How to deconstruct racism, one headline at a time | Baratunde Thurston


My parents gave me an extraordinary name: Baratunde Rafiq Thurston. Now, Baratunde is based
on a Yoruba name from Nigeria, but we’re not Nigerian. (Laughter) That’s just how black my mama was. (Laughter) “Get this boy the blackest name possible.
What does the book say?” (Laughter) Rafiq is an Arabic name,
but we are not Arabs. My mom just wanted me to have difficulty
boarding planes in the 21st century. (Laughter) She foresaw America’s turn
toward nativism. She was a black futurist. (Laughter) Thurston is a British name,
but we are not British. Shoutout to the multigenerational,
dehumanizing economic institution of American chattel slavery, though. Also, Thurston makes
for a great Starbucks name. Really expedites the process. (Laughter) My mother was a renaissance woman. Arnita Lorraine Thurston was a computer programmer,
former domestic worker, survivor of sexual assault, an artist and an activist. She prepared me for this world
with lessons in black history, in martial arts, in urban farming, and then she sent me in the seventh grade
to the private Sidwell Friends School, where US presidents send their daughters, and where she sent me looking like this. (Laughter) I had two key tasks going to that school: don’t lose your blackness
and don’t lose your glasses. This accomplished both. (Laughter) Sidwell was a great place
to learn the arts and the sciences, but also the art of living
amongst whiteness. That would prepare me
for life later at Harvard, or doing corporate consulting, or for my jobs at “The Daily Show”
and “The Onion.” I would write down many of these lessons
in my memoir, “How to Be Black,” which if you haven’t read yet,
makes you a racist, because — (Laughter) you’ve had plenty of time
to read the book. But America insists on reminding me and teaching me what it means to be black in America. It’s December 2018, I’m with my fiancé
in the suburbs of Wisconsin. We are visiting her parents,
both of whom are white, which makes her white. That’s how it works.
I don’t make the rules. (Laughter) She’s had some drinks,
so I drive us in her parents’ car, and we get pulled over by the police. I’m scared. I turn on the flashing lights
to indicate compliance. I pull over slowly under the brightest streetlight I can find in case I need witnesses
or dashcam footage. We get out my identification,
the car registration, lay it out in the open,
roll down the windows, my hands are placed on the steering wheel, all before the officer exits the vehicle. This is how to stay alive. As we wait, I think
about these headlines — “Police shoot another
unarmed black person” — and I don’t want to join them. The good news is,
our officer was friendly. She told us our tags were expired. So to all the white parents out there, if your child is involved with a person whose skin tone is rated
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or darker — (Laughter) you need to get that car inspected,
update the paperwork every time we visit. That’s just common courtesy. (Laughter) (Applause) I got lucky. I got a law enforcement professional. I survived something
that should not require survival. And I think about
this series of stories — “Police shoot another
unarmed black person” — and that season when those stories
popped up everywhere. I would scroll through my feed and I would see a baby announcement photo. I’d see an ad for a product I had just whispered
to a friend about yesterday. I would see a video of a police officer
gunning down someone who looked just like me. And I’d see a think piece about how millennials
have replaced sex with avocado toast. (Laughter) It was a confusing time. Those stories kept popping up, but in 2018, those stories got changed out
for a different type of story, stories like, “White Woman Calls Cops
On Black Woman Waiting For An Uber.” That was Brooklyn Becky. Then there was, “White Woman Calls Police On Eight-Year-Old Black Girl
Selling Water.” That was Permit Patty. Then there was, “Woman Calls Police On Black Family BBQing
At Lake In Oakland.” That was now infamous BBQ Becky. And I contend that these stories
of living while black are actually progress. We used to find out
after the extrajudicial police killings. Now, we’re getting video
of people calling 911. We’re moving upstream, closer to the problem
and closer to the solution. So I started a collection of as many of these stories
as I could find. I built an evolving,
still-growing database at baratunde.com/livingwhileblack. Seeking understanding,
I realized the process was really diagramming sentences
to understand these headlines. And I want to thank
my Sidwell English teacher Erica Berry and all English teachers. You have given us tools
to fight for our own freedom. What I found was a process
to break down the headline and understand the consistent layers in each one: a subject takes an action against a target
engaged in some activity, so that “White Woman Calls Police
On Eight-Year-Old Black Girl” is the same as “White Man Calls Police
On Black Woman Using Neighborhood Pool” is the same as “Woman Calls Cops
On Black Oregon Lawmaker Campaigning In Her District.” They’re the same. Diagramming the sentences
allowed me to diagram the white supremacy which allowed such sentences to be true, and I will pause to define my terms. When I say “white supremacy,” I’m not just talking about Nazis or white power activists, and I’m definitely not saying
that all white people are racist. What I’m referring to is a system of structural advantage
that favors white people over others in social, economic and political arenas. It’s what Bryan Stevenson
at the Equal Justice Initiative calls the narrative of racial difference, the story we told ourselves
to justify slavery and Jim Crow and mass incarceration and beyond. So when I saw this pattern repeating, I got angry, but I also got inspired to create a game, a game of words that would allow me
to transform this traumatic exposure into more of a healing experience. I’m going to talk you through the game. The first level is a training level,
and I need your participation. Our objective: to determine
if this is real or fake. Did this happen or not? Here is the example: “Catholic University Law Librarian
Calls Police On Student For ‘Being Argumentative.'” Clap your hands if you think this is real. (Applause) Clap your hands if you think this is fake. (Applause) The reals have it, unfortunately, and a point of information, being argumentative in a law library is the exact right place to do that. (Laughter) This student should be
promoted to professor. Training level complete,
so we move on to the real levels. Level one, our objective is simple: reverse the roles. That means “Woman Calls Cops
