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 But even in all of those conversations, race always felt outdated, like, "Yes, slavery, that happened once upon a time, but why does it really matter now?"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