
It isn’t until kids become 9 or 10 years old that what you’re actually stating becomes very influential. What that means is that for eight, nine years, (if) you are not doing any work on yourself to be anti-racist you’re communicating all sorts of racist things to your children without saying a word. They’re consuming those non-verbal behaviors and internalizing them. To raise an anti-racist child, we have to raise ourselves to be anti-racist.
Dr. DiAngelo: You talk about race racial empathy. I notice that white parents often address racism with white children by saying how unfair it is and how sad that it happens and therefore we need to be very “nice” to other children and “help” them. Similar to how we talk about children with disabilities: “Isn’t it tragic that this child has this struggle and we need to be nice to them.” What are your thoughts about that approach?
Dr. Kendi: Your book, Nice Racism, speaks to this. I think that we conflate empathy with niceness. But you can be nice to a person who you consider to be your inferior. You can be nice to a person who you consider needs your help because you imagine that they are underdeveloped and need to be civilized, so you’re approaching them from this paternalistic posture. We really need to distinguish empathy from niceness.
Dr. DiAngelo: You are clear and so am I that there’s no such thing as “not racist.” So, what do parents need to understand about that claim?
Dr. Kendi: Because many parents believe, wholeheartedly, that they are quote “not racist,” they also believe, wholeheartedly, that their child is not racist. The way that that “not-racist” sort of thinking works is it’s based on identity. It’s not even “I am not a racist,” it’s “I can’t be a racist” because I am a liberal or I have a black friend or because I’m a Democrat or because I live in the north. And then with children it’s “Because they’re a child, they can’t ever say or do anything that is racist.”
What I’m trying to get people to realize through my work is that we need to move it off of who we are and who our child is and be focused on what we’re doing. What environment are our children being raised in? From the time a child starts seeing skin color to the time they leave their home, they’re constantly being told people have less because they are less. And they’re being told that those who have less are demanding more and demanding unfair racial privileges or are even trying to replace us. And then they have easy access to assault rifles. . .
What do we think is going to happen? All the while the parents believe that they were not racists and their kids were not racist.
Dr. DiAngelo: Did anything surprise you as you delved into the research on children and race?
Dr. Kendi: I think the thing that probably surprised me the most, which I should not have been surprised about, is just the mountains of research that have been done about this topic for nearly a hundred years, ever since the social worker Bruno Laskar wrote “Race, Attitudes and Children” in 1929.
There’s a fascinating study that I cite that finds that (infants) between 3 and 9 months old who grow up in a homogeneous area are less likely to distinguish people from another race. But those who grow up in a heterogeneous environment have a great ability to distinguish people of another race.
The way that matters is that blacks folks will say “For white folks we all look the same. And, we are not.” And so the environment, even with someone as young as 6 months, matters according to scientists.
Dr. DiAngelo: I’ve certainly heard many times “People are just more comfortable with their own” and “It’s natural to fear difference.” But you’re very clear that the research shows this isn’t natural, it is learned.
Dr. Kendi: It is learned. People have studied newborns to figure out if it is natural and they’ve actually found that no, it is not. We can scientifically state that no child is born racist or anti-racist or even has a conception of race. It’s certainly constructed. The reason I brought up the study about the 3 to 9 month olds is because it shows how environmental it is. If a child in a heterogeneous neighborhood is more likely to be able to distinguish individuals of another race than a child in a homogeneous neighborhood, what does that say? This is a learned behavior that we can change by being deliberate about the environments that we are putting our children in.
Dr. DiAngelo: What would you say to someone who says “My parents taught me to treat everyone the same?”
Dr. Kendi: We should be shifting the dialogue. Because that (statement) creates this discourse:
“I’m teaching my child that everyone’s the same while Robin DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi are teaching that people are different.”
“The way that I am doing it is good and the way that they are doing it is bad and the way they’re doing it is racist and the way I’m doing it is ‘not racist.’”
And that’s not actually what we are saying. What we are saying is:
How are you explaining to your children racial inequities and disparities in this country? What are you saying to your children about those ideas circulating that white people are superior or Native people are inferior? What are you saying to your children about those ideas? How do they understand racial inequality in this country? Do they think it’s racial hierarchy or structural racism?
