In education, nothing is “neutral” when it comes to race. Lesson plans, edtech tools and learning environments either create more equity among students of different races, or more inequity.
That’s what scholar Ibram X. Kendi told EdSurge in an interview Nov. 30 during the 2020 virtual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education. (ISTE is the parent organization of EdSurge.)
Kendi, the bestselling author of books including “How to Be an Antiracist” and “Stamped from the Beginning,” is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, as well as the founder and director of the institution’s new Center for Antiracist Research.
During the conversation with EdSurge, Kendi shared his perspective about inequitable education outcomes and how antiracist policy changes could benefit the students who grow up with the least access to resources in their homes and schools.
“I think it’s a national crime year in and year out that we are not investing in our children and investing in the people who are taking care of our children,” he said.
He also discussed his teaching style and why it’s important for educators to share vulnerability with their students. Read the lightly edited transcript of the interview here.
EdSurge: Your book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” offers many helpful definitions, and I thought that we could start with one of those to lay a foundation for our conversation. You define an antiracist as “one who is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity.” Why do we need this concept of antiracist, and how is it different from the concept of being neutral or just simply being “not racist”?
Ibram X. Kendi: Well, first, I think it’s important for us to realize that the term antiracist, like the term racist, is a descriptive term. Meaning, it describes what a person is being in any given moment. And so what that means is if in one moment a person is expressing that the racial groups are equals, in that moment they’re being antiracist. If in the next moment they’re saying that this is what’s wrong with Black people, then in that moment, they’re being racist. The reason why that’s critical is because we’ve been taught something different. We’ve been taught that racist is essential to who a person is. It’s a fixed category. It’s in someone’s heart.
That’s one of the reasons why people are unwilling or unable to admit the times in which they’re being racist, because it’s not just admitting, “I was being racist in that moment.” Basically we’re tattooing racist on our forehead for the rest of our lives. Because of people’s conception that racist is this fixed category—this fixed, horrible, evil person—people are unwilling to admit the times in which they’re being racist.
And so instead they say, “No, no, I’m not racist.” So no matter what they say or do, no matter what policies they support, they typically self-identify as not racist. They typically identify policies that are leading to inequities as neutral, as opposed to admitting and reflecting and even seeking to change, as antiracists seek to do.
One of the concepts from your work that I find most powerful is the way you call on us all to re-examine our understanding of cause and effect. You write that “racist policies are the cause of racial inequities” and that “policies determine the success of groups.” What does that mean for education? Where, for example, people talk about a racial “academic achievement gap” or disparate discipline rates for Black students?
So let’s say for instance, if you’re a wealthier parent—and most people of wealth are disproportionately white—and let’s say in your city, a single test determines who gets into a prestigious public high school. And let’s say you have the resources to hire a personal tutor for your child, which will boost their score on that test, and make it easier, obviously, for them to get into that school. And then somebody comes along and says, “Hey, it’s a problem that Black and Latinx kids are underrepresented in that school. And maybe it’s because of the test.” You have a built-in advantage. And so you are going to—many people, unfortunately—are going to support that policy that benefits their children.
And then they’re going to argue that, well, “If only those Black and Latinx kids would work harder”—in other words, they’re going to articulate racist ideas to defend that racist policy. And that’s typically how racist policies and the defense of those policies lead to racist ideas.
You’ve written about your experiences in classrooms and at education institutions where teachers and the broader learning environment and the culture of the community either affirmed or racially abused students. What message do you have for teachers and education leaders about how to appropriately teach students of all races and avoid inflicting harm?
I would urge educators to realize that we are either being racist or antiracist educators. When I say “we,” I’m an educator too, as a professor. And then also, we are either teaching our children to be racist or antiracist, in our students. And so what that means is, how can we go about ensuring that we are being antiracist in the classroom, and we are teaching an antiracist educational curriculum, or creating an antiracist learning environment where the cultures and the ways of life of different groups of people are valued and taught and understood equally? A learning environment where Black doesn’t mean “misbehaving.”
I would say the most efficient way we can do that is making sure we ourselves are striving to be antiracist. Because if we as individuals are really ensuring that we are being antiracist as individuals, then that’s going to come across in how we act as an educator. That’s going to come across in how we teach our students.
Technology can be used in ways that help and support underserved students. But if we’re not careful, it can be used in ways that reinforce discrimination. What advice do you have for educators when it comes to using technology and data in ways that are effective and maybe even, hopefully, antiracist?
