Chris Anderson: Welcome to the TED Interview. I'm Chris Anderson and this is the podcast series where I sit down with a TED speaker and we get to dive much deeper into their ideas than was possible during their TED talk. Today, my guest is Mellody Hobson, a business leader and innovator, and we're going to attempt to have a conversation about something that some of us might find just a bit uncomfortable. It's a conversation about race. I'm a white guy. And most of the white people I know are progressive souls who recognize the centuries of injustice in many parts of the world. They loathe racism. They do not view themselves as racist in any way. In fact, they crave a world where these issues would go away. Where we can just look at each other, one person to another. That desire for a person's race to become invisible, you can call that "color blindness." Color blindness might seem to be built on good intentions, but Mellody argues that color blindness is dangerous.
Mellody Hobson (TED 2014): I think it's time for us to be comfortable with the uncomfortable conversation about race. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, male, female, all of us. If we truly believe in equal rights, in equal opportunity in America, I think we have to have real conversations about this issue. We cannot afford to be color-blind, we have to be color-brave.
CA: Melody has built an extraordinarily impressive career in business. Today, she's the president of Ariel Investments, a company that manages funds with more than 10 billion dollars. And she sits on the board of several major American companies, including Estée Lauder and Starbucks. Five years ago, she married movie director George Lucas and became a sought-after voice in Hollywood. She has experienced so many tears of life, and is therefore the perfect person to talk about how to be color-brave in every arena of society. Mellody, you're joining me from San Francisco, I'm so happy to get to talk with you.
MH: Thank you so much for having me, I'm delighted to be here.
CA: So I'd love to start with a little more about your background. Can you give us a picture of you as a child, like, what it was like growing up?
MH: Well, I grew up the youngest of six kids and I'm really young in my family. My oldest sister is more than two decades older than me, and I have one brother. Four sisters and a brother. They were very fond of saying that I wasn't planned, they used to make jokes all the time about the fact that — they used to say that I was found on the doorstep. When you have a sister who is 25 years older than you, and you're five years old, you kind of believe them. And it was very funny, growing up, I joke with people — I didn't have a chicken breast until I was an adult. I thought "wing" was the chicken.
You know, when you're the youngest kid, you kind of get the last of everything. But it was a great family and a great life and even though I was the baby of the family, I was very independent and self-sufficient. I was born focused. I mean, I really was, I was one of those kids who came out of the womb very much with the sense of direction and very much of a sense of what I wanted to be and a lot of it was based upon the fact that I didn't want to be poor, that we lived this life that was very up and down, and sometimes we had an OK existence, and sometimes we didn't. And we used to get evicted and our car used to get repossessed, and our phone used to get disconnected and we were literally that family that had the bounced check on the wall at the store. And because of that, I was desperate to understand money which why it's not an accident I'm in the financial services industry. And it's probably not an accident that I had this search for truth and justice, because of some of the inequality that I saw and lived.
CA: Any specific stories of you as a kid that might have fueled your sense around the issue of race, racial injustice of some kind, was that an issue you were deeply aware of, growing up?
MH: I was deeply aware of it because my mother made me aware of it at a very young age. I grew up going to a school where there weren't a lot of black kids. And so my mother, from a very, very young age, has sensitized me to race. Rightly or wrongly, she just did. And she made it very clear to me that I wouldn't always be in situations where I would be welcome or where people would treat me well. I told the story in my TED talk about going to a birthday party and coming back, and her asking me how did they treat me, instead of asking me things that, as a kid, you would expect, like, "Did you have fun?" and "How was the cake?" My mother said, "How did they treat you?" I was seven years old. And I remember being really taken aback by the comment. And she'd looked at me with this look that I'll never forget, and she said, "They won't always treat you well." And that's, you know, cold water when you're a child, you don't understand what that means. And throughout my growing up, she made it clear, so that when I had situations that were less than perfect, I wouldn't be shocked and amazed or thrown off my game. That I would be prepared mentally for the adversity. And that, I'm grateful for. It may have been, you know, a bit early, by some people's standards, to start that conversation, but my mother was just practical and she didn't allow us to have fantasies, I mean she just didn't.
CA: Right there in your childhood, you were almost being nudged away from being color-blind, your mother was specifically saying — you know, she might have ignored race, if you like, but she was making you pay attention to it. Would you encourage other mothers to do that? The issue matters too much to any child not to do that.
