Travis Jones: How Can White People Be Better Allies To People Of Color?

Mar 29, 2019
Originally published on March 29, 2019 10:13 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Confronting Racism.

About Travis Jones's TED Talk

Travis Jones examines the "codes of whiteness" that keep many people from engaging in conversations on race. He says white people need to take a more active role in confronting racism.

About Travis Jones

Travis L. Jones is a principal strategist with The Winters Group, Inc. His work focuses on race, religion, cultural competency, and leadership. He is also an educator, both in and outside of academia. Jones is interested in issues of power, and all of the ways our respective cultural worlds shape our thinking.

He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and an M.A. in Sociology from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC).

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So Travis, as two white men sitting here talking about race, I want to ask you, what is it you think that many white people in America don't understand about what it means to be black in America?

TRAVIS JONES: I don't think a lot of white people - and I would include myself in everything that we're talking about, by the way - have any sense of the kind of racial trauma and the way that nonwhite people, especially, you know, black people, Indigenous people, in this country carry around history with them in very deep ways.

RAZ: This is Travis Jones.

JONES: I am a educator, a diversity inclusion consultant, and I am a writer when I can find time.

RAZ: And Travis has spent a lot of time thinking and writing about white culture.

JONES: There's kind of these unspoken moral codes in whiteness. It should tell you something that, in a roomful of white people, if you have some view on, you know, let's say racism, but if you don't feel comfortable speaking up about that in that group, what does that say about your relation to those people in that group, and what does it say about the codes of whiteness that define what it means to be a good white person, which usually means not speaking up about injustice or racism because, through a white racial perspective, those who speak about racism are the real racists? You know, being intentional about thinking about how our cultures shape us in certain ways.

RAZ: Like the way Travis' own upbringing has shaped him.

JONES: I come from a working-class background in the South. I was born in upstate New York, but I've grown up in North Carolina. And I grew up in predominantly all-white schools, all-white churches. I've been socialized in pretty stark-white cultures, I would say.

RAZ: And last year, Travis gave a TED Talk speaking directly to white people about race.

JONES: I wanted to give a talk that didn't feel preachy, that wasn't wrapped in a lot of academic jargon. But I really wanted to connect with working-class white people, who I do feel like there's some genuine feeling like they're being left out in the world or left behind or resentment. And so I, I think, was trying to connect with people like me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Here's more from Travis Jones on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEDx TALK)

JONES: As Southerners, we have an intimate relationship with the land, the dirt. In fact, when we want to talk about hard work, we even say things like, you've got to roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty. And man, I wish we had that energy for working against white supremacy in the world because, for a people that love meritocracies, we have not been pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in racial justice work. Now, by now you might be thinking, well, just like a classroom, aren't bullies and hall monitors in the minority? What about the majority of white people? What about the rest of the class?

And I'm sure the majority of the white people you know are diversity-loving, inclusive people who stand against racism. And decades of survey data shows that racial attitudes of whites have improved over the years. The problem is racist policies have largely stayed the same or, in many cases, gotten worse. Well, how'd we get here? During the civil rights era, white people saw ourselves in a mirror, through the violent images we saw in the paper and on TV. We didn't like what we saw. So we distanced ourselves from those bad white people and created a culture where not seeing race became a way to be good in the world, and that's how we got the colorblind classroom.

We show our goodness as nonracists by blaming white bullies, closing our eyes to race or by shrinking in shame or silence to show our agreement with its badness. But eventually, I realized that my goodness made me feel good, but it wasn't doing much for making the world good. And my goodness felt lifeless in the face of mass incarceration and the racial wealth gap, immigrant rights and police brutality. And it feels lifeless now when I see the way that whiteness is killing white people, too; through the opioid epidemic, suicide rates and white poverty, you see the goodness of nonracism is no match for the badness of racism.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Why do you think it's important for whites - even for whites who might look at the world and say, I lost out. like, I didn't go to college. I don't have an education. I don't have a great job. Why, in your view, does it need to be addressed? Why would a white person, even someone who doesn't feel like they've reaped the fruits of what America has to offer, why would it be important that they do understand what it means to be white versus what it means to be black in America?

JONES: Yeah. So I - you know, nobody has shaped my thinking on race more than James Baldwin. And I think at least one of the ways that made Baldwin so provocative is that he turned the mirror and essentially asked white people that question. I mean, he saw racism as a kind of poison and sickness of the soul. You know, when I see, for example, on, you know, maybe my Facebook or in conversations, when white people are trying to do their best to have some voice in race conversations, and it's not coming from a place of being informed or reflective, there's an anger there, and there's kind of a spitefulness, and there's shame, and there's guilt; like, none of that strikes me as healthy.

So I think in our race conversations, even paying attention to your emotions, and, you know, maybe your lack of insight, that that, in and of itself, you know, is some sign of some lack. And whereas, I think we should maybe change the narrative, to embrace that, to say, historically, white people have not been great advocates or allies, instead of shrinking in shame from that or kind of trying to explain that away, to embrace it as, you know, here's one part of our lives where we can explore how we've been shaped, for better or worse, and try to get better.

RAZ: Yeah.

JONES: So I think there's a personal draw. But also, politically, I mean, I think if white people really got black politics - fighting for, you know, police reform, prison abolition, criminal justice reform - those things, if they're framed through racial justice, they're good for white people, too.

RAZ: What are some small ways - and we're talking about some big ideas - but what are some just very small practical ways that you would say that white people could work to either be allies to people of color or to kind of begin to address some of the deeper questions that we're talking about in this show?

JONES: So I'm really big on the importance of being self-reflective about who you are in the world and how you've been shaped - your deeper beliefs and values, when you read something on the news, you see something, you're in conversation; those things that really raise your emotional antennas - to take those small moments and think about why. I mean, I think another way is in our families.

I mean, think about the people in your life that you care about, and if you've had some awakenings to race in this country, could you share those truths with some people that you think should know them? You know, looking at parenting as an avenue to introduce new narratives to, you know, young people who, if we don't intervene and speak up, are going to be absorbed into the same kind of story of race in America that we were.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Travis Jones. He's an anti-racism educator. You can see his full talk at ted.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M ON MY WAY")

MAMIE BROWN AND THE BIRMINGHAM MOVEMENT CHOIR: (Singing) I'm on my way. I'm on my way to freedom land, to freedom land. I'm on my way. I'm on my way to freedom land, to freedom land. I'm on my way. I'm on my way to freedom land, to freedom land. Oh, I'm on my way, oh Lord, to freedom land.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our episode on Confronting Racism this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org, and to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Our production staff here at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, Melissa Gray and J.C. Howard, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Katie Monteleone. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M ON MY WAY")

MAMIE BROWN AND THE BIRMINGHAM MOVEMENT CHOIR: (Singing) ...Oh, lord, freedom land. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.