Your work encompasses scholarship, musical performance, educational theory, race, gender, and more. How do you describe yourself — your work and vision?
I would say, at the heart of it all, I’m a teacher. Everything I do — my music, my social media presence, my work as a scholar — involves educating. My mother said she always thought I would be a teacher of teachers, and if each student is a teacher, I’m all for that description of myself. Each student has something that they’re here to teach the world, and I’m the one, as the professor, who needs to be curious about what that might be and help them excavate, harmonize, explore, discover what that is. So all my various roles serve one intention — to honor the greatness of each and every individual and for them to discover what that is. When I step into a classroom, the first thing I say is — I’m 49 now — “I have 49 years of knowledge. And if there’s 20 students, there’s 600 years of knowledge in this room, and we’re going to explore that this semester.”
Tell us about the book you’re working on now.
It tells the story of the Fantastic Four — champions of one of the earliest double-Dutch competitions in New York City in 1981 and 1982. It’s sort of a postscript to my award-winning book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes From Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop, which explored how musical blackness is learned by looking at the musical games that black girls play. The Fantastic Four is one of the groups of girls I wrote about. I’d never met them, but about a year ago, I got a random phone call from one of the Four, Robin Waterson, looking for someone to write their story. They were four little black girls from the lower East Side who contributed both innovation and excellence to hip-hop culture when they were 14 and 15 years old. McDonald’s put them in a national commercial, and they ended up touring with the first international rap tour — including Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, all of these notable figures in early hip-hop from the South Bronx — an extraordinary story. Yet their role in the advancement of hip-hop has been totally written out of history. For years, I never knew these women’s names. They just called them “the double-Dutch girls” in all the bills. But I always knew the men’s names. I always knew the young boys’ names who were traveling on the tour.
The story of the Four is a very atypical narrative of the inner-city experience. I want to tell the story about how you can defy what you were born into, and what it takes. But it’s not a book for black girls. It’s a book for people.
I can read you a little bit of the early writing for the opening: “If we can’t, in 2012, get to a place where people can’t see themselves in young black girls or black boys, or black men and black women, we have lost the race question. We’re losing the battle. Because there’s nothing that separates you and I. This conversation of race is a social mythology. And there’s enough evidence in anthropology, there’s enough evidence in sociology, there’s enough evidence in our own experience with one another to defy that myth. And yet, we still have it plaguing our society in many ways.”
How do we get beyond using racism as a framework for everything, but still be able to tell our stories in relation to race?
Well, one is to make sure that people understand how the framework works, which is: if something isn’t real, it’s very easy to get rid of it, but if you think it’s real, it will persist. It’s a social construct analogous to a map. North on a map looks like it’s up, but it’s very simple to change that. But people are really stuck on a conversation that north is up. If I turn the map upside down, you’ll tell me that it’s upside-down, and I would say, “No, it isn’t; the words are upside-down. North is up is a construct.”
The construct of racism that we understand is that, if you’re Asian and I’m black, we’re separate. Well, that’s not true. We share 99.6 percent of the same DNA. There’s more differentiation in DNA in the continent of Africa than anywhere else. So there are no separate races. There’s only one human race. I have a definition of racism: Racism is anything that separates the human race. Anything that separates us from our sense that our humanity is connected, that’s racism. It’s not just black and white. You know, you could say it’s Muslim-Christian, you could say it’s West Bank-Israel. Anything that has us see ourselves as different from one another is a form of racism.
It’s very easy to change a social construct. But we’re using the wrong tools to fight. We don’t change the language; we accept that the language has been trapping us in a way of thinking.
How do we get out of this trap?
One way is through narrative — each others’ stories and experiences. Through stories, we can relate our experience to others. You cannot see your own eyeballs. You can see much more clearly when you can look for yourself in another. One way I’ve discovered is to crowd-source stories, different ways of viewing humanity and put them all together in short, bite-size stories — 300 words, 500 words — so many different perspectives can be viewed together.
So I’ve been curating books of short essays on social justice issues. The first was called “The Audacity of Humanity.” I got about 37 people, ages 10 to 63, from five different continents through Twitter and my local connections in Brooklyn, to write their stories — one page each on what matters to them — and published it an ebook that’s been read by about 14,000 people so far. It included lesbian, gay, transgender issues; how whites participate in the conversation of race. I curated another ebook, written by 27 students in a Black Studies course on racism, called “Could You be Bigger?” Each student wrote about their connection to institutional racism from a personal perspective: Islamophobia in the subway, white privilege associated with working at Victoria’s Secret, in the conservative Jewish community the kind of xenophobia that happens around marriage.