MH: It's fascinating you say that, because I never thought of it that way, and I'm actually a bit overtaken with emotion, with the thought, but she taught me to be color-brave, that's right, she did. Because she didn't make race a conversation that was taboo, she put it right in front of me. And she sensitized me to all the issues that would come from being first a black girl and then a black woman in America and then the world. And as I look back on that now, I have so much gratitude for her, that was really a gift that she gave me, because it really armed me, it was like a superhero outfit that I put on to get ready for the day, and it wasn't because every moment of every day I was confronting something that was racially challenging. But certainly, there were undercurrents and slights and things like that that I was attentive to because she helped me to see. I'm always amazed by both young women and people of color who are 25, 30 years old, and they'll say things like, "I've never experienced any sexism," "I've never experienced any racism," and I literally want to say to them, "You just didn't see it. It was there." And that's not me being a negative Nellie, it's just the truth of the world that we live in. And my mother did not let me walk around with those — and I'll bring the pun all the way forward — blinders on.
CA: Well, this is such an important conversation, because I think there's definitely plenty of people out there in the world who really want the comfort of color-blind, if you like. They don't believe themselves to be racist in any way, but they are uncomfortable with the conversation. It's like, "Couldn't that all just go away, didn't we win those battles two or three decades ago? Can't we just get on and talk to each other as human beings?" And you believe definitely that it's, you know, maybe at some point in the future that might be possible, but for now, no, we can't do that.
MH: We can't do that. And if anything, our present conversation, which has devolved from even my talk in 2014, is an indication of how desperately this country needs to understand what has happened. I can't remember who told me this, but someone said to me, America was born with a birth defect. And our birth defect was slavery. And the one thing about a birth defect is you can live with it. It's something that is there that you can see, it's always there. And that's how I feel about this racial issue as it relates to our country, it's always there. And pretending that it isn't isn't going to make it go away. And if anything, pretending that it's not there, I think, it makes it worse. And so I think it's more critical now than even when I gave this TED talk in 2014, that we just admit the issues that we have in this country, and the problems that we have, again, not only in this country, but in this world around these issues, but distinctly around these issues in America, given our history.
CA: There's so much in what you just said, and we're going to come back to it. But for now, I just want to go back to you as this black girl in a mainly white school, who nonetheless shone, and shone partly, from what you just said, just because of your focus, your determination to not be poor. And you shone so much that it bought you a ticket to Princeton. What was that college experience like for you?
MH: I loved college, I loved Princeton. I mean, they joke that Princetonians bleed orange and black, I'm one of those people. And I think one of the reasons I did so well at Princeton is I had gone to school with mostly white kids my whole life, so there was not a lot of culture shock for me in transitioning to that environment. I felt like I belonged there, I felt like I had earned the right to be there, despite sometimes having people say things like I was an affirmative action baby, and I've had people say I took their kid's slot, you know, those kind of things, which are crazy. But I would say that every day that I was there, I had the sense that I was given this real opportunity to learn and do something with it. And so I just took advantage of it. I really did, I loved it. I mean, I would go home early from Christmas vacation to go back to Princeton, which, who does that? I did. You know, I'd be at a basically empty campus. But I loved being there.
CA: It seems like there's a pretty intense work ethic, somewhere in there. And you carried that forward as you worked your way up at Ariel, this investment firm. I mean, that journey — so few African American women have made that specific journey of — I think you started as an intern, initially, there, and then you found yourself, a few years later, president of this massive financial investment firm. How did you account for that — was there something special or different in what you were doing, did you just feel great good fortune?
MH: Well, certainly, I had the opportunity to be an intern at Ariel and I immediately knew that I was at a special place. The founder of our firm is a gentleman named John Rogers, and he was one of these people who changed my life. And he changed my life by telling me, like my mother did, that I could be or do anything. And the way John did it, was he said, the first day I went to work at the firm, "You know, Mellody, you're going to be in rooms with people who have big titles that make a lot of money, but it doesn't mean their ideas are better than yours. I want to hear your ideas." He empowered me from the very first day. I was this pip-squeak who knew nothing about nothing. But he told me that he wanted to hear my ideas, and I believed him. And so then, I felt that I had the responsibility to show up and have ideas. And I worked really, really hard to learn and to hone what I would call creative thoughts. When I was at Princeton, I had this professor who used to joke with us when we were in our small precepts, if someone would say, "I want to reiterate what Chris said," he would say, "You mean, iterate again." And it was his way of telling us that we did not have an original idea. So when I went to work at Ariel, I was all about "I want original ideas." It may be years before I have something to say, but when I say it, I want to break through with nuance and originality, which is really, really hard to do. And John gave me the permission. He gave me the license to be able to do that, which was really great. I'd always worked really, really hard as a student, I mean hard, just crazy. Used to lock myself in the bathroom in my house, because there were no quiet rooms to work in. And when I went to Princeton, because it was just a difficult school, you had to, you get 1,000 pages of reading in a week. And you were always drinking from a fire hydrant. So I was predisposed to the work. And so when I got to Ariel, working hard was just normal for me. I also grew up with a mother who had this belief that you should never sleep past six am on any day. And if you did, even on a weekend, she would say, "The world is passing you by." And she'd want you to look out the window and see how many lights were on and give you a sense of you know, how many people were getting ahead while you were sleeping. And to this day, I still have that same sensitivity, I live in a high-rise in Chicago and I check the lights to see how many lights are on when I'm waking up, to see, you know, are other people getting an edge. Could I be waking up earlier and doing more. And so I think there's a direct correlation between hard work and success in life. And the more you apply yourself, I think the more the good things come.
