How To Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

“Be not afraid of blackness. Some are born black. Some achieve blackness, and others have blackness thrust upon them,” attributed to Shakespeare in the introduction of How To Be Black by Baratunde Thurston. This…adaption(?) of the Bard sets the tone for Thurston’s book, a dialectic in both seriousness and humor. It’s hard to tell what this book offers at face value but that may just be the notion that, at its heart, Thurston is trying to buck.howtobeblack

I first became aware of Baratunde Thurston while watching This Week in Tech (TWiT), a weekly podcast featuring pundits ranging from tech writers and bloggers to the geekerati, economists, columnists and humorists. Every week, the show features a small number of these guests, three or four, to talk tech with the host, Leo Laporte. Thurston appeared irregularly, maybe two or three times a year. He drew me in with his comic wit (he was, at the time, the director of digital at The Onion, after all) and perspective, a unique synthesis of technology and pop culture. I found out about How To Be Black while watching TWiT; Thurston, while guest-hosting, plugged his book and I decided to try to find it for Kindle.

Thurston, while talking about his book, wanted to start a discussion about race in America. He alluded that it’s better to deal with real, heavy and serious issues with a touch of humor. Controversial issues, sensitive issues, issues of any sort: race, religion, gender and sex, are best handled with the disarming approach of humor, a spoonful of sugar. Thurston draws on a wealth of personal experience, as well as his seven person “Black Panel”, six black entertainers, comedians, activist, entrepreneurs and musicians and Christian Lander of “Stuff White People Like” fame (providing a “group control” as Thurston puts it). The book is divided into chapters with titles like, “How to Be the Black Friend”, “Being Black at Harvard”, “How to Be the Angry Negro”, “How to Be the (Next) Black President” and “How’s That Post-Racial Thing Working Out For Ya?”, each chapter ending with input from Thurston’s Black Panel. Intentionally so, this book is an important step in addressing race and post-racialism.

I remember when President Obama won his first election. There were many reasons to be excited. However there was a lot of talk about the race issue. Some Obama supporters breathed a sigh of relief, patted themselves on the back and congratulated themselves for heralding in a ‘post-racial’ America. The fact that post-racialism never left the collective conversation proved, in a kind of meta way, that we were far beyond race and racialism, that in spite of electing a half black, half white president, it was still at the forefront of the collective conscious. We couldn’t stop talking about our “black” president. Obama’s election didn’t usher in an era of post-racialism; however, it made talking about race more acceptable and therein lies an important distinction, one that this book makes and is a step toward a brave, inclusive discussion initiated by Thurston throughout the book. As the author asks at the end of the penultimate chapter, “So if the future is a United States in which race is no longer the primary issue that binds or divides us, then (a) why have you read this far in a book called How to Be Black, […]?”

Inclusion is an important word when relating to this book. While Thurston is black, most of his Black Panel was black and a substantial number of his audience is black (I wouldn’t venture to guess as to whether it’s a plurality or majority). I’m white, he plugged this book as the only black guest-host on TWiT that day and many of his fans are white (and Latino and Asian and all the other colors of the rainbow). This is the new direction of discussion about race in America and this book is one of its first, most important steps. Let’s not kid ourselves that we’re beyond race. The day America is beyond race is the day that the last guns are melted down and made into a memorial. Race is part of our national identity. The back and forth on how we’ve handled it; Jim Crow, segregation, King’s pacifism and X’s early militarism, Obama’s victory and the publication of How To Be Black, these are the footprints of who we are, a trail from where we came. But I must say, I like Thurston’s direction. I like having been invited to the dialogue and hearing what he had to say. What was black? What is black? What will black be? We all have a stake in promoting and supporting this dialogue and not stifling it with the beliefe that we live in a post-racial America.

While reading this book, I considered my own minority status. As previously mentioned in my last post, I currently live in South Korea. I found a lot of what Thurston and the Black Panel had to say relevant to my own experience here in small but significant ways. When I first came to Korea back in 2010, it was nearly impossible for a foreigner to get a credit card or smart phone (first world problems, I know). I still face elements of discrimination and segregation, taxi drivers being rude and old drunk men yelling at me to go home, save Korea for the Koreans. While racialism in Korea is a whole other conversation entirely, I had to stop myself from thinking I had experienced anything like what Thurston and the Black Panel (minus Christian Lander) had experienced themselves. While I am a minority here in Korea, I am of the most privileged group in the world: I am a white, middle-class male.

What I got out of reading this book is not what I have in common with minorities but what I have avoided. I came to Asia by my own accord. Every choice I make is my own and I don’t have to remain in any place or situation unless I choose otherwise. It’s too easy to fall into a victim mentality, even as a privileged minority. Sometimes I forget just how far my privilege goes. Though I’m not black nor am I marginalized, I am grateful to have been included in this new discussion on race. Discussing race is not taboo. Race is a part of who we are, our identity. That’s not a bad thing, nor is talking about blackness. I never would have imagined that reading a book entitled How To Be Black would help me figure out who I am in the context of living in an East-Asian country. By participating, I am better able to define myself. I think that was Thurston’s point all along.

How To Be Black is funny, sincere and too short of a read. I highly recommend it.

Pages: 272 FoA Pages: 16,735

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