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Be color brave, not color blind: Mellody Hobson speaks at TED2014

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In 2006, Harold Ford called his friend Mellody Hobson, to tell her that he was running for US Senate in Tennessee and that he needed some national press. Hobson, an investor, in turn called a friend at a major media organization and organized a lunch. But when Hobson and Ford arrived at the lunch, they were taken to a back room. Then they were asked: “Where are your uniforms?”

Hobson says that she and Ford still laugh about that incident, but also that “deep deep down inside, I wasn’t surprised.” Her mother was ruthlessly realistic, and had prepared her for such things. For example, after a birthday party where she was the only black person, her mother asked, “How did they treat you?”

Why did she ask that? Mellody wondered. Because, as her mother said, “They will not always treat you well.”

“Race in America makes people completely uncomfortable,” says Hobson. “Bringing it up is like the conversational equivalent of touching the third rail.” Friends had even warned her about talking about the topic here at TED, that it would make her a ‘militant black woman’ and hurt her career. But she realized, “The first step of solving any problem is not to hide from it. The first step to any form of action is awareness.”

So she decided to talk about race, and to share her experience so we could all be a little less nervous. She has heard it said that the election of Obama ended racism in our time. But she says, “I work in the investment business, and we have a saying — the numbers don’t lie.” And the numbers show clearly that there are significant disparities in household wealth, income, job opportunity, and much more. As just one example, white men are 30% of the US population, and have 70% of all corporate board seats. There are only 7 minority CEOs in the Fortune 250, and of thousands of publicly traded companies, only two are chaired by black women. “And you’re looking at one of them.”

Hobson wants to make clear, “I’m not here to complain. I’ve been treated well by people of all races more often than not. I have succeeded in my life more than my wildest expectations. I tell the uniform story because it happened. I tell the race stats because they are real.” And furthermore, those continuing problems threaten to rob future generations of their opportunities.

There is a tendency toward something researchers call color-blindness, which describes a learned behavior where we pretend to not notice race. But, says Hobson, “In my view, that doesn’t mean there’s fairness. Color blindness is very dangerous because it means we’re ignoring the problem.” This subject matter can be hard, awkward and uncomfortable. But she believes that’s the point. The goal is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

“It’s time,” says Hobson, “for us to be comfortable with the uncomfortable conversation about race. If we truly believe in equal rights and equal opportunity in America, we need to have real conversations about this issue. We can’t be color blind, we have to be color brave.”

Why should we be color brave, raising the question instead of ducking it? “Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s the smart thing to do.” Her favorite example of color bravery is John Skipper, who runs ESPN. She says ESPN always had a diverse culture, but he took it up a notch — he demanded that every open position have a diverse slate of applicants. The senior staff would come to him and ask, “Do you want to have me hire the minority or the best person for the job?” To which he would reply, “Yes.”

In Hobson’s own world of investing, they believe that “sound investments are best made when you have a diverse group of people.” The best example was in the early days of the effort to cure smallpox. They brought lots of people together, but the key idea was given by a dairy farmer, who noticed that milkmaids didn’t get sick. From that, they were able to develop the smallpox vaccine from cowpox.

“Even if you don’t run a company,” she says, “you can be color brave. If you’re part of a hiring process or admissions process, you can be color brave. If you are trying to solve a really hard problem, you can speak up and be color brave. If you’re doing a brainstorming session at work or at school, you can be color brave.” You can purposefully invite diverse people into your life, and hopefully they will challenge you, and give you new insights into life.

She thinks all of this is vital, because the next generation needs role models. She thinks back to her ruthlessly pragmatic mother (who told her at 4-years-old, “Mommy is Santa!”). She grew up in hard conditions in Chicago, but every single day her mother also said, “Mellody, you can be anything.” And that gave her strength. Hobson says, “Because of those words, I would wake up at the crack of dawn and love school more than anything. Because of that, I would dream the biggest dreams. Because of that, I’m standing here today asking you to be brave for the kids of today.”

Hobson finishes with a stirring invocation. “You see,” she says, “This idea of being the land of the free and the home of the brave, it’s woven into the fabric of America. When we see a problem, we face it head on. I’m asking you to show courage, to be bold. I’m asking you not to leave any child behind, not to be color blind but to be color brave, so every child knows that their future matters and their dreams are possible.”