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TEDWomen 2017

Priya Vulchi and Winona Guo: What it takes to be racially literate

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Over the last year, Priya Vulchi and Winona Guo traveled to all 50 US states, collecting personal stories about race and intersectionality. Now they're on a mission to equip every American with the tools to understand, navigate and improve a world structured by racial division. In a dynamic talk, Vulchi and Guo pair the personal stories they've collected with research and statistics to reveal two fundamental gaps in our racial literacy -- and how we can overcome them.

- Social entrepreneur, student activist
Priya Vulchi is traveling to all US states with her friend Winona Guo, learning and listening to stories about race. Full bio

- Social entrepreneur, student activist
Winona Guo is spending her gap year traveling to all US states with her friend Priya Vulchi, learning and listening to stories about race and trying to find innovative ways to tackle inequity. Full bio

Priya Vulchi: Four years ago,
we really thought we understood racism.
00:12
Just like many of you here today,
we had experienced and heard stories
00:16
about race, about prejudice,
discrimination and stereotyping
00:20
and we were like, "We get it,
racism, we got it, we got it."
00:24
But we weren't even close.
00:28
Winona Guo: So we decided
that we had to listen and learn more.
00:32
We talked to as many
random people as we could
00:35
and collected hundreds
of personal stories about race,
00:37
stories that revealed how racial injustice
is a nationwide epidemic
00:40
that we ourselves spread
00:45
and now can't seem
to recognize or get rid of.
00:47
PV: We're not there yet.
00:50
Today, we are here to raise
our standards of racial literacy,
00:51
to redefine what it means
to be racially literate.
00:56
WG: We want everywhere
across the United States
01:00
for our youngest and future generations
to grow up equipped
01:03
with the tools to understand,
navigate and improve
01:06
a world structured by racial division.
01:09
We want us all to imagine
the community as a place
01:12
where we not only feel proud
of our own backgrounds,
01:15
but can also invest in others'
experiences as if they were our own.
01:18
PV: We just graduated
from high school this past June.
01:23
WG: And you'd think --
01:27
(Applause)
01:28
And you'd think after 12 years
01:31
somebody in or out of the classroom
would have helped us understand --
01:34
PV: At a basic level at least --
01:37
WG: The society we live in.
01:39
PV: The truth for almost
all our classmates is that they don't.
01:41
WG: In communities around our country,
so many of which are racially divided,
01:45
PV: If you don't go searching
for an education about race,
01:50
for racial literacy --
01:53
WG: You won't get it.
01:54
It won't just come to you.
01:56
PV: Even when we did
have conversations about race,
01:57
our understanding was always superficial.
02:00
We realized that there are two big gaps
02:03
in our racial literacy.
02:06
WG: First, the heart gap:
02:08
an inability to understand
each of our experiences,
02:11
to fiercely and unapologetically
be compassionate beyond lip service.
02:15
PV: And second, the mind gap:
02:22
an inability to understand the larger,
systemic ways in which racism operates.
02:25
WG: First, the heart gap.
02:32
To be fair, race did pop up
a few times in school, growing up.
02:35
We all defend our social justice education
02:39
because we learned
about Martin Luther King Jr.
02:41
and Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks.
02:44
But even in all of those conversations,
02:47
race always felt outdated, like,
02:49
"Yes, slavery, that happened
once upon a time,
02:52
but why does it really matter now?"
02:55
As a result, we didn't really care.
02:58
But what if our teacher introduced
a story from the present day,
03:02
for example, how Treniya
told us in Pittsburgh that --
03:06
PV: "My sister was scrolling through
Facebook and typed in our last name.
03:10
This white guy popped up,
03:13
and we found out that his
great-great-grandfather owned slaves
03:15
and my great-great-
great-grandmother was one of them.
03:19
My last name -- it's not who I am.
03:23
We've been living
under a white man's name.
03:26
If slavery didn't happen,
who would I even be?"
03:28
WG: Now it feels relevant, immediate,
03:32
because the connection to slavery's
lasting legacy today is made clear, right?
03:35
Or what would happen is our teacher
would throw out these cold statistics.
03:40
You've probably seen this one before
in news headlines.
03:43
PV: African-Americans are incarcerated
03:46
more than five times
the rate of white people.
03:48
WG: Now consider Ronnie, in Seattle.
03:51
PV: "My father means everything to me.
03:55
He's all I've got, I don't know my mother.
03:57
My father's currently being
wrongly incarcerated for 12 years.
04:00
I've got a daughter, and I try to be
that same fatherly figure for her:
04:04
always involved in everything she does,
it might even be annoying at some points.
04:08
But I'm afraid I'll go missing in her life
04:13
just like my father did in mine."
04:16
WG: Throwing out just the statistic,
just the facts alone,
04:20
disconnected from real humans,
04:24
can lead to dangerously incomplete
understanding of those facts.
04:26
It fails to recognize that for many people
who don't understand racism
04:30
the problem is not a lack of knowledge
04:33
to talk about the pain
of white supremacy and oppression,
04:35
it's that they don't recognize
that that pain exists at all.
04:39
They don't recognize the human beings
that are being affected,
04:43
and they don't feel enough to care.
04:46
PV: Second, the mind gap.
04:49
We can't ignore the stats, either.
04:51
We can't truly grasp Ronnie's situation
04:54
without understanding how things
like unjust laws and biased policing
04:57
systematic racism has created
05:01
the disproportionate
incarceration rates over time.
05:04
Or like how in Honolulu,
05:07
the large prison population
of native Hawaiians like Kimmy
05:09
is heavily influenced
by the island's long history
05:13
with US colonialization,
05:16
it's impact passing down
through generations to today.
05:18
For us, sometimes we would talk
05:21
about people's personal,
unique experiences in the classroom.
05:23
Stuff like, how Justin once told us --
05:27
WG: "I've been working on psychologically
reclaiming my place in this city.
05:30
Because for me, my Chicago
isn't the nice architecture downtown,
05:34
it's not the North Side.
05:38
My Chicago is the orange line,
the pink line, the working immigrant class
05:40
going on the train."
05:45
PV: And while we might have
acknowledged his personal experience,
05:47
we wouldn't have talked
about how redlining
05:51