CA: Mellody, you had the chance, at Ariel, to implement and build the kind of diverse organization that you've been articulating for and prove to yourself that it actually worked, that it could deliver greater performance.
MH: Well, we believe that intuitively, but we also believe it based upon the results that we have. We are a believer in Scott Page's work, the University of Michigan professor, who wrote the book called "The Difference." We had this core belief that diverse backgrounds and opinions lead to better outcomes. What we do in the investment business is inherently hard. We're buying stocks when they're out of favor, ignored, misunderstood, under-followed. Some people say value investors like us catch falling knives. And so the one thing you want to do, in order to make sure that you don't fall into what we call a value trap, where you have bought a stock that is cheap for a reason, is you want lots of countervailing views. And you want people to really challenge ideas. And you really want to avoid groupthink. The worst stocks we've ever had are names that we've bought where there was a disagreement. When there's disagreement, that dissonance leads to asking hard questions and leads to getting those answers, and, in our view, leads to a better outcome. For us, diversity is a competitive advantage. Because we're so different than all of the other investment firms that are out there.
CA: Give me a sense as to how, how do you measure that?
MH: Certainly, if you look at the senior leadership of our firm, if you just look at our executive team. We have five people on our executive team. We have three women and two men. So, of the three women, one is a black woman — me, one is a white woman — our CFO, Maureen Longoria, and one is an Indian woman, our chief investment officer, international and global, Rupal Bhansali. So you have three women, two are what you would consider minority, black and Indian, and then a white woman. And then of the two men that we have on that five-person team, one is an African American male, John Rogers, who founded the firm, and one is a white male. I would argue that when you look at investment firms around the nation, I'd love to see that level of diversity, where women actually have the majority in that situation.
CA: And despite a significant blip during the financial crisis, I mean, by many measures, Ariel has performed incredibly well.
MH: We believe so. I mean, certainly the financial crisis was a come-to-Jesus moment for our firm, 2008 was the worst year in the history of Ariel. But since that time, our recovery has been spectacular. We're in the top of our peer group. That is a testament to the work ethic, the energy, and the fact that this diverse approach and all these diverse people, coming together to solve these hard problems, leads to a positive outcome.
CA: So all of this really made you uniquely qualified to come to TED four years ago, and make this argument: not color-blind, be color-brave. Explain the argument.
MH: So here's the argument. I just found myself in lots of meetings when any issue even remotely related to race would come up, they would tell me they were color-blind. And they would say it so proudly. They say, "I don't even see race." And I started to say to myself, "OK, this is crazy." Because at not seeing race, they don't even see how much they're excluding. So this isn't me calling someone a racist, it's just saying, "Not seeing race is not working." It's just not working for our society. So those people are holding on to that as a badge of honor — I want them to stop. I want them to actually, purposefully see race. And as I say in my talk, I want them to observe their environment. Invite people into their world who don't look like them, who don't think like them, who don't act like them, who don't come from where they come from. In an effort to have a better, more inclusive society. And to end the homogeneity that has existed in so many corners of our society. Some of us who live in major urban environments may not think that's true, but when you start going to the heights of corporate America, it goes white, very, very fast in our country. And that means that we're not as good as we can be.
CA: So this is advice that you think applies to someone running any company, any organization, like an educational establishment — and even in people's private lives, you think some measure of this advice applies.
MH: I think it's about, if you are on the PTA and you look around your PTA meeting and you see that all the people are alike, that's a problem. If you're in a hiring committee at work, and you notice that the people that you're fielding for potential jobs are all the same, all the same background, that's a problem. If you are, in your everyday life, finding whoever you have lunch with looks like you, came from where you come from, holds the same views, I think that's a problem, and the reason why I say problem — we have a society that has been rocked by a level of intolerance that is just shocking. And this need to make people other, I think it leads to conflict and ultimately, war. And so, it's in our own best interest. At the corporate level, we could have better results, we could have insights on different kinds of customers, We could have the smartest people in the room working with us, who are different, because we didn't exclude anyone. It's in our best interest as a nation, in terms of our vitality and ability to grow and to be hungry. And the inclusiveness that America was built on. It's in our best interest as a world. For us all to get together, get along well. Because the stakes are very high when we don't, given some of the means to which conflicts can escalate.
CA: There are probably a lot of people who do work in an environment that is largely white. Who would say, "Yes, I am a bit uncomfortable with that, I have noticed that and I wish it wasn't that way. But here's the thing: Every time we try and recruit someone, we put out a job ad, 90 percent of the applicants are white and maybe 95 percent of the qualified applicants are white. And that we can't fix this problem that you're trying to fix without fixing a whole series of other problems to do with history, culture, education, training and so forth." What would you say to those people?