One of my songs addresses my own racism. I had a racist bias against boys who wear saggy pants. I still do. One day I walked by this school, and there’s all of these helicopters and police cars. A kid had gotten stabbed at the Paul Robeson High School. I passed a kid with the sagging pants, sobbing. He was so broken. I wrote a song called “Brother Man”: “Always watching in the silence.// Still my teeth are filled with rage.// Doing nothing is such violence, mmmm-hmmm. // Everyday I don’t deliver. // Went to college, but I’m dumb, // to the sagging pants I let down. // Been demanding they be different. // Thrown my hands up in the air // Perpetratin’ I’m victim // And the need for something better, // Is so blatantly e-rased // Being liberal is such nonsense…” People hear this song and recognize their own prejudice in it.
The point is, sometimes we have to be enticed out of the trap with stories, and music, and art. Sometimes we need to not use our right brains. Talking about discourse doesn’t get a lot of people out of the trap of racism, but art and performance and music and dance can.
How has social media changed the dialogue around race?
Social media’s changed the landscape of race. We haven’t seen the impact of it yet. We still think it looks like the old domain. But Twitter and Facebook are making it possible to have a conversation with other black people that would have been behind closed doors, that people outside the black community would not have been privy to in the past. Black scholars — who make up maybe 3 percent of the professoriate –who normally never see each other are now talking to each other openly, in public on Twitter.
And it’s allowing direct conversations about race between people who would have never otherwise encountered each other. But we don’t have necessarily all the best skills for interacting. People need to learn social etiquette in these scenarios, but they’re also getting on-the-court training. For example, I interacted with a white man in Australia on Twitter, sending him a YouTube link to a video about white privilege. He didn’t like the video, so he accused me of being racist. I said, “Listen, you don’t have to agree with the messenger. Agree to be offended, stay connected.” In other words, even if you disagree, stay engaged, and in that moment, see if you can keep listening.
He spewed epithets at me again, told me I was stupid. A week later, he Tweeted me, saying, “You know what, I think I was a little harsh last week, and I apologize.” We’ve been friends on Twitter ever since. These moments of person-to-person transformation are going to be key to unraveling all of this stuff about race. It has to happen there. It cannot happen at the institutional level. It can’t happen at the organizational level. It just doesn’t work that way. The lines are already drawn. But person-to-person, we can make a difference.
You were one of the inaugural TED Fellows. What’s your experience been?
I’d describe the experience as stunning, overwhelming. I had the sense that I fell into my tribe, I was levitated, launched. It’s been a complete revelation to know that there are people out there really standing for a vision for humanity that works, for excellence in a variety of fields. It’s great to be among such amazing innovators and social bloggers and technologists. But I will note that among most of the TED Fellows so far, there haven’t been a lot of domestic people of color. There are a lot of international people of color, but we need help with the African American and Native American communities in the United States no less than Kibera in Kenya.
Sometimes I notice when I’m at social innovation conferences that there’s not a diverse array of our humanity present . I can lay money that — and this is not anybody’s fault — we tend to be singing and dancing, except for the African Fellows who are all over the place with social innovation. And that has a lot to do with the fact that many – African Americans have been enculturated into thinking we should become athletes and entertainers, not lawyers or doctors. It’s not always obvious where the innovation is among African Americans. And I still run across African Americans who never heard of TED before, which amazes me. So I really wish there was a way, as an inaugural TED Fellow, that I can help do that kind of outreach. I want the TED community to remember to include our domestic “sistas and brothas” who need to be introduced to innovation, too.
All of my work is about pulling all these pieces together, trying to create curious connections. I use this tag: curious connections between opposable thumbs. Without thumbs, supposedly we wouldn’t have evolved to grasping things and creating technology and all the evolutionary things that we understand are supposed to make us human. Well, why can’t we create a technology that advances our relationship with one another so that we actually can appreciate our common humanity no matter what we look like, no matter what our creed? All of my work really boils down to this. It’s about the remarkable oneness of humanity without changing a thing.