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TEDGlobal 2011

Thandie Newton: Embracing otherness, embracing myself

July 13, 2011

Actor Thandie Newton tells the story of finding her "otherness" -- first, as a child growing up in two distinct cultures, and then as an actor playing with many different selves. A warm, wise talk, fresh from stage at TEDGlobal 2011.

Thandie Newton - Actor
Swinging from Hollywood blockbusters to sensitive indie films, Thandie Newton brings thoughtfulness and delicate beauty to her work. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Embracing otherness.
00:15
When I first heard this theme,
00:18
I thought, well, embracing otherness
00:20
is embracing myself.
00:22
And the journey to that place
00:25
of understanding and acceptance
00:27
has been an interesting one for me,
00:29
and it's given me an insight
00:32
into the whole notion of self,
00:34
which I think is worth sharing with you today.
00:36
We each have a self,
00:40
but I don't think that we're born with one.
00:42
You know how newborn babies
00:45
believe they're part of everything;
00:47
they're not separate?
00:49
Well that fundamental sense of oneness
00:51
is lost on us very quickly.
00:54
It's like that initial stage is over --
00:56
oneness: infancy,
00:58
unformed, primitive.
01:00
It's no longer valid or real.
01:02
What is real is separateness,
01:05
and at some point in early babyhood,
01:07
the idea of self
01:09
starts to form.
01:11
Our little portion of oneness is given a name,
01:13
is told all kinds of things about itself,
01:16
and these details,
01:19
opinions and ideas
01:21
become facts,
01:23
which go towards building ourselves,
01:25
our identity.
01:27
And that self becomes the vehicle
01:29
for navigating our social world.
01:31
But the self is a projection
01:34
based on other people's projections.
01:37
Is it who we really are?
01:39
Or who we really want to be, or should be?
01:42
So this whole interaction
01:45
with self and identity
01:48
was a very difficult one for me growing up.
01:50
The self that I attempted to take out into the world
01:52
was rejected over and over again.
01:55
And my panic
01:58
at not having a self that fit,
02:00
and the confusion that came
02:02
from my self being rejected,
02:04
created anxiety, shame
02:06
and hopelessness,
02:09
which kind of defined me for a long time.
02:11
But in retrospect,
02:14
the destruction of my self was so repetitive
02:16
that I started to see a pattern.
02:19
The self changed,
02:21
got affected, broken, destroyed,
02:24
but another one would evolve --
02:27
sometimes stronger,
02:30
sometimes hateful,
02:32
sometimes not wanting to be there at all.
02:34
The self was not constant.
02:36
And how many times
02:40
would my self have to die
02:42
before I realized
02:44
that it was never alive in the first place?
02:46
I grew up on the coast of England
02:49
in the '70s.
02:51
My dad is white from Cornwall,
02:53
and my mom is black from Zimbabwe.
02:56
Even the idea of us as a family
03:00
was challenging to most people.
03:02
But nature had its wicked way,
03:05
and brown babies were born.
03:07
But from about the age of five,
03:09
I was aware that I didn't fit.
03:11
I was the black atheist kid
03:14
in the all-white Catholic school run by nuns.
03:17
I was an anomaly,
03:20
and my self was rooting around for definition
03:22
and trying to plug in.
03:26
Because the self likes to fit,
03:29
to see itself replicated,
03:31
to belong.
03:33
That confirms its existence
03:35
and its importance.
03:37
And it is important.
03:39
It has an extremely important function.
03:41
Without it, we literally can't interface with others.
03:43
We can't hatch plans
03:47
and climb that stairway of popularity,
03:49
of success.
03:52
But my skin color wasn't right.
03:54
My hair wasn't right.
03:57
My history wasn't right.
03:59
My self became defined
04:01
by otherness,
04:03
which meant that, in that social world,
04:05
I didn't really exist.
04:07
And I was "other" before being anything else --
04:09
even before being a girl.
04:12
I was a noticeable nobody.
04:15
Another world was opening up
04:18
around this time:
04:21
performance and dancing.
04:23
That nagging dread of self-hood
04:26
didn't exist when I was dancing.
04:29
I'd literally lose myself.
04:32
And I was a really good dancer.
04:35
