In an interview with Qatar Foundation, the author of international best-seller Me and White Supremacy talks about why we need to be good ancestors – and how education must give children a broader worldview.
The author of a chart-topping book that has opened up new perspectives on race and identity says parents and students should take the lead in calling for educational institutions to move away from “white-centered” teaching.
Layla F. Saad – the guest for the most recent edition of Qatar Foundation’s Education City Speaker Series – has found a global audience with her workbook Me and White Supremacy, which asks readers to reflect on and explore the way that they – even inadvertently – uphold white privilege, and provides them with tools that challenge and empower them to combat racism through their actions.
Having originated as a month-long Instagram challenge, the book has become a New York Times best-seller and led to Saad being described as one of the world’s most vital voices on the issue of white supremacy and racial injustice. The author herself believes her work has struck a chord because it “gives people the ability to think critically” about how their behaviors may be racist, even if they never realized this.
“Racism operates on different levels,” Saad explains. “It’s institutional, it’s systemic. But it also operates on a personal level. I’ve looked to give people the context and the critical thinking skills to examine this, because so much of history has been whitewashed and people don’t always have the full picture of how things play out today, other than the big headlines.
“It gives people the ability to self-reflect on how they are thinking about race and identity from the moment they wake up, through social media, the workplace, schools, relationships; and to recognize that white supremacy is always present and, whether they recognize it or not, they are participants in that.
I think most people would say they don’t want to be racist or live in a racist society. But part of the issue is that people tend to have such an extreme understanding of what racism is, and they don’t see themselves in that way
“I think most people would say they don’t want to be racist or live in a racist society. But part of the issue is that people tend to have such an extreme understanding of what racism is, and they don’t see themselves in that way. They think they are doing fine because they are treating people nicely, but being nice does not mean someone is being anti-racist.
“We have to learn to understand that white supremacy has a powerful pull, and it grants privilege to people who are white or look white. It is powerful because, to those who have this privilege, it means safety – it means not having to worry that, if something happens to you, it will be because of the color of your skin.”
According to Saad, a “white bias” can begin to take hold in children as early as pre-school age. “From a young age, messages come to us that confirm the idea that white people are better than people of other races and colors, and it becomes such a part of people’s worldview that, ultimately, they don’t even think about it any more,” she says. “If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have companies with all-white leadership and all-white boards. We wouldn’t have surprise when black people are in positions of leadership.
I don’t think educational institutions will reflectively look at themselves unless people say they want them to do that. So, each of us has a role to play
“It’s not about shaming anyone, or making white people ashamed of being white, because that is a deterrent to creating a world where all races can live freely. Things are the way they are because they were created to be this way a long time ago; the concept of race was only created through racism, and the need to categorize people in a certain way in order to give power to some rather than others.
“It was created long before any of us were here, and nobody should feel guilty about that. But we should feel responsible for the way we sustain it – and if we recognize that we are responsible for that, we can also take responsibility for changing it.”
One way of taking such responsibility, Saad believes, is by speaking up against education curricula and programs that skew academia by approaching it through a purely white-centered lens.
“I don’t think educational institutions will reflectively look at themselves unless people say they want them to do that,” she said. “So each of us has a role to play.
“If my child goes to a school which has predominantly white teachers, staff, and leadership, I would want that school to take responsibility for thinking how it can adapt what it teaches to ensure it gives a more wholly reflective version of history and life. We have to support children to be able to think and learn about things in a wider way than just the white-centered way that is the norm.
We are living ancestors. The people coming after us will inherit what we shape, so we have to ask ourselves ‘what do we want to give them?’.
“It shouldn’t just fall on Black parents or parents of color to do this. We need white parents to say ‘It’s important for me that my child has a wider education’. All parents want the best education for our children, and the best education should include being taught a diverse range of perspectives from a diverse range of people – not just the white perspective taught by primarily white people, who we are taught to believe are the hero of all stories, whether fictional or non-fictional.”
A cornerstone of Saad’s book, and her thinking, is the idea of people becoming “good ancestors’. As she explains: “Being a good ancestor is about shaping the future.
“We are living ancestors. The people coming after us will inherit what we shape, so we have to ask ourselves ‘what do we want to give them?’.
She cites the example of recently-deceased US civil rights leader John Lewis, saying he “knew racism would not be eradicated in his lifetime, but committed his life to creating change so people can inherit something different to what he inherited”.
And it’s a theme that carries over into the “young readers’ version” of Me and White Supremacy that she is currently developing for 10-14-year-olds of all races. “Originally, I thought it would just be an adaptation of the adult version, for white children, but the more I’ve worked on it, the more I realized it needed to be distinct,” she says.
“I felt it would be wrong to give white children a very nuanced understanding of white supremacy without giving black children and children of color the same. So it’s a whole new project, designed to help children understand white supremacy and how it functions in their lives. As they then grow into adulthood, they can have the conversations with themselves and each other about this in a way that today’s adults are perhaps not always able to do.
“It’s a challenging project, but one that is very close to my heart, and I really hope it will give children – and their parents and teachers – a tool that can help to educate and equip the next generation of good ancestors.”