TEDxHampshireCollege – Jay Smooth – How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race

TEDxHampshireCollege – Jay Smooth – How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race


Translator: Jihyeon J. Kim
Reviewer: Ilze Garda I want to talk a little bit
about race tonight. Or to be more precise, I want to talk
about how we talk about race, how we engage in race conversations, and how we might get a little bit
better at it in some ways. That’s a topic that I have always enjoyed; most Americans avoid
race conversations like the plague. We often take our ability to avoid it and use it as a measure
of our progress and enlightenment, which, I think, is kind
of telling in and of itself. (Laughter) (Applause) But I’ve always been drawn
to those conversations and fascinated by them. In part, because growing up as a very light-skinned
black man of mixed descent, I often find myself in sort
of peculiar race-based conversations. Often times when I’m meeting
someone for the first time, rather than making small talk,
they’ll immediately present me with a philosophical conundrum,
they will ask, “What are you?” (Laughter) And I’ll have to explain:
“I’m not a philosophy major; my father is black, my mother is white,
and what are we…” (Laughter) So I’ve always had a passion
for studying and observing how we communicate about race and how we might get a little better
at certain aspects of that communication. I made a video commentary named
“How to tell someone they sound racist”, which talks about a particular type
of race conversation, which usually doesn’t involve
any explicit racist intent, there’s no blatant racism involved. It usually involves
well-intentioned people, but it’s a situation where one of us
feels the need to tell someone that something they said may have had
connotations they were not aware of, or they may have done
something that had a hurtful impact they might not have been aware of. That’s a conversation we all find
ourselves in from time to time, and it’s a conversation
that usually goes horribly. (Laughter) Because no matter how clear
you try to be in conveying that you’re not attacking the person, you’re just trying
to offer a specific critique about something that just happened. When we are receiving
that sort of critique, we tend to deeply personalize
and take it as a personal attack, and we tend to respond by saying:
“Are you saying that I am a racist? How can you so? I am a good person!
Why would you say so?” You try to explain
you meant [something in particular]. “No! I am not a racist.” And what started out
as a what-you-said conversation turns into a what-you-are conversation,
and what-I-am conversation which is a dead end that produces
nothing except mutual frustration, and you never wind up seeing eye-to-eye
and finding any common ground. So in my video, I offered some suggestions
for how we might stay focused on the what-you-said conversation
and find some common ground. Most videos on YouTube
die off after 48 hours, but this video really struck a chord, which I think shows
how hungry many of us are to find better ways
to communicate on these issues. The two types of feedback
I get most commonly on that video are one: “I really appreciated
the perspective you gave about staying focused
on what-you-are conversation.” And the second type of feedback I get is: “I tried these strategies you suggested about staying
on the what-you-are conversation, and they actually never work.” (Laughter) And this is true, unfortunately,
no matter what angle you take, as far as voicing that critique,
the vast majority of the time, it’s still going to lapse
into a defensive what-I-am conversation. I think framing it as clearly as you can,
in that what-you-said form is still valuable because it makes
the substance of your beef as clear as possible to other people
observing the conversation, especially in public discourse. And it gives both of you the best shot at finding common ground
and seeing eye-to-eye; it’s worth going for that 10%. The success rate might be higher
here in Hampshire College, but where I live, on the Internet,
the success rate tends to be around 10%. So since I made that video
and took in that feedback, I’ve been thinking
about what other approaches we might be able to take, and I think – since we can never
entirely fix that conversation by changing how we voice the critique – we might be able to also make it
budge a little bit by considering how we receive that critique, and how we
might be able to take a suggestion that we may have said or done
something racist, take it in stride, and not completely freak out and assume
that the world thinks I’m a bad person. The first thing that makes it
difficult to accept that critique, that you may have said something racist, is that it involves the possibility
that you made a mistake, and none of us takes that too well,
none of us enjoys that. But in most other situations, when the possibility arises
that we made a mistake, we are usually able to take
a few deep breaths and tell ourselves: “I’m only human, everyone makes mistakes.” But when it comes to conversations
involving race and prejudice, for some reason, we tend to make
the opposite assumption. We deal with race and prejudice with this all-or-nothing,
good person, bad person binary, in which either you are racist
or you are not racist. If you’re not betting a thousand,
then you’re striking out every time. And this puts us in a situation where we’re striving to meet
an impossible standard. [Anything less] than perfection
means that you are a racist. That means any suggestion that you’ve made a mistake
or you’ve been less than perfect is a suggestion that you’re a bad person,
so we become averse to any suggestion that we should consider
our thoughts and actions. And it makes it harder for us
to work on our imperfections. When you believe that you must
