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Changing the Narrative

A Conversation with Ibram X. Kendi

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is an award-winning author and anti-racist scholar. His latest book, “Four Hundred Souls,” is a collaborative effort that showcases the history of African Americans from 1619 to 2019. Chanda and Dr. Kendi connected to talk about the importance of anti-racist education, the struggles of reimagining public safety, and why we need to invest in narrative change work.

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Souphak Kienitz  00:00 

Thank you to Target for sponsoring this episode. Target is committed to using their size, scale, and resources to help heal and create lasting change in Minneapolis and across the country. Up next, he’s an award-winning author, anti-racist scholar, professor, and much more. In his work, he wants to eliminate the concept of not racist from the vocabulary and build a just and equitable society and believes that the only way we’re going to begin that process is if we admit our racism and start building an anti-racist world. He’s Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. Enjoy the show. 

Chanda Smith Baker  00:50 

I’m Chanda Smith Baker, from Conversations with Chanda. I work at the Minneapolis Foundation where I’ve been for the last three and a half years. I have gotten many, many requests to have you on the podcast. I’m so honored and thankful that you’ve agreed to be with me for a few minutes today. So when Markeesha called and said Teach for America was bringing you, we wanted to jump on to support her because I think it’s important that we support her leadership and the leadership of the work that she’s leading at Teach for America and so very dear friend of mine, Caroline Wanga, now leads Essence. She was just named the CEO there. So I was checking it out, and I saw your wedding pictures, I think they’re probably like the best I’ve seen.  

Dr. Ibram X Kendi  01:37 

Yeah. That’s all because it’s up to my wife, not me, certainly.  

Chanda Smith Baker  01:42 

Oh, man, what a beautiful bride. I’m like that dress was fantastic. So I just thought I would say that because I was really inspired by that.  

Dr. Ibram X Kendi  01:49 

Oh, thank you.  

Chanda Smith Baker  01:50 

You’re welcome. So let’s just jump in. We are talking to you from Minneapolis, and approaching almost a year since George Floyd and many of us in community have been feeling like over time, especially with the elevated and visual nature of young Black men dying, that there was just sort of a volcano waiting to erupt, and we have seen that in the city, and a lot of it has been our inability to deal with, sort of, the issues around ratio inequity and justice. And I’m really wondering, like when you saw that moment, and how it kind of spread in terms of people’s anger and frustration, and then some people just kind of coming into that issue. Were you at all surprised at how the energy around the Floyd death took off across the globe? 

Dr. Ibram X Kendi  02:43 

I was surprised, you know, initially, because I think the, indeed the energy and the activism that, sort of, exploded worldwide, as a result of his murder, George Floyd’s murder, was unprecedented, and, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I think there was a combination of factors that, sort of, contributed to it. I think, first and foremost, by 2020, before his murder, there had been a growing percentage of Americans who are recognizing the existence of racism. And, you know, particularly over the Trump presidency, and I think the Trump presidency forced Americans to confront their denial because they were hearing and seeing racism, oftentimes on a daily basis. I think it was also the case that people were already reeling from, of course, about robberies, murder, and, you know, ultimately, Breonna Taylor’s, and, but then I also think, because we were on quarantine, and so many people saw the horrific video at the same time, and I think that also contributed to the explosion. 

Chanda Smith Baker  04:23 

I wonder if, you know, we’re also in a city where the city council came out and said, we were going to defund the police and there’s been a lot of stuff that has happened since then good, better, and different. But I’m wondering, or I should say, sometimes I wonder whether or not a job to defund the police did not allow for us to examine how we got here. Do, because it feels like we talk about it a lot, but do you think that we’ve been asking the right questions on how that actually happened to begin with? 

Dr. Ibram X Kendi  04:56 

So you know, I think that, obviously, I think when there’s a tragedy of the proportion of what happened to, to Floyd and Taylor, and there’s an awareness, that, you know, policies and practices have led to these, have led to this sort of rash of, you know, the murders of Black people in the hands of police, I think the response was that people wanted to have was a policy response. And I think that the difficulties in making the case for defund the police is that, that activists were making that case, in America, that imagine that Black people were dangerous, that imagine their neighborhoods were dangerous. And we’re imagining that the police were basically the border wall between them and that danger. And so in their mind, to defund the police is equivalent to, you know, busting down that wall and allowing all these animals to come run, ram shot all over America, cause all this sort of crime. Until people I think, what could have been done was also to really challenge Americans on why they’re so scared, you know, about reimagining public safety. And why is their response, that the defunding of the police will lead to an increase in crime, ie Black crime? You know, why do they believe that? And why can’t they see all of the data that points to the relationship between higher levels of unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, and higher levels of long-term poverty and higher levels of violent crime? You know, why can’t they see that relationship and transfer funding to eliminate these higher levels of poverty and unemployment? 