MH: I reject that thesis. So I reject that thesis from a very basic standpoint. I'm going to start with the big picture and then I'll get more granular. There are more than 300 million Americans. There's someone out there who can do the job. Literally. Let's just start with that fact. Then, let's go for being unconventional in the methods in which you seek to acquire talent. People have been doing that forever. People buy firms just to get talent. That's very, very common in Silicon Valley. They'll buy a business just to get the best entrepreneurs in that organization, not even necessarily for the technology. You know, people get creative when they need to be. When something is urgent and really an imperative to your long-term success, both personally or that of your business, you will do what you need to do. And all I'm saying to people — this is an imperative. The world is changing in real time. And to not understand that has just dire implications for the long-term success of a company. I do not believe you can call a company a 21-century company today that is lacking diversity. Because they won't be able to survive long-term. They won't be able to understand the unique interests of their customers, they won't be able to relate to them, et cetera, as the browning of America continues. So you can have excuses about it, but we don't have excuses about anything else in business. If we had an earnings target and we don't make it, no one can make excuses about it. You did it or you didn't. As Yoda says, "Do or do not, there is no try." And so on this issue, if you really believe it is a part of your long-term viability, both as an individual, in terms of your own success, or as a company, you've got to try harder and find ways to network and source those opportunities with other people. You know, let’s just make this up: if I had to fill a certain position, and the résumés were not coming back the right way, I'd be reaching out to various people in the community, saying, "How can you help me network with people in your community that may be right for this job?" People love those calls. Helping a friend or someone else get a job, you know — you've got a friend for life.
CA: Mellody, if someone's persuaded by your argument about being color-brave but they are not in a hiring position, they are just, you know, an ordinary person with a job and a social life, what advice do you have to them, how can they be color-brave?
MH: Well first, it starts with you, it's not others, it's what can you do. And so I always tell people, you could reach out to someone who's very different from you, circumstance, race, et cetera, and invite them to lunch at work. You know, seek those people out, say, "I don't really know you, I don't know a lot about you and I'd love to have lunch with you." It would be a bold move that would take a lot of courage, but again, I'm preaching bravery today. I think asking the question — you know, life is not often about confronting someone with statements — questions are brilliant in getting across an idea. That's what I seek to do when I'm in boardrooms, I seek to ask questions. And when asking questions, you put people in the position of having to respond, or at least to think. And so even if it's not work, if you're not in that hiring position, you might say, "Listen, I've noticed, wow, we're attracting the same kind of people over and over again. What can we do to expand the opportunities?" You can do it in a way that's not confrontational and just wanting the best for the team and for the company. People always ask, "Who are your mentors?" And I always tell them, "Some of my best mentors I never met and they were dead." And I've been mentored in my mind by Martin Luther King, and I've been mentored by Gandhi, and I've been mentored by Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela and so many people, because I read about them. And so diversity could even be that. What do you read to expand your knowledge and understanding of people and things?
CA: So how does your term "color-brave," how does that relate to affirmative action?
MH: I'm a believer in affirmative action. I'm sure in my lifetime I've benefited from it, I think the world is better from me having benefited from it, I know I certainly am better. I think affirmative action is, in certain situations, very necessary. If we're going to have any opportunity of my words catching up. Because when you see the numbers over and over again — I love that line, "math has no opinion." Just count. I had a friend who was on the board of one of the major university law schools in the United States, and he had this conversation with me, said, "You know, Mellody, we don't want to go to lowest common denominator." And I said, "That's a really interesting point," and he thought that I would say, like, "I agree with you," and this, that and the other. And I'm going to say this in a way that I hope comes across correctly and it is a nuanced comment that may sound extraordinarily inflammatory, and I don't mean it to be. But it assumes that every single person in every university, in every law school, and every college, is exemplary. And there are people who are mediocre. They just are. And that's not about race or anything like that, and there's a bunch of mediocre white people in some of these institutions. And so this idea that somehow, if a black student has different standards or different scores or whatever it is, that somehow, it takes the whole institution down, I just don't agree.
CA: There is this controversy that affirmative action pushed too far in an education context. Can and has, in some cases, set people up to fail. You know, the very strong STEM candidate going into a top engineering school ends up in the bottom 10 percent, when they could have been a star in a slightly different school.
