A couple of weeks ago, I got the chance to talk to Ibram X. Kendi and Nic Stone about their new book, “How to Be a (Young) Antiracist,” which came out this week. A reimagining of Kendi’s pivotal book “How to Be an Antiracist,” it’s an incredibly accessible read geared to teens. It first transports young readers to Kendi’s own teenage years, guided by Stone’s energetic narration; kids will definitely see themselves in his journey. And both authors are clear that antiracism is a journey that doesn’t stop, and that before young people can become changemakers — through cogency, compassion, creativity, and collaboration — they need to turn inward to examine their own views.
Today, Kendi is a best-selling author and founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. Stone is a best-selling author of YA novels. We talked candidly about disrupting the status quo. For a well-meaning parent (or kid!), it can seem daunting, messy, or vulnerability-inducing. That’s OK: The important thing is to keep going.
Q. For parents who want to be antiracist — and who want to raise antiracist children — what’s the first step in making it a centerpiece of your parenting philosophy?
Kendi: Where I think parents can start is just by acknowledging two facts. The first is that their young people, particularly their teenagers, are already having conversations about race. Whether they’re having those conversations with you is another story, but they’re certainly having those conversations, whether they’re conscious of it or not, with their friends, with people in society. They’re certainly seeing images. They’re certainly consuming ideas.
Secondly, you as a parent are having conversations with that child, even if you are never necessarily talking about Black people or white people or Latinx people. You’re having conversations with your child when they see whom you’re befriending. You’re having conversations with your child when they see what schools they’re going to, where you reside. You’re having conversations with your child based on your social activities, the organizations you support, the policies and politicians you support and don’t support.
So I think we should just be honest with the fact that we’re already talking to our kids about race. Our kids are already talking to their friends about race. So the question is: What should we be teaching them, as opposed to whether we should be having this conversation.
Q. Let’s talk about a parent who might only have friends who look like them, who might be caught up in their bubble, just by inertia. They’re realizing that they’ve lived in such-and-such a way for however many years, and that this is modeling a certain behavior. What then? Is it being transparent with your child and saying: “My friend circle seems to really look the same, and I need to change that”? What do you share about your own thought process or evolution with your child?
Stone: My answer to this is: everything. When I have the opportunity to talk to grown-ups, the first thing I say is, “When you’re starting this journey, don’t panic.” There are so many people who see their own lives, and their instant response is panic and defensiveness. We get so caught up in what other people might think if they find out this thing that we now feel shameful about, that we’re not dealing with ourselves.
Step one is to, first of all, recognize that there’s nothing shameful about being a product of your environment. Nothing at all. If you are a person who is in your 40s, you’ve got three kids, and all your friends are white, and you look around, and it’s because your whole neighborhood is white? It’s cool; relax. I think that there’s something to be said for unpacking your own fears around why your life looks the way it does.
Frequently, this stuff winds up landing on our kids, our shame. These things that we don’t like about ourselves? We wind up dropping it onto the shoulders of our children, and it’s not a difficult thing to avoid, just through transparency. My partner, the father of my children, is biracial. His father is Nigerian. His mother is Russian. The other day, our 6-year-old asked him why he wasn’t Black. Kids can see. We gaslight the crap out of our children when we tell them not to see color. I’m basically telling you not to trust your own eyes, which is problematic in the first place.
So he asked him why he’s not Black. And he said, “Well, what am I?” And my son said, “beige.” Then this whole conversation ensued around his dad being biracial and what that means. It was really simple. I think we just complicate things. You don’t need to explain away the fact that you don’t have any Black friends.
Making friends is hard, especially as an adult. I think as long as parents are making sure that their children understand that all people are people, that’s really step one. You don’t need to look at a person and identify them based on the racial group you would instantly put them in, and you don’t want to look at a racial group and decide, “Because that racial group is like this, this individual that I’m seeing on the street must be like this, too.” That’s the whole premise of the book. Laying that groundwork is really where the magic happens, no matter what your friend group looks like.
Q. I think about how different it was to grow up 20 or 30 years ago, and that’s why I love how the book is framed: It goes back into the past and then takes a leap into the future. What’s different for our own children versus what we saw or absorbed 30 years ago? What’s different about being a child in America now?
