Ibram X. Kendi Talks to Sidwell Friends Faculty, Staff, and Students
The Sidwell Friends School community has always endeavored to engage with the Quaker tradition of equity. To that end, in June, Head of School Bryan K. Garman asked the community—faculty, staff, and Upper and Middle School students—to read Ibram X. Kendi’s groundbreaking book How to Be an Antiracist.
Kendi’s book centers around the idea that it isn’t enough for people to be “not racist.” Instead, those who wish to pursue racial justice and equality must be “anti-racist,” willing to dismantle racist systems and ideas wherever they’re found—including within themselves. He also explains the difference between “racism” (a system or a policy that leads to racial inequality) and “racist” (a person or an idea holding one group superior to another). Those working to achieve anti-racism should move away from the idea that “racist” is something someone is, and rather call out as racist specific actions that a person does.
On Aug. 31, Kendi spoke with the faculty and staff in a session moderated by Natalie Randolph ’98, the director of Equity, Justice, and Community. In the talk, Kendi specifically spoke about the role of education in building an anti-racist community.
“We’re either educating our children to be racist, or we are educating them to be anti-racist,” he said. “It’s like overcoming an addiction—it’s a daily process. You’re going to be wrong, but you’re going to admit it.”
Kendi exhorted the Sidwell Friends faculty and staff to keep working to establish an anti-racist world, both in the School and in the world at large, because to not do so is to be complicit in maintaining racist policies.
“It is a political choice to say nothing and do nothing, just as it’s a political choice to say something and do something,” he said.
Kendi returned to the Sidwell Friends virtual campus again on Sept. 9, when he spoke to Middle and Upper School students in a discussion moderated by Adeoluwa Fatukasi ’21, Atswei Laryea ’21, and Justin Peikin ’21. The students prepared by reading How to Be an Antiracist and by seeking out some of Kendi’s previous interviews and appearances on YouTube. During that session, Kendi spoke about the role of Black people in American culture and how they learn to perceive themselves.
“It has long been the case that Black people are raised to appreciate Blackness, but then they’re simultaneously raised to appreciate and to value white American culture, to simultaneously be raised to want to be white,” he said. “For the better part of American history, Black people have been raised and trained to want to be Black and to want to be white—which is fundamentally in contradiction. That’s the dueling sort of consciousness that Black people have been forced to endure and even to overcome.”
The students also asked about the importance of incorporating intersectionality into efforts to move into a more anti-racist community. It was a topic Kendi had given a lot of thought to.
“I want people to understand that the way people experience racism in many ways is at the intersection of their identity,” he said. “You can’t really understand what Black disabled people are experiencing if you don’t understand ableism and racism and how they intersect. You can’t really understand what Black women are facing if you don’t understand racism and sexism and their intersection. You can’t really understand what Black poor people are facing if you don’t understand racism and capitalism and their intersection.”
In addition to discussing racism as a systemic problem, Kendi emphasized that change can—must—happen on a personal level, a process that especially must happen when someone “didn’t mean” to be racist.
“You can’t really grow up in the United States and not come across some form of information or individuals who are challenging you on a racist idea,” he said. “The question is, when that challenge happens, do you attack back, or do you seek to understand more? What every single one of us needs to ask ourselves is, ‘When was the time I was presented with knowledge and I rejected or even attacked it? How can I claim ignorance when there was a time when somebody sought to bring me knowledge, but I was resistant?’”
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