Baratunde Thurston tackles tough topics with “deep humor”

This is the twentieth entry in the series Honoring Black History.

I picked up a copy of Baratunde Thurston’s How to Be Black pretty much as soon as it hit the shelves in 2012. I was a huge fan of his work as digital director for The Onion and was really excited to read his take on what it meant to be Black in America. The book was brilliant in its concept—part memoir, part satirical self-help book—but also in its execution, which included not only reflections on his own life experiences, but thoughts from others folks like W. Kamau Bell (who I profiled earlier) and damali ayo.

As you’d expect, How to Be Black is incredibly funny. Like tears-running-down-my-face-can’t-stop-myself-from-laughing-or-even-breathe funny. But beneath the humor he tackles a ridiculous number of topics that affect the Black community and America as a whole in a way that is completely serious and deep. Topics like the natural segregation that often occurs in majority-white schools, how ridiculous it is that Black people are so often expected to speak for the entirety of Black humankind, and questioning one’s own Black identity.

I’ve seen Thurston use this “deep humor” approach to great effect over the years and I was fortunate enough to get to see him speak at a Microsoft event (earlier today, in fact). His talk combined personal stories and humor with an underlying theme of modern day oppression. I was riveted during the talk and didn’t snap any photos of the presentation, but it was recorded—for internal folks only, sorry—so I was able to retrieve perhaps the most compelling part of his talk, which I’ll share with you now.

It started with him recounting a visit to Milwaukee with his fiancée for Christmas. They had borrowed her parents’ car and were making the trek from their suburban home back to the hotel a few miles away where Thurston and his girlfriend were staying. Out of nowhere, lights started flashing in the windows. It was a police car. I can’t even imagine how he felt in that moment… a Black man driving someone else’s car through a suburb of a highly segregated city. After making his way to a well-lit area and getting his wallet out, he put his hands where the officer would be able to see them and waited to see how everything was going to play out. Waiting to find out if his story would be one of the countless that end badly for Black people—men especially—in this country.

This became a segue into a broader discussion of media narratives and headlines like

Woman calls police on Black family for barbecuing at a lake in Oakland

White woman calls police on eight year-old Black girl selling water

White woman calls cops on Black woman waiting for Uber

Thurston began collecting these headlines and realized they all broke down into four critical parts:

  1. A subject
  2. engaging in an action
  3. against a target
  4. engaging in another action

Through this realization, he found that he could diagram each of these headlines and, through that, diagram the white supremacy involved that made the sentence possible. And out of that, he created a game where you have to guess whether the headline was real or fake. Here are a few from the training round:

Police surround Black children practicing for Fortnite dance competition

White woman calls cops on President Obama for trespassing at McCain memorial

Hopefully it’s obvious those are fake, but those were easy. What if the subject and target were reversed?

Black woman called police on white man using neighborhood pool

It might be refreshing, but it’s not really progress. Plus, as with the original headline, it’s not really justified. As Thurston said that day “Reversing the flow of injustice is not justice … it feels good to flip the scales, to reverse the direction of the gun, but you’re still holding a gun and the point is to put it down.”

Thurston goes on to dig a little deeper and reveal the common thread throughout all of these headlines: Black people existing and some presumed criminality to that existence. From here, Thurston discussed policing, over-policing, and self-policing, wherein the Black community—out of an interest in their own safety—has in many ways enslaved themselves in order to put white people’s comfort above their own.

One of the greatest threats in this country is the prioritization of white people’s comfort, and the power to call on potentially deadly force to ensure it. This action, “calls police,” is the thing that needs to change in this story. Because these white people are using police to enforce, to clean up, their environment. California Safeway didn’t just call the cops on the Black woman donating to the homeless, they ordered armed, unaccountable men on her. They basically called in a drone strike on a fellow human being doing charitable works. It’s weaponized discomfort.

Thurston then related this all back to the history of lynchings in this country, all of which had similar headlines:

Reverend T. A. Allen was lynched in Hernando, Mississippi,in 1935 for organizing local sharecroppers

Oliver Moore was lynched in Edgecomb, North Carolina, 1930 for frightening a white girl

William Lewis was lynched in Tullahoma, Tennessee, in 1891 for being intoxicated

He continued:

California Safeway doesn’t have to call the cops on that Black woman, they could just thank her. It’s another option. You can choose a different action in the game. … The white woman who called the police on an eight year old Black girl selling water, could have ignored her and minded her own damn business.

He closed out the talk beautifully by imploring us to make better choices.

White supremacy has a pattern and a grammar. So does misogyny. So do all systemic forms of power abuse. So what do we do about it? Let’s ask ourselves: Where do I sit in that structure? How can I use my position within that grammar to write a different reality? We can change our story. We have that choice. When we change the story, we change the system. We can choose. We can choose something different.

I truly appreciate how Baratunde Thurston so deftly weaves important lessons and difficult conversations with humor. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do well as you often run the risk of being too superficial in your critique or of your humor directly undermining the actual point of the conversation in the first place. But he does it brilliantly.