How To Be Black

Baratunde Thurston is the CEO, co-founder, and hashtagger-in-chief of Cultivated Wit. He wrote the New York Times bestseller How To Be Black and served for five years as director of digital for the satirical news outlet, The Onion. He writes the monthly back page column for Fast Company and contributes to the MIT Media Lab as a director’s fellow.He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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Turn that shit up B!

In answer to the Day 14 Question “Do you ever find yourself turning your race “up” or “down” depending on who you’re with?”

I turn my blackness up when I find I’m around elite White people. But at the same time, I try to act scared of them. I’ll pull up next to a white woman in my very expensive BMW and make sure she sees me lock my doors as I’m listening to ACE HOOD and RICK ROSS. 

The look I get is priceless. Confusing, but priceless. 

I’m going to get a set of gold fronts to wear with my couture 2k dollar tux and wear them both to a black tie function for charity. 

Lil John Varatos…

Trevor

“‘I am not Martin Luther King,’ I exclaimed, and ‘I’m not your black ambassador.’”

In answer to the Day 14 Question “Have You Ever Been Asked To Speak For ALL Black People?”

When I was accepted into Medical School, I assumed it was because I was intelligent, had an impressive academic history, and clinical + research experience. When I arrived to orientation, I realized I was one of a select group of four specifically chosen black ambassadors. Our mission, to speak for the entire black race. They covered all their bases, both an east and west african, a west indian, and I was the prized black american.  Although my parents are both Jamaicans, my kings county birth certificate and backstory meet all necessary criteria for American blackness. I was born in the hood (Bed sty) in a single parent household. All the stereotypes minus the prison time, drug addiction, STD, and unwanted pregnancy. The problem, four years of public education in one of the most diverse colleges in US, deluded me into believing my education allowed me to rise above my race/culture.  I was smart/scientist, not black.

So naturally I rebelled. “I am not Martin Luther King,” I exclaimed, and “I ‘m not your black ambassador.”

I remember the moment my small group teacher tried to casually bring up the issue of race and medicine, to hear what we had to say about it, all while looking at me. Thankfully, my white classmates covered for me. They spoke up and dismissed the question. 

Mostly, I have failed to live up to my schools expectation. I’m a slippery negro. Whenever the opportunity arises, I remain silent, maintain my heart rate at a resting rate, and pretend not have noticed the opportunity to interject an opinion. I remind myself every day, I can always run away to Africa, like my dad did 2005. 

sometimes I hate being “black.” i wish I could just be a doctor, or a research assistant, or have any other job, than to help white people feel more comfortable about their position

How I learned about black people

In answer to the Day 1 Question “When Did You First Realize You Were Black (or X)?”

I was a military brat, and we moved to Alabama when I was four. When I was five, my best friend Kim and my “boyfriend” Jamal were both black (I’m so, so white), but I didn’t actually realize that at the time. My mom says she’d get dirty looks sometimes when she’d take us to the park together, but we were blissfully unaware. One day in kindergarten, another white classmate told me that “black people smell bad because they don’t wash.” I remember being stunned at this declaration, and focusing for the first time on our differences. I don’t think I ever told anyone what she said, but I surreptitiously smelled some black and white classmates after that without noticing any particular smell from anybody.

Now that I’m an adult, I’ve seen my world get whiter and whiter over the years, from my workplace, to my friends, to my movies and TV shows. I lament it out loud sometimes, but I’m never really sure what to *do* about it.

"I was largely programmed for Black Friend status"

In answer to the Day 11 Question “Are You The Black Friend?’”

Being part of the first post-civil rights generation, and growing up in a middle-class environment built by parents who took every advantage they could for their kids (integrated schools, etc.), meant I was largely programmed for Black Friend status from a young age. It was our generation’s duty to increase understanding between races and bring about greater world peace (insert “Kumbaya” track here) by showing how, even though we’re different, we’re still the same. We were the ones who had to show whites that we’re all human beings together.

This reflects something I read in an article recently with regards to the recent Jan Brewer finger-pointing situation: Often the burden of achieving racial harmony is placed solely on the backs of people of color. Here’s the thing though: It’s one thing when you’re FIVE and your white peers are asking questions. It’s another thing when you’re FORTY-FIVE and they’re asking the same damn questions.

Sure, black folks are part of the mainstream in a way they never were before. We’re on TV, everybody speaks some form of hip-hop slang, there’s even a black family in the White House. But when it comes to real (and really basic) shit about black people’s bodies, lives, and personal histories, I find that most white people, even those who claim to have lots of education and a liberal mindset, are all but encouraged to remain completely ignorant. In that respect I wonder how much has actually changed in 40 years and whether my efforts were really worth anything in a society that still insists on viewing people like me (and the Obamas, and I suspect many blacks who’ve responded on this site so far) as exceptions to the rule, the rule being that blacks are and always will be different, separate, never the same. NOT American like whites, NOT human like whites.

