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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Can you share how different your experiences and perceptions of race have been based on the region of the country or world you’re in?

Throughout Black History Month (and beyond), we’ll be focusing on questions of identity. Today we want to know: Can you share how different your experiences and perceptions of race have been based on the region of the country or world you’re in?

Submit your story (videos are encouraged!)

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.

"Oh don’t mind the creepy Black guy in the corner."

In answer to “What’s the most awkward racial interaction you ever had?”

So I was at Texas A&M University, their College Station campus for a summer research. The program consisted of students with different racial backgrounds, what made it good was the fact that there were other Black guys in the program so I did not feel to alone. Well one Friday evening myself some of the people in the program as well as some students from the University had pre-gamed in the room before heading to a party. We get on the elevator, it stopped on the next floor for two females and a guy (all White) because the elevator was a little packed they said they would wait for it to come back, I insisted that we would make space for them which we were able to do. As the door closed one of the guys from the school said “Oh don’t mind the creepy Black guy in the corner.” (I am the only Black guy with them) There was a awkward silence, I could tell people were worried I was going to act in a very aggressive manner. In that instant I thought to myself “I can respond to this one of two ways; act the “stereotype” or brush it off by making everybody laugh” I chose the latter. I decided to speak like I was a wealthy White guy from Connecticut trying to sound cool. “Well let me talk in my non-threating voice, how does this sound?” I said enunciating every word. Everybody started to laugh including the two white girls who were initially uncomfortable.

Black President = Way too much honesty

In answer to the Day 18 Question “How has Barack Obama’s presidency affected your view or experience of race?”

I’m torn about Barack’s presidency. While it has helped us make some great strides in furthering the idea of what it means to be Black, it has also brought out the crazies. But I have to admit the crazies are at least vocal and upfront. There’s a lot less of the hiding behind closed doors that used to happen pre-2008. Now people will openly say “send that ni**er back to Africa” soooo … progress? 

"Our neighbors love us (to our face anyway), I think because we don’t bring any other black people to the neighborhood."

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

My family and I live in an upscale neighborhood and are one of two black families.  Our neighbors love us (to our face anyway), I think because we don’t bring any other black people to the neighborhood.  They don’t know that it is just circumstantial, our black friends live in a different region of the US and my husband and I don’t usually make new black friends because we’re vegetarian atheists.  I go out to lunch with my neighbors once every three months, and give them vegetables from my garden. I support Ron Paul and in this bastion of Republicanism, it also serves to make me the perfect black neighbor - acceptably quirky while displaying authentic blackness.  My long thin dreadlocks are carefully displayed in extremely neat up do and my home is filled with African artifacts.  My husband and I are writers, adding to the allure. All that doesn’t however, make me the perfect black neighbor, what makes me the perfect black neighbor is that I have the smallest house on the block - my 4000 square feet are not visible from the street, my pool is well hidden and I do not buy the latest vehicles (really a principle more than anything).  Without saying it, my neighbors are pleased that I seem to know my place and am different enough to assure them there will not be an influx of black families as a result of my presence. It doesn’t matter that I write about economic inequality and race, I am still the perfect black neighbor.

"My ultimate dream was to be Mrs Michael Jackson."

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

When I was about 8 or 9, in the early 70s, I loved the Jackson 5; I built up a whole pre-adolescent fantasy of Michael coming to my backwater town in western Pennsylvania and somehow meeting and falling love with me. My ultimate dream was to be Mrs Michael Jackson. This dream was shattered when my older sister told me in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t marry him because he was black. For some reason, I had no comeback to that. Much later, many other reasons emerged as to why I couldn’t marry Jacko, but none of them shut me up like that first one.

What’s the most awkward racial interaction you ever had?

Throughout Black History Month (and beyond), we’ll be focusing on questions of identity. Today we want to know: What’s the most awkward racial interaction you ever had?

Submit your story (videos are encouraged!)

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.

Has anyone ever said judgmental things about a race and assumed you had no problem with it?

February 20 - Has anyone ever said judgmental things about a race and assumed you had no problem with it?

Throughout Black History Month (and beyond), we’ll be focusing on questions of identity. For day twenty we want to know: Has anyone ever said judgmental things about a race and assumed you had no problem with it?

Submit your story (videos are encouraged!)