be perfect in order to be good, it makes you averse to recognizing
your own inevitable imperfections, and that lets them stagnate and grow. So the belief you must be
perfect in order to be good is an obstacle to being
as good as you can be. It would make our conversations
with each other a lot smoother, and it would make us better at being good, if we could recognize
that we’re not perfect and embrace that. So I want to offer a couple of things
that you could keep in mind when you need to remind yourself
that I’m not supposed to be perfect when it comes to navigating race. The first thing is that any time
we’re dealing with race issues, we are dealing with a social construct that was not born out
of any science, or reason, or logic. We are grappling with a social construct
that was not designed to make sense. And to the extent that it is
the product of the design, the race constructs that we live in
in America were shaped specifically by desire to avoid making sense. They were shaped for centuries by a need to rationalize
and justify indefensible acts. So when we grapple with race issues,
we’re grappling with something that was designed for centuries
to make us circumvent our best instincts. It’s a dance partner
that’s designed to trip us up. So just based on that alone, we should be able to keep in mind
that you’ll never bet a thousand when it comes to dealing with race issues. The other thing that we
need to keep in mind is, as we are all imperfect humans, and as has been laid out
in some other talks this evening, we all have unconscious thought processes and psycho-social mechanisms that prop up. There are many things
in our day to day lives that lead us towards developing
little pockets of prejudice, that lead us towards
acting unkind to others without having any intent to do so. These are things we’ll just naturally
develop in our day to day lives. The problem with that
all-or-nothing binary, is it causes us to look
at racism and prejudice as if they are akin to having tonsils. You either have tonsils or you don’t, and if you’ve had your prejudice removed,
you never need to consider… (Laughter) If someone says: “I think you may have
a little unconscious prejudice,” you say: “No, my prejudice
was removed in 2005. (Laughter) I went to see that movie Crash.”
(Laughter) But that’s not how these things work. In your day to day lives, there are all of these mass media
and social stimuli, as well as processes that we all have
inside our brains that we’re not aware of. That causes us to build up
little pockets of prejudice everyday, just like plaque develops on our teeth. (Laughter) So we need to move away from the tonsils paradigm
of race discourse towards the dental hygiene paradigm
– (Laughter) – of race discourse. (Applause) That’s if I could offer
one piece of advice. And in general, I think we need
to move away from the premise that being a good person
is a fixed, immutable characteristic and shift towards seeing
being good as a practice, and it is a practice that we carry out
by engaging with our imperfections. We need to shift towards thinking
that you’re being a good person the same way we think
of being a clean person. Being a clean person is something
you maintain and work on everyday. We don’t assume that I’m a clean person
therefore I don’t need to brush my teeth. (Laughter) When someone suggests to us
there’s something stuck in our teeth, we don’t say: “What do you mean? I have something stuck in my teeth?
I’m a clean person!” (Laughter) I know that this is no small task, but if we can shift a little bit closer
towards viewing those race conversations the same way we view our conversation
about something stuck in our teeth, you’ll go a long way towards making
our conversations a bit smoother and allow us to work together
on bigger issues around race, because there are a lot of — beyond the persistent,
conversational awkwardness of race, there are persistent, systemic,
and institutional issues around race that are not caused by conversation, and they can’t be entirely solved
by conversation, you can’t talk them away. But we need people to work together,
and coordinate, and communicate to find strategies to work
on those systemic issues. Because despite all of the barriers
that we have broken, all of the apparent markers of progress,
there are still so many disparities. If you look at unemployment rate,
infant mortality rate, incarceration rate, medium household income, there are so many disparities on the various sides
of the color lines in this country that it is worthwhile for us
to iron out these conversational issues. If for nothing else so that we can get a little bit closer
to working together on those big issues. So I hope that we can… if I could have one wish, it would be
that we would consider how we can conceptualize
being a good person, and keep in mind that we’re not good
despite our imperfections, it is the connection we maintain
with our imperfections that allows us to be good. Our connection with our personal
and common imperfections, being mindful of those personal
and common imperfections, is what allows us to be good
to each other and be good to ourselves. (Applause) I know that this is no easy task, and race may be the most difficult sphere
in which to apply this concept, but I think it’s where
we could also reap the most rewards. So I hope that bit by bit,
if we consider that and are mindful of it, we can shift away from taking it
as an indictment of our goodness and move towards taking it as a gesture of respect
and an act of kindness, when someone tells us that we’ve got
something racist stuck in our teeth. (Laughter) (Applause)

100 thoughts on “TEDxHampshireCollege – Jay Smooth – How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race

  1. very good speech. It's one thing to post an edited video and it's another to speak candidly in front of a room of people.

