Move over, Dr. Spock

Ibram X. Kendi wants parents to raise ‘antiracists.’

“There is no such thing as a ‘not racist,’” writes professor of humanities at Boston University Ibram X. Kendi in his book How to Raise an Antiracist. One is either a racist or an antiracist. For caregivers, the intended audience of this book, this then shapes their children’s concept of race and whether they will be raised as “antiracist” kids, according to Kendi. “We must keep our individual children safe in this racist society, while building an antiracist society that can protect all our children.”

Published June 14, 2022, this book concludes much like Kendi’s other works: Differences between racial groups exist because of racist policies. This one just purports to tell you how to raise your child to come to Kendi’s same conclusion.

But the book’s title is a bit misleading — there is no real direction, nor tangible steps on how to accomplish raising an antiracist outside of mentions of exposing children to people from a variety of backgrounds, various cultures, literature, etc., which is advice that has been around for quite some time.

Paired with an overabundance of rhetorical questions, How to Raise an Antiracist reads largely as a personal memoir, with Kendi focusing on examples of how his parents, teachers, and society failed him and his brother — failed him by not raising him to be antiracist and by being racist. He also includes his experiences with fatherhood and the parenting mistakes that come along with that journey, which as a new parent, I appreciated him confessing his vulnerability.

Parents, and more broadly “caregivers,” which Kendi identifies as all the people “nurturing the environments, experiences, minds, bodies, souls, and futures of children,” must be “active” about raising kids to be antiracist — making race central to their worldview — or they perpetuate a racist society. But this overarching theme is reductive. Kendi limits every racial disparity in the U.S. to racism, viewing every inequality and social disparity through a race-based lens. This overly simplistic and limiting perspective doesn’t help us find solutions to the challenges society still faces today.

According to Kendi, to raise a child to be antiracist is to raise a critical thinker, and to raise a critical thinker is to raise an antiracist. To become a good critical thinker, one needs “to be inquisitive on a range of issues, to trust the reasoning process of questioning and investigating and discovering and complicating, to be open to different thoughts and informed opinions, to be able to understand those differing opinions,” and “to be capable of suspending or changing one’s own thinking on a topic.”

Yet Kendi himself limits racial disparities to a single variable, making his solutions as simple as his diagnosis of their cause. But there are limits to binary thinking. And it’s unfortunate the book leaves little room for insightful discussion or debate on disparities and their causes, from analyzing socioeconomic class, education levels, workforce participation, etc., and understanding racism, a sensitive conversation to begin with.

While Kendi does at times appear to break from his black and white thinking — mentioning that there is this basic fact of our common humanity, the importance of teaching children to view others as individuals, that we shouldn’t judge a human being by his or her skin color — he quickly jumps right back into reinforcing racial categories, seeing skin color before humanity. “Parents are taught to fear their kid going to school with too many Black children,” Kendi writes. “Teachers are taught to fear a classroom with too many Black children.”

A couple chapters on, Kendi makes a great point about how teachers should have “the same high expectations for all students no matter their identity,” but then muddies it with his lens of race in a subsequent chapter. “White teachers should make sure their high expectations for all students don’t stop them from recognizing when a child of any race may have a disability… At the same time, teachers of color should not assume that they don’t need to be antiracist or anti-ableist, too.”

But included in Kendi’s tendency to be dogmatic is a perspective that could help change how we discuss race: That there is nothing behaviorally superior or behaviorally inferior about any racial group.

This is what true antiracism should be focused on — deracializing behavior. “The way you accomplish that is by refusing to ascribe behavior, whether vice or virtue, to skin color,” writes Delano Squires for 1776 Unites.

There is no denying work remains to live up to our country’s founding principles. And it will take teaching our next generation of leaders to be critical thinkers. But that critical thinking cannot be a narrow and limiting worldview, or we risk exacerbating the problems we need to solve. Our work must prioritize first teaching our children how to stand for truth, goodness and beauty and not just to despise badness.