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  • What is up with us white people?

  • (Laughter)

  • I've been thinking about that a lot the last few years,

  • and I know I have company.

  • Look, I get it --

  • people of color have been asking that question for centuries.

  • But I think a growing number of white folks are too,

  • given what's been going on out there

  • in our country.

  • And notice I said, "What's up with us white people?"

  • because right now, I'm not talking about those white people,

  • the ones with the swastikas and the hoods and the tiki torches.

  • They are a problem and a threat.

  • They perpetrate most of the terrorism in our country,

  • as you all in Charlottesville know better than most.

  • But I'm talking about something bigger and more pervasive.

  • I'm talking about all of us,

  • white folks writ large.

  • And maybe, especially, people sort of like me,

  • self-described progressive,

  • don't want to be racist.

  • Good white people.

  • (Laughter)

  • Any good white people in the room?

  • (Laughter)

  • I was raised to be that sort of person.

  • I was a little kid in the '60s and '70s,

  • and to give you some sense of my parents:

  • actual public opinion polls at the time

  • showed that only a small minority, about 20 percent of white Americans,

  • approved and supported

  • Martin Luther King and his work with the civil rights movement

  • while Dr. King was still alive.

  • I'm proud to say my parents were in that group.

  • Race got talked about in our house.

  • And when the shows that dealt with race would come on the television,

  • they would sit us kids down, made sure we watched:

  • the Sidney Poitier movies, "Roots" ...

  • The message was loud and clear,

  • and I got it:

  • racism is wrong; racists are bad people.

  • At the same time,

  • we lived in a very white place in Minnesota.

  • And I'll just speak for myself,

  • I think that allowed me to believe that those white racists on the TV screen

  • were being beamed in from some other place.

  • It wasn't about us, really.

  • I did not feel implicated.

  • Now, I would say, I'm still in recovery from that early impression.

  • I got into journalism

  • in part because I cared about things like equality and justice.

  • For a long time, racism was just such a puzzle to me.

  • Why is it still with us when it's so clearly wrong?

  • Why such a persistent force?

  • Maybe I was puzzled because I wasn't yet looking in the right place

  • or asking the right questions.

  • Have you noticed

  • that when people in our mostly white media

  • report on what they consider to be racial issues,

  • what we consider to be racial issues,

  • what that usually means is that we're pointing our cameras

  • and our microphones and our gaze

  • at people of color,

  • asking questions like,

  • "How are Black folks or Native Americans, Latino or Asian Americans,

  • how are they doing?"

  • in a given community or with respect to some issue --

  • the economy, education.

  • I've done my share of that kind of journalism

  • over many years.

  • But then George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin,

  • followed by this unending string of high-profile police shootings

  • of unarmed Black people,

  • the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement,

  • Dylann Roof and the Charleston massacre,

  • #OscarsSoWhite --

  • all the incidents from the day-to-day of American life,

  • these overtly racist incidents

  • that we now get to see because they're captured on smartphones

  • and sent across the internet.

  • And beneath those visible events,

  • the stubborn data,

  • the studies showing systemic racism in every institution we have:

  • housing segregation, job discrimination,

  • the deeply racialized inequities in our schools

  • and criminal justice system.

  • And what really did it for me,

  • and I know I'm not alone in this, either:

  • the rise of Donald Trump

  • and the discovery that a solid majority of white Americans

  • would embrace or at least accept

  • such a raw, bitter kind of white identity politics.

  • This was all disturbing to me as a human being.

  • As a journalist, I found myself turning the lens around,

  • thinking,

  • "Wow, white folks are the story.

  • Whiteness is a story,"

  • And also thinking, "Can I do that?

  • What would a podcast series about whiteness sound like?"

  • (Laughter)

  • "And oh, by the way -- this could get uncomfortable."

  • I had seen almost no journalism that looked deeply at whiteness,

  • but, of course, people of color and especially Black intellectuals

  • have made sharp critiques of white supremacist culture

  • for centuries,

  • and I knew that in the last two or three decades,

  • scholars had done interesting work

  • looking at race through the frame of whiteness,

  • what it is, how we got it, how it works in the world.

  • I started reading,

  • and I reached out to some leading experts on race and the history of race.

  • One of the first questions I asked was,

  • "Where did this idea of being a white person

  • come from in the first place?"

  • Science is clear.

  • We are one human race.

  • We're all related,

  • all descended from a common ancestor in Africa.

  • Some people walked out of Africa into colder, darker places

  • and lost a lot of their melanin,

  • some of us more than others.

  • (Laughter)

  • But genetically, we are all 99.9 percent the same.

  • There's more genetic diversity within what we call racial groups

  • than there is between racial groups.