    I've always enjoyed your videos and respect your opinions and this just added a bit more to that.

    Very good job.

  2. I just want to understand the dichotomy of being 'black' vs. 'being biracial'. I notice jay says he's a black man of mixed ancestry. Note, I recognize that there seems to be no overarching rule as to what people describe themselves as. I always thought identifying yourself as 'black' meant two black parents, and being 'mixed' was a term for biracialness.

  3. @donluchitti I think the key is in the context. strangers in a social setting who lead with "what are you?" aren't anthropologists tracing gene codings for outward race expression. They want to know how to treat him, so he says "how about you treat me as the most dangerous thing you can think of, and we see how you do."

  4. @FrelanceEQ @FrelanceEQ interesting, but I still feel like my question wasn't answered or really addressed. I've been doing some investigating about the concept of 'blackness' and from what I've gathered the reason why people mixed with any African ancestry refer to themselves as Black is precisely because society, namely 20th and 19th century racist society labeled them that way. Staring me right in the face the answer was, I'm just feeling left out of this inclusive term.

  5. Thanks for the discussion about race as a social construct that makes no sense. I just did some research for one of my sociology classes and was introduced to Dr. Spensor Wells, Geneticists Dr. Wells researched our blood ancestry and informs us that we are 99.9% the same DNA (All humans). Humans are not inter-species, an old argument that the old anthropologists wanted us to believe.

  6. I know exactly what it means, and non-whites are now using "white priviledge" as an excuse act racist against whites.
    You minorities love "white guilt", its like open season on whites, anybody who participates, is a racist, period!

  7. So you just called all white people racists, and you probably consider yourself not a racist.
    Oh the hypocrisy!!

  8. OMG!
    Dude, that is such a lie, you know nothing about DNA or blood types do you!!!
    Fuck I cant believe how racist all of you are!!!!!!!!!!

  9. No, really, are you retarded? I mean, I already assumed you were when you actually act like white people are in any way oppressed or suffer in ANY way from institutionalized racism. I mean, you already clearly live in Candyland.

    But really. Are you retarded?

  10. Your uneducated, and making false claims only makes you look stupid as well.
    Where did I say whites were oppressed? One thing for sure, if you think white people don't suffer just like everyone else, then your also a racist.
    But, I alreadry knew that.

  11. Its you that doesn know what it means. You think by invoking "white privilege", you can get away with saying whatever you want about white people.
    That makes you a disgusting racist!

  12. if whiteness can colonize and determine the political geography of every continent on earth, place itself at the top of the worldwide power and economic ladder despite being a global minority, convert billions to its religions, and wipe out entire indigenous societies, why do you think it needs you to defend it on the internet?

  13. Like I said, you have justified your racism with "white privlege", still makes you a racist.
    Besides that, I find it hard to believe that every single white person is guilty of what you just described, again that makes you a racist. Thats like saying all blacks are thugs and all latinos are gang bangers.
    Oh and btw, I am not religous, in fact most of the population is not religous. What about the jews, the muslims? What about thier religions?
    Ya, your a racist, definitly!

  14. No, really, you live in a fantasy world. Because no one here…not even Jay Smooth has said anything about white people. Not one negative thing. And see? This is privilege. Privilege is not having ANY idea what racism is like, especially via experience. So you call a bunch of minorities simply *talking* about a race an insult to your whiteness.

    Thats privilege. Privilege is just appropriating a term from people who actually suffer institutionalized racism and throwing it at them. How quaint.

  15. This is low level shit even for trolling, dude. Though I hope you're serious. So I can laugh my ass off.

  16. Talk about low level, its the non-whites using "white privlege" to justify treating white people badly. Thats some low level shit.
    Then you try and claim that we know nothing about racism, oh the hypocrisy!

  17. I know right, its amazing how only the liberal left understands these things haha!
    You are most definitly a hypocrite, you claim abuse from white people, then you turn around and abuse them back.
    Then you justify it with claims of "white privlege", your one sick fuck!

  18. Jay "Smooth" is not a "light skinned black man". He is a mulatto genetically (assuming his mother wasn't stepping out), but from looking at him no one would guess he had any black ancestry. I'd guess he might be Greek or Turkish, but if he was French or Welsh I wouldn't bat an eye.