and the legalized segregation of our past
05:53
created the racially divided
neighborhoods we live in today.
05:55
We wouldn't have completely understood
05:59
how racism is embedded in the framework
of everything around us,
06:01
because we would stay narrowly focused
on people's isolated experiences.
06:05
Another example,
Sandra in DC once told us:
06:10
WG: "When I'm with my Korean family,
I know how to move with them.
06:14
I know what to do in order to have them
feel like I care about them.
06:18
And making and sharing food
06:21
is one of the most fundamental
ways of showing love.
06:23
When I'm with my partner
who's not Korean, however,
06:27
we've had to grapple with the fact
06:30
that I'm very food-centric
and he's just not.
06:31
One time he said that he didn't
want to be expected
06:34
to make food for me,
06:37
and I got really upset."
06:39
PV: That might seem like a weird reaction,
06:40
but only if we don't recognize
how it's emblematic of something larger,
06:43
something deeper.
06:47
Intragenerational trauma.
06:49
How in Sandra's family,
widespread hunger and poverty
06:51
existed as recently
as Sandra's parents' generation
06:54
and therefore impacts Sandra today.
06:57
She experiences someone saying --
06:59
WG: "I don't want to feed you."
07:01
PV: As --
07:03
WG: "I don't want to hug you."
07:04
PV: And without her and her partner
having that nuanced understanding
07:06
of her reaction and the historical
context behind it,
07:09
it could easily lead
to unnecessary fighting.
07:12
That's why it's so important
that we proactively --
07:14
(Both speaking): Co-create --
07:18
PV: A shared American culture
07:19
that identifies and embraces
the different values and norms
07:21
within our diverse communities.
07:25
WG: To be racially literate --
07:28
PV: To understand who we are
so that we can heal together --
07:30
WG: We cannot neglect the heart --
07:33
PV: Or the mind.
07:35
So, with our hundreds of stories,
07:37
we decided to publish
a racial literacy textbook
07:39
to bridge that gap
between our hearts and minds.
07:42
WG: Our last book, "The Classroom Index,"
07:45
shares deeply personal stories.
07:47
PV: And pairs those personal stories
07:49
to the brilliant research
of statisticians and scholars.
07:51
WG: Every day, we are still
blown away by people's experiences,
07:54
by the complexity
of our collective racial reality.
07:59
PV: So today, we ask you --
08:02
WG: Are you racially literate?
08:05
Are you there yet?
08:07
PV: Do you really understand
the people around you,
08:08
their stories, stories like these?
08:11
It's not just knowing
that Louise from Seattle
08:14
survived Japanese American
internment camps.
08:17
It's knowing that, meanwhile,
08:20
her husband was one of an estimated
33,000 Japanese Americans
08:22
who fought for our country during the war,
08:27
a country that was simultaneously
interning their families.
08:29
For most of us, those Japanese Americans
both in camps and in service,
08:34
now see their bravery, their resilience,
their history forgotten.
08:39
They've become only victims.
08:43
PV: It's not just knowing
that interracial marriages
08:45
like Shermaine and Paul in DC exist,
08:48
it's acknowledging that our society
has been programmed for them to fail.
08:51
That on their very first date
someone shouted,
08:55
"Why are you with that black whore?"
08:58
That according to a Columbia study
on cis straight relationships
09:00
black is often equated with masculinity
09:04
and Asian with femininity,
09:07
leading more men to not value black women
and to fetishize Asian women.
09:09
Among black-white marriages
in the year 2000,
09:14
73 percent had a black husband
and a white wife.
09:17
Paul and Shermaine defy that statistic.
09:21
Black is beautiful,
09:24
but it takes a lot to believe so
once society says otherwise.
09:26
WG: It's not just knowing
that white people like Lisa in Chicago
09:29
have white privilege,
09:33
it's reflecting consciously
on the term whiteness and its history,
09:34
knowing that whiteness
can't be equated with American.
09:38
It's knowing that Lisa can't forget
her own personal family's history
09:42
of Jewish oppression.
09:46
That she can't forget how, growing up,
09:48
she was called a dirty Jew
with horns and tails.
09:50
But Lisa knows she can pass as white
09:53
so she benefits from huge systemic
and interpersonal privileges,
09:55
and so she spends every day
09:59
grappling with ways that she can
leverage that white privilege
10:00
for social justice.
10:04
For example, starting conversations
with other people of privilege about race.
10:05
Or shifting the power
in her classroom to her students
10:10
by learning to listen to their experiences
of racism and poverty.
10:14
PV: It's not just knowing
that native languages are dying.
10:19
It's appreciating how fluency
in the Cherokee language,
10:22
which really only less
than 12,000 people speak today,
10:25
is an act of survival,
of preservation of culture and history.
10:28
It's knowing how
the nongendered Cherokee language
10:34
enabled Ahyoka's acceptance
as a trans woman
10:37
in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
10:40
Her grandmother told her firmly
a saying in Cherokee,
10:43
"I don't tell me who you are,
10:46
you tell me who you are.
10:48
And that is who you are."
10:50
WG: These are just parts of a few stories.
10:52
There are approximately
323 million people in the United States.
10:55
PV: And 7.4 billion people on the planet.
10:59
WG: So we have a lot to listen to.
11:02
PV: And a lot to learn.
11:03
WG: We need to raise the bar.
11:05
PV: Elevate our standards
for racial literacy.
11:06
Because without investing
in an education that values --
11:09
WG: Both the stories --
PV: And statistics --
11:12
WG: The people --
PV: And the numbers --
11:14
WG: The interpersonal --
PV: And the systemic --
11:16
WG: There will always be a piece missing.
11:18
PV: Today, so few of us
understand each other.
11:20
WG: We don't know how to communicate --
11:24
PV: Live together --
WG: Love one another.
11:26
We need to all work together
to create a new national community.
11:28
PV: A new shared culture
of mutual suffering and celebration.
11:31
WG: We need to each begin by learning
in our own local communities,
11:35
bridging the gaps between
our own hearts and minds
11:39
to become racially literate.
11:42
PV: Once we all do,
we will be that much closer
11:43
to living in spaces and systems
that fight and care equally for all of us.
11:46
WG: Then, none of us
will be able to remain distant.
11:52
PV: We couldn't -- sorry,
mom and dad, college can wait.
11:56
WG: We're on a gap year before college,
traveling to all 50 states
11:59
collecting stories for our next book.
12:02
PV: And we still have 23 states
left to interview in.
12:04
(Both) Let's all get to work.
12:07
Thank you.
12:09
(Applause)
12:10