Needless to say, I have had to deal with a lot of anger and bitterness regarding this.

Within a few weeks of my returning to school (which is in a very white state, and the program I was in was about 96% white), I made a conscious decision not to be The Black Friend, at least not in the way I was for most of my life prior. This has cost me both socially and professionally. Paraphrasing from that article again: When people of color decide they don’t exist to serve whites, whites feel it. I have been known to post links to Derailing for Dummies and Tim Wise’s site: Read this, get up to speed, and then get back to me, okay?

Key and PeeleTuesdays 10:30/9:30c
White-Sounding Black Guys
www.comedycentral.com
Comedy CentralFunny VideosFunny TV Shows

February 15 - Do you ever find yourself turning your race “up” or “down” depending on who you’re with?

Throughout Black History Month (and beyond), we’ll be focusing on questions of identity. For day fifteen we want to know: Do you ever find yourself turning your race “up” or “down” depending on who you’re with?

Check out the above video from the new Comedy Central show, Key & Peele.

Submit your story (especially in video).

Here’s how:

  • Pick a question to answer from this list or make your own
  • Click here or the “Submit” button on the top of the page
  • Choose how you’d like to submit. We appreciate video submissions (upload to Vimeo/Youtube then embed) but you can submit in other formats.
  • Indicate the question you’re answering in the title or post section! This will help us a ton when organizing the submissions.

my skin is my Black Card, and everything I do in this skin I declare to be authentically black.

In answer to the Day 9 Question “Has Anyone Ever Questioned Your ‘Authentic Blackness?’”

I believe the quest to find/be part of a tribe is something that’s basically hard-wired in humans. The Internet has made it SOOO much easier for everybody, but especially young people, to find a tribal home or homes. I really don’t think today’s young people know how lucky they are. I remember watching “Afro-Punk” a couple of years back with a mixture of pride, wonder, and a little sadness: Where were these people when I was a kid growing up in Ohio in the 70s and 80s?

I grew up in a very pro-black household but it was in the sense of our parents putting up a good fight against any potential “de-authentication” resulting from our living amongst whites in an integrated suburb. Doing well in school, reading lots of books, speaking “proper” English, etc. — in our house this was just what we did and it had nothing to do with race. It was outside our house, amongst other black kids (mostly), that I learned that these things labeled me as inauthentically black. For better or worse, my parents had put the fear of God into us at a very young age so peer pressure never really had a chance: I continued to do well in school, read a lot, etc. and isolated myself from most of those peers.

The few friends I had, literally from fourth grade through high school, tended to also see the world in bigger, more expansive ways than those other kids. One had a habit of restlessly flipping the radio station dial; thanks to her I discovered all kinds of “white” music, including 20th-century classical music that was a far cry from the Bach etudes I was required to practice every day. Another (now deceased) was big into science fiction and introduced me to several different authors and magazines. Keep in mind we were all black girls and this was the late 70s and early 80s. We barely had computers, much less the Internet!

Currently I live in a very white part of the country (not quite like Vermont, but close). It has been years since anyone of any race has challenged my blackness directly but when I talk about how I grew up, the places I’ve been, the things I’ve done, etc. I sometimes get dubious looks from white people. It’s like they can’t quite comprehend what they’re seeing/hearing and it betrays their conditioning about what they believe an “authentic” black person is. I could write a whole other essay on this but I’ll just say that, at this point in my life, my skin is my Black Card, and everything I do in this skin I declare to be authentically black.

How Do You Define Yourself?

February 13 - How Do You Define Yourself?

Throughout Black History Month (and beyond), we’ll be focusing on questions of identity. For day thirteen we want to know: How do you define yourself?

Submit your story (especially in video), and check out what The Black Panel said in the book.

Here’s how:

  • Pick a question to answer from this list or make your own
  • Click here or the “Submit” button on the top of the page
  • Choose how you’d like to submit. We appreciate video submissions (upload to Vimeo/Youtube then embed) but you can submit in other formats.
  • Indicate the question you’re answering in the title or post section! This will help us a ton when organizing the submissions.

How Does Your Race Affect Your Faith?

February 12 - How Does Your Race Affect You Faith?

Throughout Black History Month (and beyond), we’ll be focusing on questions of identity. For day twelve we want to know: How does your race affect you faith?

