About The Episode
As protests for racial justice continue, many are asking how racism became so embedded in our lives. This hour, TED's Whitney Pennington Rodgers guides us through talks that offer part of the answer.
About Whitney Pennington Rodgers
As TED's current affairs curator, Whitney Pennington Rodgers finds speakers whose ideas steer today's discourse and address the times we live in; she then helps bring their stories to the TED stage.
Prior to joining TED, Pennington Rodgers produced for NBC's primetime news magazine Dateline NBC. She earned a duPont-Columbia award and a News & Documentary Emmy for her contributions to the Dateline NBC program, "The Cosby Accusers Speak."
Pennington Rodgers has also worked at NBC's in-house production company Peacock Productions, The Today Show, NBC Nightly News, and Rock Center with Brian Williams.
She received her Bachelor's in journalism and media studies from Rutgers University. She completed her Master's of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
Baratunde Thurston: How To Deconstruct Racism, One Headline At A Time
Writer and comedian Baratunde Thurston explores the phenomenon of white Americans calling the police on black Americans for doing everyday things. He reveals the power of language to change stories of trauma into stories of healing.
Heather C. McGhee: Racism Has A Cost For Everyone
Racism makes our economy worse—and not just in ways that harm people of color, says public policy expert Heather C. McGhee. She reveals how racism drains our economic potential, and she offers a vision of greater prosperity for all.
In U.S. schools, black history is often watered-down, riddled with inaccuracies, and stripped of both its context and full-bodied historical figures. Professor David Ikard highlights how making history more benign and digestible harms us all.
Mwende "FreeQuency" Katwiwa: Black Life At The Intersection Of Birth And Death
Performing her poem "The Joys of Motherhood," Mwende "FreeQuency" Katwiwa explores the experience of black mothers in America and discusses the impact of the Movement for Black Lives. She says, it's impossible to separate the two.
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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. So far, 2020 has seen crisis after crisis - a pandemic, a recession and, over the past couple of weeks, massive protests drawing more attention than ever to racial inequality in America. The convergence of all these traumatic events into what can feel like a suddenly urgent conversation about race comes as no surprise to some.
WHITNEY PENNINGTON RODGERS: I do think that this is a moment where we do have to step back and sort of think about how decisions even before the pandemic started have brought us here.
ZOMORODI: This is Whitney Pennington Rodgers.
PENNINGTON RODGERS: And I am TED's current affairs curator.
ZOMORODI: Today, Whitney is bringing us a selection of talks that she thinks can help us confront the injustice that is so ingrained in our nation's identity, speakers who can put today's headlines in historical context. And that context can be unsettling. It can also be very subtle.
So, Whitney, in light of all the recent protests and the expressions of anguish in the United States over race relations, we wanted you to come on and share with us some ideas from some of your favorite speakers who can really help us understand how we got to this moment in history, whether it's through the language we use or economic decisions and policy decisions that have been made or even the way, like, a kid's history lesson has been taught in school. How do you think a talk can put these important subjects in context? And tell us about the first one that you chose.
PENNINGTON RODGERS: So, you know, I think the beauty of talks is that there is an opportunity to really dive deeply into one subject from a person's lens and for them to really get into the nitty-gritty around an issue in a way that I think you don't see a lot in other types of media. And I feel like we have so many talks that have touched on the subject of race in America and racism from so many different angles and allowed us to understand both, you know, things that feel really topical and important to this moment but also help us bring out ideas about how we move forward. I think that's always really what we look for with a TED talk - is how can we take a problem or an issue in this moment and find a solution?
And so thinking about what's happening in the world right now, the first talk that, for me, feels like it's so helpful in understanding how we are here is a talk that Baratunde Thurston gave at TED2019 called "How To Deconstruct Racism, One Headline At A Time." And he offers this understanding of how language really shapes the way that we interpret situations and the framing in which we see people.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. So Baratunde - he produced for "The Daily Show" and wrote the best-seller "How To Be Black." And I was in the audience, actually, when Baratunde gave this talk. And he started by telling us about this strange but interesting process that he created for breaking down the news headlines, headlines like police shoot another unarmed black person - horrible headlines. But he decided to diagram these sentences, like, just like his high school teacher taught him, to see if he could pinpoint how simple language can actually favor white people or, as Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative calls it, the narrative of racist difference. So of course, it being Baratunde, he turned it into a shockingly funny and appalling game for the audience. So let's listen.