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 had just assumed that as you grew up, you became lighter and lighter until you became white"

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

I suddenly learned everything I needed to know about the world when I discovered that I was Black.  What can I say?  I was an Air Force brat who was born in Long Island, New York, moved promptly to Japan and had maids who lived with us, proceeded to Maine and lived with the “Eskimos” (at that point, no one knew what color we were because we all wore those really thick parkas that covered every inch of our bodies), and then back to Long Island, when I turned 8 years old and I mentioned to my mom what I was going to do when I grew up “and became white”.  I  think my mom’s head almost popped off of her shoulders, but, after gathering her mental faculties, she asked me why I thought I was going to grow up and be white, and I told her that grandma and grandpa were white.  She disagreed, and I suppose she should know, given that they were her parent, but they were as white-looking as the clean white walls in my home.  In fact, my parents were lighter than me as are my older brother and sister and all of the elders and ladies in our church in East Hampton New York, so I had just assumed that as you grew up, you became lighter and lighter until you became white. I was so excited that I ran around telling everyone because life suddenly made sense to me.  I also realized that I tan easily — I am “dark” in the summer and “light” in the winter.   Life is good!

February 18 - Has Anyone Ever Accused You Of “Talking White?”

Throughout Black History Month (and beyond), we’ll be focusing on questions of identity. For day eighteen we want to know: Has anyone ever accused you of “talking white?”

Submit your story (videos are encouraged!)

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 responsible for introducing the Afro to white people in Oklahoma."

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

Oh, yes — like a fish.  Having grown up in Long Island, NY and Okinawa, Japan, swimming came naturally.  It wasn’t until we moved to Altus A. F. B., Oklanhoma, did my swimming become an issue for people.  We were almost the only Black family on base and I was certainly the only Black person in the pool, and I am sure I am responsible for introducing the Afro to white people in Oklahoma. 

"I even have the power to somehow suddenly inspire ‘them’ (non-Blacks) to begin using racial slang"

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

Yes, almost every day at work when I am in a meeting with executives.  Given that I am the first and only Black employee in myunit, I have the profound effect of causing heads to turn when “they” (non-Black executives) realize that the person to whom they were speaking on the phone is Black, cause massive “meeting confusion” and hysteria when they (mainly white folks) realize I am not there to take notes as their secretary but am indeed a “real” executive myself, and I even have the power to  somehow suddenly inspire “them” (non-Blacks) to begin using racial slang and giving high-fives during these executive meetings.  Hell — I’ve noticed that our CIO even changes the manner of his walk when he sees me — his walk begins to take a kind of staggered gate, dragging one foot behind him, and doing a pretty good imitation of “Huggie Bear” from the old Starsky & Hutch series.  Straight embarrassing.

"As a medical student, I never imagined that I would be actively contributing to an institution of racism."

In answer to the Day 6 Question “Why Can’t We Just Ignore Racial Differences Already?”

my first clinical rotation of my third year was medicine. I was filled with energy and optimism. My school is located on the cusp of social economic disadvantaged urban center. So of course most  of my patients are black, hispanic, or asians who often don’t speak english. The current two tiered health care system ensures that patients admitted to hospitals get a basic level of healthcare. But because Medicaid only pays a percentage of the bill issued by hospital, every day a patient is in the hospital we are losing money. To recoup cost, new hospital policies reward residents who push patients out the door quicker. Not all patients released, have adequate medical follow to address their acute and long term needs. Some are discharged to early, and then cycle back into the system only days sometimes hours later to be readmitted for an issue conveniently overlooked in their charting.

This heartless, but economic necessity, given the high frequency of hospital collapse and closure, doesn’t lessen the blow. As a medical student, I never imagined that I would be actively contributing to an institution of racism. 

Race matters. My decisions my perspective are shaped by my life experiences. I am black in a country where people that looked like I do were often disregarded and dehumanized. I have experienced discrimination first hand; and that changes a person. Not everyone that is discriminated against can turn around and just pick up the torch of apathy and do the same to someone else.  

Ultimately, the internal conflict and external conflict with my team was too great for me to bear, I will not be going into internal medicine. My conscience  couldn’t survive it.  My race colored glasses, will never allow me to see people as statistics. 

Do people consider you an “exception” to your race as in “you’re different?”

February 16 - Do people consider you an “exception” to your race as in “you’re different?”

Throughout Black History Month (and beyond), we’ll be focusing on questions of identity. For day sixteen we want to know: Do people consider you an “exception” to your race as in “you’re different?”

Submit your story (videos are encouraged!)

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.