Chanda Smith Baker  07:15 

Yeah, I mean, I’ve wrestled with that with myself, right? Like I live in the neighborhood, and I’m like, What do you mean, no police, right? Like, what happens if I need the police and I think, my examination, which I realized was way more personal, right? Like I was landing in both places, therefore kind of landing in no place and really wanting to be part of that conversation, I think what you’re, what you’re speaking to, and I was really curious on the work that you’re doing around narrative. We’re building that into some of the work that we’re doing at the Minneapolis Foundation, but some of it is his biases, and then we’re building on to what these narratives that continue to exist. And so can you say, more on why it’s important to understand or to invest in narrative change work? 

Dr. Ibram X Kendi  08:02 

Because I think it’s important to invest in narrative change work, because people are going to oppose policy changes, that can actually help them and even make their neighborhoods safer, because of narratives, particularly, racist narratives, that have been fed to them their whole lives. And, and so or they’re going to advocate for programs that don’t actually have the capacity or the ability to actually solve the problem that they are saying exists. In other words, they’re going to because of racist narratives, for instance, you have people who believe and we’ve been taught this that, that Black folks, for instance, don’t say, or Black folks are financially illiterate, and that’s why you have this growing racial wealth gap. So then that causes people to push for and organize programs that, quote, develop, and teach more financial literacy in Black communities, not knowing that that’s certainly going to help the individuals in the program, but that’s actually not going to eliminate this growing racial wealth gap. It’s not going to close it. And, and or, you know, when there’s calls to transfer funding for tanks that police departments have, you know, into public health facilities or schools, people are going to just be fearful because they have, you know, Americans ever since really the beginning of this country. They have been fed the most dangerous racist idea, which is the idea of the dangerous Black neighborhood. 

Chanda Smith Baker  09:52 

And Professor, kindy how does that play out for people that have been victimized by those narratives? Right? Like I was thinking when I was reading about your narrative work about my son, Dominic, my oldest when he turned 18, and I was in my kitchen, and the brother next to him looked at him and said, see, you never thought you were going to make it to 18. And it was one of those moments that is going to be forever etched in my mind, in my heart, because it’s like, what would lead you to believe you wouldn’t make it to 18? Right? Like the level of love and support and infrastructure around you, that he had been embodying a narrative about who he was in a way that I did not fully understand, as his mom. And so what kind of work do you think that we, people of color that have been also in these waters, what type of work do you think needs to happen there, if any? 

Dr. Ibram X Kendi  10:48 

Well, I think there’s a very thin line between saying that Black bodies are endangered as a result of a racist society. And Black bodies are dangerous or endangered because they’re around other dangerous Black people. You know, there’s a very sort of thin line. And I do think it is important for us to, for Black folks, particularly parents of children who are coming of age, and who are teenagers, who are going to be the most likely to be harassed by the police, and other elements of society. Who don’t, who, because they have the size of an adult, but doesn’t necessarily have the 20 years of being able to control one’s emotions around a harassing officer. You know, it’s important for, of course, parents and society to have those conversations, especially, because we don’t want those kids to end up blaming themselves. We don’t want our Black boys, after they get brutalized by the police, to think that it’s their fault. Just like we don’t want our Black girls after they’re sexually assaulted to believe it’s their fault. It’s not the fault, you know, of these people. And oftentimes, even Black folks blame these young people, sometimes out of anger and fear, but oftentimes, that just makes the situation worse. And so that’s why we should just be so committed to fighting these larger forces of racism because in fighting racism, we’re protecting our children. 

Chanda Smith Baker  12:53 

And speaking of the children, like what role do you think our educational system has, right, in terms of, debunking, or addressing sort of these issues of race and racism, and really understanding better the historical context? 