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BARATUNDE THURSTON: I'm going to talk you through the game. The first level is a training level, and I need your participation. Our objective, to determine if this is real or fake. Did this happen or not? Here is the example. "Catholic University Law Librarian Calls Police On Student For Being Argumentative." Clap your hands if you think this is real.
THURSTON: Clap your hands if you think this is fake.
THURSTON: The reals have it, unfortunately. And a point of information - being argumentative in a law library is the exact right place to do that.
THURSTON: This student should be promoted to professor. Training level complete, so we move on to the real levels. Level one, our objective is simple, reverse the roles. That means white man calls police on black woman using neighborhood pool becomes black woman calls police on white man using neighborhood pool. How do you like them reverse-racist apples? That's it. Level one complete. And so we level up to level two, where our objective is to increase the believability of the reversal. Let's face it - a black woman calling police on a white man using a pool isn't absurd enough. But what if that white man was trying to touch her hair without asking? Or maybe he was making oat milk while riding a unicycle.
THURSTON: So that's it, level two complete. But it comes with a warning. Simply reversing the flow of injustice is not justice. That is vengeance. That is not our mission. That's a different game, so we level up to level three, where the objective is to change the action, also known as, calling the police is not your only option. OMG, what is wrong with you people?
THURSTON: And I need to pause the game to remind us of the structure. A subject takes an action against a target engaged in some activity. "White Woman Calls Police On Black Real Estate Investor Inspecting His Own Property." "California Safeway Calls Cops On Black Woman Donating Food To The Homeless." In all these cases, the subject is usually white. The target is usually black. And the activities are anything, from sitting in a Starbucks to walking agitated on the way to work, which I just call walking to work.
THURSTON: All of these activities add up to living. Our existence is being interpreted as crime. Now, this is the obligatory moment in the presentation where I have to say, not everything is about race. Crime is a thing, should be reported. But ask yourself, do we need armed men to show up and resolve this situation? Because when they show up for me, it's different. We know that police officers use force more with black people than with white people, and we are learning the role of 911 calls in this.
Thanks to preliminary research from the Center for Policing Equity, we're learning that in some cities, most of the interaction between cops and citizens is due to 911 calls, not officer-initiated stops. And most of the violence, the use of force by police on citizens, is in response to those calls. Further, when those officers responding to calls use force, that increases in areas where the percentage of the white population has also increased, aka gentrification, aka when BBQ Becky feels threatened, she becomes a threat to me in my own neighborhood, which forces me and people like me to police ourselves.
We quiet ourselves. We walk on eggshells. We maybe pull over to the side of the road under the brightest light we can find so that our murder might be caught cleanly on camera. And we do this because we live in a system in which white people can too easily call on deadly force to ensure their comfort. This word game reminded me that there is a structure to white supremacy. I'm asking people here to see the structure, where the power is in it and, even more importantly, to see the humanity of those of us made targets by this structure.
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ZOMORODI: Whitney, I love this talk. It literally put it in black and white print about the way we write and speak has real implications. Did you work with Baratunde on this talk?
PENNINGTON RODGERS: I didn't. In fact, I'd actually just started at TED right before this conference. But I was in the room for it, as well, and I remember feeling like, wow, he has articulated this feeling that I think for so long, especially - I'm a black woman, and I think a lot of people in the black community always have this sense of, oh, you know, the headlines, the words that are used in the news, you know, you say that, you know, someone was looting, you know, in certain instances and not in others depending on, who is the person performing the act? And for him to paint that so clearly, I think I felt that that was really powerful.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. He also sort of - at one point, he says that he's - you know, he went to the right schools. He's semifamous, done very well, has every privilege he could have. And yet he walks around in fear because he knows that someone seeing him as a threat could be a threat to his life. And for some of us, sadly, that's unfathomable.
PENNINGTON RODGERS: Yeah. Yeah. Honestly, for me, it feels even unfathomable to me when I'm inside my home - right? - when I feel safe here. And he doesn't mention this in his talk, but there is something that we call the talk in the black community, which is specifically this idea that you, you know - you sit your children down at a young age, and you talk to them about the dangers that they face by doing some of the things that Baratunde described, by living out in the world because people are threatened by your existence. There have been so many stories of people finding themselves in the situation that Baratunde has described that we've reached our boiling point, I think, in many ways.
