Themes

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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”:

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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 privileged and African Americans’ attempts to find their roots in Africa culturally appropriating, such as Nigerians who are befuddled by Baratunde’s first name. However, even such Africans can be reductive, since they deny the need for African Americans to reconnect with their disrupted traditions.

On the other hand, Maryland-born comedian Jacquetta Szathmari raises the point that she assumed hers was the definitive black experience in the US because she grew up in the country, till she met people who told her that “black people are the hood.” Further, she notes that her humor, which often involves race, strikes a chord with not just African Americans but other minorities, such as Indian Americans, as well. Thus, Thurston and his panelists make a case for black people to expand their own understanding of black experiences and also use their experiences to connect with other minorities.

Art, Humor, and Agency

The use of art and humor as powerful effectors of change forms a prominent schema in the book. Change begins with the acceptance that “post-racial” America is a brief-lived myth that arose and died around the time of Barack Obama’s election and presidency. Post-Obama, American society continues to be divided along racial lines, and the notion that erasing race-consciousness would lead to the erasure of racial discrimination is flawed at best. According to Thurston and his panelists, a failure to acknowledge racial difference leads to the invalidation of the specific disadvantages racial minorities face. Therefore, race must be discussed in order to truly end racism, and art and humor are some of the best ways to explore thorny and difficult questions around race.

As one of Thurston’s panelists, Canadian writer Christian Lander, explains, his experience as a white Protestant and the experience of a first-generation Chinese Canadian, who may have gone to the same school as him and lived on the same block, will still vastly differ because of the privilege whiteness offers Lander. Ignoring racial difference thus also overlooks the privileges whiteness confers. An example of this is a white schoolmate of Thurston’s at Sidwell who demands a white students’ union as a counterpoint to the black students’ union. The race-blind question assumes a level playing field between races. However, as Thurston notes, a white students’ union is not needed, because the whole of his private school is already a white students’ union. Racial erasure is often tied up with daily micro-aggressions, like when Thurston’s white friends reach out to touch his Afro while asking him if they can feel his hair. Such an act, ostensibly friendly, ignores the complex and traumatic legacy of the violation of the autonomy of black bodies.

In a digitized world where media is all-pervasive, black people can counter this ubiquitous racism by taking media creation into their own hands to share their unique perspectives and stories. Blogger Cheryl Contee makes the important point that the diversity of available media and the ease of media creation have brought the black community to a “second Harlem renaissance,” where popular culture becomes political activism. The proliferation of media, coupled with disruptive ways of thinking, such as sourcing black identity from not just African American, but pan-African experiences—or “open source blackness”—can lead to a true paradigm shift in race relations.

Finally, humor and satire are essential to the process of media creation, since they unlock many difficult conversations. Humor and satire are subversive, disruptive, and, of course, far-reaching, as evinced by the popularity of black comedic voices on Thurston’s panel and beyond. However, the panelists make a case for distinguishing between progressive humor and humor that garbs hate under the guise of “I was just kidding!” jokes.

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