Kendi: The similarities that I think children are experiencing is that they are being told, just as a generation and two generations ago were told, that racism is pretty much over. I think the way that they’re being told that is a little bit different, because there are more people of color in positions of power and influence. That’s then being relayed to them as proof that racism is over.
I also think that, obviously, a major distinction is that kids are being socialized about race and gender and sexuality and religion on social media in very profound ways that their parents may not even know or understand. That’s the principal medium of recruiting right now for white supremacists. It was easier for parents to regulate television use.
Stone: Social media is something, and also just news coverage. There’s so much happening in the news. … I think I was in fourth grade when the Rodney King situation happened. At 9 years old, I don’t have access to this information. But, now, my 6-year-old comes home telling me about stuff. I remember last year with the situation in Uvalde, Texas. I obviously knew about it, but my kid came home talking about it. My kindergartner is coming home with information that he didn’t get from me.
I’m not going to say, “Oh, don’t talk about that.” That’s not helpful. So the world is also different in that way, in that we are having these open dialogues about awful things, and kids are privy to those conversations.
Q. That raises a really good point. Parents of older kids have told me that there’s pressure, whenever a tragedy happens in the news, that [teenagers] need to speak up on Instagram. If they don’t post something, they’ll be seen as silent. It’s this reflexive, quick activism. How do we make sure that activism sticks?
Stone: Honestly, the first question is: Does a teenager want it to stick? There’s a difference between, “I’m going to post this because I feel like it’s what I’m supposed to do to be socially acceptable,” and “I’m going to just because I actually stand behind this cause.”
So what [a parent] is first going to have to do is actually ask [their child] if they’re interested in activism. I personally am not bothered at all by young people basically posting and moving on, because what that does tell me is that it’s on their minds. They’re noticing things. They’re thinking about things. There’s something in their subconscious where they know that what they’re seeing is not an OK thing.
Then, of course, they’re teenagers. I think that the biggest error we make as adults is forgetting what it was like to be 14, 15, or 16. So making sure that we remember our own teenage years and holding the space for them to pivot and then pivot back, number one, that’s the most important thing. But to answer your question: If these children are actually interested in learning more? Books are really the key. Read “Stamped.” Read “How to Be a (Young) Antiracist.” There are all of these books available to young people who are interested in figuring out how they can make an impact on the world. There’s material created for young people to address this exact stuff. We just need to use the material.
Kendi: Just to draw out the distinction Nic made at the top, which was the distinction between them being compelled to post something to be socially accepted versus them being compelled to post something because they are animated by that social injustice: That’s also something that adults face as well. There are many adults who are posting for performative reasons. They want to project that they’re progressive or radical, and they’re not actually energized and enraged and animated about the specific social injustice. So whether you’re young or you’re old, I wish certainly we would be able to encourage people to use their voice, not because they personally want to look better, but because they truly want to deliver change.
Q. What do you hope that families really get out of the book, and how do you hope that it impacts their lives going forward?
Kendi: I suspect some parents have this fear of their kids becoming activists. I hope for parents to understand why it is critically important for all of us to want to change or eliminate something like racism. But let’s just take the parent who doesn’t care about racism and only wants their child to ascend in American society. Even that child, if they become an activist, and they’re striving to end racism, and their parent may not agree with that? That’s a child who’s likely going to have to develop their leadership skills, their creativity, their research skills.
My first book was on Black student activists in the late ‘60s. You had all these studies that demonstrated that typically the students who were activists were the best students. There was this interrelationship between the skills you need in order to be a great student and even great in society, and of course what you need to be an activist. I just wanted to mention that, because I don’t think there even should be a fear of students receiving and reading this book and becoming activists because chances are they’re going to become more successful in their lives.
Q. Before I let you go: There’s such fear around being called a racist or doing something that’s even unintentionally biased. You say the wrong thing, or you do the wrong thing and think, “Oh God” — and you make it about yourself, and you have this fear, this defensiveness. How would you hope that people learn about and embark upon antiracist work?
Kendi: That’s why I’m just so excited that this book is getting into the hands of young people — because the earlier we realize that it’s not about whether we make a mistake that we’re being racist or antiracist; the question is how we respond to that mistake. Are we going to deny that that was a racist idea? Or are we going to acknowledge it, and change, and grow? The earlier we learn that as human beings, the more we’re going to be willing to grow, change, and be antiracist.
Interview was edited and condensed.