ZOMORODI: You used to be in journalism, right? And I'm asking because as a journalist, I, you know, listened very carefully to Baratunde's talk and also have been looking at the headlines to see if there has been any change since he gave his talk. And I think journalists are much more conscientious of using inflammatory language. You know, your headlines have to be written in a way that infers that there's a bigger story to it, that our responsibility as journalists is to not cast judgment on who is doing what with five to nine words right at the top.
PENNINGTON RODGERS: Sure. And it feels slow, but I do agree that I think that you do start to see that there is more thoughtfulness around the kind of language and a better appreciation for how language does oppress people and how it is a system - right? Like, if the New York Times puts looting in a headline, then many other papers around the country - they may pick up that same headline. Or if the Associated Press or Reuters, you know? - and those headlines end up all over the place. And I think that slowly, people are starting to realize the extreme impact that language can have and especially in those seven to 10 words at the very top of an article...
PENNINGTON RODGERS: ...In sort of even framing how you read that article. Have you already made a decision about who's at fault? And that makes me feel a lot better when I do see that there is that little bit of change. But clearly, it's not happening often enough or quickly enough. And I think, you know, it's talks like Baratunde's that remind us how seriously we need to take that.
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ZOMORODI: After the break, more TED Talks about injustice in America, why racism actually hits everyone financially and the real story of Rosa Parks. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.
ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today on the show, TED's current affairs curator, Whitney Pennington Rodgers, is bringing us talks to illuminate some of the more surprising effects of racism on everyone. All right. So let's go from words and language to data and policy because the next speaker that you have chosen is public policy expert Heather McGhee. Tell us about Heather.
PENNINGTON RODGERS: Yeah. So Heather McGhee, as you mentioned, she's a policy expert, and she gave this talk at TED Women in December of 2019 called "Racism Has A Cost For Everyone." And I think the thing that I love about this talk is that she is looking at racism through the lens that, you know, I think speaks to every single one of us, in dollars and cents, and really breaks down, you know, that there are no winners when people are racist.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. So Heather researches problems like rising household debt or declining wages or benefits. And I wonder if people may have heard of Heather McGhee because of a moment that went viral a couple years ago. She was in the middle of a live TV appearance on C-SPAN when they were taking calls and a white man named Gary (ph) called in to ask her advice over how to overcome his racial prejudice.
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GARY: I'm a white male, and I am prejudice. It's kind of something that I learned. What can I do to change, you know, to be a better American?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Heather McGhee.
HEATHER MCGHEE: Thank you so much for being honest and for opening up this conversation because it's simply one of the most important ones we have to have in this country. So what can you do? Get to know black families who are...
PENNINGTON RODGERS: This was a moment for her was she kind of took a step back and thought to herself, like, well, huh. Like, how does my work connect to this idea of thinking about systemic racism and the impact that it has on all people - and sent her on this tour where she spent a lot of time researching going to different parts of America to see what the actual impact is of racism economically on different communities.
ZOMORODI: Let's pick up from right there. Let's listen.
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MCGHEE: I wondered, is it possible that our society's racism been backfiring on the very same people set up to benefit from privilege? My conclusion - racism leads to bad policymaking. It's making our economy worse. Racism is bad for white people, too. Take, for example, America's underinvestment in our public goods, the things that we all need that we share in common - our schools and roads and bridges. Our infrastructure gets a D-plus from the American Society of Civil Engineer. But it wasn't always this way.
In the 1930s and '40s, the United States went on a nationwide building boom of public amenities funded by tax dollars, which in Montgomery, Ala., included the Oak Park Pool, which was the grandest one for miles. You know, back then, people didn't have air conditioners, and so they spent their hot summer days in a steady rotation of sunning and splashing and then cooling off under a ring of nearby trees. It was the meeting place for the town. Except the Oak Park Pool, though it was funded by all of Montgomery's citizens, was for whites only. When a federal court finally deemed this unconstitutional, the reaction of the town council was swift. Effective January 1, 1959, they decided they would drain the public pool rather than let black families swim, too. This destruction of public goods was replicated across the country in towns not just in the South. Towns closed their public parks, pools and schools all in response to desegregation orders all throughout the 1960s. In Montgomery, they shut down the entire parks department for a decade. They never rebuilt the pool. Racism has a cost for everyone.
