‘Antiracist’ education should start before age 3, says author who popularized term

(The Center Square) – Notable author and outspoken scholar Ibram X. Kendi told educators and others in a taxpayer funded equity webinar Thursday that influencing school systems offers a “bigger…

(The Center Square) – Notable author and outspoken scholar Ibram X. Kendi told educators and others in a taxpayer funded equity webinar Thursday that influencing school systems offers a “bigger bang for your activism” and said “antiracist” education should start before age 3.

A Wisconsin state agency paid Kendi $15,000 using federal special education funding for a wide-ranging one hour and 15 minute “generative conversation” on antiracism. During the conversation, Kendi said kids should be getting an antiracist education and the current education system damages children. 

Kendi spoke without video due to a technical problem. 

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that a school that utilizes a punishment-based approach to misbehavior, a school that is armed and policed, a school that does not teach young people about racism, a school that primarily utilizes cultural and literary examples created by white people, a school that teaches to the test as opposed to teaches students to critically think is literally dangerous to the minds and bodies of really all the children,” Kendi said. “But most especially, Black and brown children and indigenous children and southeast Asian children.”

“To me, it’s not hyperbolic,” Kendi said. “When we actually look at the data, when we understand that there are 5-year-old Black kids coming home to mommy and saying, ‘I want to be white.’” 

“We literally have created dangerous environments for young people even as we imagine that we’re supposed to be their protectors,” Kendi said. 

Laura Minero, a speaker at an earlier webinar at the Pre-Summer Educational Equity Leadership Series Institute, said they had taken Kendi’s theory and expanded it.

“When I spoke earlier today, I talked about how I take your theory and expand it through this intersectional lens and challenge people to resist anti-Blackness by also being anti-sexist, anti-ableist and specifically being focused on being anti-cisheterosexist,” Minero told Kendi. 

Minero asked Kendi: “How do you envision introducing children to these concepts and what do you say to parents who say they are too young to understand heterosexism and cissexism, much like they say about racism?”

In response, Kendi said it’s foolish for parents to claim their 2 or 3-year-old child isn’t old enough for a feminist, intersectional approach to prevent them from internalizing heteronormative ideas and that children under 3 should be receiving an antiracist education. 

“To me, when parents say that kids are too young to understand and study heterosexism, it’s laughable,” Kendi said. “Because it is parents who are telling their boys to ‘Stop acting like a girl’ at 2 and 3-years-old. It is parents who are saying to their girl, ‘That’s not something girls do.’”

“It is literally parents and others in our society literally expressing sexist ideas to their kids on the basis that they would understand it,” Kendi said.

“So they literally teach sexist ideas, and then we come around and say, ‘Hey, kids can understand sexist and heteronormative ideas, so let’s actually ensure that they’re not consuming and internalizing them. Let’s introduce the more feminist, intersectional approach.’”

“Suddenly, they claim, ‘Oh, well that’s just too much for kids to understand,’” Kendi said. “I think it’s incredibly dishonest when parents make that case.”

“And I also think it’s incredibly foolish from the standpoint that the reason why these ideas, these bigoted ideas — whether heteronormative or racist or ableist ideas — have been able to circulate, across time and space so rapidly is because they’re simple,” Kendi said. 

“Propaganda is created to be believed, and so it’s not messy,” Kendi said. “It’s not complex. ‘Dark is ugly.’ That’s an idea that a 2-year old can understand and apply. I think it’s important for caretakers and givers to understand the simplicity of racist ideas and other forms of bigotry.” 

“And that’s precisely why young people start internalizing them as early as 3-years-old as it relates to racist ideas and why we need to be teaching them antiracist ideas even before that,” Kendi said.   

Minero asked Kendi about his vision for antiracist teaching given state efforts to limit discussions around critical race theory and what legislation often defines as divisive topics. Kendi responded that Black people were historically banned from reading about racism and they found alternative ways to share their ideas.

“There are ways us for us to continue to do it as we fight back and beat back against the book bans because people have done it in this nation’s history,” Kendi said. 

Ananda De Oliveira Mirilli, who works for the Wisconsin Educational Equity Network, asked Kendi about how to support teachers who face repercussions when they practice antiracism and fight to bring the “type of education they know is important for all their students.” 

“I think it is important for us to recognize the reason why we’re even talking about this and having to navigate figuring out measures to protect teachers …   is because of local and state elected officials who have used the power of the state to create mechanisms in which teachers are worried about their jobs,” Kendi said. 

“We know what bodies have the power to prevent teachers from doing their jobs, and most of them are elected bodies, most of them are bodies we can organize, to drive people who are not protecting our children from those bodies,” Kendi said. 

“But I don’t think it’s enough for us to drive that person or those persons from school boards or those state legislatures, it’s also important for us to maintain and keep them out,” Kendi said. “So the organizing has to be consistent and persistent.”

“Once we’re able to get them out, we have to make sure that they never come back so that they never put teachers and educators in the position they’re in right now,” Kendi said. 

Kendi said that you could teach students these principals outside public schools, but that he “wouldn’t abandon the struggle for educational spaces.”

“The reason they’re going after the school systems is because schools systematically educate almost everyone,” Kendi said. “It’s a bigger bang for your activism to ensure that the school system has the capacity and the ability and the resources to institute an antiracist education.”

“Transforming our schools and protecting our school should be a priority,” Kendi said.