Just before spring break, more than 100 members of the Rivers community joined some 9,000 attendees at an AISNE-hosted webinar titled “Go Beyond an Awareness of Racism.” The large turnout was driven in part by the high-profile featured speaker, prominent author and activist Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi is a New York Times bestselling author, winner of the National Book Award, and director of the Boston University Center for Anti-Racist Research.
For the first hour or so of the presentation, Kendi answered questions from independent school administrators, faculty members, and DEI directors, addressing topics ranging from admissions to the role of boards to curriculum. He touched on such challenging subjects as the growing racial wealth gap and last summer’s “Black@” Instagram accounts.
One probing question came from Ava Archibald, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Rivers. “Prep schools have historically been institutions that prioritize assimilation for BIPOC students, and antiracist prep school teachers have the challenge of changing that assimilationist culture from within,” said Archibald, as she set up her question. “What, in your opinion, is the best—and by that I mean most efficient or effective or urgent—way for antiracist teachers to use their energy and social capital to do this reinvention work? How can antiracist prep school teachers avoid merely replicating a ‘Talented Tenth’ mindset regarding BIPOC students and alumni?”
Kendi replied that the pressure to assimilate has deep historical roots. “As early as the 1790s, you had white abolitionists saying to newly freed Black people that the way in which you persuade away white racist ideas is by acting in an upstanding manner—by showing how smart you are, how hardworking you are. As a result, for many Black folks, and later Native folks and Asian Americans and Latinx Americans, you had this idea that if we act in an upstanding manner we’ll persuade away racist ideas.”
That dynamic plays out in schools, he said, when educators see high-performing Black students as “exceptions to the rule of Black inferiority.” Instead, said Kendi, these teachers must be made to see, understand, and accept their BIPOC students for who they are. Moreover, he added, the curriculum must incorporate a diversity of cultural vantage points, upending the notion that the “white suburbia” lens is the benchmark of validity. Reaching those goals, he conceded, is challenging; in a marvel of understatement, he noted that “it’s hard work being an antiracist educator.”
After the Q&A portion of the evening, the audience broke up into smaller facilitated discussion spaces, grouped by affiliation: parents, educators, faculty, trustees. The format gave participants an opportunity to share questions and concerns relevant to their particular interests.
Afterward, Archibald said it was “truly an honor to represent Rivers on an AISNE panel of educators.” Kendi, she said, “was reflective and direct, as always.” For her, there were three big takeaways from the talk.
“First,” she said, “he addressed our constitutive responsibility as independent schools to lean into our mission of helping students use their talents to tackle complex issues—taking our students to the problems and engaging them in conversation and strategy about the complexities of these problems as we look for solutions (big and small).”
She also noted Kendi’s point that “the simplicity of racist ideas is what has perpetuated these ideas. Being anti-racist brings complexity, and we should be stepping into that complexity with intention.”
Finally, Kendi was adamant that schools have a responsibility to attract and retain more students and faculty of color. Archibald was struck by his contention that “it is no one’s fault but our own if we are not becoming more diverse. We should set our intention and not use our location or institutional history as an excuse for not achieving our goals.”
The presentation made it clear that all independent schools are grappling with issues around racism. It can be tempting to feel discouraged, so Kendi’s response to the final question was particularly notable. “Why is hope central to the anti-racist movement?” asked the last panelist.
“It was hope that fueled abolition,” Kendi responded. “Hope is the fuel of change. Nothing and no one can ever take away my hope; if they take that away, they take away the fuel that would allow us to create a just and equitable society.”