Vernā Myers: How Can We Have A More Candid Conversation About Race? Diversity advocate Vernā Myers makes a powerful case for acknowledging our subconscious biases and assumptions about others.
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How Can We Have A More Candid Conversation About Race?

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How Can We Have A More Candid Conversation About Race?

How Can We Have A More Candid Conversation About Race?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

On the show today - ideas for moving beyond tolerance.

Do you think that it's hard for most people to talk about race?

VERNA MYERS: I know bunch of people who talk about race pretty constantly - like, almost every minute of the day, right? So it kind of depends on who you are. Is it hard for white people to talk about race? Some of them - absolutely least favorite subject.

RAZ: But that's exactly what Verna Myers tries to get people to do. She goes into companies, and she gets people to talk about the things that make them most uncomfortable - ethnicity, religion, gender, race. And she does this so they can work better together, even though a lot of us grew up thinking that tolerating someone of a different race meant trying not to notice their race.

MYERS: In some ways, it was a great idea because a long time ago, when we noticed color, we were doing bad things. So I think that's why people, like, don't notice color. But I also think people misunderstood it. I think we were just saying, don't use your color - people's color - against them. Don't think of their color as less than. But it didn't mean, like, don't pay attention to whatever race or ethnicity that you're from. And so I think we've kind of gone as far as we can go with not paying attention.

RAZ: Verna is African-American, but she says that no matter what color you are, if you want to move beyond tolerance, you have to face up to your own biases. And that's what she talked about on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MYERS: So I'm going to tell you to walk toward your discomfort. And, you know, it's not the hardest thing to do, but it's one of these things where you have to be conscious and intentional about it. You know, I was on a Wall Street area one time - like, maybe several years ago - and I was with a colleague of mine. And she's really wonderful. And she does diversity work with me. And she's a woman of color. She's Korean. And we were outside.

It was late at night, and we were sort of wondering where we were going. We were lost. And I saw this person across the street, and I was thinking, oh, great, black guy. You know, he was a black guy. I think - you know, black guys generally know where they're going. And she was like, oh, that's interesting. She was saying, oh, you were going, yay, a black guy? She said, I was going, black guy - other direction. Same need, same guy, same clothes, same time, same street - different reaction. And she said, I feel so bad. I'm a diversity consultant and I did the black guy thing. I'm a woman of color, oh my God. And I said, you know what - please, we really need to relax about this. I mean, you've got to realize I go way back with black guys.

(LAUGHTER)

MYERS: My dad is a black guy, you see what I'm saying? I've got a six-foot-five black guy son. I was married to a black guy. My black guy thing is so wide and so deep that I can pretty much sort and figure out who that black guy is. And he was my black guy. He said, yes, ladies, I know where you're going, and I'll take you there. You know, biases are the stories we make up about people before we know who they actually are. But how are we going to know who they are when we've been told to avoid and be afraid of them?

RAZ: Verna Myers returns with that answer after a quick break. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today - ideas about moving beyond tolerance. Stay with us. You're listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas for moving beyond tolerance. And we're talking about things that are often very hard to talk about - politics, the Middle East, race - a subject that can get awkward.

MYERS: Yeah.

RAZ: Messy.

MYERS: Absolutely. But once you start experimenting, you realize - oh, yeah. I said that. The person got mad at me. I apologized. It was OK.

RAZ: Before the break, we were hearing from Verna Myers. She's a diversity consultant, and it's a job, as she explained in her TED talk, where you meet a lot of people who really, honestly are trying to be good people - tolerant people. And her message to those people is always the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MYERS: Stop trying to be good people. We need real people. You know, I do a lot of diversity work. And people will come up to me at the beginning of a workshop - they're, like, oh, Miss Diversity Lady, we're so glad you're here.

(LAUGHTER)

MYERS: But we don't have a biased bone in our body. And I'm like really? - 'cause I do this work every day, and I see all my biases.

I mean, not too long ago, I was on a plane, and I heard the voice of a woman - from a woman pilot coming over the PA system, and I was just, like, so excited. I was so thrilled. I was like - yes, women. We are rocking it. We are now in the stratosphere, you know. It was all good and then it started getting turbulent and bumpy. And I was like - I hope she can drive.

(LAUGHTER)

MYERS: It's like - if you ask me explicitly, I would say female pilot - awesome. But it appears that when things get funky and a little troublesome, a little risky, I lean on a bias that I didn't even know that I had. You know, fast-moving planes in the sky, I want a guy. That's my default. Men are my default. Who is your default? Who do you trust? Who are you afraid of? Who do you implicitly feel connected to? Who do you run away from?

RAZ: But there is something about humans that is very tribal - that we as a species tend to gravitate towards humans who share our backgrounds or interests or religion or culture, race or faith.

