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How (I Learned) To Be Black

June 1, 2012

Last night, I attended a talk by How To Be Black author Baratunde Thurston, former director of digital at the Onion and self-described “politically-active, technology-loving comedian from the future.” I met Baratunde following his keynote several weeks ago at the Inclusive Innovation Unconference: Baratunde’s an impressive dude and I’ve a soft spot for anyone who stretches the boundaries of blackness.

I’ve never fit neatly into narrowly defined categories, particularly when it relates to what it means to be black. I grew up in a working class (or lower middle class, depending on how you make your distinctions) two parent household and attended the best schools Baltimore City’s public education system had to offer.

My mom enrolled me into an Afro-Centric daycare and kindergarten program (I never knew white people existed!) and made sure I was surrounded by books written by James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois. I also grew up in a secular household, making me the rarest of rare: a black (*gasp*) atheist; I think there may be ten of us in the entire Baltimore-Towson metropolitan region. (Slight exaggeration.) There’s certainly nothing more black than being religious.

My mom made sure I had a legitimate fear and skepticism of the criminal justice system–what responsible black mother would fail in this duty?–and was able to impart upon me to be just wary enough of the white majority without becoming a Black Power acolyte; my parents taught me to be pro-black, but more importantly, pro-people. People like to think of me as a stereotypical black liberal (whatever that means), but I like to see myself more as a literate Humanist. I was slightly befuddled to see Black America (and a lot of white folks, too) fawn over Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, because I saw him as another corporatist Democrat–race be damned. (OK, obviously, I wanted to see a black man as president.)

I’ve been called an “Oreo” and “the whitest black guy I know” by numerous white people (which is always funny, because I’m likely the only black guy they know) and black people (in full disclosure, I’ve played lacrosse during my lifetime), but have also been called a “nigger” multiple times; there just seems to be no shortage of derogatory terms to hurl at black folks or ways to disparage us.

There’s a long tradition of challenging stereotypes and preconceptions about what it means to be black, from Du Bois to Herman Cain; after all, it’s hard not to be black, when you’re black.

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