“What’s at Stake Is Joy”: A Conversation With Ibram X. Kendi

“What’s at Stake Is Joy”: A Conversation With Ibram X. Kendi

“What’s at Stake Is Joy”: A Conversation With Ibram X. Kendi

The Boston University professor discusses where he was when Ted Cruz held up his book while questioning Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.


Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson faced tough questioning during the Senate confirmation hearing on her nomination to the Supreme Court. Everyone expected that. What came as a surprise was the sudden focus on a picture book, Anti-Racist Baby, written by Ibram X. Kendi. Held aloft in accusation by Texas Republican Ted Cruz, the gesture was indicative of an election-year assault on public education, especially anti-racist education and the sort of mud throwing we’re likely to see more of. How to respond? Kendi is professor in the humanities at Boston University, where earlier this year resurrected the abolitionist paper, The Emancipator, in collaboration with The Boston Globe. He’s also the author of five number one New York Times bestsellers, including Stamped: Racism, Anti-racism, and You, which was number two on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books in 2020. His next two books coming out in June are How to Raise an Anti-Racist and the picture book, Goodnight Racism. He was interviewed by Laura Flanders with Mitra S. Kalita and Sara Lomax-Reese, the cofounders of URL Media, on The Laura Flanders Show on April 6. Listen to the full, unedited conversation by subscribing to the Laura Flanders Show podcast at Lauraflanders.org.

—Laura Flanders

The Laura Flanders Show: Where were you? Were you glued to the confirmation hearings or did someone tip you off to what was happening?

Ibram X. Kendi: Someone tipped me off. Many people did. I was actually in a pretty important meeting that I couldn’t end and so I actually don’t think I saw it until several hours later. Initially I was just horrified to see the way in which my books and other books were distorted and even weaponized because Senator Cruz was trying to undermine someone who was nominated for the court and their record was untouchable. So he was trying to figure out other ways to affect her and I think, you know, the fact that he would use my work and distort it, and then to see how difficult it was for her in that moment, I think was very difficult for me to see.

TLFS: In a nation that has so many racist systems in place, how do you get through to people like a Ted Cruz or to these school boards around the country that are banning your books and other books?

IXK: When it comes to those school boards, I think we have to change power. There are many people who are organizing right now and who are thinking about ways to sit on those boards. As it relates to people like Ted Cruz, I think it’s a little bit different. Ted Cruz is going to swim with the political winds. If we transform the political winds and it becomes obvious to him that he can no longer sort of stoke up white fear in order to win elections, he’s not going to do it anymore.

TLFS: You’ve really leaned into the children’s aspect—and the power of individuals that you speak of often. Has that been intentional to just start anti-racism earlier and earlier?

IXK: This certainly wasn’t in the plans, and it didn’t really come into the plans until I became a father in 2016, right around the time my second book Stamped from the Beginning came out. But then also, when people in the summer of 2020, I had to engage quite a few people because I think many people were learning about anti-racism. And at the beginning of the summer many people were asking me how they could be anti-racist. By the end of the summer, more and more people were asking, how can I raise my child to be anti-racist? How can I be a better educator for children? I saw that that’s what people were looking for, and I try to be responsive.

TLFS: How do you balance that with your teachings about racism as something that we do rather than something that we are—that it’s about power structures as well as personal behavior?

IXK: I think we should understand the effect of the structural on the individual. If we understand racism as a structure and if we understand racism at an individual level, you have a single racist policy, even idea, even an individual who is being racist, they’re reinforcing this larger structure—just as the anti-racist as an individual challenges that larger structure. I’m really trying to allow individuals to see the role that they have to play in creating a new equitable structure.

TLFS: We know that a lot of the framing around critical race theory has been incredibly successful. How do we change the narrative that “fragile” white children are somehow threatened by accurate teaching about racism?

IXK: I’d say in two ways: First, talk about how historically white supremacist organizations have always gone to white people and said you are the primary victims of racism. This is the mantra of white supremacy, and I don’t think many people are willing to acknowledge just how mainstream this white supremacist talking point is. The second thing is the fact that anti-racist education is actually helpful and protective for white children. In other words, if you are a white child and you’re constantly being bombarded with this idea that you are special because you’re white, an antiracist education could say nobody’s special or not special because of their skin color. Through an antiracist education, you can learn about white abolitionists who fought against slavery, white, civil rights activists who fought against Jim Crow. You can then see yourself through them and then fight today against racism.

TLFS: It’s not your job to help white parents raise their kids, but are there questions that you can help people answer for themselves?

IXK: Man, where, where do we even begin? I think it’s important first for parents to realize that their non-verbal language says a lot to children. What that means is children see, for instance, who you’re inviting to your home, who you’re not inviting to the home. Children see when you clutch your purse when a Black man is walking by. One study shows that a white child’s perspectives about race correlate more to the number of friends of color that their parent that their mother has, than what their mother actually says about race. But I also think it’s important to child-proof the environment, which means creating a diverse, antiracist environment for the child, from the school to the neighborhood, to what books you’re reading to your child. It’s also important to engage the child about these topics, because they’re going to have questions and I’d rather you answer those questions than a white supremacist lurking online.

TLFS: In How to be An Anti-Racist you write, “I’m no longer policing my every action and around an imagined white or Black judge, trying to convince white people of my equal humanity, trying to convince Black people I’m representing the race.” I thought of Judge Brown Jackson in that context and how she had to do those things in front of all of us for so many days and did it so gracefully. And I wondered how you thought about that scene. Do you imagine we will be rid of scenes like that in our lifetimes?

IXK: That’s the goal. The goal for us is to create a different type of scene. For the next time a Black woman is nominated to the Supreme Court that the questions are about her credentials, and she’s not asked questions like, “How do you define a woman?” Or questions about baby books, and she won’t feel the weight on her shoulders that I suspect Judge Jackson may have felt. It’s too much for any individual to hold. So many women, particularly Black women, have had to hold this weight—which we should be lifting off their shoulders.

TLFS: What’s at stake?

IXK: What’s at stake is joy. At the end of the day, one of the net effects of racism—aside from people literally losing their lives—is misery. The inverse to that is creating a joyful life—one where people can enjoy their lives and, no matter race, can grow.

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