A conversation with author Ibram X. Kendi

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Ibram X. Kendi, director of Boston University's Center for Antiracist Research, photographed on Oct. 21, 2020, in Boston. (Steven Senne/AP)
Ibram X. Kendi, director of Boston University's Center for Antiracist Research, photographed on Oct. 21, 2020, in Boston. (Steven Senne/AP)

Ibram X. Kendi is many things: an author, a historian, a scholar. He is also head of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University.

Radio Boston sat down with Kendi in studio to hear — in his own words — about his life, work and aspirations.

Interview Highlights

On how Kendi sees himself:

"My family and my connection to my family is primary. ... I think that's first and foremost because it's so emblematic of who I am. And then secondarily, I would consider myself to be a scholar and particularly someone who produces public scholarship, which I think is a little bit different than a public scholar or a public intellectual. I think a public scholar is someone who is simply known by the public. But I'm really trying to produce scholarship that can impact the lives of the public. So I see myself as a scholar. I don't necessarily self-identify as as an activist. I self-identify as a scholar."

On who inspires him:

"There's so many. I think, everyday people, particularly regular people who are being directly harmed by racism, are an influence on me. Whether they're an influence on me because I see the challenges that they're facing and the misery that they're facing as a result of racism, that inspires me each day, or even the resistance that they are a part of, which also inspires me and teaches me and moves me.

"I would also say readers, particularly readers who are providing constructive feedback, which allows me to sort of rethink ways to convey information or to go down a different path of research. And then obviously other scholars and journalists and activists and intellectuals and elected officials and, you know, other people who are similarly doing this work."

On how to know if his scholarship is making an impact on the public:

"I think there's a number of different ways to know. One is has been to sort of see my work being used by activists, by educators, by executives, by everyday people, by preachers and people in their organizations and in their communities. Secondarily is seeing the ways in which it may transform the ways in which people see themselves and their world. And so if someone comes to my work, for instance, thinking that the racial problem are people of color or Black people, and they come out of my work recognizing there's nothing wrong with any racial group of people and everything wrong with racist policies and practices, then to me that I see that as making a difference."

On one important figure in Boston's history:

"Maria Stewart was an abolitionist and a feminist. And in the early 1830s, she decided to stand up and speak out against not only slavery, but even racism and sexism in a coed interracial audience. And she's known as one of the first, if not the first woman, to address a interracial coed audience. And Black people and white people, men and women were angry about her doing so. And, you know, some reports they sort of chased her out of Boston and she ended up in D.C. And I mentioning Stewart because she was not only a trailblazer, but she had the courage and the audacity to say what was right — here in Boston and in this nation — and in a way that was right, despite the costs."

On being in the public's eye:

"In many ways, it's hard to not open up my social media accounts or even my email or other places in which people can reach me and not see all sorts of threats and hate mail and misinformation and disinformation, and attacks. And I think part of it is because one of the most salient and harmful talking points of white supremacists — particularly white supremacist organizations of the last two decades — have now gone mainstream.

"White supremacists for decades have been saying diversity and multiculturalism are anti-white. And then you simultaneously have other, even very prominent media figures arguing that those of us who are truly fighting for equity, for all, are actually trying to replace white people. And so if you are white and you believe that people who are striving to challenge racism are in fact trying to harm white people, then you're going to want to imagine that you're defending yourself against those people.

"I've been targeted as a result and many people of all races have been targeted as a result. But I think what many people are realizing is that what's actually the case is those white supremacists are actually not fighting for what's in the best interests of white people. They're engaging in political violence that's undermining a multiracial democracy that benefits us all."


On being honest with this daughter: 

"I think we from very early on were trying to explain to her about the problem of racism, about the fact that there was going to be people who do not like [her] or who do not like daddy because of the color of his skin. And then there's going to be people who are going to challenge us because we're trying to fight against that notion that we should like or dislike people because of the color of their skin.

"We've tried to be open with her because we want her to understand the world that she's living in. And we also want her to, as she gets older, to want to fight for justice and be prepared that there's going to be opposition to that — so that she doesn't become discouraged."

On the work at BU's Center for Antiracist Research: 

"We're in the process at the Center for Anti-Racist Research of building and really even launching very soon our racial data tracker. ... One of the things that we have also been doing simultaneously has been really thinking about indeed the critical importance of data collection, but not just racial data collection, the standardization across states, as an example, of racial data. And not just a standardization in which all states are collecting racial data in similar ways, but also really thinking deeply about developing expertise on racial data collection. So we don't want to assume that data scientists have been skilled or taught or trained in how to collect and analyze racial and ethnic data because that may or may not be the case.

"So if we, for instance, know through data collection, that Black people in the United States are twice as likely to be unemployed as white people, then we can ask the next question: 'Why?' If we have an anti-racist perspective — which is to say, we do not think that white people or Black people are superior or inferior to another, then the next question is: 'What are the practices and policies that could be leading to that disparity?' And so the actual disparity data really opens the window to the potential racist policies or inequitable policies that are on the books or even practices that allows us to identify those. But more importantly, it allows us to begin to institute anti-racist or equitable policies."

On his new graphic novel coming out: 

"It's based on 'Stamped from the Beginning,' this narrative history of anti-Black racist ideas that I wrote. Frankly, 'Stamped from the Beginning' is about 500 pages — it's a traditional, narrative history text. I know there are many people, who have no problem reading 500 pages, but there may be many more who would rather consume that history in a different type of way. And one of the more engaging ways I think, to consume information is through graphic novels, through comic books.

"Fortunately, we have a superstar comic artist at Boston University — Joel Christian Gill. We partnered to produce this graphic novel. And what's also fascinating about this graphic novel is Joel — there's quite a bit of levity in the narrative, which I think is important, because sometimes the history of racist ideas can be so ridiculous, it can only be shared in a comedic form."

This segment aired on May 4, 2023.


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