Ibram X. Kendi On Book Bans, How To Use Outrage, And Teaching Antiracism

The author of How To Raise An Antiracist discusses his deep frustration with book bans, the evolution of his work, and the most important step parents can take right now.

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Ibram X. Kendi’s books have become a frequent target for the library book-banning movement. It’s been a swift backlash for the author, historian, and director of Boston University's Center for Antiracist Research, whose New York Times No. 1 bestseller, How To Be An Antiracist, popularized the term “antiracism” and became a prominent resource for Americans working to process the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020.

Later that year, Kendi was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People and would go on to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2021 for “advancing conversations around anti-Black racism and possibilities for repair in a variety of initiatives and platforms.”

And while his books — especially those that focus on antiracism, including the recently released paperback version of How To Raise An Antiracist — are an incredibly useful resource for understanding and working to address and explain racism in a broader context, they also receive vocal pushback from those looking to ban books about inclusivity from schools and public libraries.

Earlier this year, Kendi’s book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, And Youwhich was co-written with children’s book author Jason Reynolds and is a younger-audience version of his award-winning book Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History Of Racist Ideas was targeted for banning in Florida by Sarasota County School Board members and some community members. The book explores how systemic racism has impacted Black people in the United States, but a mom in the district claimed the book was not age-appropriate for kids and that it teaches white children that they're inherently racist.

Sarasota County Schools’ book-ban attempt failed when board members voted 3-2 to keep the book in libraries. But middle school students must now get parental permission before checking it out.

“Personally, I have just been outraged,” Kendi tells Fatherly. “And at times, I’ve felt quite sad about the ways in which my work is being either banned or misrepresented. But I think what really boils me is thinking about the children who, if they had access to a book that has now been banned, would have unlocked a love for reading. And now that door is closed.”

And those doors are being closed on kids at an increasing rate.

According to the nonprofit free speech advocacy group PEN America, during the first half of the 2022-23 school year, there were 1,477 instances of individual books banned from schools, affecting 874 unique titles. This marked an increase of 28 percent compared to the prior six months.

In addition to his broad concerns about book banning, Kendi is particularly saddened that targeted books take away opportunities for kids to develop a healthy understanding of what it can look like to contribute to a multi-racial society.

“I ache for the child who thinks that there's something wrong or right about her because of the color of her skin, and there's no literature available that allows that child to think differently or helps her teachers and parents know how to have those conversations,” he says.

“Especially at a time when so many children are speaking up about the racist harms that they're facing in schools and classrooms,” he continues. “There are even many teenage white boys who are being targeted online by white supremacists, and again, who is there to defend and protect these children?”

These are questions that Kendi now grapples with as an author whose work is under constant scrutiny and as a parent of a first-grader as he navigates conversations about racism with his child, fellow parents, and those who influence public education in his region. Fatherly spoke to Kendi about the current book bans, how his messaging has evolved, and the path ahead for preserving antiracist resources.

Over the past three years, how do you feel as though your overall message to other parents has evolved?

I think many parents recognize that something is afoot right now, particularly as it relates to race and parenting. And these parents are trying to figure out the root of the problem. Is the problem what some people are suddenly defining as “bad books”? Or is the issue the people who are trying to ban them? Or does the reality lie somewhere in between?

As we’re trying to navigate this environment, I’ve attempted to aim my message as a parent and as a scholar at this specific moment and the specific challenges parents face today. And I have tried to show more grace to parents because it is an unbelievably difficult job to be a parent.

One of the basic arguments of How To Raise An Antiracist demonstrates through research and evidence that racist ideas are raining onto the heads of our children even early as preschool. But a lot of parents assume that the sky is clear for children and that exposure to racist ideas doesn’t come until they get older. For them to accept that, yes, this is happening, so the need to protect their children has been very hard for parents, and I've been trying to give them that grace.

“What really boils me is thinking about the children who, if they had access to a book that has now been banned, would have unlocked a love for reading. And now that door is closed.”

If parents were going to focus on one or two specific current events as talking points to engage with their kids, which ones might you suggest since the battle is being fought on so many fronts?