On Black Oregon Lawmaker” becomes “Black Oregon Lawmaker
Calls Cops On Woman.” That means “White Man
Calls Police On Black Woman Using Neighborhood Pool” becomes “Black Woman Calls Police
On White Man Using Neighborhood Pool.” How do you like
them reverse racist apples? That’s it, level one complete, and so we level up to level two, where our objective is to increase
the believability of the reversal. Let’s face it, a black woman
calling police on a white man using a pool isn’t absurd enough, but what if that white man was trying
to touch her hair without asking, or maybe he was making oat milk
while riding a unicycle, or maybe he’s just talking
over everyone in a meeting. (Laughter) We’ve all been there, right? Seriously, we’ve all been there. So that’s it, level two complete. But it comes with a warning: simply reversing the flow
of injustice is not justice. That is vengeance,
that is not our mission, that’s a different game
so we level up to level three, where the objective
is to change the action, also known as “calling the police
is not your only option OMG, what is wrong with you people!” (Applause) And I need to pause the game
to remind us of the structure. A subject takes an action
against a target engaged in some activity. “White Woman Calls Police
On Black Real Estate Investor Inspecting His Own Property.” “California Safeway
Calls Cops On Black Woman Donating Food To The Homeless.” “Gold Club Twice Calls Cops
On Black Women For Playing Too Slow.” In all these cases,
the subject is usually white, the target is usually black, and the activities are anything, from sitting in a Starbucks to using the wrong type of barbecue to napping to walking “agitated” on the way to work, which I just call “walking to work.” (Laughter) And, my personal favorite, not stopping his dog from humping her dog, which is clearly a case for dog police, not people police. All of these activities add up to living. Our existence is being
interpreted as crime. Now, this is the obligatory moment
in the presentation where I have to say, not everything is about race. Crime is a thing, should be reported, but ask yourself, do we need armed men
to show up and resolve this situation, because when they show up for me, it’s different. We know that police officers use force more with black people
than with white people, and we are learning
the role of 911 calls in this. Thanks to preliminary research
from the Center for Policing Equity, we’re learning that in some cities, most of the interactions
between cops and citizens is due to 911 calls, not officer-initiated stops, and most of the violence,
the use of force by police on citizens, is in response to those calls. Further, when those officers
responding to calls use force, that increases in areas where the percentage
of the white population has also increased, aka gentrification, aka unicycles and oat milk, aka when BBQ Becky feels threatened, she becomes a threat to me
in my own neighborhood, which forces me and people like me to police ourselves. We quiet ourselves, we walk on eggshells, we maybe pull over to the side of the road under the brightest light we can find so that our murder might be caught cleanly on camera, and we do this because we live in a system in which white people
can too easily call on deadly force to ensure their comfort. (Applause) The California Safeway didn’t just call cops
on black woman donating food to homeless. They ordered armed,
unaccountable men upon her. They essentially called in a drone strike. This is weaponized discomfort, and it is not new. From 1877 to 1950, there were at least 4,400 documented
racial terror lynchings of black people in the United States. They had headlines as well. “Rev. T.A. Allen was lynched
in Hernando, Mississippi for organizing local sharecroppers.” “Oliver Moore was lynched
in Edgecomb County, North Carolina, for frightening a white girl.” “Nathan Bird was lynched
near Luling, Texas, for refusing to turn his son
over to a mob.” We need to change the action, whether that action is “lynches” or “calls police.” And now that I have shortened
the distance between those two, let’s get back to our game,
to our mission. Our objective in level three
is to change the action. So what if, instead of “Calls Cops On Black Woman
Donating Food To Homeless,” that California Safeway simply thanks her. Thanking is far cheaper than bringing
law enforcement to the scene. (Applause) Or, instead, they could give the food
they would have wasted to her, upped their civic cred. Or, the white woman who called the police
on the eight-year-old black girl, she could have bought all the inventory
from that little black girl, support a small business. And the white woman who called the police
on the black real estate investor, we would all be better off,
the cops agree, if she had simply ignored him
and minded her own damn business. (Laughter) Minding one’s own damn business
is an excellent choice, excellent choice. Choose it more often. Level three is complete,
but there is a final bonus level, where the objective is inclusion. We have also seen headlines like this: “Powerful Man Masturbates
In Front Of Young Women Visiting His Office.” What an odd choice
for powerful man to make. So many other actions available to him. (Laughter) Like, such as, “listens to,” “mentors,” “inspired by, starts joint venture,
everybody rich now.” (Laughter) I want to live in that world
of everybody rich now, but because of his poor choice,
we are all in a poorer world. Doesn’t have to be this way. This word game reminded me that
there is a structure to white supremacy, as there is to misogyny, as there is to all
systemic abuses of power. Structure is what makes them systemic. I’m asking people here to see the structure, where the power is in it, and even more importantly
to see the humanity of those of us made targets
by this structure. I am here because I was loved
and invested in and protected and lucky, because I went to the right schools,
I’m semifamous, mostly happy, meditate twice a day, and yet, I walk around in fear, because I know that someone
seeing me as a threat can become a threat to my life, and I am tired. I am tired of carrying this invisible burden
of other people’s fears, and many of us are, and we shouldn’t have to, because we can change this, because we can change the action,
which changes the story, which changes the system that allows those stories to happen. Systems are just collective
stories we all buy into. When we change them, we write a better reality
for us all to be a part of. I am asking us to use our power to choose. I am asking us to level up. Thank you. I am Baratunde Rafiq Thurston. (Applause)

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