I remember having that same thought on September 15, 2008, when I learned the breaking news that Lehman Brothers was collapsing. Now, Lehman was like the other financial firms that would go under in the coming days done in by overexposure to a toxic financial instrument based on something that used to be simple and safe - a 30-year fixed-rate home loan. But the mortgages at the center and the root of the financial crisis had strange new terms, and they were developed and aggressively marketed for years in black and brown middle-class communities like the one that I visited when I met a homeowner named Glenn. Glenn had owned a home on a leafy street in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Cleveland for over a decade. But when I met him, he was near foreclosure. Like nearly all of his neighbors, he'd received a knock on the door from a broker promising to refinance his mortgage. But what the broker didn't tell him was that this was a new kind of mortgage, a mortgage with an inflated interest rate and a balloon payment and a prepayment penalty if he tried to get out of it.
Now, the common misperception then and still today is that people like Glenn were buying properties they couldn't afford, that they themselves were risky borrowers. I saw how this stereotype made it harder for policymakers to see the crisis for what it was back when we still had time to stop it. But that's all it was, a stereotype. The majority of subprime mortgages went to people who had good credit like Glenn. And African Americans and Latinos were three times as likely even if they had good credit than white people to get sold these toxic loans. The problem wasn't the borrower. The problem was the loan.
These loans, super profitable for the lenders but designed to fail for the borrowers, spread out past the confines of black and brown neighborhoods like Glenn's and into the wider whiter mortgage market. All of the nation's big Wall Street firms bet on these loans. At its peak, 1 out of every 5 mortgages in the country was in this mold. And the crisis would go on to cost us all $19 trillion in lost wealth - pensions, home equity, savings, 8 million jobs vanished, a homeownership rate that has never recovered.
My years of advocating in vain for homeowners like Glenn left me convinced we would not have had a financial crisis if it weren't for racism. It costs us so much to remain divided. This zero-sum thinking that what's good for one group has to come at the expense of another, it's what's gotten us into this mess. I believe it's time to reject that old paradigm and realize that our fates are linked. An injury to one is an injury to all.
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ZOMORODI: I mean, example after example of essentially white self-sabotage financially.
PENNINGTON RODGERS: Yeah. I mean - and it speaks to this idea of systems - right? - that we have these systems in place that maybe at one point the benefit to a privileged group was really clear. But I think the big thing that Heather gets at here is that we're all connected. All of this is connected. And we're now living in a country where it is impossible to separate a negative impact on one community and one group from the way that that might impact another group. And I think that these examples that she shared just - they really make it clear and lay it bare that it is impossible to really look at oppression as something that only has an effect on one group of people.
ZOMORODI: In light of the recent dire economic situation that the world is in, I mean, I feel like the ideas behind Heather McGhee's talk need to be heard more than ever as there begins planning to rebuild entire economies. It can't go back to the way it was.
PENNINGTON RODGERS: No. No, we can't. I do think that this is a moment where we do have to step back and sort of think about how decisions even before the pandemic started have brought us here. And even as that relates to the economy especially, you know, I think as you mentioned so many people are hurting financially. Businesses are shuttering. People are unemployed, really struggling to make ends meet in a way that we have not seen potentially ever in modern times. You know, that is a time for us to look at how systems that we've become accustomed to that we in some ways really cling to just do not serve us well and will not serve all of us well moving forward.
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ZOMORODI: OK. So our next speaker is David Ikard. He is a professor of African American and diaspora studies at Vanderbilt University. And he is the author of numerous books about race, but his focus is really about how black history gets compiled and taught, right?
PENNINGTON RODGERS: Yeah. Yeah. So he delivered this TEDx Talk in Tennessee. And he focuses specifically on Rosa Parks, and he tells a story about an experience he had with his own son around the teaching of the Rosa Parks story, which I think most of us know as, you know, this little old woman, she gets on the bus in Alabama and she's tired. This is, you know, during segregation. She sits in the whites section and does not want to get up to give up her seat because she's so exhausted. When the reality of the situation is that this was a coordinated effort. She was an organizer, an activist and was doing this specifically to fight segregation and busing. And his point around how we construct these narratives, ultimately, it changes the whole way we think about this. And it serves one community better to think of her as an old lady than to think of her as somebody who is revolting against the system.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. I actually realized that my school history lessons had been lacking by listening to the professor's talk and I wonder if listeners will have the same reaction. Rosa Parks was younger than me when she got on that bus. So here we go. It - as you said, the professor's talk starts with his son, Elijah.
