Baratunde Thurston On ‘How To Citizen’ And The Importance Of Stepping Into Power
Baratunde Thurston has made his life’s work all about progress. As a writer, activist, thinker and comedian, Thurston synthesizes race, politics, culture and technology in an effort to imagine a new, more equitable world. In 2012, he released “How To Be Black,” a bestselling book deconstructing racial politics in America. This year, Thurston is offering up a variation on that theme with a new podcast, “How To Citizen.” The first season of the show features 15 in-depth conversations with organizers, humanitarians, artists and experts exploring the ways in which we can all show up for each other — and ourselves.
In this interview, Thurston discusses what it truly means to be a “citizen,” the importance of human connection (now more than ever), and why we shouldn’t be afraid to step into our power — even as democracy in the U.S. has felt especially fragile.
How are you really?
Oh, thank you. I’m good. I’m good. Really? I’m tired at times but I’m grateful, so grateful that I got a home, I got food, I got health. I’ve got love. And I can see some of the next steps. So, I’m good.
That’s a good place to be. So, you have a new podcast called “How to Citizen” and in this context is, “citizen” is not just a thing you are, it’s a thing that you do in the world. Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to start the podcast?
I decided to start the podcast because I was tired of the overwhelmingly negative media messages that I was receiving — a lot of attention focused on problems in the world. Not a lot focused on people working to alleviate or fix them, and that’s depressing and it’s disempowering and it’s exhausting and it’s sad. So I didn’t want to contribute to that. I wanted to contribute to the opposite of that. In terms of the philosophy on “How to Citizen” — I co-developed that with my partner, Elizabeth; she’s also an executive producer on the show — and steadily with our guests, not formally, but just learning and listening. I knew that this show was a collaboration and it’s not like I’m a wise one on a hill coming down to the valley to teach people all the wise things I know. It’s a dance that requires multiple people.
And so what Elizabeth and I sketched out initially was like these four building blocks or pillars of what “citizen” as a verb should mean. The first is that it means we show up and participate. It’s active. The second that we invest in relationships with others and with ourselves, and you can’t do this alone. It is a relational exercise, ultimately, because it’s about how we live together. Third is that we understand our power and that there’s more to that power than voting and that power is OK to claim. It’s not something we should be ashamed of. And the fourth is, we do all this for the benefit of the many and not just the few. So there were two of our early guests who really brought a lot to the table to help us formalize that: Valerie Kaur, who was on our first episode, and Eric Liu, founder of Citizen University, who really unsullied the word “power” for us in a way that I hadn’t heard done before. He’s like, “We should be literate in power.” I was like, “Yes!” Power literacy! That sounds so good. So that’s the philosophy.
What do you think it means to be a citizen in 2021?
It means to remember that all of this is just people and that we have power and we got to use it. We’ve always gotta be trying to use it and use it for good in the context of all the other points that I’ve made. But I think in 2021 in particular, I know people have entered this year, myself included, with a sense of exhaustion and maybe even a sense of accomplishment. Oh, we got the Washington football team to change their name. Woohoo! We got a lot of Instagram black squares over the summer. Yay. We got rid of that foul president and we got a COVID vaccine on the way. So now we can just go back to normal. No, no, no, no. Going back is rarely a good option. And that previous normal was really toxic for the planet, for our mental health, for our physical health, for our financial health, for our relationships with each other. It’s not a good place to want to return to. So 2021 citizening is moving forward. It’s tapping into our power together to move forward together for the better.
Can you talk a little bit about when you came to the realization that the personal is political, and how you personally came to the realization that our relationships with ourselves can impact the world?
A very simple story comes to mind. Years and years ago, I had a girlfriend and I was dropping her off near her college dorm. And I was like, “Peace! Have a good night.” And she was like, “Could you please walk me all the way to the dorm building?” And I was like, “It’s like right there, you know?” And she said, “Yeah, but I just don’t feel safe.” And I recognized, in a flash of delayed obviousness, how safe I generally felt as a guy. Just like empowered to enter any room, to walk across a dark parking lot. There are times when that’s not the case, you know, it depends on the neighborhood. My Blackness becomes like the radar. But as a man, even the Blackness can trump it because some people are scared of Black dudes. So they assume I’m not just the bad mother, shut your mouth. And I’m just like a nerd, on the way to the library. So I could presume to not be bothered by someone else. And she had the opposite association with foot travel. And I was like, how long have I not considered this? Damn. And so when I hear something as amplified and poignant, as specific as Me Too or as everyday as safety, what does that mean? I think about that.
