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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"So right off the bat I was already ‘the black guy’ in my own family."

In response to “When Did You First Realize You Were Black?” and several other questions, check out Trevor’s story:

On multiple occasions, I’ve had friends and even complete strangers tell me that I should write something that somehow chronicled the events of my life. “But why?” I would ask them, “Why would anyone want to read about the trials and tribulations of a socially inept black kid from the suburbs with a comically multicultural family straight out of a shitty 90s sitcom. A kid whose life was a constant struggle just to fit in anywhere with failed and usually comedic results?” Nevermind.

I feel as though I should brief you on my background seeing as you probably have no idea who the hell I am. My name is Trevor Henry Ziegler. Pretty typical name for a black male, right? It wasn’t until about 10th grade that I realized maybe my name didn’t quite fit my physical appearance. Up until that point, however, I didn’t think anything of it. I was just regular Trevor Ziegler, in my own eyes. I saw nothing different about a black kid named Trevor with a German last name.

And don’t get me wrong I’m not ashamed of my name. Not even in the least. I just think my name alone placed this giant label on myself that read: THIS KID IS TOTALLY DIFFERENT. And for good reason, my name alone has garnered more puzzled looks than an M. Night Shyamalan movie (just the really shitty ones though).

Adding to my reputation as a walking anti-stereotype, I was a 17-year competitive swimmer and even competed on a Division I team in college for four years. I also worked as a lifeguard for many years throughout high school and college. So basically for the first 22 years of my life I was a living punchline for the “black people can’t swim” joke. Off to a pretty good start, right?

I was adopted pretty much right after birth to two white parents in an affluent Maryland suburb. My sisters, who are both older than I am, were adopted as well. The eldest was adopted at a young age from the Philippines and my other sister was adopted at age four from India when I was about three years old. So right off the bat I was already “the black guy” in my own family. Pretty much a metaphor for my entire fucking life.

I’ll spare you the details of my birth parents, for now. Spoiler Alert: It’ll blow your fucking mind. Well, hopefully. I guess you’ll just have to read on to find out. Suckers.

Anyways, as I mentioned earlier I was born and raised in a suburban city called Columbia, Maryland of about 100,000 residents. Columbia was a planned community established in 1967. The basis of Columbia was that it was designed to be a series of 10 self-contained villages that aimed to eliminate any sort of racial or class segregation. Thus, every village was said to contain lower-income, middle-income, and high-income housing. Fair is fair.

However, the “village” that I lived in was added in the mid-90s and proved to be an exception to the rule. The area in which I grew up in catered to mostly upper-middle income housing and high-income housing and consequently shat in the face of the designer’s dream of getting rid of class segregation. Until I attended high school, the area in which I grew up in was about as diverse as a box of saltines.

Looking back at my life and the conditions I grew up in, it’s hard to comprehend why I thought my life could ever be normal. I should probably clarify what the word “normal” meant to me back then. To me, normal was simply fitting in anywhere. Normal was surrounding myself with a group of peers who knew exactly what I was going through. Normal was that feeling of not being looked-at or judged a certain way because of what I looked like, how I talked, or the things I was into. I so desperately wanted to just be known as “Trevor”. Not Black Trevor, or that black kid, or the black kid that acts really white, or the black kid that swims, or the black kid with white parents. I would have even settled to be another face in the crowd. Anything was better than what I was going through.

To be continued…