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DAVID IKARD: He must've looked at my face and saw that I was a little less than impressed by his history lesson. And I said, son, you didn't get anything wrong, but I think your teacher got a whole lot of things wrong. Rosa Parks was not tired. She was not old. And she certainly didn't have tired feet. He said, what? I said, yes. Rosa Parks was only 42 years old. Yeah, you're shocked - right? Never heard that. Rosa Parks was only 42 years old. She had only worked six hours that day, and she was a seamstress, and her feet were just fine. The only thing that she was tired of was she was tired of inequality. She was tired of oppression. And my son said, well, why would my teacher, you know, tell me this thing? You know, this is confusing for me. Because he loved his teacher, and she was a good teacher, a young-ish, you know, 20-something white woman, really, really smart, pushed him. So I liked her, as well. But he was confused. Why would she tell me this? he said. He said, Dad, tell me more about Rosa Parks. And I said, son, I'll do you one better. I'm going to buy her autobiography, and I'm going to let you read it yourself.
IKARD: So as you can imagine, Elijah wasn't too excited about this new, lengthy homework assignment that his dad had just given him, but he took it in stride. And he came back after he had read it, and he was excited about what he had learned. He said, Dad, he said, not only was Rosa Parks not initially into nonviolence, he said, but Rosa Parks' grandfather, who basically raised her and was light enough to pass as white, used to walk around town with his gun in his holster. And people knew that if you messed with Mr. Parks' children or grandchildren, he would put a cap in your proverbial bottom...
IKARD: ...Right? He was not someone to mess with. And he said, I also learned that Rosa Parks married a man in Raymond who was a lot like her grandfather. He was a civil rights activist. He would organize events. And, sometimes, the events would be at Rosa Parks' home. And one time, Rosa Parks remarked that there were so many guns on the table because they were prepared for somebody to come busting into the door that they were prepared for whatever was going to go down - that Rosa Parks said, there were so many guns on the table that I forgot to even offer them coffee or food. This is who Rosa Parks was.
And in fact, Rosa Parks, when she was sitting on that bus that day, waiting for those police officers to arrive and not knowing what was going to happen to her, she was not thinking about Martin Luther King, who she barely knew. She was thinking about her grandfather, a gun-toting, take-no-mess grandfather. That's who Rosa Parks was thinking about. My son was mesmerized by Rosa Parks, and I was proud of him to see this excitement.
You see. That's why Rosa Parks wrote her autobiography - because during her lifetime, if you can imagine, you do this amazing thing. You're alive, and you're talking about your civil rights activism, and a story emerges in which somebody is telling the world that you were old, and you had tired feet, and you just were an accidental activist, not that you had been an activist by then for 20 years, not that the boycott had been planned for months, not that you were not even the first or the second or even the third woman to be arrested for doing that, right? You become an accidental activist, even in our own lifetime. So she wrote that autobiography to correct the record because what she wanted to remind people of was that this is what it was like in the 1950s trying to be black in America and fight for your rights.
During the year, a little over a year that the boycott lasted, there were over four church bombings. Martin Luther King's house was bombed twice. Other civil rights leaders' houses were bombed in Birmingham. Rosa Parks' husband slept at night with a shotgun because they would get constant death threats. In fact, Rosa Parks' mother lived with them. And, sometimes, she would stay on the phone for hours so that somebody - so that nobody would call in with death threats because it was constant and persistent. In fact, there was so much tension, there was so much pressure, there was so much terrorism that Rosa Parks and her husband - they lost their jobs, and they became unemployable and eventually had to leave and move out of the South.
This is a civil rights reality that Rosa Parks wanted to make sure that people understood because it's a lot easier to digest an old grandmother with tired feet who doesn't stand up because she wants to fight for inequality but because her feet and her back are tired, and she's worked all day. See. Grandmothers, old grandmothers are not scary, but young, radical, black women who don't take any stuff from anybody are very scary, who stand up to power and are willing to die for that. Those are not the kind of people that make us comfortable.