I wouldn't necessarily suggest one or two as much as I would suggest for the parent to constantly listen to their child to hear about whatever current events they're experiencing or thinking about or have questions about. And then be ready to engage them when they ask those questions. Because I find, at least with my daughter, who is a first-grader, that when I try to initiate conversations, they just don’t go as well as when she initiates.

But I will say that the other argument of How To Raise An Antiracist that has been demonstrated by science is that it is possible to give our children an umbrella of antiracist ideas to help defend them. We can actively teach them that there's nothing wrong with anyone because of their skin color and to value people who look different and speak differently or have different hair textures. That intentional teaching can protect them from ideas that say otherwise.

Parent-to-parent interactions in communities where people lobby to ban inclusive materials from libraries and curricula have become incredibly challenging for those who embrace antiracism. It's becoming very heated and very public at the same time. How would you recommend a parent trying to instill and live out antiracist ideas engage other parents at a PTA meeting or school board meeting when there's resistance to antiracism?

So I think it is important to identify people who are resisting as a political opportunity versus someone who is resisting because they have a different viewpoint or have been presented with a different set of facts that contributes to ignorance. And the reason why is that engaging on any level with political opportunists is not going to be productive. They are there to advance their own political agenda. They've been funded by a national group to do so. But that parent who may be confused or who you may have a disagreement with because they have a different set of facts may actually be open to you presenting your perspective.

More importantly, share from your personal experience and from the evidence. I tried to cite as much evidence as possible in How To Raise An Antiracist so parents could have access to the studies and research that demonstrate why antiracism is something we should devote time and energy to.

But I want to just call attention to the fact that many of those loud, resisting people at PTA meetings and school board meetings are political operatives. And there's not really much we can do to engage with them.

“One of the basic arguments of How To Raise An Antiracist demonstrates through research and evidence that racist ideas are raining onto the heads of our children even early as preschool.”

Are parent-to-parent conversations best held outside of the context of those public meetings?

Yeah, if someone says something that’s wrong, it’s totally appropriate to take them aside after the meeting and say, “Hey, I heard what you said. Would you mind us going for coffee to just talk about this?” Because in a public setting and a political environment in which people want to own the libs or own the conservatives, it's much harder for people to acknowledge racism and change their perspectives. But one on one, when you're just providing them with your personal experience, where you're providing them with evidence, I think people are much more willing to be open.

On a more systemic level, what do you see as the path ahead for people who want to preserve antiracist or other inclusive resources in the public space for children?

I think the path forward is both a legal and a political path. The legal path requires communities and parents and librarians and educators to realize that these book challenges and bannings are literally illegal and that these people should be taken to court, which is happening across the country.

The other side of this is political. You have people who are in positions of power, whether they're executives or whether they are elected officials, who do not support giving children access to perspectives and authors of different experiences, and who do not support ensuring that our children understand racism so they can combat it. And so it's important for us to organize to push those people out of those positions of power.

What I'm hoping my work shows is that as a parent, you have the power to nurture a child who is going to treat people equally. Like, you can actively do that. And you must actively do that.

Since you initially released How To Raise An Antiracist almost a year ago, have you experienced any feedback that you have found surprisingly encouraging?

One example of feedback that I have heard quite a bit from parents of young kids is how uncomfortable it was to hear about the studies that have documented the perspectives of the youngest of children regarding race. As parents, they've had to really come to grips with the fact that they can’t wait until their kid is in high school before talking candidly with them about racism. But it’s been incredibly reassuring to see them push through that discomfort and accept the reality that we need to start having these conversations with our kids from a very young age.

I’ve tried to share the challenges that I personally faced having those conversations with my daughter, and so I think being able to share that difficulty has helped people see that it’s hard for everyone, and as parents, we shouldn’t avoid conversations just because they aren’t easy. Sometimes discomfort is constructive.

But I think many parents are just sitting back, hoping that their child does not grow up hating other people. They either have this unrealistic hope, or they’re in denial. What I'm hoping my work shows is that as a parent, you have the power to nurture a child who is going to treat people equally. Like, you can actively do that. And you must actively do that.