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How A Racist Medical Experience Helped Inspire The Parenting Book For The Times

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and his wife Dr. Sadiqa Kendi share the inspiration behind "How To Raise An Antiracist",the treatment of Black mothers and the choice to share their birth story publicly.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is a scholar, New York Times best selling author of “How To Be Antiracist” and director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. In his newest release, Dr. Kendi focuses on how we tackle racism with the next generation. 

In “How to Raise an Antiracist”, he explains racism’s realities and ways to help children develop a better understanding of race. In the book, Dr. Kendi incorporates his scholarly expertise as well as his own personal experience as a parent, aiming to answer questions like how do we talk to our children about racism and how do we teach children to be anti-racist?

One such experience is the story of the premature birth of his daughter Imani. Dr. Kendi and his wife, Dr. Sadiqa Kendi say they faced racism when seeking medical care, despite the fact that she is a medical doctor and had worked as a pediatrician in the same hospital where their daughter was born. 

Dr. Kendi and his wife, who is the division chief of the pediatric emergency medicine division at Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine, recently spoke with ESSENCE about the inspiration for the book, the treatment of Black mothers in our society and the choice to finally share their birth story with the public.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ESSENCE: What was the inspiration and why did you feel compelled to write this book?

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi: It was a book I had been thinking about on different levels, particularly when I became a father in 2016, when I recognized my own upbringing, and how in certain ways I had been infected with a small group of racist ideas without necessarily knowing it. But it was really the summer of 2020, when I really saw the desire and demand from young people to be learning the truth about history, to really understand and be taught actively about racism that I wanted to help teachers and parents and caregivers to do so, and when I realized that young people are the most vulnerable to racism, but they’re the least likely people we are to engage about it.

ESSENCE: How has your experience giving birth and becoming a mother impacted the decision to tell your story now in this book?

Dr. Sadiqa Kendi: I think it impacted it significantly in that, I’m a pediatric emergency medicine physician and I work with kids all the time, but there’s nothing that compares to actually being the primary caregiver for a child, to actually being a parent and becoming a parent. We realized there’s just so much that we hadn’t thought about in terms of, how do we keep the child safe? I do injury prevention work, so I thought a lot about how to keep the child safe from injury, but then we realized, how do we keep our child safe in a world where there are racist ideas all over, where history is not taught in the way that it actually happened, in which, our daughter has to see things and process things and how do we prepare her for processing the world that she grows up in? So, all of that was really important in terms of thinking about the ideas that Ibram talked about in this book, just us navigating, being parents, and figuring out how to do it.

ESSENCE: Can you tell me a little bit more about the racism you experienced throughout your pregnancy and the events leading up to the premature birth of your daughter?

Dr. Sadiqa Kendi: I honestly think that one of the most challenging parts was that often it was hard to know what was happening—was it racism, was it something else, was it that I appeared young? It was hard to know, and I think that’s one of the challenges with racism, sometimes you’re experiencing it, and it’s hard to know for sure that that’s what’s happening, despite what you’re experiencing. 

I was an attending physician in the hospital that I was getting my OB care with, and I was starting to have some new symptoms, which weren’t overly alarming, but were different for me, and just didn’t seem right. I wasn’t having a lot of pain and I wasn’t having bleeding, but it was concerning, so I reached out to healthcare providers a few times. I called the clinic, I dropped by the unit after working a shift, and each time I checked in I was reassured that, “Oh, no, you know, this is something that can just happen, nothing to worry about.” I believe I checked in two or three times and was reassured each time, but without an exam or further evaluation. Finally, I just decided, this is bothering me. It doesn’t feel right to me, and so I actually made an appointment, I remember telling Ibram, “I’m gonna go, they can examine me and tell me that I’m crazy, that everything’s fine, and then I’m going to lunch with a friend.” That’s when they found out that I was five centimeters dilated with bulging amniotic membranes and at risk of delivering our daughter at 24 weeks pregnant. 