Dr. Ibram X Kendi  13:13 

I mean, if you look at the two most destructive and murderous, white supremacist domestic terrorists of the last five years, of course, Kyle Rittenhouse, and the very young, white man who shot up those nine people who were, who were praying, you know, in Charleston Church, they were both extremely young. They were both only years out of high school, you know, who knows what they were taught, or what they weren’t more so not taught in their high schools? Who knows if they would have had a course on African American History and if they would have had a section on racism? What type of impact that would have had in their lives, but we have to systematically, you know, teach our young people like we’re doing our adults, that the problem is those other people, because if they’re taught that the problem is those other people, or they’re not taught that the problem is not those other people, then what do you think they’re gonna grow up believing? And when they have, you know, when they have AR-15s, and AK-47s and they have a crisis, what do you think they’re gonna end up doing? We’re literally by not teaching our children to be anti-racist, we are radicalizing, you know, young white men all over this country. 

Chanda Smith Baker  14:52 

I don’t know why I was surprised by the number of people that showed up at the Capitol, the insurrectionist, and I even did a podcast with a forum on sort of neo-nazi right, who said, that Minnesota was a hot button for recruiting. Yet I was still surprised and that and I don’t know if I was surprised or if it just demonstrated… It was like the pain, right, like the pain of watching what was happening. And I think we’ve had a couple of moments we touched on Floyd and we’ve touched on, you know, what happened in South Carolina with the shooting, and now we see the Capitol, do you think that these are incidents that are moving America out of its denial about race? 

Dr. Ibram X Kendi  15:42 

I think that’s what I hope. I think, especially, I think those two incidents, the murder of George Floyd and the attack on the US Capitol, it became the both was so undeniable about who or what the problem was. I mean, how do you, even though some people tried to do it, you know, blame George Floyd, right? You know, how do you not put the blame on the people who violently stormed the Capitol and even the people who incited them? Of course, some people tried to do it, and I think it was just so crystal clear for Americans that not only we have a violent policing problem, but as after one, six, it became undeniable what law enforcement, the FBI had been saying for years that the greatest domestic terrorist threat of our time, are white supremacists, and so at some point, Americans are going to have to see stop seeing terror or terrorist in people of color in order to make their nation safe. 

Chanda Smith Baker  17:06 

Well, that’s a word, because I think that there has been, right, there’s just so many layers of denial that’s been pointed out there. And I guess part of the work that we’re hoping to do at the Foundation, and I think we’re all in, to some degree, is how do we take an ordinary person to do extraordinary things relative to race and understanding how we need to be different, right, like in their realm of, of leadership, and where they have influence how do they work to do things differently? And so one of the things that we’d like to do is provide some advice on here. And so for the everyday person who is trying to become an anti-racist, do you have any sort of advice or instruction on what they should be thinking about? 

Dr. Ibram X Kendi  17:59 

Well, I think, really, the first step in being anti-racist is doing work, when many, many Americans have just not done. And that is defined terms. And so sit down one day and define a racist idea, a racist policy, even racism, you know, define an anti-racist idea in policy and anti-racism. And then, you know, compare those definitions to the definitions of scholars who study racism, and anti-racism, and get and really memorize and conceptualize a depth those definitions be and the reason being is because those definitions allow us to assess ourselves. It allows us to assess whether that idea we just said was racist or anti-racist, whether that policy that’s before us is racist, you know, anti-racist and whether we’re being in any given moment, racist, or anti-racist, and so once we have that ability to self assess, you know, then we can start, you know, reflecting on what we’re doing and saying and not doing, you know, then each of us can look in our backyard, in our institutions, and then see that the cause of disparities that we can indeed see is not, let’s say folks of color. It’s the result of racism, and so then we can join with those people in that place, who are likely already challenging that racism.

Chanda Smith Baker  19:48 

And from our philanthropic space, you know, I think there’s a growing movement of understanding that investments in programs itself are not bad, but investments and programs without understanding, sort of this systemic sort of positioning, how did it arrive? Right? Like going upstream looking at how do we move systems, while we’re helping people that it has to be, sort of, a two-prong strategy? Do you agree with that assessment? Is there something that we’re missing? Because people are moving into action really quick without having proximity or understanding of historical context?  

Dr. Ibram X Kendi  20:24 

Well, I mean, I think that, I actually do think it could be helpful to simultaneously provide relief for individual people, while also seeking to change policy that can bring relief to communities. And, but at the same time, in order to know what policies will actually be effective, you have to have, you know, historical and empirical, you know, a comprehensive understanding and analysis of the problem in proposed solutions. And so, and that isn’t the type of thing that anybody just knows, right. There are specific people who, who study food and security, or housing and security or mass incarceration or police violence, and but even some of these people may just study the problem and may not study the solution. So you really need folks who understand the problem and know the solutions that can be or have been effective. 