MH: The star part is the most important thing. So, we know, in America, certain schools, in and of themselves, just the brand is a door opener. And so if you tell me that a black or Hispanic kid is going to be — I'm making this up — in the bottom 10 percent at Stanford, fine. Versus being in the top 10 percent at you name the other school, fine. I think that if I'm in law school and I've got a black kid in my law school who grew up in an inner city, and we're talking about criminal justice reform, they may bring something else to the party than a school that has no black kids in it. So that's just my strong point of view. When it comes to corporate America, I want to be very clear. I do not think that you have to settle. I don't think you have to take the person who is less capable or less talented in order to check a box. I think that those people are out there. On top of that, it presumes that every single person inside of the organization already is top top drawer. And the thing is, in real life, that just isn't true. It just doesn't work like that. You know, there are people who contribute different things to companies. At Ariel, we have people who are just wonderful teammates. If you were in a foxhole, you'd want them there just for moral support. And there are people who are the smartest people you ever met. And there are people who are great problem solvers. And there are people who are really great with people. All of those things go into, again, the mosaic of our organization. I've been with people who are the smartest people in the room, and you get them together and you have, like, an asshole convention. You what I mean, it's not fun. So, you know, that's not the criteria for everything.
CA: I've been to those myself.
Mellody, can I tell you a story about one piece of impact from your talk? And I suspect there are thousands and thousands of these stories out there. So I'm in the audience, listening to your talk. I have always seen myself as a global soul — I grew up in India and went to school with kids from 30 countries. And was very passionate about the notion of I would say, color blindness. That was my sort of dream of where the world would go, is that we would all relate to each other as human to human. And, you know, dreamed of a world where all these barriers between countries and races and so forth would come down. And yet, I'm sitting there, listening to you, and thinking, look at my own friendship circle. Mostly white friends. Look at the leadership team at TED — mostly white. You know, TED believes in racial equality, in the journey towards greater equity, et cetera. And yet, you know, we weren't delivering in the way that you were challenging us to. And so, that little talk became a bug in my head and in the heads of other people in the org. And it influenced us and it impacted how we started to hire, it impacted how we promoted people. And, gosh, something like a year ago, I was at a TEDWomen conference and I met this woman, she was African American, she was the head of HR at an architecture firm in LA. And we had just started recruiting for a new head of HR. I was excited at the possibility that she might apply and come through our search process. So I encouraged her to do this and she was up for it. And yet, seeing what happened next sort of showed me just how hard a battle this is. Because, when you hire an outside search firm, they have a whole process, they have a whole list of check boxes that they’re going for. They are looking for someone with huge experience in media industry, for example, or in the tech industry, or the nonprofit industry, and most of the people who check all their boxes were white. And in their whole process, they didn't even put her through into the shortlist. We insisted that she come through. Your talk persuaded us to take the leap and to be a little bit brave. This woman, Rachell Morris, came and joined us a couple of months ago. And it's been the most thrilling and spectacular hire I can remember making. She's already adding fire and challenges at every level and I've never felt prouder of the leadership team that we have.
MH: I'm so excited about that story, I'm welling up a little bit. You know, that's the way it should be. And the thing is that a lot of us don't even get a chance to come out of the gate. We just don't fit the image. You know, it's one of the things that I wrote about or say at the end of my TED talk, I say I want it to be a world where, when a kid sees a business executive or a CEO in the paper or on TV, I want them to say, "I can be like her," "He looks just like me." And when a child in LA or Houston or Harlem or the south side of Chicago takes their bus at school, I want them to look out the window and believe that she can be anything. She can reach any height, that she can be welcome in any boardroom, lead any company. That was why I gave the other example, I said, "When you look at boardrooms in America, the number of boardrooms that are still all white male" — which is where all the power is, I know, I sit on boards, it's where the power is — and I said, "Imagine if I showed you the board of Exxon Mobile and every single person on that board was black, you would say, "What is up with that?" But we don't even have that reaction when we see all-white male anything. It just seems normal to us. Despite a society that is increasingly, as I suggested, brown. So, I think now, the question is, what do we all do about it? You know, I love that quote that says, "Do what you can, where you are, with what you've got." And so it's the idea that you can't wait. You can't wait until you have more money, you can't wait till you have more time, you can't wait until you have more influence. You do what you can, where you are, with what you have.
CA: Let me ask you this. I would love your take on where you think America is, in terms of race relations. If you could draw a graph of progress, if you like, in race relations, starting from 1960, say, to the present, what would that graph look like?
MH: I see it as an upward trajectory, and for as disappointed and at times discouraged as I am by some of the rhetoric that exists today — and it is bad, so please don't get me wrong — the reason that I say it's an upward trajectory, because I'm sitting here in a studio, talking to you, as the president of an investment firm, who sits on the board of JPMorgan Chase and Starbucks and Estée Lauder, and who has had unbelievable opportunities, including attending one of the best universities in the world, who is married to one of the most successful iconic filmmakers in the world. I mean, this wouldn't be possible if it weren't for progress. And even on my worst day, my worst day, where I am so discouraged and sad, I know I'm not in a field, picking cotton. And that is something that is important to remember. We'd made progress. I know what Barack Obama meant to me when he became president of the United States, and I know that it probably had a giant, giant effect on little black kids, who were like Mellody, sitting in their school buses when they were in second and third grade, looking at a black president, instead of wondering if there ever would be one. So, those things, you can't take back. And that's progress. But that doesn't mean we don't have some steep mountains to climb — they're enormous, and those mountains belong to all of us. We all have a responsibility, in this society, to move us forward, all of us.
