‘The Answer is in Us’
Equity expert Erin Jones encourages everyone to ‘show up for one another’
By Rob Smith November 8, 2023
Erin Jones has a unique perspective on race.
She was put up for adoption after her white birth mother’s family refused to let the mixed-race child come home. She was adopted by a white couple whose parents also struggled to accept her.
She was raised in Minnesota until age 5, and then moved with her educator parents to The Hague, Netherlands. She remembers always looking different than almost all of her classmates and friends. She never thought deeply about it.
Yet it wasn’t until she returned to the United States to attend Bryn Mawr College outside of Philadelphia that she first experienced overt racism. She was one of just 10 Black people on a campus of around 1,000 students.
“I can remember really clearly my second week of college. This white woman walked up to me and said, without any hate or malice, that ‘you’re only here because we have to have 10 of you,’” recalls Jones, an educator, author, and public speaker who has spent nearly three decades in education. “She said that straight to my face and then turned around and walked away. I was so confused.”
Jones promptly visited the admissions office, where the director had to explain to her what “affirmative action” was. Jones had never heard the term. “It was the first time in my life that I felt like maybe I hadn’t earned my spot. I mean, I’d read books on racism, but there’s a difference between knowing about the history and experiencing it yourself. My college town was incredibly racist.”
Today, the relentlessly positive, upbeat, and inquisitive Jones is a sought-after consultant and public speaker who provides training and coaching around issues of equity. She is the author of Bridges to Heal US: Stories and Strategies for Racial Healing. She is also a longtime competitive athlete and will soon publish a book on running, called More Than a Race.
Jones speaks English, Dutch, French, and Spanish, has lived on three continents and in 16 countries, and now calls Olympia home.
Are we going backward today?
I don’t think we’re actually going backward. Here’s the thing: Americans as a whole are afraid. We have this health pandemic. We’ve had Black Lives Matter marches and Jan. 6, and the economy feels like it’s unfair right now. And when people are afraid, they find others like them. They link arms, and they have to make somebody else the scapegoat. The easiest thing is to make the scapegoat somebody who doesn’t look like you, doesn’t believe like you.
What’s the origin of the term “woke,” which has sparked lots of backlash and controversy?
It really comes out of a song from the 1920s, about basically, “wake up, community, be aware of the things happening around you.” It kind of went silent, and then came back during the Civil Rights Movement. And then it kind of went dormant again. And then with Black Lives Matter and George Floyd in particular, it came up again, how we’ve got to wake up and be aware, be prepared. Know our history, but also know how to protect ourselves.
How did it get co-opted into something perceived by many as negative?
The challenge is that oftentimes, when Black people use a term, it gets co-opted, and often not by the right at first. It gets co-opted by the white progressives as their way to say, “Hey, we want to be part of this, too.” Well, whenever the progressive left takes on a turn, then it automatically, especially in recent years, becomes this invitation for the right to say, “OK, we’re not that, so we’re going to do the opposite of whatever y’all progressive folks are doing.”
What does the term mean to you?
Your skin color matters. When you’re moving through the world, just be aware of that. The original term was to wake up and be aware of what’s happening around you. When I see the Black students I’m working with, they’re saying the same thing. Be aware of your surroundings. Watch out. Police are not always safe. It doesn’t mean hate police, but it does mean be aware of your surroundings, of who’s around. You know that your skin color matters. When I talk to white conservative folks, it’s anything that represents the left.
What bothers you most about how the term became co-opted?
The hardest part for me is that there are a lot of poor white folks that are also being harmed by this rhetoric. The challenge for me has been getting poor white people who could benefit from having great insurance, who could benefit from having lower housing costs. They have now been convinced that all of that is bad because it’s woke. And you’ve been convinced that this is all bad stuff, and you’re suffering because you are so afraid of being woke that you’re not able to see that some of these woke things actually could support you and make your life better.
Is there such a thing as being “too woke”?