  19. he is not a philosopher, he is not a geneticist, he is not a scientist, he is a bullshitter. when people talk about race and genetics in terms of "social constructs" it is because they have been brainwashed by cultural marxism and have not researched the revelations in that scientific field which prove that wrong.

  20. Why is everyone so hung up about what Jay is? Because it's very simple, people:

    He's a Capricorn.

    Now shut up and watch the damn video.

  21. "Mulatto" is actually a term many mixed-race people find offensive (like me.) If you want to talk about his gentics please refer to him as "mixed-race." Thanks.

  22. What revelations? People aren't arguing that genetic variations exist between populations – genetic variations exist between individuals in the same family, or else they wouldn't be individuals. But the whole idea of RACE was based upon the concept that one race is inferior to another. European scientists spent many many years coming up with pseudo-scientific reasons why brown people are inferior to white people – even the term "Caucasion" is based upon an idea of racial perfection.

  23. Well I'm Irish so I'm not hip to American racial sensitivities, so if I have offended you I am sorry. I studied the Spanish/Portuguese colonisation of the New World extensively in university and spent a fair bit of time in Mexico, Central America, and the Andes, and the term "mulatto" was not considered cause for offence by mixed European/African people there. But then again, referring to entirely black people as "negros" was likewise de rigueur, so perhaps I should have given it more thought.

  24. No worries. It's interesting how these things differ from country to country – I'd argue that in some ways Africans brought to the English colonies suffered more than those in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies if only because slavery lasted much longer there – so people in the U.S. tend to be more sensitive (and with good reason). Hey, this is exactly the kind of conversation Jay was talking about 😉

  25. I may be wrong, but it sounds like you're saying that there is some inherent difference in white people that allowed them to do those things. If this is true, you should recognize that mentality as racism, and should read "Guns, Germs, and Steel" to find out how white people did what any other race would in their geographical position.

  26. Congrats to Jay Smooth on his speech at TED.
    It continues to be rewarding to see your work in live, raw footage. Seemed as though you maybe arrived at the bit about "racism in your teeth" live onstage. Whether or not, it was cool. Again, congrats.

  27. This is so incredibly awesome! The idea of "shifting from the tonsils- to the dental hygiene-paradigm" is blowing my mind and will – hopefully – have a lasting effect on my approach to "being a good person". Anyone who liked this talk should check out Jay Smooth's vlog ill doctrine here on youtube. This man is full of wisdom, wit and love for humanity. All the best to you, Jay!

  28. This is literally the best response to this sort of blithering nonsense I have ever seen. I am going to save this and quote you forever.

  29. he actually gets to identify based on his experience and background, so he is a light skinned black man. note that i said 'based on his experience and background' and not some disingenuous bullshit, so don't respond saying you identify as a purple elephant or something.

  30. Yeah it is funny to say liberal and educated in the same sentence, so I dont bother. Other than being grammer nazis, you are devoid of facts, only feelings.

  31. So long as I live in a predominantly white country, then there is NO privilege, only your jealousy. I will not loathe myself just because you think I should bases on the color of my skin.
    Do you think the chinese living in china are privileged?, NO.
    Do you think an arab living in north africa is privileged?, NO.
    You liberals have some strange logic.

  32. There are more muslims than christians. I am white, and I am not religious.
    So how did we convert the world exactly?

  33. Funny how you wont extend the same courtesy to whites.
    It doesnt matter thier background or experience, or how many black friends they have, you dismiss it all.
    Then you turn around and say your not a racist…lol

  34. Exactly, thats all you got. Shaming tactics, using grammar, racism, sexism or anything else that keeps people from questioning you.
    That is the liberal moto, and it will be your downfall.

  35. you do realize the irony of calling people 'uneducated' when you can't spell or use correct tenses, right?

    no one is responding to you because you are being a troll. racism is not a dictionary definition- racism is discrimination + power. white people have the power and therefore 'racism' against us amounts to nothing besides occasional hurt feelings, not systemic oppression.

  36. I dont spell check my youtube comments, deal with it….lol
    If I am a troll for standing up to your racism, then so be it! BTW, your definition of racism is wrong.
    You liberals do this a lot, change definitions of words to justify your hate.
    Racism is treating someone differently because of the color of thier skin, or the culture they were born into.
    That is what you are doing, hating on an entire generation of white people who have never done a thing to you, just because they were born white.

  37. Jay Smooth is a great person with positive intellect and such an under-appreciated representative of true Hip Hop culture

  38. Thank you, I had given up hope.
    I thought all youtube had was horrible racists and bigots, and then I saw your comment thumbed up over a hundred times

  39. I watch this and thoughts start to take shape. That while the systemic structural issues that Jay Smooth speaks of towards the end of the video will always require our efforts and labor it is these social mines that he talked about in his videos that can teach us all something about ourselves and our work towards dismantling the larger structures. 