  • There's no gene for whiteness or blackness or Asian-ness

  • or what have you.

  • So how did this happen?

  • How did we get this thing?

  • How did racism start?

  • I think if you had asked me to speculate on that,

  • in my ignorance, some years ago,

  • I probably would have said,

  • "Well, I guess somewhere back in deep history,

  • people encountered one another,

  • and they found each other strange.

  • 'Your skin is a different color, your hair is different,

  • you dress funny.

  • I guess I'll just go ahead and jump to the conclusion

  • that since you're different

  • that you're somehow less than me,

  • and maybe that makes it OK for me to mistreat you.'"

  • Right?

  • Is that something like what we imagine or assume?

  • And under that kind of scenario,

  • it's all a big, tragic misunderstanding.

  • But it seems that's wrong.

  • First of all, race is a recent invention.

  • It's just a few hundred years old.

  • Before that, yes, people divided themselves

  • by religion, tribal group, language,

  • things like that.

  • But for most of human history,

  • people had no notion of race.

  • In Ancient Greece, for example --

  • and I learned this from the historian Nell Irvin Painter --

  • the Greeks thought they were better than the other people they knew about,

  • but not because of some idea that they were innately superior.

  • They just thought that they'd developed the most advanced culture.

  • So they looked around at the Ethiopians,

  • but also the Persians and the Celts,

  • and they said, "They're all kind of barbaric compared to us.

  • Culturally, they're just not Greek."

  • And yes, in the ancient world, there was lots of slavery,

  • but people enslaved people who didn't look like them,

  • and they often enslaved people who did.

  • Did you know that the English word "slave" is derived from the word "Slav"?

  • Because Slavic people were enslaved by all kinds of folks,

  • including Western Europeans,

  • for centuries.

  • Slavery wasn't about race either,

  • because no one had thought up race yet.

  • So who did?

  • I put that question to another leading historian,

  • Ibram Kendi.

  • I didn't expect he would answer the question

  • in the form of one person's name and a date,

  • as if we were talking about the light bulb.

  • (Laughter)

  • But he did.

  • (Laughter)

  • He said, in his exhaustive research,

  • he found what he believed to be the first articulation of racist ideas.

  • And he named the culprit.

  • This guy should be more famous,

  • or infamous.

  • His name is Gomes de Zurara.

  • Portuguese man.

  • Wrote a book in the 1450s

  • in which he did something that no one had ever done before,

  • according to Dr. Kendi.

  • He lumped together all the people of Africa --

  • a vast, diverse continent --

  • and he described them as a distinct group,

  • inferior and beastly.

  • Never mind that in that precolonial time

  • some of the most sophisticated cultures in the world were in Africa.

  • Why would this guy make this claim?

  • Turns out, it helps to follow the money.

  • First of all, Zurara was hired to write that book

  • by the Portuguese king,

  • and just a few years before,

  • slave traders --

  • here we go --

  • slave traders tied to the Portuguese crown

  • had effectively pioneered the Atlantic slave trade.

  • They were the first Europeans to sail directly to sub-Saharan Africa

  • to kidnap and enslave African people.

  • So it was suddenly really helpful

  • to have a story about the inferiority of African people

  • to justify this new trade

  • to other people, to the church,

  • to themselves.

  • And with the stroke of a pen,

  • Zurara invented both blackness and whiteness,

  • because he basically created the notion of blackness

  • through this description of Africans,

  • and as Dr. Kendi says,

  • blackness has no meaning without whiteness.

  • Other European countries followed the Portuguese lead

  • in looking to Africa for human property and free labor

  • and in adopting this fiction

  • about the inferiority of African people.

  • I found this clarifying.

  • Racism didn't start with a misunderstanding,

  • it started with a lie.

  • Meanwhile, over here in colonial America,

  • the people now calling themselves white got busy taking these racist ideas

  • and turning them into law,

  • laws that stripped all human rights from the people they were calling Black

  • and locking them into our particularly vicious brand of chattel slavery,

  • and laws that gave even the poorest white people benefits,

  • not big benefits in material terms

  • but the right to not be enslaved for life,

  • the right to not have your loved ones torn from your arms and sold,

  • and sometimes real goodies.

  • The handouts of free land in places like Virginia

  • to white people only

  • started long before the American Revolution

  • and continued long after.

  • Now, I can imagine

  • there would be people listening to me -- if they're still listening --

  • who might be thinking,

  • "Come on, this is all ancient history. Why does this matter?

  • Things have changed.

  • Can't we just get over it and move on?"

  • Right?

  • But I would argue, for me certainly,

  • learning this history has brought a real shift

  • in the way that I understand racism today.

  • To review, two quick takeaways from what I've said so far: