Black Like Who?
Baratunde Thurston lightens up the conversation on race, technology, and social change
The hardest thing about interviewing Baratunde Thurston is trying not to drown him out with constant laughter, lest you end up with a recording of nothing but yourself cracking up for 40 minutes or so.
It can't be helped, really. In addition to being digital director of The Onion, a co-founder of the Jack & Jill Politics blog, a possible Twitter addict, and an in-demand public speaker, Thurston regularly does stand-up. The man is funny.
Asked, for example, how his publicists knew to send the rather Caucasian Chronicle, sight unseen, the white-cover version his new book, How To Be Black (which also comes with a black cover), Thurston responded with a fusillade of jargony, spin-doctoring gobbledygook about "years of technology and research and scientific development of what I call 'race-appropriate algorithmic media distribution programming'" designed to determine who gets which version of the book. "There are some people who insist, 'I have the white version of the book; I really want the black version,' and they order another one. Keep ordering. Keep ordering the book until you get the version you think you want, but understand our system does know best. You're just trying to cheat the algorithm. We'll take your money, reluctantly."
It can't be denied: How To Be Black, with its black panel of experts (including Christian Lander, creator of Stuff White People Like, as a control member) and funny-cuz-it's-true chapter titles based partly on stereotypes and partly on experience ("How To Be the Black Employee," "Can You Swim?") is first-rate, wildly readable parody.
It's also a radical examination of notions of blackness shot through with the bittersweet story of Thurston's coming of age in ways that both typify and defy stereotypes of how African-American identities are constructed. He was raised by a single, COBOL-programming, black-activist mother who shaped him into a "tofu-eating, weekend-camping, karate-chopping, apartheid-hating, top-grade-getting, generally trouble-avoiding agent of blackness." He grew up in a dicey Washington, D.C., neighborhood during the Eighties crack epidemic; he went to the elite Sidwell Friends School and to Harvard; his father was killed in a drug deal; he can swim; he's an "amazing" dancer (he says); and he's been a full-on, paid tech geek for years.
Apropos of a South by Southwest Interactive keynote speaker, Thurston has been promoting How To Be Black with what sounds like an exhaustively interactive media blitz, including but not limited to webcasts; Twitter interviews; an interactive Tumblr (www.howtobeblack.me); a website and a blog, of course (www.baratunde.com); shameless hashtaggery; and nonstop readings and interviews with conventional media outlets, à la ourselves. On the day we spoke with him, Thurston was in the middle of said blitz and dealing with his book's sold-out first run. He seemed like he was having the time of his life.
The Austin Chronicle: I had a hard time getting at exactly what you're doing in the book. It seems like it's as much as about educating white people as it is about speaking to black people. Parts of it are sincere and touching, especially parts of your personal story. At other points, it seems like a lot of it is stuff that black people are going to think is funny but is not especially news to them.
Baratunde Thurston: This isn't a book for white people. It is a book available to white people, and all people with money. What people get out of it is going to be up to who they are, what they're open to, and what their own experience is. As a white person, they may think, "Oh, this is good insight for me to try to understand someone who I'm not." For a black person, this might be a way to understand someone they're not or to identify with an experience they've had that they don't see represented very often.
AC: In the chapter "How To Be the Black Friend," you write that one of your roles is to curb your white friends when they're dropping too much hip-hop slang. How much is too much?
BT: [laughs] Everybody's allotted three ounces of hip-hop slang a day, and if you exceed that, you're kind of going over the FDA-recommended dosage; you could overdose, and it could cause severe bodily harm, you could have consequences later in life, possible carcinogens you're playing with here, so it's a health concern, a public health concern and a personal health concern that people should keep in mind as they try to urban up.
AC: Obama's presidency and BET seem to be two things that really get your goat [laughs].
BT: It's got that label – Black Entertainment Television – and it has had a history of only serving narrow, narrow, narrow interests of what that could mean. It has helped historically reinforce a lot of the limited stereotypes available to the wider world to understand just who black people are. It's been heavy on certain types of hip-hop music videos, heavy on just raw buffoonery. It seems like they're trying to move in a better direction, so I don't want to say BET is dead to me forever, but it's pretty acknowledged, not just by me. I'm not standing on a mountaintop alone shouting against the ills of BET. The programming has had an opportunity to be a lot better.
AC: The chapter "How To Be the (Next) Black President," to me, anyway, seems to be the most searing satire in the book.
BT: It's interesting that you think that's the most searing. I think it's the "How To Be the Black Employee" chapter personally, but I'm not gonna argue with you.
I think both of them, though, are deeply personal. In the case of the presidential one, it comes from the hours upon hours upon hours of my life that I personally put into the 2008 campaign, or 2007 to 2009. It's been a very high-contrast situation: The whole country got swept up in this notion, this movement, this hope, this possibility, this seemingly historically redemptive moment that we had just done something amazing! And then, "Ah, we're not gonna stick with that."
AC: Did the "How To Be the Black Employee" chapter come from similar personal experience?
BT: The "Black Employee" one is purely first-person. I wrote it differently. I wrote it in a way that was a little bit more consistently role-playing for the reader. I was like, this is you: You got this job, this is your role, and I really wanted people to kind of embody that in a way that the other chapters don't always do. For me, it was one of the more surprisingly easy chapters to write, something that I didn't know I was going to write until very late in the process, and it flowed out of me faster than any other part of the book. There's just some moments where it's like, I got this one. This is true. This is gonna work. That chapter, more than any of the others, felt like that, and I didn't really realize I had all those experiences until I started writing them out through that lens, and it was just the most fun personally. I laughed the most at myself, at that whole diversity committee – "Bob likes Indian food and they think that qualifies him" – I had never really talked about all this stuff on stage, in my stand-up.
AC: Do you struggle with the idea that you're choosing to be this ambassador for understanding blackness?
BT: There is a little tension there. Obviously, in the chapter "How To Speak for All Black People," I'm mocking this burden that we wear and that women wear and that gay people wear, like you know, to represent your whole people. To exist as a political act, to have every statement be sort of implicitly written on a protest sign, is not something that every single person goes through,
So there is an opportunity there to have some fun with it. The two other points in the book that connect to this, one is this idea that "Hey, white people, getting rid of racism is your duty now." Like, go for it. We put in a couple of hundred years on this, you got a good blueprint, kinda know what to do, and you can take it from here.
What I really loved the most that was kind of on this topic in the book was what [W. Kamau Bell] said when he talked about this idea that everybody should work for the group one over from them, that we can build empathy that way. And that's true within our little lefty progressive activist movement and well beyond. So there is – not just because of the fatigue of having to kind of be the ambassador of my group X, but an opportunity to kind of share that burden and that learning – it's not just a struggle. There's beautiful stuff that comes out of it.
Keynote Speech: How To Read the World
Saturday, March 10, 2pm
Austin Convention Center, Exhibit Hall 5