CA: You talked about how your mother helped you think about race. What would you advise a white mother today to say to her kids?
MH: I think white children need to understand their privilege. They have white-skin privilege and that is real. A white teenage boy of which — when I started dating my husband, we had one in our family — had different privileges than a black teenage boy would have had in our community. And I would always tell Jett Lucas about that. I'd say, "You can walk around in a hoodie, but Corry, my driver, his son, who's the exact same age, couldn't walk around this neighborhood like you do. He would be arrested, pulled over, things would happen." And I just would let him know what the differences are so that he was aware. And that's not for him to be burdened by it, it's just to be aware, and understand the unique things that he didn't have to worry about, that we do. And so, I think that white children should understand their white-skin privilege. Just like I had to teach my child about the unique and extraordinary privileges that she has. She has wealth, she has all sorts of things. And I am teaching her about them early, so that she understands.
CA: I hear you making the case that even though the conversation is uncomfortable, it's just one that we still have to have and will have to have for a long time. You mentioned the deep, dark history of slavery and racial injustice in America. Talk more about that, about whether there is some level of recognition of that history that is essential to progress. You know, Bryan Stevenson has built this extraordinary memorial because of his deep belief that until we fully understand this is all part of the same story, we can't move forward. How do you think about this?
MH: Well one, Brian is a hero. About three or four weeks ago, I went down to see the lynching museum in Alabama, on a Sunday, because I felt it was really important for me to experience with my family, and it's extraordinarily moving and stunningly beautiful, at the same time, place —
CA: Yeah, it is.
MH: That packs a punch. And so I think Bryan has a vision, and it's a vision that is superimportant for our society, and I have learned a lot from him on that. He told me about how he went to Berlin, and in Germany, they have all of these markers for things that have happened, that did happen during the holocaust, as a way of never forgetting. And he feels that in America, we don't have any markers. And so that's where the museum — that was the genesis of the idea for that, that we have to mark this injustice, so we remember these lives and this loss.
CA: How might this play out, though? So let's say that lots of people go to the memorial, and through other means, you know, there is a sort of a deeper understanding of that past and how it connects to some of the current injustices, especially in the criminal justice system. How does that turn into something constructive, as opposed to, perhaps some people would worry, it just stokes up old resentments and increases stress. Can you picture some kind of moment of healing, of forgiveness, of reparation, of acknowledgment? And what form could it possibly take?
MH: It's interesting, because when I went to visit the memorial, I didn't feel stress and I didn't feel resentment, and I didn't feel ... I felt I was visiting a sacred place, and I felt a deep sense of sadness and loss. While it's a very difficult experience, I was really grateful to have it, so that I could remember all the people who had sacrificed for me. And so, what I would say is, ignoring pain and anguish doesn't help you. It just doesn't. I think the best thing you can do is to understand the nuance. Racial inequality is wrong. That's not so hard, it just isn't. And when it is there, it creates really bad outcomes. And those bad outcomes, obviously, in this situation, were people being lynched, but it had bigger effects in terms of the loss of those individuals and families and incomes, and all sorts of other wounds that we can't even imagine. And so I think that's important and healthy, and not creating dissonance. I think it's creating healing and hope.
CA: How are we to think about this: that there are a lot of people, I guess white people, mostly, in America, and elsewhere in the world, actually, who are frightened to have conversations about race in any way. There are so many things that you can get wrong. You know, you can culturally appropriate something, or you can use a term that has become slightly taboo, or you can just put your foot in it, and come over as an ignorant, innately racist person. And so people withdraw from it. How do we facilitate a conversation without those buttons being pressed, and one that is constructive?
MH: I can't assure you that the buttons won't be pressed, but I can say that this is why I distinctly use the word "brave." That you actually have to have the courage. Courage is not being fearless, it's acting in the face of fear. And so the fear around some of these conversations and not getting it right, is very real. These are difficult discussions, I'd be the first to acknowledge that, and they're laden with emotion. So I do understand that. Even in this conversation, I've had moments of great emotion, just talking to you about certain things.
CA: Mellody, I've been fearful of that very fact. It's a hard conversation for me. You know, I could hear that, some of the things I said — it sounded like you were offended by some things, it is hard.