The challenge was, I’m a physician and so I know the red flag warning signs, but I also know my body and felt that there was something wrong, but didn’t know exactly what it was. I wasn’t sure, but I had new symptoms and something was different and I think that’s what made it hard. I kept asking, “Can you just let me know? Is there anything to be concerned about?” It’s hard to know if I was not an African American woman if that experience would have been different with that first time when I sought care. Would they have responded differently? Would they have identified what was happening earlier on? It’s so hard to know.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi: This should not have to be the case that a pregnant woman, like in Sadiqa’s case, has to literally save the life of our child by deciding that I’m going to go in and get this checked, even though the medical providers are telling me that I don’t have to. Our daughter is now six years old, she’s very healthy; but, Sadiqa’s decision to really advocate for our child led to her being born at 29 and a half weeks as opposed to 24 weeks, so she literally was able to potentially save our daughter’s life and so many Black women are having to save the lives of their children, as opposed to the healthcare system, and that’s their job.

Dr. Sadiqa Kendi: I feel like we need to be able to do better for all families and specifically for Black women. There’s no reason why we should have these significant disparities that we have, that are worse than many other countries in the world. There’s no reason to have that, and I think racism is a big part of it, and we in the healthcare system have to identify how we can address this and make things better.

ESSENCE: How can you know if something is racism or something else?  How do you teach that to a young person? How do you teach someone to really parse through the nuances?

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi: I think we may not be able to know for sure in individual cases. But, what we do know is that Black women are three times more likely than white women to die of pregnancy related causes. We do know that that Black children are more likely to be born premature, and that [Black mothers] are more likely to die in pregnancy, and we can teach that to young people, particularly as they get older, and we can teach them about the reasons for that, and part of the reasons for that is that typically Black women are more likely to be giving birth in hospitals with the greatest challenges. In other words, those who have the greatest needs are giving birth in places with the greatest needs, as opposed to the other way around. We can teach that they’re taking this person seriously because they’re white, and unfortunately, they’re not taking this person seriously, because they’re Black, but they should be taking all people seriously, because everyone is valuable, no matter their skin color.

ESSENCE: Serena told her birth story in Vogue, and Beyoncé also had complications with the birth of her twins. This issue is now being elevated somewhat in the media. What is something that we can really do to try and improve maternal health, especially given the fact that even as an attending physician you faced difficulties in the hospital where you work and gave birth? 

Dr. Sadiqa Kendi: There are obviously structural and systemic solutions that need to be identified. This is not about a problem with Black women. This is about a problem with the healthcare system and with the care that’s being provided, and so there needs to be very rigorous work to figure out how can these disparities and the care that’s being provided, be addressed. Another thing that made our situation better is that I was willing to advocate for myself and not ignore the fact that there was something different, that didn’t seem right to me. Black women and people who care about and are around Black women going through pregnancy and childbirth, have to be willing and know that sometimes unfortunately, we have to advocate for ourselves more. That is not the end all be all, and ultimately, that shouldn’t be the case. 

As systemic solutions are identified, in the future that will not be the case. But as of now, we have to advocate for ourselves. We have to, and that’s what happened with Serena Williams and Beyoncé—these are all women, who in many ways are privileged, and in many ways, I was privileged to have a medical background to be able to make an appointment and go to that appointment and not have to take unpaid time off of work, and so, I don’t want to at all minimize the challenges around being your own advocate, but I think that that unfortunately at this time it’s a really important part of making sure that the care that’s needed is given.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi: One of the reasons why I was so happy that Sadiqa allowed me to share this story of her and our child suffering this emergency, but Sadiqa not necessarily knowing that and then expressing, “I think there’s something wrong here,” and people not being willing to be responsive and being neglectful, is that it creates this situation where Black women have to advocate for themselves in ways that other women do not necessarily have to. It serves as a metaphor for the text itself, and how in many ways parents and teachers have to advocate for their children. They have to protect them and go out of their way to protect their children because we live in a dangerously racist society. So, while we’re trying to help, or in the broader sense, while we’re transforming our society, to make it antiracist for all children, we as caregivers, have to advocate for our own children to protect them to ensure that their needs are being met.