GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So back when Theo E.J. Wilson was in his early 20s...
THEO E.J. WILSON: Right after graduating college.
RAZ: ...He experienced something that would stay with him forever.
WILSON: Yeah. In 2003, at a fight at a nightclub that was - did not involve me, incidences led to where I was handcuffed to a chair and beaten by Denver police. And I thought I was going to die. And the PTSD from that was pretty intense. And at the time, I was only 22. I don't know what I'm going to do with. And literally, the reaction of my family surprised me some.
RAZ: What was their reaction?
WILSON: Their reaction to that moment - at that moment was one to the effect of, this is what it is to be black in America, son. You know, we could go down to the precinct, and we could fuss, and we could fight, but did you get your lesson? Because you're not going to be able to fight or win every battle.
RAZ: A few years later, in 2011, Theo lost a childhood friend, Alonzo Ashley, after a struggle with police. Alonzo's death was ruled a homicide, and no one was ever charged. And at that point, the death of unarmed black men at the hands of police was becoming a national news story.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The death of Alton Sterling.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Michael Brown.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Tamir Rice.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The shooting of Philando Castile.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray was picked up by Baltimore Police.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Whose lives matter?
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black lives matter.
RAZ: And all those things happening pushed Theo to get involved and speak out as an activist by making YouTube videos.
WILSON: It's hatred. Like, it was a boiling, marooned passion in the pit of my stomach. I was looking for a way through, and part of my healing was the videos.
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WILSON: We know prayers ain't going to cut it. We've been praying since we was in chains. We know cameras are not going to save the situation. Their body cameras somehow shut off.
RAZ: Now, a lot of people watched Theo's videos, and they attracted a lot of comments, as well, including some by people who identified with the alt-right movement, people who were telling Theo to go back to Africa or calling him a thug.
WILSON: And calling you a bucket of N-words (laughter) - you know? - and, like, labeling you the very worst words that your people have been hearing since they were brought to these shores is all a thing to take in. And I would engage in these battles ad nauseum.
RAZ: You would engage.
WILSON: I would engage, man - ad nauseum. Like, I remember hours going by, trying to defeat people with words. And I realized I wasn't getting anywhere because I wasn't seeing the root of the problem. And I began to be very, very curious. Like, how are you saying this, dude? What - yeah.
RAZ: Like, how were you - in other words, you were saying, how do you - where do these views and ideas and hatred - where does it come from?
WILSON: How does it resurge with a black president, Oprah Winfrey everywhere? Every kid in my generation had Michael Jordan on his wall. You know what I mean? Back before the rape case, Cosby was America's dad, right? So you have all these African-American icons of progress, these bench marks. And so having been born in this generation - these were millennials talking this way, man. Like, these were people born after 1980, you know what I mean? How did that happen? That was a deep curiosity of mine.
RAZ: Theo E.J. Wilson picks up the story from the TED stage.
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WILSON: I remember being called highly colorful racial slurs by those who use the anonymity of the Internet as a Klan hood. And some of them were pretty creative, actually. But others were pretty wounding, especially navigating the post-traumatic world of a police brutality survivor and the height of Black Lives Matter with all of these people being killed on my timeline. To these trolls, I wasn't a human. I was an idea, an object, a caricature.
I also began to notice that a few of my trolls actually had brains, which made me even more curious and want to understand them even further. And although these supposed morons engaged in what appeared to be original thought, I said to myself, these guys are highly misinformed - at least, according to my knowledge. Where are these guys getting these arguments from?
RAZ: Theo wanted to know who these people were and why they hated him so much, so he created a fake YouTube account. What did you call the identity?
RAZ: And pretended to be one of them - a white supremacist.
WILSON: When you know your enemy, you know yourself. And I can't afford to not know this. And so, also, my skin began to get thicker. I wasn't as triggered as I used to be. I was used to the fire. And I understood one thing. These people were afraid. These people were tormented. And that informed me of the recent - this is not something that - it's not quite what it appears to be.
RAZ: On the show today, Going Undercover - ideas about disguising parts of who you are to get at something you couldn't otherwise, whether it's trying to understand another perspective or exposing wrongdoing or just living your life as you think life should be lived. And for Theo E.J. Wilson, going undercover wasn't just a matter of curiosity. It felt necessary.