Submit your story (especially in video), and check out what The Black Panel said in the book.

Here’s how:

  • Pick a question to answer from this list or make your own
  • Click here or the “Submit” button on the top of the page
  • Choose how you’d like to submit. We appreciate video submissions (upload to Vimeo/Youtube then embed) but you can submit in other formats.
  • Indicate the question you’re answering in the title or post section! This will help us a ton when organizing the submissions.

Questioning my Blackness is a daily occurrence

In answer to the Day 9 Question “Has Anyone Ever Questioned Your ‘Authentic Blackness?’”

I work at a public school that serves mostly Black and Latinos students so obviously I’m not Black enough for them. I don’t speak enough ebonics, listen to enough hip hop (though I would argue I just listen to a different type of hip hop) or wear the right clothes. I would love to think that the fact that I grew up in the projects and was raised by a single, Black mother would be enough to earn my Black card but as the kids will tell you: that don’t matter. Also, I wish that I didn’t have to authenticate my Blackness at all. 

Are You The Black Friend?

February 11 - Are You The Black Friend?

Throughout Black History Month (and beyond), we’ll be focusing on questions of identity. For day eleven we want to know: Are you the black friend?

Submit your story (especially in video), and check out what The Black Panel said in the book.

Here’s how:

  • Pick a question to answer from this list or make your own
  • Click here or the “Submit” button on the top of the page
  • Choose how you’d like to submit. We appreciate video submissions (upload to Vimeo/Youtube then embed) but you can submit in other formats.
  • Indicate the question you’re answering in the title or post section! This will help us a ton when organizing the submissions.

How Do You Whiskey Friday?

February 10 - How Do You Whiskey Friday?

Throughout Black History Month (and beyond), we’ll be focusing on questions of identity. For day ten we’re going to lighten the mood a bit. We want to know: How do you whiskey friday? That’s to say, how does your identify affect how you start the weekend?

Submit your story (especially in video), and check out what The Black Panel said in the book.

Here’s how:

  • Pick a question to answer from this list or make your own
  • Click here or the “Submit” button on the top of the page
  • Choose how you’d like to submit. We appreciate video submissions (upload to Vimeo/Youtube then embed) but you can submit in other formats.
  • Indicate the question you’re answering in the title or post section! This will help us a ton when organizing the submissions.

February 9 - Has Anyone Ever Questioned Your “Authentic Blackness”?

Throughout Black History Month (and beyond), we’ll be focusing on questions of identity. For day nine we want to know: Has anyone ever questioned your “authentic blackness”?

Submit your story (especially in video), and check out what The Black Panel said in the book.

Here’s how:

  • Pick a question to answer from this list or make your own
  • Click here or the “Submit” button on the top of the page
  • Choose how you’d like to submit. We appreciate video submissions (upload to Vimeo/Youtube then embed) but you can submit in other formats.
  • Indicate the question you’re answering in the title or post section! This will help us a ton when organizing the submissions.

"I am a graduating senior, Black female mechanical engineering major from Georgia Tech, and I cannot swim"

In answer to the Day 4 Question “Can You Swim?”

No, I can not swim. I am a graduating senior, Black female mechanical engineering major from Georgia Tech, and I cannot swim. I didn’t think this was a community thing until one of my friends jokingly pointed out that all Hispanics can swim. I thought about it and all of my Latino/Hispanic friends can swim. One day, I’ll learn. 

February 8 - How Does Race Affect Your Faith In The United States?

Throughout Black History Month (and beyond), we’ll be focusing on questions of identity. For day eight we want to know: How does race affect your faith in the United States?

Submit your story (especially in video), and check out what The Black Panel said in the book.

Here’s how:

  • Pick a question to answer from this list or make your own
  • Click here or the “Submit” button on the top of the page
  • Choose how you’d like to submit. We appreciate video submissions (upload to Vimeo/Youtube then embed) but you can submit in other formats.
  • Indicate the question you’re answering in the title or post section! This will help us a ton when organizing the submissions.

February 7 - Has Social Media Affected How People Understand What It Means To Be Black?

Throughout Black History Month (and beyond), we’ll be focusing on questions of identity. For day seven we want to know: has social media affected how people understand what it means to be black?

Submit your story (especially in video), and check out what The Black Panel said in the book.

Here’s how:

  • Pick a question to answer from this list or make your own
  • Click here or the “Submit” button on the top of the page
  • Choose how you’d like to submit. We appreciate video submissions (upload to Vimeo/Youtube then embed) but you can submit in other formats.
  • Indicate the question you’re answering in the title or post section! This will help us a ton when organizing the submissions.