Clint Smith believes we all share a story, the human story. It’s in the telling, he believes, that we emerge as individuals and celebrate what we have in common. His TED Talk, a presentation of his spoken word poem, The Danger of Silence, has been viewed more than two million times, and was named one of the Top 20 TED Talks of 2014. Using his experience as an award-winning teacher and poet to share personal stories of justice, community, and education, his customizable art-form illuminates how we can all find the courage to create change, overcome challenges, and unite ourselves through the power of the collective voice. Below, Margie Warrell speaks to Clint as part of her “Brave Interview Series” for Forbes, on what it takes to raise a black son in America:
Headlines are again blanketing us with images of an unarmed black man being killed by a white police officer. Not for doing something wrong, but for simply being black.
The question hanging as 25-year-old Officer Ray Tensing faces spending much of his life in prison for the murder of 43-year-old Samuel DuBose is how many more black people are yet to be killed, murdered, as a direct result of racism before something changes? I don’t know. No-one can.
I often wonder how different my life would be if had not been born white. And, as a mother of four children (including three teenage sons), I wonder what it must be like to be raising black children in America. How would I parent them differently? What if I had to warn my playful, outgoing sons to never carry a toy that may be mistaken for a gun? What if I had to teach them to arm themselves against prejudice and implicit bias? What if I could not let them risk the mistakes of the white children they go to school with without putting their very lives at risk?
Ending racism will take courage. Courage to look ourselves in the mirror and to ask where by our action, inaction, denial or sheer indifference we are complicit in the racism that we see around us. Finding that courage first demands recognizing that regardless of our position, power or even the hue of our skin, we are more powerful than we think and never underestimating the ripple effect we set in motion when we decide to be the change we wish to see in the world around us.
And as a parent, I believe that we have an obligation to amplify that ripple effect by raising the next generation of children to be more tolerant than those which have gone before them.
So as part of my Brave Interview Series, I reached out to Clint Smith, a black poet and Harvard doctoral candidate whose TED Talk, “Raising A Black Son In America,” helped those of us who have never had to worry about such things to see with new eyes. I hope his answers will help you do likewise, because the only way we will ever end the racism that still runs deep in American culture, and in other countries around the world, is when white people care about ending it as deeply as black people do.
Margie Warrell: How will you teach your children to discern between the challenges that serve and grow them (keep them alive and out of trouble) and those which can hold them back?
Clint Smith: The most important thing for my children to know will be that it is not their fault, and that they are in no way responsible for the physical and emotional violence this world has sought to exact upon their bodies. This is an immensely difficult task, because we live in a country that operates under a myth of personal responsibility and individualism. We inculcate young people with the message that if they don’t succeed, it is merely of their own doing. They should have worked harder, we say. They should have made better decisions. This message is especially present in communities of color. Thus, when a child is on the receiving of prejudice, vitriol, and violence, they accept, as they have been taught to do, that they have done something to deserve this reality.
Now, this is not to absolve people of responsibility for their actions. Individuals have agency. But if we are not grounding people’s actions and ways of navigating the world in an understanding of the realities that shape such decisions, then we’re being disingenuous to what is taking place. All of which is to say, I would tell them to be careful, be brave, but be themselves. Don’t let anyone strip away the parts of you that make you the brilliant, beautiful child that you are.
Warrell: What does bravery mean to you as a black man in America today?
Smith: It means that I come from a legacy of those who have experienced unspeakable brutality since the inception of this country – and who in spite of it have gone on to contribute to making this country everything it is and everything it has the potential to become. Additionally, the most important and brave thing someone can do, I think, in the face of dehumanization, is to continue to assert their humanit y. So when my brother laughs, when my mother sings, when my students read – in a country that brought us here with the specific intention of never being able to do those things – those acts in and of themselves reflect a profound sense of bravery.
Warrell: What do you do when confronted by racism? How do you hope your words and actions will change the status quo?
Smith: I’m not sure that there are days of my life when I’m not confronted with racism. For some, that may seem hyperbolic, but it’s true. Every time I step out of the door I am acutely aware that I am a black man in America. This means that, to protect myself, I have be cognizant of every movement I make, every word that comes from my mouth, every place I’m in. It’s exhausting and I’m not sure that there has been one day since my adolescence that I have not been actively thinking about how to stay safe.
Part of the issue is that we have a narrow definition of how we discuss and define racism in this country. We tend to think of racism as this interpersonal verbal or physical abuse, when in truth, that is only one way that racism manifests itself. The reality of contemporary racism is that it while it is ubiquitous, it is often invisible, subsequently making it more difficult to name and identify. That, however, does not make it less real, and it actually makes it more pernicious that some elements of racism from the past.
Part of what I hope to do through my teaching and my writing, is to illuminate the things that are often difficult for people to see when they are not necessarily experiencing it first-hand. I want to ground these experiences in stories and narratives that reflect the way people across lines of difference navigate the world. I tend to believe in the best of people, and I think part of the issue is that many people simply aren’t aware. If someone isn’t aware of something than they can do nothing to change their behavior. If someone, however, is aware and decides not to change their behavior or remains willfully ignorant, than that’s a different story.
Warrell: It’s easy to feel angry at the injustice you see. How can other young black men (and women) channel their anger constructively?
Smith: So often, the conversation is framed around what young black men can do to channel their anger and frustration constructively. To be honest, I’ve become a bit disillusioned with what is implicit within such an assertion. While, of course, I do not want young black men to become subsumed in anger that has potentially dangerous repercussions for them, but I don’t like the idea that the onus should singularly be placed upon them to change the outcomes. I’m more interested in what other people are doing that demonstrate complicity in a system that allows such injustice to continue.
The problem with asking young black men to channel their anger more constructively can often abdicate any sort of responsibility for the structures and systems that create this anger in the first place. What I want is for more people to understand that they are stakeholders in this work. Unless people beyond the black community become deeply invested to living in a world where these sorts of transgressions don’t take place anymore, then we’re going to continue to see a lot of deeply angry people. And I can understand, and often feel myself, that same anger.
Warrell: What are the greatest lessons you’ve learned from the discrimination you’ve experienced and seen in America?
Smith: I’ve learned that they will not stop unless white people in this country make a decision to be as invested in stopping discrimination as black people are. Otherwise I’m afraid this is going to continue for much longer than any of us would like.