Dr. DiAngelo: None of us is the sole influence on our kids. Unless we’re homeschooling, we literally deliver our children into an institution 40 hours a week, for 12 years. Clearly parents are powerful and they can affect what happens when they’re not there, but we’re not the only socializing force on our children.
Dr. Kendi: Many of the early scholars who studied the racial attitudes of children argued or hypothesized that the parent was the primary sole influencer of kids, but research disputed that. (However), recent research has affirmed that the parent has the ability to counteract larger societal messages to protect their children from ingesting this idea of white superiority.
Dr. DiAngelo: One of the things I really appreciate about your work is that you weave scholarship through personal narrative, which makes it very accessible. You give the example of (your child) Imani and your thinking as a parent: “Well, at home we’re doing really well.” Then you realize, wait a minute, what’s happening in her classroom? So how can parents go deeper than just lecturing their children with “Don’t be racist?” and thinking that is enough to innoculate them?
Dr. Kendi: I learned this about my daughter who is 6 years old: When I’m lecturing her it’s a losing conversation. There’s no learning happening there.
She’s learning when she’s asking questions.
That’s the irony. Typically when our kids ask questions about race, they’re shut down. Particularly white parents shut down white children and sometimes black parents shut down black children.
In the book, I gave examples of what happened to me when I was 9 years old. When I asked my mother about racial profiling, she didn’t want to really talk about it. I later learned that she accepted that this was the way it is and she expected me at 9 years old to also accept it. accept that this is the way it is.
Whether we are totally denying it or totally accepting it, we’re not engaging with our children.
We can put our children in a situation where they’re going to ask questions. You want them to understand about housing insecurities? You can take them to a local homeless shelter. We want our kids to understand about food apartheid? We can take them to a local soup kitchen that is being run by people who recognize that the food that they are serving is a temporary solution and are also involved in activism to eliminate food apartheid. We can take our children to cultural festivals of other groups so they can ask questions.
What I’m trying to do (with Imani) is put her in situations where she can ask questions.
Dr. DiAngelo: Do you have any particular guidance for a parent raising children that are not the same race? White parents raising children of color? Anything about that dynamic that would be useful for parents to understand?
Dr. Kendi: If you’re a white parent raising a child of color, because you don’t have the lived experience of anti-asian, anti-native, or anti-black racism, it is that much more important for you to study it as much as you can. More importantly, build relationships with people of that particular racial group so that when your child has questions you can provide helpful answers.
And, even more importantly, you should speak openly about your own whiteness and your white privilege.They can learn about that from you and you should also talk to them about their own particular racial roots, culture and history. You shouldn’t have an assimilationist posture that their group’s culture is inferior and that you came and saved them. Because although it sounds good in your mind, it is going to be harmful to your child. There are so many kids of color who are now adults who are now writing all about how difficult it was for them to grow up in those types of environments.
Dr. DiAngelo: Talking about white structural advantage and internalized white superiority can be done without a sense of guilt and shame. I don’t have guilt and shame for something that I didn’t choose to be socialized into but I do believe that I am responsible for the outcome of this socialization. We can see these conversations as a way to take responsibility and action towards a system that grants advantage unfairly rather than a confessional of guilt and shame. Given this idea that anti-racism makes white people feel bad about themselves and how white nationalists have capitalized on that by offering an unhealthy way to feel better, is there anything you think we should know about white nationalist recruitment and white youth?
Dr. Kendi: If you are a parent of a white, particularly male teenage child between the age of 11 and 18 years old who is online: If you are not actively teaching your child about anti-racist ideas, about feminist ideas, about the problems with homophobia, transphobia and antisemitism, then you are leaving your child vulnerable to be preyed upon by white supremacists.
Because they are everywhere. It’s an epidemic. And your child has to be able to identify white supremacist ideology so that they can protect themselves from it.
Dr. DiAngelo: In your talks around the country on this topic, what themes or patterns have you observed about how parents come to this conversation that may be problematic?
Dr. Kendi: This desire for me to provide a seven-step process that they could follow to the ‘T’ to help them raise their child to be an antiracist.
There is almost no way that anyone can provide that because depending on their age, depending on their environment, depending on so many factors, your approach has to be different.
It’s problematic because people are looking for this manual they can easily do and move on.
It’s just not that type of thing. It is a journey.
Check out our review of How to Raise an Antiracist to learn more about Kendi’s June 23, 2022 appearance at Town Hall Seattle. To buy tickets go here.