By: Jason Waddell
“Ya’ll don’t know what it’s like, being male, middle class and white.”
– Ben Folds
I first discovered discovered Baratunde Thurston’s How to be Black while doing one of the whitest activities imaginable: listening to an NPR podcast at a bed and breakfast. Thurston, former Director of Digital at TheOnion, was an entertaining and charismatic guest on the trivia gameshow Ask me Another, where he broached the topic of race with an entertaining mix of insightfulness and humor. His charisma piqued my interest, so I recommended How to be Black as the next title for our Skype book club, which consists of these three familiar faces.
The book includes chapters like “When Did You First Realize You Were Black?”, “Being Black at Harvard” and “Can You Swim”. In addition to Thurston’s contributions, How to be Black features the contributions of a panel of “black experts”, which oddly includes the creator of Stuff White People Like. Collectively, Thurston and his chosen panel explore the books topics through use of personal testimonials, and the diverse mix of perspectives and experiences really rounds the book out.
How to be Black is deeply personal, focusing primarily on Thurston’s experience growing up in a world filled with expectations from both inside and outside the black community. Personally, the most eye-opening sections explored the pressures that many black people place on each to adhere to cultural stereotypes.
“This one kid said something that was really bad
He said I wasn’t really black because I had a dad
I think that’s kinda sad
Mostly cause a lot of black kids think they should agree with that
If you’re a father, you should stick around if you could
Cause even if you’re bad at it, you get Tiger Woods”
– Childish Gambino
Everywhere he goes, Thurston feels the weight of expectation based on his race. It’s a point that’s difficult for me to emphasize with. I’ve never been told that I’m “too white” or “not white enough” based on my choice of food, clothing, education, hobbies, or anything really.
It is an inextricable fact of blackness that one will at some point be referred to as “too black” or “not black enough” by white people, black people, and others. I’ve yet to meet the Negro who is “juuuuuuust right” to everyone.
– Baratunde Thurston
White kids get to wear whatever hat they want
When it comes to black kids one size fits all
– Childish Gambino
Panelist Derrick Ashong, born in Ghana, gives testimonial of being told he was not black enough.
That doesn’t really work with me, because I am African. You’re never going to get me with the “blacker than though.” I’m just not feeling it.
I try not to be chauvinistic with it. I don’t think Africans are superior or anything like that, but when people start to question my authentic blackness, I’m like, “I can trace my ancestry back forever in Africa. You can’t really mess with me on that. I know my language, I know my culture, and I don’t have to hate anyone in order to give myself an identity.”
– Derrick Ashong
The discourse takes place within the context of American society. Since moving to Europe I’ve been shocked by the differences in the treatment of race. I don’t know to what extent racism is institutionalized here, but socially people are shockingly open with their prejudices. During my first month consulting in Belgium, I found myself in the break room in a room full of scientists and statisticians. I was looking for a place to kick a football around, and asked about a park I had driven by previously.
“No, don’t go there, Turkish people go there.”
Nobody in the room took issue with the comment. Even if someone felt that way in America, I can’t help but think they’d be a bit more tactful in their response. “Oh no, that’s a rough part of town.” Although Europe tends to be culturally progressive, the treatment of race and nationality can be quite startling. Educated people openly espouse their distaste for Moroccans or Turkish people or their unfavored group du jour. If you keep your eyes on the news you’ll inevitably come across a report of fans making monkey sounds when an African player takes part in a football match.
Most controversially, I find the Christmas traditions here to quite startling. Rather than using mythical elves as helpers, Sinterklaas’ (the Dutch Santa Claus) helpers are known as “Zwarte Pieten” or “Black Petes”.
Locals defend the blackface as a bi-product of Zwarte Piet accumulating soot from climbing down chimneys, but that doesn’t really explain the pristine white lapels, or why the people playing the roles often resort to using caricatures of African stereotypes.
“It’s not racist,” I’m told. “We love Zwarte Piet.” Sure, it’s easy to love the image of a cheerful and comically incompetent character. To broach the subject is to be written off as an overly politically correct American. The seeds of racism are so deeply ingrained they’re not even seen. It’s accepted to sit in a room full of people with University degrees and make derogatory remarks about Turkish people.
Race is a difficult subject to address socially, and Thurston’s approach is to coat the discussions in comedy to make them more palatable. And while his writing is very insightful and wrapped in an attempted humorous presenation, I simply didn’t find Thurston’s writing to be funny. His charisma from the Ask Me Another appearance didn’t translate well to text. How to be Black is a worthwhile read for the perspectives, but don’t buy it looking for laughs.