Toni Morrison said, if, in order for you to be tall, I have to be on my knees, you have a serious problem. She says white America has a serious, serious problem. To be honest, I don't know if race relations will improve in America. But I know that if they will improve, we have to take these challenges head on. The future of my children depend on it. The future of my children's children depends on it. And whether you know it or not, the future of your children and your children's children depends on it, too.
ZOMORODI: That's David Ikard on the TED stage. More with TED's Whitney Pennington Rodgers and ideas about how racism is embedded in how we talk about our nation's history. It's after the break. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today on the show, an urgent moment in America means confronting just how we got here with race relations. TED current affairs curator Whitney Pennington Rogers is with us. And so far, we've heard how perspective matters, why racism has a lot to do with the 2008 financial crisis and a more accurate story of Rosa Parks.
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PENNINGTON RODGERS: You know, it's interesting - I learned from my father of the real story of Rosa Parks but in the same way that professor Ikard described in school was taught - the inaccurate version of that story. And it's just wrong. It's just wrong. But it's not an accident, right? Someone has chosen to tell the story in this way. And, you know, you think about why those decisions are made and why a certain group is made to seem, as professor Ikard has suggested, like a victim - it disrupts the system less.
PENNINGTON RODGERS: You know, thinking about the fact that maybe she did revolt is - it's much harder to process. And I think that that actually connects, in a lot of ways, to what Baratunde talks about in his talk. You know, he's talking about language and how language can be used to hurt groups and help other groups. I think that in this talk, professor Ikard, you know, is talking about how storytelling plays the same role and that we do need to be really thoughtful about how we tell stories and that we tell them accurately and how we portray certain people in order to ensure that we give power where power should be given, that we don't privilege other groups over others and that we don't oppress groups.
ZOMORODI: That makes me think, you know, what could it have been like if Rosa Parks had been able to live stream being arrested (laughter)?
PENNINGTON RODGERS: Oh, my gosh.
ZOMORODI: I mean, there is something - you know, the other night - where did I want to be? I wanted to be on Twitter because I wanted to see what people were seeing, and I wanted - and they could tell me. Do you know what I mean (laughter)?
PENNINGTON RODGERS: Yeah.
ZOMORODI: It's bearing witness and seeing the wonderful solidarity on the streets but also being able to count those full, nearly nine minutes that killed George Floyd. There is a power to that that - I wonder if you think it's going to speed up the process of understanding and listening to the pain you described?
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PENNINGTON RODGERS: Yeah. You know, I hope so. But I would not be totally honest if I said that I definitely think so. You know, I mean, I think this is not the first time we've seen a black person killed on camera, you know, by police - right? This - you see the George Floyd video, and it reminds you so much of Eric Garner. And you think about the countless other names that we've seen, you know, murdered on camera. And then, those who, you know, are not filmed - to your point about, if you could have streamed if there were social media when Rosa Parks decided not to get off the bus. That - this is happening every day in different ways that we may never know and has been happening for hundreds of years, you know, in ways that - stories that we will never, ever know.
And I think black people are tired and have had enough when it comes to these sorts of things. But I hope that it's a moment where nonblack people and white people and allies can also say how they feel and begin to also express that they're tired, too, you know, that they are ready for a change, as well. And if it is this particular video - which is horrific, just as all the others are - then I think that that is, in many ways, a way that George Floyd doesn't completely die in vain, you know?
ZOMORODI: May I ask how you're doing? I mean, things have gotten extremely intense. And with your job, you are immediately called upon to find people who can be thoughtful and add context to the conversation and be eloquent when, really, what a lot of people just want to do is - if they're not in the streets - they want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over their heads 'cause it's so upsetting.
PENNINGTON RODGERS: Thank you for asking, Manoush. You know, it's - I am upset, of course. And I think that I do have those moments. And I have - this whole weekend, in fact - cried every single day, you know? And, sometimes, it's made it hard for me to do things I need to do - the laundry and, you know, clean and that sort of stuff. And it makes it hard, sometimes, for me to do my work to think about this. But the thing that - honestly, I feel really privileged to be in a position where I can help amplify voices that maybe can move this forward.
And I feel inspired when I do have those moments that - where I'm like, I can't. You know, I just can't. I don't have the energy emotionally to do this - that I turn on the television and I see, you know, other black voices out there who are finding the strength to get up and say something, that I read articles by other people who are hurting and that they find the energy to put this on paper because it's, honestly - as tired as we are, if we don't find that energy to say something and do something right now, we're going to be tired for a lot longer. And the only way that we can sort of ensure that we do move beyond this is to try and find that strength right now.