I would put
04:38
all my emotional expression
04:40
into my dancing.
04:42
I could be in the movement
04:44
in a way that I wasn't able to be
04:47
in my real life, in myself.
04:49
And at 16,
04:52
I stumbled across another opportunity,
04:54
and I earned my first acting role in a film.
04:57
I can hardly find the words
05:01
to describe the peace I felt
05:03
when I was acting.
05:06
My dysfunctional self
05:08
could actually plug in
05:10
to another self, not my own,
05:12
and it felt so good.
05:14
It was the first time that I existed
05:17
inside a fully-functioning self --
05:19
one that I controlled,
05:22
that I steered,
05:25
that I gave life to.
05:27
But the shooting day would end,
05:30
and I'd return
05:32
to my gnarly, awkward self.
05:34
By 19,
05:37
I was a fully-fledged movie actor,
05:40
but still searching for definition.
05:42
I applied to read anthropology
05:45
at university.
05:47
Dr. Phyllis Lee gave me my interview,
05:49
and she asked me, "How would you define race?"
05:52
Well, I thought I had the answer to that one,
05:56
and I said, "Skin color."
05:58
"So biology, genetics?" she said.
06:01
"Because, Thandie, that's not accurate.
06:05
Because there's actually more genetic difference
06:07
between a black Kenyan
06:10
and a black Ugandan
06:12
than there is between a black Kenyan
06:14
and, say, a white Norwegian.
06:17
Because we all stem from Africa.
06:19
So in Africa,
06:21
there's been more time
06:23
to create genetic diversity."
06:25
In other words,
06:27
race has no basis
06:29
in biological or scientific fact.
06:31
On the one hand, result.
06:34
Right?
06:37
On the other hand, my definition of self
06:39
just lost a huge chunk of its credibility.
06:42
But what was credible,
06:45
what is biological and scientific fact,
06:47
is that we all stem from Africa --
06:50
in fact, from a woman called Mitochondrial Eve
06:53
who lived 160,000 years ago.
06:56
And race is an illegitimate concept
06:59
which our selves have created
07:02
based on fear and ignorance.
07:04
Strangely, these revelations
07:08
didn't cure my low self-esteem,
07:10
that feeling of otherness.
07:13
My desire to disappear
07:16
was still very powerful.
07:18
I had a degree from Cambridge;
07:20
I had a thriving career,
07:22
but my self was a car crash,
07:24
and I wound up with bulimia
07:27
and on a therapist's couch.
07:29
And of course I did.
07:31
I still believed
07:33
my self was all I was.
07:35
I still valued self-worth
07:37
above all other worth,
07:39
and what was there to suggest otherwise?
07:41
We've created entire value systems
07:44
and a physical reality
07:46
to support the worth of self.
07:48
Look at the industry for self-image
07:50
and the jobs it creates,
07:52
the revenue it turns over.
07:54
We'd be right in assuming
07:57
that the self is an actual living thing.
07:59
But it's not. It's a projection
08:01
which our clever brains create
08:04
in order to cheat ourselves
08:06
from the reality of death.
08:08
But there is something
08:12
that can give the self
08:14
ultimate and infinite connection --
08:16
and that thing is oneness,
08:19
our essence.
08:21
The self's struggle
08:23
for authenticity and definition
08:25
will never end
08:27
unless it's connected to its creator --
08:29
to you and to me.
08:31
And that can happen with awareness --
08:34
awareness of the reality of oneness
08:37
and the projection of self-hood.
08:40
For a start, we can think about
08:43
all the times when we do lose ourselves.
08:45
It happens when I dance,
08:48
when I'm acting.
08:50
I'm earthed in my essence,
08:52
and my self is suspended.
08:54
In those moments,
08:57
I'm connected to everything --
08:59
the ground, the air,
09:01
the sounds, the energy from the audience.
09:04
All my senses are alert and alive
09:06
in much the same way as an infant might feel --
09:10
that feeling of oneness.
09:13
And when I'm acting a role,
09:16
I inhabit another self,
09:19
and I give it life for awhile,
09:21
because when the self is suspended
09:23
so is divisiveness
09:26
and judgment.
09:28
And I've played everything
09:30
from a vengeful ghost in the time of slavery
09:32
to Secretary of State in 2004.
09:34
And no matter how other
09:38
these selves might be,
09:40
they're all related in me.
09:42
And I honestly believe
09:46
the key to my success as an actor