MH: No, if I came across as being offended, maybe that's just human being and just the nature of ... I don't know, maybe I don't have a poker voice, I'll call it, since it's not a face that you're looking at. It certainly wasn't that, but maybe it also is being strong in a point of view. You know, that I feel strongly about what I believe, this is my truth. There are truths that can be different for people around some of these issues. I do want to make sure I respect that and that's why I said I want to invite those other opinions into my life in order to be able to understand them and to be able to ask questions. And it goes both ways. You know, the one thing that I didn't say in my TED talk that I wanted to say, is when you're black in America, and oftentimes, when we are black in America in certain parts of our society, we know a lot more about white people than they know about us. A lot more. And so how can we turn the tables in that conversation in a way that people can know more about us and our unique issues and backgrounds et cetera. My daughter speaks fluent Mandarin, she's five years old. And we've had a Chinese teacher who basically lives with us, in making sure that she really grasps the language. And the one great thing about that is, I tell people, my daughter, when she was maybe two or three, my husband said to her, her name is Everest, he said, "Everest is black and white." That's to tell you we were teaching her about race. He says, "Baba," which we call him, which is "dad" in Chinese, "Baba is white and mama is black. Everest is black and white." And she looked at him and she says, "And Mandarin." And we laughed so hard, because she really does think she's partly Chinese — or did, for a long time. She did go through a phase the other day where she came home and told us she was Indian. Because she's brown. And we tried to explain to her that she really wasn't Indian. But she's convinced that she's Indian, so for now, she's also Indian, which is fine. But it's the idea that in having this child speak Mandarin, it really did overlay the whole Chinese culture into our life. And that's been the most amazing thing. And so I get to ask questions all the time, of Lele. I'm sure I've gotten some things wrong or stepped in it, and not been perfect, but it does come from a place of wanting to understand. And I know when I've engaged with people who are of different races around issues like that, the conversation I told you about, the person who said about the lowest common denominator, at the law school where they were on the board, I'm couching my words when I'm trying to say, "OK, you're saying there might be a couple of mediocre black kids. You're assuming there are no mediocre white kids in the whole school." You know, that's what I'm saying back, really. And that's probably not politically correct or, you know —
CA: Part of me wishes we could all have a giant social contract with each other that just says, "Let's make this trade-off, let's agree to allow ourselves to be just a little bit offended in exchange for being more open with each other, and giving people the benefit of the doubt.
MH: That's why I made that statement. What if we had benefit and no doubt? I'm willing to make that trade all day long. I've been in situations where people have said things where I'm like, "Let me tell you why you don't want to say that."
"Let me just tell you why that doesn't work in our community." And there are so many funny examples I can tell you, you know. One of my best friends who is not black, she's not black, has twin boys and she always calls her little boys "little monkeys," because they're always jumping around, you know, everywhere, and she always, always, always calls them that. She's white, she's from Israel. She's dear to us and to me. And I look at her, I'm like, "Never call a black kid a monkey."
I'm like, "Never do that, bad idea, just making sure you know." And she was like, "Well, little kids jump all around, my little boys are these toddlers, and they're always jumping." I'm like, "Just don't ever make that mistake." And that wasn't from a place of being offended, I was just like, note to self, you probably want to know this. Doesn't translate.
CA: Well, I think one of your great gifts for the world, Mellody, is your ability to give that kind of advice, and much more, in a way that many people can hear and not go into immediate defensive mode. Not everyone can do that, and I really do think it's a huge gift. Just on your statement about "there's my truth and your truth." The philosopher in me would love to push back on that. Because for me, truth is the core value. You know, without there being one truth that there's no chance people converging.
MH: I'm using that truth in a different way, so I should clarify this. I'm not taking about facts disputing facts. I'm talking about truth from the perspective of experience. And so that's what I'm saying — there are experiences that I've had that are true to me, that you wouldn't ever be able to know or understand. And so I give you the benefit of the doubt because you couldn't understand them. I am married to someone who is not black. And all the time, I've desensitized him to issues around race. And that's not because he doesn't care, I know he loves me. But I know that there are times that I have to provide a lens for him with which to see or experience things as I am experiencing them. And that does not in any way diminish my love or respect for him. It just says, what in his experience would have this be possible, that he could see this? And how it's playing out from the eyes to which I see it. When I walk into a room, I can notice. Not because I'm counting, I can just feel when it's just me. I can tell you, George doesn't — Until a few years ago, he never thought about that. Now we go certain places, he's like, "You're the only black person." I'm like, "Yeah, it's interesting you notice that now." Because, why would he have noticed before?
CA: Can you talk a little more about your relationship with George Lucas and how that has worked out? I mean, you two are an astonishing duo. Is there a sense in which one plus one equals more than two?
MH: Well, there's no question. There's a lot of good things that come out of the combination. And it's not one plus one equals two, it's one plus one equals 10. We've been able to enrich each other's lives, and recognize the platforms that we have in our individual ways and help magnify them. Give each other different perspectives and a different lens in which to operate. And that has been a gift. So I think for as much as George has affected me, which is profoundly, I have also affected him. He sees injustice, but he always saw that. You know, he's a fighter in his own unique way. His stories suggest that.