ZOMORODI: I'm grateful to you because I have just felt like I want to listen. I want to listen very, very carefully without judgment just taking it in and trying to understand all the different layers that there are to this conversation about race in America. So who are the people whom you would most like to invite to these TED speakers as we move forward in this hopefully renewed conversation about racial justice in the United States?
PENNINGTON RODGERS: Yeah. I mean, I feel like there have been a lot of voices out there. You know, I think that we've seen thoughtful remarks from, you know, the likes of, like, of Killer Mike, who's been out there a lot. You know, you see thoughtful remarks, you know, from Trevor Noah, you know, who I think is often really thoughtful and had, you know, a video that he posted recently where he talked about - sort of offered some framing around these protests and how we can better understand them. And I thought that was also really smart.
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TREVOR NOAH: To realize while everyone is facing the battle against coronavirus, black people in America are still facing the battle against racism and coronavirus. Think about how many black Americans just have read and seen the news of how black people are disproportionately affected by coronavirus and not because of something inherently inside black people but rather because of the lives black people have lived in America for so long.
PENNINGTON RODGERS: And, you know, I think that there are voices, of course, who we have had on the TED stage who I think continue to really add a lot of value and their words really resonate so much louder right now. Like, you think about, you know, Bryan Stevenson who's always sort of a leader when it comes to thinking about racial inequality.
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BRYAN STEVENSON: When I teach my students about African American history, I tell them about slavery. I tell them about terrorism, the era that began at the end of reconstruction that went on to World War II. We don't really know very much about it, but for African Americans in this country, that was an era defined by terror. In many communities, people had to worry about being lynched. They had to worry about being bombed. It was the threat of terror that shaped their lives. And these older people come up to me now and they say, Mr. Stevenson, you give talks, you make speeches, you tell people to stop saying we're dealing with terrorism for the first time in our nation's history after 9/11. They tell me to say, you know, tell them that we grew up with that and that era of terrorism, of course, was followed by segregation and decades of racial subordination and apartheid.
And yet we have in this country this dynamic where we really don't like to talk about our history. And because of that, we really haven't understood what it's meant to do the things we've done historically. We're constantly running into each other. We're constantly creating tensions and conflicts. We have a hard time talking about race. And I believe it's because we are unwilling to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation.
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PENNINGTON RODGERS: You know, that's a voice that I want to hear, and I know, you know, President Obama, who's never been on a TED stage, has also shared some words and some resources here that I think are really meaningful. And people continue to look to him as sort of a north star in thinking about what we do and how we move forward. And so, you know, there are a lot of people who I think are speaking out now and voices that I feel like both within and outside of the black community that we should give a platform to. And I think that this is a time where we need to not step away even as we get further and further removed from the George Floyd murder. And even if it is weeks or months or hopefully never again but if, you know, even if it's a while before we do have another incident like this, that we need to keep having these conversations. We need to keep thinking about how we advance this and end systemic racism because every time we stop, it sort of puts us one step forward, a hundred steps back.
ZOMORODI: And what about the people who maybe would not be typically open to listening to different points of view? We have an election coming up in the fall. Your job as curator for current affairs at TED is going to get exponentially harder. How do we begin to draw in the voices of people who maybe are resistant to this conversation about race? Because we can't do it if it's just half the country, right?
PENNINGTON RODGERS: Right. You know, I mean, I think it kind of - it goes back to what you were saying earlier about Baratunde where he offered his talk in a way that felt, you know, with humor and disarms people. And I'm not necessarily saying that all of the messaging needs to be humorous, but I think that there does need to be an approach where it isn't - you're not accusatory and you're not approaching people in ways that feel aggressive but rather with the spirit of we need to work on this together. That's hard to say even, you know, when you have instances where people are harming you in some way, where you feel, you know, agitated by the things they say, the actions they make. But I think understanding that this is a part of the bigger picture is important.
And I feel like for those people who really are not interested in having these conversations, a big part of it is just, you know, looking at where you are right now. We're all right now experiencing this pandemic together. Every single one of us is hurting in one way or another. Whether it even is just, you know, the pain of having to change your life in such drastic ways and having to adjust to that, we're all having this moment where we're recognizing that things are not working. And I think that requires all of us to sort of have an open mind about, OK, well, what haven't I listened to? What haven't I explored as an option? And maybe it's time to think about some of those other options and give them a listen.