09:48
and my progress as a person
09:50
has been the very lack of self
09:52
that used to make me feel
09:55
so anxious and insecure.
09:57
I always wondered
09:59
why I could feel others' pain so deeply,
10:01
why I could recognize
10:05
the somebody in the nobody.
10:07
It's because I didn't have a self to get in the way.
10:10
I thought I lacked substance,
10:14
and the fact that I could feel others'
10:17
meant that I had nothing of myself to feel.
10:19
The thing that was a source of shame
10:22
was actually a source of enlightenment.
10:25
And when I realized
10:28
and really understood
10:30
that my self is a projection and that it has a function,
10:32
a funny thing happened.
10:35
I stopped giving it so much authority.
10:37
I give it its due.
10:39
I take it to therapy.
10:41
I've become very familiar
10:43
with its dysfunctional behavior.
10:45
But I'm not ashamed of my self.
10:47
In fact, I respect my self
10:50
and its function.
10:52
And over time and with practice,
10:54
I've tried to live
10:57
more and more from my essence.
10:59
And if you can do that,
11:01
incredible things happen.
11:04
I was in Congo in February,
11:06
dancing and celebrating
11:09
with women who've survived
11:11
the destruction of their selves
11:13
in literally unthinkable ways --
11:15
destroyed because other brutalized, psychopathic selves
11:18
all over that beautiful land
11:21
are fueling our selves' addiction
11:24
to iPods, Pads, and bling,
11:27
which further disconnect ourselves
11:30
from ever feeling their pain,
11:32
their suffering,
11:34
their death.
11:36
Because, hey,
11:38
if we're all living in ourselves
11:40
and mistaking it for life,
11:42
then we're devaluing
11:44
and desensitizing life.
11:46
And in that disconnected state,
11:48
yeah, we can build factory farms with no windows,
11:50
destroy marine life
11:54
and use rape as a weapon of war.
11:56
So here's a note to self:
12:00
The cracks have started to show
12:03
in our constructed world,
12:05
and oceans will continue
12:08
to surge through the cracks,
12:10
and oil and blood,
12:12
rivers of it.
12:15
Crucially, we haven't been figuring out
12:18
how to live in oneness
12:20
with the Earth and every other living thing.
12:22
We've just been insanely trying to figure out
12:25
how to live with each other -- billions of each other.
12:28
Only we're not living with each other;
12:31
our crazy selves are living with each other
12:33
and perpetuating an epidemic
12:36
of disconnection.
12:38
Let's live with each other
12:41
and take it a breath at a time.
12:44
If we can get under that heavy self,
12:47
light a torch of awareness,
12:51
and find our essence,
12:53
our connection to the infinite
12:55
and every other living thing.
12:57
We knew it from the day we were born.
13:00
Let's not be freaked out
13:02
by our bountiful nothingness.
13:04
It's more a reality
13:07
than the ones our selves have created.
13:09
Imagine what kind of existence we can have
13:11
if we honor inevitable death of self,
13:15
appreciate the privilege of life
13:19
and marvel at what comes next.
13:23
Simple awareness is where it begins.
13:27
Thank you for listening.
13:30
(Applause)
13:32

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Thandie Newton - Actor
Swinging from Hollywood blockbusters to sensitive indie films, Thandie Newton brings thoughtfulness and delicate beauty to her work.

Why you should listen

Filmgoers first encountered Thandie Newton in the 1991 film Flirting, a tender and skin-crawlingly honest film about young love and budding identity. In her career since then, she’s brought that same intimate touch even to big Hollywood films (she was the moral center of Mission: Impossible II, for instance, and the quiet heart of the head-banging 2012), while maintaining a strong sideline in art films, like the acclaimed Crash and last year’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s For colored girls ...  

Born in England, her mother is Zimbabwean, and Newton is active in nonprofit work across the African continent. In 2008, she visited Mali for a campaign to bring clean water to six African nations, and as a V Day board member, Newton visited the Congo earlier this year to raise awareness of the chronic issue of sexual violence toward women and girls.

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