Ibram X. Kendi is one of the most recognized, most popular thought leaders in the anti-racist movement that has swept the nation over the last few years. On July 7, he joined the AFT’s TEACH conference to talk about how his work—from his bestselling, award-winning books to his teaching—intersects with educators and their work with students and their communities.
Joined by AFT President Randi Weingarten and AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram, Kendi responded to questions from Ingram and from AFT members and students from across the country. The connection between anti-racism and education was crystal clear.
Kendi’s message was uplifting and hopeful as he explained that being racist or anti-racist is not a fixed attribute. Although we live in a society with harmful racial disparities, Kendi emphasized that those disparities are due to policies and practices. This too offers hope because policies and practices can be changed. And that’s why anti-racist education is so very important. Kendi stressed that children should not feel as though they are bad—or good—just because of the color of their skin. All children should know that while some people have less, that doesn’t mean they are less.
In her introductory remarks, Weingarten underscored those disparities, which have been magnified by the pandemic: underfunded schools, voter suppression, substandard housing and racial health disparities, along with more premature deaths and more exposure to unsafe water, unhealthy air and the environmental conditions that cause asthma, among Black families.
“America’s professed values—life, liberty, equal justice under the law—have never squared with the lived experiences of many,” said Weingarten. “Living up to those values, building an anti-racist society, is vitally important.” And education, she said, plays an important role. That’s why the AFT has supported educators like Marcia Howard, who has been holding space at George Floyd Square for grief and hope, fighting racism in her community. It’s why the AFT has a 19-point resolution to combat racism and violence against Black people.
Kendi reinforced that teaching about racism is crucial if we want students to understand and recognize racism. He compared racism to his experience with metastatic cancer, which he describes in his book How to Be an Antiracist. To ignore cancer because it makes someone uncomfortable to talk about it would be unacceptable—and in his case would have prevented him from getting the treatments he needed to get healthy. If people act as though there is no racism, the country will never heal.
Weingarten made a similar point: “If giving students a good education is the goal, we have to give them a true picture of their world and our shared history as Americans—like the history of enslavement and discrimination toward people of color and people perceived as different.”
And how early is too early to start teaching children about racism? That was a question posed by Tyler McBride, a rising high school senior and a member of the NAACP national board of directors. Kendi pointed out that German teachers tell kindergartners about the Holocaust as part of an intentional, multi-grade effort to prevent such an atrocity from happening again. Trusting early childhood educators on the specifics, he was confident that topics like enslavement could be discussed in an age-appropriate way from the earliest grades.
Ingram asked Kendi about the furor over critical race theory and related pushes against teaching about enslavement and discrimination. Kendi compared it to the reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, when some white people were fearful that desegregated schools—and the Black children in them—were going to be harmful to their children. Today’s fears are similar in that misinformation is being spread about potential harms; one bold lie is that teaching about racism conveys to white children that they are inherently evil. Kendi was clear and compassionate: He does not know of any anti-racist teacher who would believe or convey that any child or group of people is inherently bad or racist.
The forces against teaching about racism are strong and eighth-grade social studies teacher Tia Costello asked how educators should handle state laws that prohibit anti-racist education. Kendi referenced the civil rights era, when school curricula in the South taught that the Ku Klux Klan saved the white South from corruption, among other lies. Many teachers, Black and white, found creative ways to teach more accurate history, and he credits them for the heroic lives of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin and Fannie Lou Hamer. He expects courageous teachers will continue to teach truth today.
The evening was full of rich reflections: Kendi discussed how he chose the stories that illustrate his points in Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, the book he co-authored with Jason Reynolds and that the AFT is now distributing as a special edition through our partnership with First Book and NAACP. And again, he expressed that no one is inherently racist. People can be racist in one moment and anti-racist the next. He views this is as a journey of reflection and growth. He talked personally about his own journey of moving past guilt over racist thoughts and moving toward liberation from racist ideas. He also discussed the role religion has played in racist and anti-racist movements.
And he encouraged the viewers to engage in civic action despite the divisive politics of the day. He also noted that to avoid the political arena would be like giving up power.
Kendi began and ended his time at the AFT TEACH conference with gratitude to teachers. Teachers were essential in his development, and he’s especially thankful for all the teachers today who are focused on creating enriching, complex learning opportunities for today’s youth.