ZOMORODI: OK. So, Whitney, before we go, you brought us something beautiful to end this episode. This is a poem from a Kenyan queer woman. Her name is Mwende Katwiwa, and she goes by FreeQuency. So tell us about her poem.
PENNINGTON RODGERS: Yeah. I mean, so she speaks about - it's "Black Life At The Intersection Of Life And Death." And she speaks about the fear that she has when thinking about motherhood and thinking about the dangers that a child that she might bring into this world would face living in America. She says that she doesn't want to raise another poem. You know, she doesn't want to raise somebody who's - their life - she might outlive their own life. And instead, it's more of the memory of them that sustains. And I think that that is so powerful because you think about right now where we're in this moment of experiencing violence against the black community and where we continue to see the value in saying people's names after they've died. And I think that there's a big connection to that in that, you know, I also - I don't want to just say names for people who aren't with us anymore, you know. I don't want to say the name of a child who can't survive in this world. And so it feels like it's a beautifully horrifying poem in many ways, and it's painful but really important, I think, to listen to.
ZOMORODI: OK. Whitney, thanks again for bringing us these important ideas and speakers on as we listen very carefully to the conversation happening about race.
PENNINGTON RODGERS: Thank you so much for having me, Manoush.
PENNINGTON RODGERS: That's Whitney Pennington Rodgers. She is TED's current affairs curator. And here is Mwende Katwiwa reading her poem "The Joys Of Motherhood."
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MWENDE KATWIWA: I've always wanted to be a mother. Growing up, I heard all about the joys of motherhood. I used to dream of watching my womb weave wonder into this world. See, I knew I was young, but I figured it couldn't hurt to start planning for something so big so early. But now I'm 26 years old, and I don't know if I have what it takes to stomach motherhood in this country.
See, over the years, America has taught me more about parenting than any book on the subject. It has taught me how some women give birth to babies and others to suspects. It has taught me that this body will birth kin who are more likely to be held in prison cells than to hold college degrees. There is something about being black in America that has made motherhood seem complicated, seem like I don't know what to do to raise my kids right and keep them alive.
Do I tell my son not to steal because it is wrong or because they will use it to justify his death? Do I tell him that even if he pays for his Skittles and sweet tea there will still be those who will watch him and see a criminal before child who will call the police and not wait for them to come? Do I even want the police to come? Too many Sean Bells go off in my head when I consider calling 911. I will not take it for Oscar Grant-ed that they will not come and kill my son.
So we may have gotten rid of the nooses, but I still consider it lynching when they murder black boys and leave their bodies for four hours in the sun as a historical reminder that there is something about being black in America that has made motherhood sound like mourning, sound like one morning I could wake up and see my son as a repeat of last week's story, sound like I could wake up and realize the death of my daughter wouldn't even be newsworthy.
So you can't tell me that Sandra Bland is the only black woman whose violence deserves more than our silence. What about our other dark-skinned daughters in distress whose deaths we have yet to remember? What about our children whose lives don't fit neatly between the lives of your genders?
See, apparently, nothing is a great protector if you come out of a body that looks like this. See, there is something about being black in America that has made motherhood sound like something I'm not sure I'll look forward to.
I've written too many poems about dead black children to be naive about the fact that there could one day be a poem written about my kids. But I do not want to be a mother who gave birth to poems. I do not want a stanza for a son nor a line for a little girl nor a footnote for a child who doesn't fit into this world. No, I do not want children who will live forever in the pages of poetry yet can't seem to outlive me.
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ZOMORODI: Mwende Katwiwa reading her poem "The Joys Of Motherhood." Many thanks to TED's Whitney Pennington Rodgers for sharing her favorite talks, ones that so clearly explain why America has struggled and continues to struggle to confront its own history of racism. You can see all the talks that Whitney mentioned at ted.npr.org. And you can see hundreds more TED Talks at ted.com or on the TED app. Oh, and, by the way, if you want to keep learning about race in America, I have to recommend NPR's Code Switch podcast. You'll hear reporting from a multiracial, multigenerational team of journalists who explore the overlapping themes of race, ethnicity and culture and how they play out in our lives and our communities. Check out Code Switch.
Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala, and Matthew Cloutier, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.