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About the speakers:

Priya Vulchi - Social entrepreneur, student activist
Priya Vulchi is traveling to all US states with her friend Winona Guo, learning and listening to stories about race.

Why you should listen

For a collective future of racial justice, we must educate and empower our young generation now. Yet, the first time 18-year-olds Priya Vulchi and Winona Guo were required to talk about race in school was the 10th grade. 

That same year, Vulchi co-founded CHOOSE with Guo to equip us all with the tools we lack to both talk about race and act toward systemic change. Their latest publication, a racial literacy textbook and toolkit for educators called The Classroom Index, has been recognized by Princeton University's Prize in Race Relations & Not in Our Town's Unity Award, featured in Teen Vogue, the Philadelphia Inquirer, & the Huffington Post, and called a “social innovation more necessary than the iPhone” by Professor Ruha Benjamin. Currently on a gap year before attending Princeton University, Vulchi and Guo have been traveling to all US states collecting hundreds of powerful stories about race, culture, and intersectionality for another book to be released in spring 2019. Follow their journey on princetonchoose.org or @princetonchoose on Instagram and Facebook.

More profile about the speaker
Priya Vulchi | Speaker | TED.com
Winona Guo - Social entrepreneur, student activist
Winona Guo is spending her gap year traveling to all US states with her friend Priya Vulchi, learning and listening to stories about race and trying to find innovative ways to tackle inequity.

Why you should listen

For a collective future of racial justice, we must educate and empower our young generation now. Yet, the first time 18-year-olds Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi were required to talk about race in school was the 10th grade.

That same year, Guo co-founded CHOOSE with Vulchi to equip us all with the tools we lack to both talk about race and act toward systemic change. Their latest publication, a racial literacy textbook and toolkit for educators called The Classroom Index, has been recognized by Princeton University's Prize in Race Relations & Not in Our Town's Unity Award, featured in Teen Vogue, the Philadelphia Inquirer, & the Huffington Post, and called a “social innovation more necessary than the iPhone” by Professor Ruha Benjamin. Currently on a gap year before attending Harvard University, Guo and Vulchi have been traveling to all US states collecting hundreds of powerful stories about race, culture, and intersectionality for another book to be released in spring 2019. Follow their journey on princetonchoose.org or @princetonchoose on Instagram and Facebook.

More profile about the speaker
Winona Guo | Speaker | TED.com