Chanda Smith Baker  21:30 

And for people that are interested in exploring more of the policies and how we’ve arrived, there are policies that can move us forward. Is the center that you have at BU a place that they could go to get more information and understand the depth of what that is and how that could be part of it?

Dr. Ibram X Kendi  21:50 

Yes, indeed, where, you know, one of the things we’re building is, is what we’re calling a racial policy tracker, in which we make available and really show people the actual policies and practices that are behind some of the disparities, you know, and inequities in our community. And so of course, that takes a tremendous amount of research and, and specific expertise, but we just felt, and we feel it’s important for people to know those facts. 

Chanda Smith Baker  22:25 

And before we, before we wrap, you have a new book, 400 Souls. I’m very proud to have it behind me, and I see it behind you. I’ve got to I listened to just a few minutes of it this morning on Audible, but can you talk about that book project? 

Dr. Ibram X Kendi  22:43 

Sure. Yeah. I mean, it’s our sort of pride and joy in the sense that as 2019 approached, we were thinking about a different way to really commemorate the 400th symbolic birthday, as we call it, of African Americans, and we decided, well, why not bring together a community to write the history of community. And so a co-editor Keesha Blaine and I were able to do so and we brought together 80 writers who each took five years and of African American History of wrote short pieces on those five years and even 10 poets, who, at the end of every 40 years section, would write a poem that really captured in complicated those 40 years in burse. And so, you know, we have a community of 90 writers who, who came together to write this, this history and, you know, the writers that that that came together, you know, many are who’s who from, you know, Cherylin Eiffel to Angela Davis to Nicole Hannah Jones to Alicia Garza. I mean, and so, you know, we’re excited about this volume. 

Chanda Smith Baker  24:04 

Yeah. What are you hoping? Who do you hope breeds it? And what do you hope comes from it? 

Dr. Ibram X Kendi  24:11 

Well, I mean, I hope anyone who is interested in reading and understanding and act upon acting upon the full, complete history of African Americans in this country, and I think we wanted to make this book accessible to everyone because, you know, many of us have read parts of African American History, but we wanted to provide a volume that can allow people to read, you know, the complete sort of story, because I think, knowing that story from the beginning and 1619 to our time, I think can really allow people to understand what Black people are facing today.  

Chanda Smith Baker  24:53 

Yeah. Some friends were over a couple of weeks ago, and we were talking about Roots. And like, you know, I was young and I watched the series, and I was with someone who’s like in their 30s, and they’re like, I’ve never seen the whole thing, right. Like, I just didn’t see it. It was a different time. You know, my family, we sat down, it was like a family deal every night to watch it. So when I was looking through the book, and I’m like, I think it’s time for us to have a new series out there, where, you know, I could see the different parts being family night watching, right, of the history because those moments were really significant in my life. And they’ve been way too far in between. But do you envision this hopefully, is someday something that we can also watch like we could have become an anti-racist? 

Dr. Ibram X Kendi  25:46 

I think so, stay tuned.  

Chanda Smith Baker  25:47 

Stay tuned on a project of a lifetime. I love it. I appreciate you in the midst of lots of work and busyness and a brand new book, taking time out to talk with me today. Thank you to Teach for America and Markisha Nation for bringing you. You have an upcoming event with them to be how to be an anti-racist educator. So again, thank you, Dr. Kendi, for your time. I hope you have a fantastic rest of your day. Thank you so much. 

Souphak Kienitz  26:22 

That’s Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and Chanda Smith Baker. And a quick shout out to Target. Thank you again for the sponsorship of this episode with Dr. Ibram X Kendi. You can find Dr. Kendi’s new book, 400 Souls, available in your local online store. To learn more, or register for the virtual event on how to be an anti-racist educator and advocate briefs hosted by Teach for America Twin Cities, please connect with Chanda’s, Instagram, or Twitter, @chandasbaker. I’m Souphak Kienitz, thank you for listening to Conversations with Chanda 

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About Our Guest

Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, and the founding director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. He is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a CBS News racial justice contributor. Kendi is the 2020-2021 Frances B. Cashin Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

He is the author of many books including “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, making him the youngest ever winner of that award. He also authored three #1 New York Times bestsellers, “How to Be an Antiracist;” “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” co-authored with Jason Reynolds; and “Antiracist Baby,” illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky. His newest books are “Be Antiracist: A Journal for Awareness, Reflection, and Action;” and “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America,” co-edited with Keisha Blain. In 2020, Time magazine named Kendi one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

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