Ibram X. Kendi on fatherhood, empathy and dreaming of better worlds

A man in a purple jacket speaks into a microphone.
Author and historian Ibram X. Kendi says talking with kids about race helps protect them.
(Michael Loccisano / Getty Images)

Author and educator Ibram X. Kendi broke into our consciousness in 2016 with “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” becoming the youngest winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction. Since then, he has published five bestselling books, including “How to Be an Antiracist,” and is a pre-eminent voice not just in understanding the deep roots of racism in our society but also the obligation of each of us to fight it on an individual level.

In his latest book, “How to Raise an Antiracist,” Kendi takes us on a personal journey through the birth of his first child, Imani, and the ways in which becoming a parent helped deepen his work.

Ahead of his June 22 conversation at the L.A. Times Book Club, Kendi talked about fatherhood, empathy and what he hopes readers will take away from his book.


Much of this book is about becoming a father, and the ways that has changed how you think about racism and our individual ability to change systemic problems. Can you talk about how your daughter has changed your perspective?
Like any parent, like any mother or father, I want to first and foremost protect my child. And when my daughter was born, I initially thought or assumed or presumed without necessarily even thinking about it, that the way to protect her was to keep her away, if that’s even possible, from the toxicity of racism. But through my own journey, and through certainly my journey through a century of research, I have found that it’s actually quite the opposite, that the more I prepare her for the negative messages she may receive about people who look like her, the more I prepare her to realize that Black people don’t have less because they are less, the more a parent prepares their child to realize that inequality is not the result of bad people but bad policy, the more we’re able to protect them, ensure they live healthy lives. Coming to that motivates me that much more to do this work and to have those hard conversations with my daughter.

"How to Raise an Antiracist" by Ibram X. Kendi
(One World)

Have any of those conversations with your daughter surprised you?
I think what’s surprising is when she initiates conversations, because just like any human being, you just never know. And you certainly never know with a 6-year-old. The other day, my wife was showing Imani a video of a medical school graduation, in which one of my wife’s mentees graduated. My wife is a physician. And so my daughter was looking at it and then she asks why aren’t there more brown people here? You know, graduating? And we would never know that she was going to see that and notice that and ask us for an explanation as to why. And obviously, it prompted us to talk to her about why, because we didn’t want her thinking that brown people are not there because there’s something wrong with brown people. We don’t want her thinking there’s something wrong with her, because there’s something wrong with Black [and] brown people. We don’t want any white or brown child thinking that. So that compelled us to have that conversation. But we just never know when that conversation is going to be had. But we always have to be prepared as parents.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) held one of your books up during the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Ketanji Brown Jackson. Can you tell me how you became aware of that and how you think about it?
I was shocked that, literally, Sen. Ted Cruz could read a line in my book, read a line that says that, you know, [do you want to be] racist or antiracist? And then transformed that, to me, saying that it was inherently racist. This is a racist baby. And what do you think about that? It was just unsettling. But for me, it was a symbolic moment of what I’ve had to experience and other people have experienced. We’re trying to encourage teachers and parents and caregivers to have these active conversations with their children. And that is our work. It has been distorted and misrepresented. And people have attacked their own distortions of our work. And it’s created a situation [like] how do you respond to that? How do you respond to a critique about your work that has no resemblance to your actual work?

In his new book, professor Ibram X. Kendi gives advice on how to raise anti-racist kids, and on how talking about race helps us all.

May 20, 2022

You recently said, “I did not realize in writing ‘How to Raise an Antiracist’ that the research would point to a single finding: It’s protective to our children to raise them to be antiracist and to talk to them about race.” Can you talk a bit about what you mean and how you see that playing out in our schools today, where we now have a near constant fear of violence, some of it based on race?
Let’s think about this. For the summer of 2020, only a small percentage of teachers, something about 15% to 20%, felt they had the training and resources to provide an antiracist education to students. So an antiracist education was rare. It was rare for students to actively talk about racism. It was common for students to see racial disparities in their communities. So what that meant is students were trying to figure out why. Why are Black or brown people on the poor end of my society? Do they have less because they are less? You know, how can they not assume that when no one else is giving them another explanation, that certain people are less. And then they are looking in their actual curriculum and seeing that literally, people of color are less in their curriculum. So this almost constantly reinforces racial hierarchy, that people of color are less, without anyone ever talking about race openly. But [there is] all this nonverbal communication about race. And so that was the sort of norm of schooling. And that remains the norm.

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May 31, 2022

What do you hope readers take away from this work?
One is that it really is never too early. Or, you know, a child is never too old for us to start the process of raising them to be antiracist. And, I think particularly for younger kids, when we think about [modeling] antiracist behavior, it’s a behavior that’s akin to being considerate or sharing. We try to model this behavior and instill this as early as possible, because we understand that as our kids grow, we’re going to be able to instill it in a more complex fashion. It’s the same thing with with being antiracist. And so it’s just another thing that should be in our toolbox. And what’s great is many parents and teachers are also trying to instill traits like empathy. And to raise an empathic child, actually, is to raise an antiracist child. And also critical thinking. Scholars consistently show that critical thinking is like the antithesis of prejudicial thinking. And so the more we raise a critical thinker and empathetic human being, the more likely we’re going to raise a child who truly appreciates people around them and can step into their shoes and is trying to understand the beautiful diversity of our world.

You also have a second book, a children’s book called “Goodnight Racism,” out right now. What inspired you to write that?
As a parent, as an educator and as a human being, I know that in order for us to bring something into being, we first have to imagine it. So I’m just excited to write a book that imagines what a world without racism would be, an antiracist society, and to really be able to present that to our youngest of people who have the greatest and most beautiful imaginations. And obviously, in the context of a “Goodnight,” it helps for our children to actually get to sleep and start dreaming about what another world looks like.

What is on your reading list this summer?
I am reading a book by Dorothy Roberts called “Torn Apart.” Basically, she makes the case how the quote “child welfare system” is harmful to children. She is an author. Any time she writes a book, I read it. So I was so excited to see her new book.


What do you read to escape?
I don’t tend to read to escape. I tend to drink sangria.

If You Go: Book Club

What: Author and historian Ibram X. Kendi discusses “How to Raise an Antiracist” with columnist Sandy Banks at the L.A. Times Book Club.

When: 7 p.m. Pacific June 22

Where: In person at USC’s Bovard Auditorium. Get tickets at Eventbrite.

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