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How to Be Black Themes

Deconstructing Expectations and Stereotypes

To deconstruct the enormous pressure society places on black people, Thurston often offers step-by-step satirical advice on fulfilling briefs such as being the “black friend.” Because this advice is as difficult to parse as it is to implement—such as having “physical authenticity”—Hurston highlights the impractical expectations both white and black communities place on black people. Blackness thus becomes a tightrope performance between being “too black” and “not black enough.” Often performing blackness brings with it the burden of perfection, such as revealed in the section entitled “How to Be the (Next) Black President”:

Black people are generally under the microscope . . . So do yourself a favor. Use spell-check, floss regularly, know the answers to every problem in the universe, and be perfect. Simple.

Though these social pressures often have roots in dominant, white culture, sometimes they originate from within black communities. A few generations ago, parents, like his grandmother, pressured their children to look the part of the “appropriate” docile young person, while today black children can be critiqued by community members for picking “non-black” sports. Often community members can use terms like “oreo”—black outside, white inside—or “coconut”—brown outside, white inside—to criticize a black person making “white” choices. Thus, Thurston highlights how black people’s choices become onerous in multiple ways.

Intertwined with social pressures on black people are stereotypes imposed by the white mainstream, such as that black people don’t travel, swim, or participate in yoga. Through his own experiences and the opinions of his panelists, Thurston easily demolishes these stereotypes. However, his point is not to disprove the stereotypes, but to highlight two sinister cultural processes that accompany the clichés: one, the mainstream’s reduction of black people’s experience to labels in order to gloss over their own lack of understanding and attention; and two, the use of stereotypes to limit and control the behavior of black people. To illustrate the latter point, Thurston examines the stereotype of the “angry black Negro,” an offensive trope that depicts “loud,” strident black people. Because black people feel the pressure to disprove this stereotype, they are often coerced into agreeableness. However, Thurston suggests learning to view oneself outside the white gaze and behaving authentically, without fear of being labeled.

The Diversity of Black Experiences

One of the most interesting themes in the memoir is the multiplicity of black voices and experiences. As a media personality, Thurston is often invited to speak on “black” issues, often after a “blackness emergency,” such as a “black athlete’s criminality” or a racist statement made by a politician. Thurston hilariously questions how any one black person can be the official spokesperson for an entire race, or conversely, why a black person’s opinion cannot be sought on a supposedly “non-black” issue, such as rising college debt. While black people have incredibly diverse standpoints and orientations within the United States, the diversity multiplies when one considers that Africans live all over the world. Thurston and his panelists make the striking observation that the experiences of African Americans and Africans often vary greatly. Ghana-born musician Derrick N. Ashong raises the point that in his language, the word for a white person is “Obrunyi,” which means “non-African,” a term which does not touch upon race. Thus, Africans living in black communities in Africa may have very different experiences from African Americans, and a black African who has faced colonialism and apartheid may have a different perception still of racial differences.

Similarly, many Africans, grappling with poverty, may think of African Americans as...

(The entire section is 1,212 words.)