I don’t think so. I think that when it comes to white progressives, you can think yourself more advanced than you actually are. I think way too often, people want to call themselves allies when they’re not, really.
Is it too simplistic to think that “woke” is just another way of saying “politically correct”?
When I do training, I tell people I don’t believe in political correctness. I think political correctness is a term and an idea that taught us how to lie to each other. I think Americans are really great at lying to each other. Political correctness has caused us some harm because people have not been honest with each other about what they believe.
Why do so-called “progressives” often criticize those who basically think like them?
I experienced that in my election (Jones unsuccessfully ran for state superintendent of public instruction in 2016). I lost because I didn’t have the perfect language around LGTBQIA. I’m really open about that. For over a year, random people would come up to me and call me homophobic, or transphobic. People would stop me in the street. I experienced that shaming. I saw their critique and said this is what I need to work on. I took it as an opportunity. But blame, shame and guilt aren’t useful, and we employ these all the time. Most people won’t respond. It’s not the way for us to get people to be better in the world.
What was your early life like?
I was born out of the body of a white woman in 1971, and of course this was at a time when white and Black were not supposed to be together. And then I was really fortunate because these two Scandinavian American teachers decided to adopt me.
How did you end up in The Netherlands?
My dad actually got a job offer to work at the American School of Tehran in Iran. But he asked the superintendent in the interview, “Hey, I have Black children. How do you think your community is going to handle that?” The superintendent said his community might struggle. And my dad told him, “I could never work for you.” And that school was part of the U.S. Embassy that was taken over (in 1979). Had my dad not asked that question we would have been there. He ended up taking a job in the Netherlands.
How did that influence you?
I went to this really amazing school. I grew up around ambassadors’ kids, United Nations lawyers’ kids, and Microsoft Europe kids. And that would shape my worldview because I was going to school with kids whose countries were at war or in conflicts. I think my desire to be a bridge builder started as a little girl watching kids in my classroom have to navigate really difficult spaces with one another when their countries were at war. We still had to figure out how to play together and learn together.
Was it difficult looking different than a lot of your classmates?
The only reason that became difficult for me in high school is because boys never invited me out on dates. And for a long time, I thought it was maybe my skin color. I had this fuzzy hair. Everyone else had this beautiful Farrah Fawcett hair. But what I then realized is my dad is a teacher at the high school. Who’s trying to ask out the daughter of the most difficult teacher in the school?
Did you think you were discriminated against?
Nobody ever said anything about skin color at my school. So, race was not a dynamic that I was thinking about. Now, that being said, when we traveled for sports, I was always so excited when we got to play against the military kids because they always had other kids who looked like me. Now that I’m an educator and I have my own children, I know that there was a part of me that thought it was hard to always be the only one who looked like me.
And then college was different?
It was really explicit. As soon as I left campus and went out into town, people called me the “N” word. I would not get seated in restaurants. In the town where my college was, there was also a cricket club, like a country club, where they played cricket. And there was a sign that said explicitly, “No Coloreds or Jews allowed here.” And that was not even half a mile from my college campus. That sign did not come down until 2012.
What’s the atmosphere like in the schools you visit?
The kinds of verbal violence that I am hearing about and being called into schools to address is greater than I’ve seen in my career. Do I think kids are more racist, more homophobic right now? No. I think people are afraid right now. And I think in a lot of these predominantly white schools, the easiest target is that Black kid or that trans kid they can see. It’s easy to make them out to be the enemy. I think we need to be having conversations about the fear. We need to get people to open their eyes, wake up, and choose love instead of hate and division.
What worries you most?
The next two years will tell it all. We’re at a tipping point. I am working overtime right now because I believe there is this opportunity for change if we choose to get involved, engage in the conversation, and move beyond the propaganda and the rhetoric. What can we do to heal this land? We’re in desperate need of healing. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking, OK, what can I do tomorrow to be part of our healing? I know I’m not the only one doing that. There are a bunch of us doing whatever we can to get people to open their eyes and wake up, to choose love instead of hate. The answer is in us.