I don’t think we should just assume that anything is, quote, “neutral.” If we start from there—that we eliminate the construct—even AI is not neutral. And why is it not neutral? Because humans create it.
And I think if we start there, then that allows us to assess: Is this new technology creating more inequity or equity? Is this new technology allowing me to create, or spread, or build an antiracist learning environment? Those are the types of questions. We shouldn’t assume that a new technology is going to do that, because chances are if we make that assumption, then it won’t.
And to your point about nothing being neutral, if technology is merely sustaining the status quo, and that status quo is better for some students than others, it seems like that’s something worth looking into and questioning as well.
Yes. For instance, the current status quo within our educational system is better for, on average, white students than it is for Black and brown students. And so you then have some white Americans say, “Well, why should I change the status quo? It’s benefiting people like me.”
But I think what’s important for white Americans to think about is to not necessarily compare their lot within the educational system and even outside of it with Black and brown students and people. They should be comparing their lot with white folks in Canada, white folks in France, in Germany, in England. Compare our educational system and what is provided to those students to what on average is provided to students here. They should not be thinking about, “OK I’m in first class. My educational system is in first class.” They should realize that there are actually people who are riding in educational systems that are like private jets. And why can’t my kid have an educational system that is like a private jet? Why can’t every kid? And I think that’s what we need to be thinking about.
In “How to Be an Antiracist,” you trace the evolution of your own thinking about race. And the lessons that you cite seemed to come not so much from formal school curricula, but often from your experiences and your relationships. What might that mean about the potential or the responsibility of formal education to change how people think about race? And whether interpersonal learning might be more powerful, as it seemed for you.
All of the above is absolutely sort of critical. And indeed, my experiences had to do with different colleagues, and different students and even things that I experienced outside of the classroom. But certainly formal education assisted as well.
I think we should understand, as great educators do, that every place is a classroom. And how do we prepare our students to enter into different classrooms and learn to be better people?
Are there particular curricula or strategies that you’re aware of that can help point us toward more-antiracist formal education?
Many people have talked about pedagogy that’s culturally relevant, and acknowledging we live in a multicultural country, and ensuring that different forms of pedagogy, different cultures and different histories and different forms of literature are exposed to all students.
But I would also say even at a more basic level, I don’t consider intelligence [or] assess one’s intelligence based on how much a person knows. I assess one’s intelligence based on how much one has a desire to know. And so at the basis, we should be building learning environments that encourage students to want to know, that encourages critical thinking, that encourages students to realize when there is a problem of inequality, that it’s not because there’s something wrong or inferior about a group of people, but that there’s something wrong and inferior about our society. That there’s something bad about our policies, our conditions. And then that causes the mind to think, “Well, what are those problems?” as opposed to disparage other groups of people.
In “How to Be an Antiracist,” you invited us into your life story to show how your own ideas have developed—and therefore, how ours might develop, too. Does the book reflect your own teaching style or teaching philosophy? There is a lot of history and lots of factual information in the book as well, but it feels very personal. Is that how you teach?
I’ve learned to teach more in that way. Because what I’m finding is even the students that I teach, it’s hard for students, it’s hard for people, to separate their own emotionality, to separate themselves, and to really think about race and racism. And so this is a deeply personal affair.
I think people are not taught to be vulnerable. We’re not taught to really reflect and challenge and admit the times in which we’re being racist so we can strive to be antiracist. We’re taught to deny it. And so I think part of the teaching, part of the education, is serving as that model of vulnerability, of self-criticism, that I think is incredibly important for educators to do.
Your work highlights the importance of outcomes, rather than just the intent, of policies and actions and ideas. Are there particular outcomes in education that you see as critical for us to work to change? And are there specific actions that you think could help get us there?
I think that there are many students in this country whose parents have more, and those students typically have more in their schools. And I don’t think we should take anything away from what those students are provided.
But what I also think we should do is, those students who currently have the least in their homes and also have the least in their schools—those students should have the most in their schools. And so that obviously means completely transforming how we fund and finance our schools. That calls for how we fund and finance educators. To give an example, when I say the least, I’m not just talking about the resources, but even the teachers who have the least amount of experience tend to be in the schools where students who have the least amount in their homes [are].
So how do we change the incentive structure such that the teachers with the most amount of experience are going to the schools in which they may be the most needed? How do we change? It’s so many different structures based on how we’re funding schools, how we’re incentivizing teachers, how we’re preparing educators and principals.
But ultimately it’s about investing in our children. And I think it’s a national crime year in and year out that we are not investing in our children and investing in the people who are taking care of our children.