MYERS: Well, I spend a lot of my time professionally and personally suggesting that we might want to overcome that tendency, which is not to name it as bad.

I think if we could get people to understand that - hey, your comfort is real. Like, everybody wants to be in their comfort sometimes, right? It's just - what are you missing about other groups and ways of being? And can you remember that ultimately we are the same? Like, we are the same.

RAZ: OK. So what do we know that is the most effective tool in getting people to not just tolerate each other, but respect and like each other?

MYERS: Contact (laughter).

RAZ: Yeah.

MYERS: Sometimes it's so basic.

RAZ: Yeah.

MYERS: But, you know, sometimes I can put people who have been working together for a long time in an exercise for two minutes where they share something about their background, some part of their identity and why it's important to them. And it - they will come out of that conversation going oh, my gosh. That was so powerful. That was so interesting. I feel so close.

Why? Because the person moves from being a monocultural individual to someone who's multifaceted and has - it reminds you of your own humanity. And you can sort of see where you've been cutting that person off.

RAZ: So I get how this could totally work in a - in, like, a controlled space, you know, like, a safe space. But what happens when people go out into the real world? I mean, how does that feeling continue?

MYERS: So here's the thing because some people are like - well, you're asking the impossible because you want me to do, like, some kind of cultural sharing with someone (laughter). You know, it's like - it's not realistic. You know, it's not realistic. And I'm saying fine - except if you were in the least bit more curious about the stories you've put together - if you didn't just trust your own stories so much, that's a start.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MYERS: I'm saying just do an inventory. Expand your social and professional circles. Just - like, who's in your missing? Who's missing? How many authentic relationships do you have with young, black people - folks, men, women - or any other major difference from who you are and how you roll, so to speak. There may be somebody at work, in her classroom, in house of worship, somewhere. There's some black young guy there. And you're nice. You say hi. I'm saying go deeper, closer, further.

It's the empathy and the compassion that comes out of having relationships with people who are different from you. Something really powerful and beautiful happens. You start to realize that they are you - that they're a part of you. And then we cease to be bystanders. And we become actors. We become advocates. And we become allies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MYERS: I have watched people change their worldview through contact, as in someone in their family is gay now. Their lovely son married someone from another tribe, so to speak. Their young, beautiful daughter now has a debilitating disability. And all of a sudden, their heart grows to encompass a different way of seeing this Difference.

RAZ: But this is hard. Like, it - to move beyond just tolerance is a work. It's real work.

MYERS: Yeah. And I often say people just don't - they don't give up their worldview on a regular basis - on the day-to-day basis because it's the thing that keeps their world together. And people don't want their worlds to tremble for the most part. They want their worlds to stay sealed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MYERS: This last thing is going to be harder, and I know it. But I'm just going to put it out there anyway. When we see something, we have to have the courage to say something, even to the people we love. You know, you've got to listen to the conversations around the table. You start to say things like Grandma's a bigot. Uncle Joe is racist.

And you know, we love Grandma, and we love Uncle Joe, we do. But what they're saying is wrong. And we need to be able to say something because you know who else is at the table? The children are at the table. And we wonder why these biases don't die and move from generation to generation - because we're not saying anything.

And we've got to be willing to not shelter our children from the ugliness of racism when black parents don't have the luxury to do so, especially those who have young, black sons. We have to take our lovely darlings - our future - and we got to tell them we have an amazing country with incredible ideals. We have worked incredibly hard, and we have made some progress. But we are not done.

RAZ: You know, I totally get this thing about children because I had this amazing experience. I think it was - it was about two years ago when my now-7-year-old was 5. And we went to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. And he looked at the statue and he said - which battle in the Revolutionary War did he lead?

MYERS: Wow.

RAZ: And it was so powerful to me. I was so moved by it because I thought wow, to this child, he is just looking at another hero.

MYERS: Well, I have to tell you that if that was my kid - young, black man - I would have said actually, he was a hero of another war. Our country was not willing to see him and the people that he is a part of as American. And so he reminded us of where we had gone wrong.

And I would've just explain that to them because we have these young people and these young brains, and they are willing to see the possibilities in everybody. But after a while, they start to get stained. And without the right narrative, they will make the wrong judgments often.

RAZ: I mean, do you think that we're at least heading in the right direction - that, you know, that we're heading to a future that's not just about tolerance, but that's about something much deeper?

MYERS: So I will tell you what my hope is.

(LAUGHTER)

MYERS: My hope is yes. But we need grace. We need compassion. We need humility. But we are up for that. We can do that. It is not as hard as we're making it out to be. And so I believe this is the best time for anybody who has a conscience to be alive.

RAZ: That's Verna Myers. You should check out her entire TED talk at TED.com.

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