As the institutions that shape the minds of children, schools have an enormous role to play in dismantling systemic racism. Recognizing this fact and the complex nature of this task, New Roads School invited Professor Ibram X. Kendi to engage the school community in a critical conversation on teaching anti-racism.
Teaching students to be anti-racist is much harder than teaching students to be racist. While the latter requires passive absorption of a prevalent dogma the former requires constant critical thought.
Kendi is one of America’s foremost anti-racist scholars and was named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2020. He is highly aware of the difficult journey to root racism out of society and the education system, but his years of research have helped him develop a roadmap forward.
“Racist ideas are constantly being poured onto the heads of people and at the same time people aren’t necessarily taught how to think or to protect themselves from really that rain of racist ideas,” said Kendi. “When thinking about the development of the mind from an anti-racist perspective we are thinking about understanding intellect as not how much a student knows but how much a student has a desire to know.”
As racist ideologies underlie our traditional systems of education, healthcare, housing, and criminal justice, Kendi believes students need to be raised with a strong critical and curious mindset to question the status quo.
“Someone who’s intellectually curious while also striving to be anti-racist is trying to figure out the policies, the conditions, the structure, and the system that is causing racial inequality,” said Kendi. “So for example, when they see black people are dying at higher rates from COVID-19, they will begin to unpack our society to study the policies and the conditions and practices that are leading to that disparity.”
Kendi said educators should instill critical thinking and understanding of everyone’s innate equality in their students’ minds from the youngest age possible.
Some people balk at the idea of teaching concepts of slavery and racism to students in pre-school and kindergarten. However, Kendi said this is an essential step toward preventing the stress of racism and implicit bias from disproportionately affecting students’ learning potential, achievement, and outcomes later in life.
“If you teach a white child there’s nothing right about you because of the color of your skin and you teach a black child that there’s nothing wrong about you because of the color of your skin, when that child comes around and tries to tease them and they’re certain that there’s nothing wrong with them because of the color of their skin, it’s not going to land in the same way as a kid who’s still struggling with their sense of self,” said Kendi.
New Roads school, which hosted the conversation with Kendi, was established in 1995 as the first racially and culturally integrated school in Los Angeles. Its goal has always been to dismantle racism and harness the educational power of diversity, but Principal Luthern Williams recognizes that this work is far from done.
“I think what happened during Black Lives Matter movement this summer is that it became clear that we needed to look at how we could continue to intentionally look at systemic racism within our own school and the larger society,” said Williams. “Dismantling systemic racism starts with an informed, nuanced and deliberative discourse about the role schools can play in empowering educators and students to engage in really meaningful ways.”
As part of this work New Roads is continuing its Critical Conversations Series to engage with speakers like Kendi in discussions around the most important issues of today.
“I’m a big believer in thinking about things critically, that’s why we call these critical conversations,” said Williams. “I think these issues are often complex and oversimplified if you look at them from the left and the right, so we’re inviting a critical examination of these issues from many different lenses.”