    Conversations about things that are seemingly insignificant or ephemeral like John Mayer's racial preference, Colton Haynes blackface, or Justin Bieber and One Directions use of the n-word. These moments can provide us insight into nuanced, ingrained, unconscious racism and privilege we can study. How these individuals perform acts of subtle anti-blackness, not motivated by hate but sometimes ignorance and how our own prejudices can affect how or if we respond to them.

  40. This video literally changed my life. I'm writing a blog about it right now. I'll share it here when it's done, if anyone's interested. Thank you Jay Smooth! You're awesome. You're Incredibly patient and empathic toward people who are not empathic toward you.

  41. Partial transcription in case this is of any use to anyone:

    "When you go through your day to day lives there are all of these mass media and social stimuli and proccesses we all have that we are not aware of that cause us to build up little pockets of prejudice everyday just like plague develops on our teeth. So we need to move away from the tonsils paradigm (where you can have your prejudice removed) of race discourse toward the dental hygiene paradigm of race discourse. Basically. That's it if I could offer one piece of advice" … "In general we need to move away from the premise that being a good person is fixed immutable characteristic and shift towards seeing being good as a practice. A practice that we engaging bringing out by engaging with our imperfects. Maintain and work on everyday" … "We don't assume I'm a clean person therefore I do not need to clean my teeth. Being a clean person is something you maintain and work on everyday. We don't assume that I'm a clean person therefore I do not need to brush my teeth. And when someone suggests to us that we've got something stuck in our teeth, we don't say but "I have something stuck in my teeth?! But I'm a clean person!" … "Keep in mind that we are not good repute our imperfects, it is the connection we maintain with our imperfections that allows us to be good."

  42. Oh my god! I watched one of this guy's videos on the "n-word double standard" a million years ago! He did SUCH a great job at expressing this thought that made so much sense. I still reference ignorant people to that video when they bring up the so-called double standard.

  43. I literally love this video! As a Black female, professional living in NY city and in general a lover of people, I find these awkward conversations happen so often. I love this new platform and way to discuss and consider race talks! Thank you Jay!

  44. This philsophy needs to be applied to so many things. Things are not black and white. and 50 shades of grey is going hurt my analogy :'(

    There's a lot more than 50 shades, there aren't any lines whatsoever, its a spectrum.

  45. Oh my, look at the sexy-as-hell brain on this man! Love it! I place Mr. Jay Smooth right up there with other modern brilliant thinkers/philosophers on the topic of race in America such as James Baldwin, Tim Wise, Nina Turner and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

  46. What are a few of the most relevant resources for doing the dental hygiene work on racism that we need to do? In other words, what exercises can we do daily that will help us clean up our act?

  47. Good speech.

    One mistake though. The concept of race in America wasn't "designed" over centuries. In early America, you had humans who had had very little common ancestry in the last 40,000 years interacting with each other. Because they had been separated genetically for so long, they looked noticeable differnt. As a result, people created the concept of race. However, it's important to note, the concept isn't a human invention, it's a genetic reality. Race concepts, are just human words describing that reality.

  48. "The race constructs that we live in in America were shaped specifically by desire to avoid making sense. They were shaped for centuries by a need to rationalize and justify indefensible acts. So when we grapple with race issues we’re grappling with something that was designed for centuries to make us circumvent our best instincts. "

    The same can be said about Speciesism. As with racism, which is discrimination based on race, speciesism is discrimination based on species; both are biological forms of discrimination.

    The SPECIES constructs that we live in in THE WORLD were shaped specifically by desire to avoid making sense. They were shaped for centuries by a need to rationalize and justify indefensible acts. So when we grapple with ANIMAL issues we’re grappling with something that was designed for centuries to make us circumvent our best instincts.

    The species constructs are our cultures, traditions, and religions. They have been shaped for centuries by a need to rationalize and justify indefensible acts such as slaughtering animals for fur or a double bacon cheeseburger. Our cultural, traditional, religious, and overall societal rationalizations and justifications make us circumvent our best instincts. Children do not have a natural instinct to eat animals, they are taught to eat animals, which animals, and when.

  49. Prejudice and racism are not the same thing. It would have been useful for the speaker had defined terms at the beginning.

  50. Some people make the mistake that just because a person is white, that person must have privilege. That happens to me from time-to-time.

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