TED Conversations

Kyra Gaunt

Speaker, Author, Entrepreneur, Assoc.Professor, Kyraocity Works


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How did you first learn to be black or African or what was your earliest memory of learning about blackness/Africaness as different?

As a member of several social innovation communities, as a professor who teaches courses on the evolution and expressions of racism, and as a person of African descent in the United States (African American), I've been traveling around the world since becoming a TED Fellow and even before that asking people of all backgrounds, who did you first learn about racial differences between blacks and others, between Africans and others. The personal narratives people share have rocked my world.

A white woman from West Virginia who hated whites because the only people who ever loved her, kissed her, touched her with care, where two black woman her white father, a Vet caring for 4 girls alone after being abandoned by his wife. He had contracted them to raise her and her sisters. They had to leave in the midst of night to escape social services in the midst of the U.S. race riots of 1965-66. They moved to Ohio where people hated West Virginians (the politics of class among whites was surely at work her as well as the politics of state immigrations and unemployment at the time).

She remembered thinking "I can change my walk or my accent, if I wanted to." But the black women who were my caretakers while my dad worked could not change their skin color. That was her earliest memory as a white person. And she said that interpretation of life made her hate white people til she was well into her forties.

We met at a workshop I gave called AGREE TO BE OFFENDED (AND STAY CONNECTED) on racism as a resource in 2008 at the Conference for Global Transformation in San Francisco. I gave a workshop to 52 people from 3 continents and trained people in rethinking the social construct of race and difference that plagues all nations and groups on some level.

I could use any group here, but I think it's particularly enlightening to examine blackness and Africanness as member of the TED community and other social innovation settings where members of these communities are rarely prominent.


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  • Apr 30 2012: Let me start of by saying I'm a white 20 year old from London. Now I'm really struggling to understand what you mean by "blackness" and "learn to be black or African". As far as I'm aware there isn't some defining thing that makes people black other than their skin colour (which is not exactly something that can be learned). If I follow your logic about learning to be black, surly a person who doesn't have black skin could "learn to be black" too no? Or what about a black child who has been adopted by a white family and raised in a white community. Are they somehow, not black? Or if there is such a thing as Africaness and blackness is there also such a thing as Europeaness or whiteness? I thought the answer to all that was of-course not, till this post...

    For a minute I thought that perhaps you meant black or African culture. But even from that perspective your statements don't make sense to me because black people or even just the black people who live on the continent of Africa don't all subscribe to one culture so you couldn't define one culture as "the black culture" or "the African culture". Black people have many cultures and communities there is no one all encompassing black community or culture (as far I'm aware). Besides not being involved in a specific community/culture can't strip of your race. When I had thought that through to it's conclusion I really didn't have any more ideas about what the hell you could mean.

    As far as I'm aware (perhaps I'm due a lesson) there is no such thing as "blackness" or "Africaness" (apparently the spell check agrees with me lol) but here I am in a thread full of people who apparently disagree with me. But who am I a white kid to tell a black person (and a professor of racism at that) that there is no such thing as "blackness". Hopefully you will be able to explain what you mean a little better or maybe where my reasoning went wrong.

    I hope no one was offended by my ignorance I am honestly just here to learn.
    • Apr 30 2012: I think that if you do not realize that there is a thing in this country called being "black" or "African American" then you won't understand. People grow up being considered and considering themselves to be "black". I think Krya is asking about when the realization of this distinction came into people's consciousness. It's not about definitions; it's about identity. Yes, you could ask the exact same question of a "white" person. When i was 3, I was not white in my mind. That came later. I don't remember the first time I realized that I was white, but it probably had to do with not being black (or another color). There are things associated with being a particular color and I'm guessing that more emphasis in a person's personality and behavior is associated with being black than with white. One made up example would be, if I can dunk a basketball, it's because I'm tall and worked on my leg strength a lot. If a black person can dunk a basketball, it's because he's black. I think that's what is meant by "learning" to be black--learning what is expected of a black person.
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        May 1 2012: Misha, Bob I think you both can be right!
        The thing here is that when you post some topic on TED conversations you have to know that you have audiences from all around the globe ! different cultures, different histories, and even different type of racism.
        So for some, it is when they learnt to be colored, for others it is where they came from, or when they learnt to be different or maybe think different...
      • May 19 2012: Your response is very interesting to me thank you.

        "There are things associated with being a particular colour... emphasis in a person's personality and behaviour... One made up example would be... If a black person can dunk a basketball, it's because he's black."

        All of this to me sounds like you are describing racial stereotypes and what you describe as "being black" is actually just a collection of commonly held stereotypes. I was always told that all stereotypes are bad, even the "positive" ones. Stereotypes that sound like they might be good say X people are good at Y also imply that that people who are not X are not good at Y. If you don't see how this can cause problems in a society think about the example stereotype "men are smart" and how it implys that women are not, it was not too long ago that women were not aloud to vote partly because too many people actually believed this. Not only this but a stereotype holds a quality about someone hostage until they prove the stereotype (this creates the positive feedback loop that lets stereotypes exist in the first place). So in my example above a person can no longer be considered X if they are not good at Y even if they are X. Or using your example about basketball which hopefully you will accept can be summarized as black people are good at basketball. This basicly implies that a person is not black unless he is good at basketball. But what about the black kid who doesn't like basketball can he no longer identify himself as black? Of course not a persons race is just there regardless of their identity and you cant hold it hostage with your stereotypes.

        To be honest I'm kinda sad that anybody let alone an educated person would reinforce those racial stereotypes I don't think it reflects well on you nor the society you live in if this is a popular perspective.

        Question: If I were to fit all the "black" stereotypes that you have or "leaned to be black" as you put it but my skin is white what am I?
    • May 19 2012: Misha, true :) there are so many different cultures and communities on the continent and i totally agree with you on the other points you made , I'm 19 and I'm here to learn as well so yeah :) Shouldn't having the nationality of any country on the continent make you African regardless of racial background? and I am African btw .I mean the USA has their own definition of what it is to be "black"/of African descent & that would apply there and in places like South Africa but for the rest of the continent I don't think that is the question i mean all of us are pretty much black :P expect for the North and the white minorites all over the continent and those of asian descent & to me my South Indian neighbour is "black" too and so are some brazilians, australian aborigines, some latinos etc that doesnt make them Africans does it?
      I mean for example some hispanics they might be of African descent but they have their own Latin culture and do not relate to the continent at all so why is it that being black means being "African" (and im talking not only about ancestry only but language and culture)...to think that there is an "African culture" per se (as if there was one Asian culture in Asia) just goes to show that you are one of those peop think Africa is just a big country with Somalia as its largest province and where everybody is Bantu for eg. and looks Bantu and speak the same language and have the same traditions.which coming from a West African country i think is wrong, and just there alone there isn't one "culture" because of the different ethnicities although in the USA a Fulani will probably be the same as a someone from Sudan.Of course with globalisation and as time passes,the societies homogenise for the better i think :) but anw if there was just one African idendity or culture i dont think Rwanda would have happend or Darfur even or so many other horrifying conflits based on ethnic differnces.

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