CA: I think you were quoted once for saying that in a sense, you are the same person. What did you mean by that?
MH: We are, George says that. We share a core value. When we got married, Bill Moyers was the officiant at our marriage. And he says when you fall in love, you meet your mind's friend. And I met my mind's friend. You know, I met this person who so clearly reflected so many of my values, but who came in a different package and a different age and a different race and a different life experience. And all of that was enriching. So, it wasn't a color-brave moment, because I was never — I didn't need to make that leap emotionally or otherwise in terms of love, I just didn't. I didn't have any blinders on, I didn't have any idea.
CA: You fell in love.
MH: I didn't limit myself to what was possible. Really, I was more of, like, anything could happen. And in fact, anything did.
(Laughs) That's what happened.
CA: So, for the long term, let me ask you this. In the long term, is it OK to dream about color blindness? And I mean this in the sense that it used to be thought that race was this hugely significant distinction among people, that people were almost different species because they were different colors. We now — most of us — believe that color of skin is really the least interesting thing about someone, that people's character, people's skills, people's dreams, people's hopes, these are the things that matter. So is it possible to dream of a future world where there actually is color blindness, because the world has become juster, because there aren't groups who are unfairly left behind, for example, or mistreated or not included. That you can get to that kind of world and that ultimately, in the long term, that would be a better world?
MH: Wow, that's a really great question, because I do believe in playing long ball. At Ariel, we have a turtle as a logo and we say "Slow and steady wins the race." Here's my conundrum, and you're hitting me cold and I'm trying to think out loud here. On the one hand, I'd learned this from Wynton Marsalis, I love this example he gives, I want to attribute, when I learn things from people, and not try to represent them as being my own. He talks about the fact that beyond skin, when you get to cellular, bones, all those things, our bodies are color-blind. Once you get past the epidermis, you can't tell what someone's race is. So in reality, as human beings, that is true. On the other hand, when I listen to you, I think of that world that you're describing as being so far away from reality that I see, that I don't want to give anyone the opportunity to not work hard today. And to maybe fall into some belief that we're there. And so I say ... it would be a dream, but it would be a dream that would be so distant, when you look at where we are right now. Look at the reaction to someone like Meghan Markle being in the royal family, where there was initially — there were a lot of horrible statements about her. And at the same time, I can tell you, I was in Chicago and I woke up at four am to watch the wedding. And I wept watching it. And when my child woke up, because she wanted to see the princess, she wanted to see the princess — remember, she's five, we're into princesses — and the first thing she said was, "She looks just like me." I nearly fell out of my chair, because it was actually true. You know, Meghan Markle is a mixed-race person and so is my child. And when she said that, I was like, that was my school bus analogy, the child who looks out and says, "I can be that." I'm not saying that I want her to be a princess, but I want her to be anything she wants to be. And so, in my heart of hearts, do I want that to be the society that she grows up in? But do I go back to my mother's reality, realism and her pragmatism? And I say, "That's not life." And so do I tell her she's a black child? Yes. And do I try to prepare her for the world that she will encounter, even though she will encounter that world with tremendous resources and tremendous education, and two loving parents, and all sorts of things that will give her an advantage over a lot of people? They say if you are born in America — Warren Buffet says — you've won the birth lottery. Well, my child won the birth lottery in America. But at the same time, she still is black. And that is real.
CA: Mellody Hobson, I'd like to thank you again for your amazing TED talk and for spending so much time with me here, today. I really, really love how you speak about these issues. You will get through to people who others won't get through to. So please, don't stop what you're doing. Thank you so much for this.
MH: Thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it.
CA: This week's show was produced by Sharon Meshihi. Our associate producer is Kim Nederveen Pieterse. Special thanks to Helen Walters. Our show is mixed by David Herman, and our theme music is by Allison Leyton-Brown. In our next episode, I talk to Ray Kurzweil, an inventor who is famous for predicting the future of technology with an accuracy that's pretty uncanny. We'll dive deep into his latest vision of the future.
Ray Kurzweil: We'll be able to express ourselves with more than one body. People will think it really primitive that, wow, back in 2018, people only had one body and no backup and they couldn't back up their mind file.
CA: That's next week on the TED Interview. Before I go, I would just love to say something quickly about why we're actually doing this. Now, not everyone knows it, but TED is actually a nonprofit organization with a simple mission: to spread ideas that matter. Normally, we do that through short TED Talks, and this podcast series is an experiment at taking the extra time to go much deeper. So we'd love to know whether it's working for you. Do you like it? If so, we'd love you to share it with your friends, and also to rate and review it on Apple Podcasts or wherever you're listening. I read every single review and love knowing what you think. So thank you for listening, and thanks for helping spread ideas.