Since 1984, speakers around the world have celebrated TED talks, presentations that once focused on innovative design and technology but now cover hundreds of topics. The wonderful thing about TED talks is that they are conversational and relatable, so you find yourself yearning to hear more. These talks are inspirational, motivational, informational and educational. Quite frankly, they will fire you up! Whether you’re just beginning to explore the TED universe or are already well-acquainted, check out these three must see talks.
Rich Benjamin: A Black Man in America’s Whitest Town
With humorous stories and an overall charming personality, Rich Benjamin illustrates the dangers of a racially concentrated society or a ‘Whitopia’ and the ways in which such a community develops. Benjamin began this exploration by traveling to three counties across the U.S. that held the highest population of Caucasian people. Benjamin immersed himself in these ‘Whitopias’ for two years, staying for three months at a time. Although an awkward and uncomfortable topic, Benjamin eloquently breaks down the defining factors of Whitopias and why certain environmental attributes are desirable and associated with whiteness.
Benjamin takes you through a detailed journey of his experiences living in Whitopia, from finding a love of golf to attending an Aryan Christian retreat he happened upon. Throughout this journey, Benjamin subtly examines the danger of Whitopia influencing the inhabitants racial perspectives, the ‘conscious and unconscious bias’ from which Whitopia’s operate and the ‘alarming pushes and alluring pulls’ that result in migration to Whitopia.
Benjamin’s presentation is simple yet powerful; he opens up a dialogue on an aspect of race relations we as a society do not like to discuss. Although interpersonal race relations have improved tenfold, many communities are still stunted.
Benjamin supports his claims with tales of unbelievable encounters and fun pictures of weekend poker nights and golf. The pictures display a seemingly happy and inclusive community, when in reality, the majority of people in the towns he visited saw him as an exotic mascot of diversity. The main takeaway of the talk is to know and understand the importance of examining conscious and unconscious biases.
Cameron Russell: Looks Aren’t Everything. Believe Me, I’m a Model
‘Today, for me, being fearless means being honest.’ In a unique and compelling way, runway model Cameron Russell illustrates how powerful yet superficial image is. Russell takes the time to answer questions she receives from the public honestly and genuinely. She touches on topics from gender and racial inequality to insecure thinking and the realities of life as a model.
Russell begins with discussing how she built her career and how she has maintained it for ten years. Russell credits her success to a ‘genetic lottery’ and enduring legacy of beauty being defined as tall, thin, feminine women with white skin. Sexiness and desirability are derived from those ideals, which Russell admits to capitalizing on as well.
Russell provides the audience with an in-depth look into the complexities of image making in the modeling industry through campaign shots and personal pictures. These comparisons are one of the most interesting points of the talk because the contrast between a sexy bikini shot and pictures of slumber parties the night before is glaring. These comparisons display how photographers, wardrobe, makeup, editing etc. can make a sixteen year old girl look twenty-five and vice versa. Russell states rather poignantly that the pictures from photo shoots ‘are not pictures of me, they are constructions.’
She continues the discussion of the power and superficiality of image by recalling moments throughout her life when she was able to evade traffic citations and receive free clothes when forgetting her wallet. She admits to experiencing these things because of how she looks and not who she is, when that same superficial attitude unjustly endangers many other groups of people. ‘It was difficult to unpack a legacy of gender and racial oppression when I am one of the biggest beneficiaries.’
One of the many memorable aspects of Russell’s presentation and what makes it so unique is the brief wardrobe change she performs on stage. She ascends the stage in a tight, low cut mini dress with five inch heels, displaying long, tan legs. Such an outfit instantly demands judgment and Russell counts on that judgment as evidence of the power of image. Russell trades her heels for flats and adds a cardigan and wrap skirt, instantly tempering the tension in the room and quickly demonstrating the superficiality of image.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Your Elusive Creative Genius
Bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert brilliantly illustrates how to find your creative genius and allow the pressures of success to be lifted. All creative people have the fear of never moving past their last great success and everything they produce after one brilliant attempt will be unworthy. Gilbert focuses on the anxiety of the creative process and the pressure of a works reception being solely a reflection of the artists’ talent. She pairs that with specific ways to manage the ‘emotional risks’ of artistry and how to create a barrier between the artist and the social reactions to their work.
Gilbert evaluates how different cultures and generations have implemented the management of creative risks by creating their own barriers. She looks at ancient Greece and ‘the genius’, an animate and separate entity responsible for all creativity. All successes and failures were seen only as a result of the well-being of your genius. Since then, we have moved away from the genius being a separate entity to something that is born within us as individuals. Gilbert demonstrates this progression of self-perception beginning with the Renaissance, where the individual was believed to be above all other entities. The individual became the genius from which all creativity is born. Gilbert delves into the dangers of those ideals and the pressure of failure as being inherently synonymous with the individual’s talent. The concept that all creativity, intelligence, the source of all brilliance is housed in one being only serves to nurture the fear of never rising to societal expectations.
Gilbert illustrates how to relieve yourself of the responsibility of success and failure by giving the mystery and elusiveness back to the genius, by believing that the individual is separate from any brilliance they present and allowing the creative process to be a supernatural, fantastical experience.
Though very different in many ways, all three talks are quite similar in their demand to look critically into societal dynamics and relationships as well as personal behaviors and perceptions and how one relies upon the other. I encourage you to view the talks in their entirety with an open mind and, perhaps, a notebook and pen nearby.