WILSON: People of color in this country are not blessed with the luxury of not knowing what white folks are thinking. Now, we can know and choose to not care what white folks are thinking, but we can't not know. And so I saw what looked like a returning of a tide, and I was drawn to it because I needed to know the size, and scale and scope.
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WILSON: I started with a little Infowars, went on into some American Renaissance, National Vanguard alliance. And, you know, I started commenting on videos, talking bad about Al Sharpton and Black Lives Matter. I started bemoaning race-baiters like Eric Holder and Barack Obama and just mirroring the anti-black sentiments that were thrown at me. And to be honest, it was kind of exhilarating.
WILSON: Like, I would literally spend days clicking through my new racist profile.
WILSON: And so I then started visiting some of the pages of my former trolls, and a lot of these guys were just regular Joes, a lot of outdoorsmen, hunters, computer nerds, some of them family guys with videos of their families. I mean, for all I know, some of y'all could be in his room right now.
RAZ: So you would - and these were videos of, like, people ranting and say...
WILSON: Oh, it would be so easy if they were just raving lunatics. No. Some of these guys have good production value. Some of these guys do a lot of research into a topic they call race reality, the idea that the thousands of years that the races diverged in evolution have a scientific consequence that plays out even now in terms of our human potentials, our IQs, what we see at the Olympics. In their idea, there was a race reality. And they had a lot of pseudo-scholarship to back that up because once I began to investigate it, I was like, oh, OK, this has been debunked, and that's been debunked. But if you don't know that, it sounds pretty real.
RAZ: So as you were writing this stuff and you were watching the responses, what were you hoping to learn?
WILSON: I was trying to see if there was a true academic basis for what they were saying. I wanted to give it a for-real college try, man. Is there something behind all of this that I'm not seeing? Is the way that I'm perceiving the world off? What are the data points that I'm losing here?
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WILSON: When I went undercover, I found a lovely plethora of characters, luminaries like Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer and David Duke. All of these guys were thought leaders in their own right, but over time, the alt-right movement ended up using their information to fuel their momentum. And I'm going to tell you what else led to the momentum of the alt-right - the left-wing's wholesale demonization of everything white and male.
One thing kept screaming at me through the subtext of those arguments, and that was, why should I be hated for who I cannot help but be? Now, was a black man in America, that resonated with me. I've spent so much time defending myself against attempts to demonize me and make me apologize for who I am, trying to portray me as something that I'm not, some kind of thug or gangster or menace to society. Unexpected compassion - wow. Never in a billion years did I think that I could have some kind of compassion for people who hated my guts.
RAZ: Your talk is very complex...
RAZ: ...Extremely complex because you kind of express compassion for these people.
WILSON: And let me be clear about the difference between compassion and sympathy. Compassion is my spiritual duty as a human being, but that's different than - well, a lot of people interpret that compassion as a sympathy. I don't have sympathy for them. You see, compassion figures out how you got to where you are. Sympathy is having compassion for where they ended up. Mm mm (ph) - none of that.
And that's a very, very key distinction that has to be made. I get how somebody could be born on that side of the divide and end up where they are. But I also get that we all have brains, and we can do our own bit of education, and we can figure out exactly what data points that we're missing. And why don't you care to do it? That was a question that I had.
RAZ: Do you think that you would have come to that conclusion had you not gone undercover?
WILSON: I don't know about that, man.
RAZ: Because it seems like that experience just - it exposed you to things that made you think very, very deeply about how people see race.
WILSON: The most important thing that I think that we could get from this is that there is unhealed trauma on every side of the racial divide. There's trauma, man. And a lot of people talk about the trauma that black folks have, the post-traumatic slavery syndrome. But then there's also a trauma that white folks experienced, and that experience comes from the fact - and I made a video about this, about how slavery wounded white people.
You don't get to be a part of a force that did that much damage to other peoples without somehow having damage done to yourself at some level. Every time somebody saw somebody lynched, even if they were white, that was damage. If you witness a murder, that's therapy for life, right? One murder - right?
So what does it say when the whole culture gets a lynch mob out and goes hanging folks? You think little Billy, the first time he sees a black man burning from a tree, ain't going experience some kind of trauma? That's going to show up some kind of place, right? That - all of that has a cost. The great tragedy of racism is that we are all human, is that we all lose a piece of our humanity.
RAZ: Theo E.J. Wilson is a community activist in Denver. You can see his full talk at ted.com. On the show today - ideas about Going Undercover. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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