She wasn’t trying to make a political statement. I wasn’t trying to make a political statement one way or the other, but I cared about this person and it was in our shared interest for me to understand her concerns or fears and to recognize that I didn’t carry those and that was important too. So personal. And yet it affects the political. And you know, whenever a guy says, “Oh, it’s not that bad” about women’s experiences or “Just suck it up or get over it.” … It’s easier to say that when you’re not subject to it. It’s that simple. And you know, that is something that’s very obvious to me, racially. Everything I’ve ever demanded of white people, it’s now a trick question to myself. Like have I demanded of myself as a man? Not always. So it becomes personal because I can easily get political about racial matters. I’ve read all the books I’ve grown up in it. It’s so intrinsic. But then the personal, like, are you walking that talk where you have power, Baratunde?
Listen, I don’t know everything either. I’m on a journey of learning too. We all are in some way. And that makes my political presentation more personal. My blind spots, my doubts, my learning, as opposed to your faults, your miseducation, your shame. And if I acknowledge my own ignorance and my own shame and my own stumbles, that helps give people permission to do the same. And it’s hard. It’s really hard. But also the personal is the key to unlocking the political because the purpose of the political is to affect the personal. We don’t just engage in politics just because.
How have you been finding ways to connect there during this time?
I have a twice-monthly meeting with some brothers — not blood but spiritual brothers. It’s a nice space of fellowship and brotherhood, and we try to stick to it, and that’s become a powerful ritual. I have a pod with my partner and another couple and their baby. And so we have adhered to a level of transparency and rigor in terms of our exposure. So we see each other without masks and we hang out and I get to hold a baby! That is healing. It’s also poopy. It’s poopy, and it’s healing at the same time. Babies are magic. We’ve done these front yard social-distanced gatherings. So there’s enough space that folks can be like 10, 12 feet away. I feel fortunate to live with someone who also wants to live with me. That’s great in a time of isolation, but even that has its limits. It’s like, OK, that’s the same person all day, every day. You’re still here? Let’s dress up different today, let me put on a funky accent to give you something different.
I go on walks every morning and once a week, I always make sure to call and check in on a friend. It’s great. There’s no agenda. It’s just like, we can still just call people, it doesn’t have to be a Zoom appointment and it doesn’t have to be this designed experience.
And Clubhouse, I use it as an extension of the “How To Citizen” podcast. What I love about Clubhouse is you don’t have to wear makeup. You don’t have to have good lighting. Your internet can be a lot weaker cause it’s just audio. But it’s more engaging and interactive than podcasts because you can’t jump in. Like how many times have you listened to a podcast and felt like, “I got something to say!!” You can hear like the timbre of someone’s voice and you can feel the emotion. Oh, and cooking and gardening have been very helpful in passing the time and making it through the COVID-ness.
What was the hardest thing that you had to get through last year?
I’ve been pretty, I think, aware of what America is — its greatness and its griminess — from a very early age. And yet the summer was hard. Because despite the fore knowledge of potential doom around every corner, I still live in a hopeful, positive place. It helps me get up in the morning. I have a natural, optimistic predisposition. I believe in people, even when they disappoint, including myself. But Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd, the fools who killed Ahmaud Arbery, the police who killed Breonna Taylor. … It was just like pat, pat, pat. On top of a nation that was clearly good with killing Black people in general.
The flagrancy of the foul really struck me. “Oh, we’re gonna let this virus run unleashed across the land. Have protests to reopen hair salons, fuck your Black life, I want Super Cuts now! I’m going to storm the Michigan legislature and shut down the government so I can get my hair redid!” And then the economic hit that was predesigned over hundreds of years to make sure we would get hit by that too. “Why can’t you just work from home?” I mean, you know why. You made it so that we couldn’t! Like, come on now.
And then the big lie of COVID’s arrival, this myth of equal opportunity: “COVID is going to bring us all together. COVID doesn’t discriminate. It’s going to unite us. It’s the alien invasion we’ve been waiting for. It’s like the Barack Obama of novel coronavirus.” No, no, and no. So on top of that foundation of contradiction to have open-air murder by people sworn to protect and serve in broad daylight, on camera, in front of their colleagues and the witnessing public, that was hard. Because of what I do for work, I had opportunity and challenge related to that. I got called to speak on this too. I’ve probably done over a hundred engagements in the second half of 2020 to student groups, to corporate gatherings, to media. And what made it hard is that I know the story so well, I tell it so good, which forces me to relive it. And so I likened it to handling hazardous materials, and I had to try to shield myself emotionally and psychologically from the thing that I was also trying to offer as a service. I just cried a lot in 2020, and I will continue to in 2021.
What was something really amazing that happened last year?
I got to see myself more and my partner more in ways that we just didn’t make time for before. And I couldn’t run away from it. I couldn’t jump on a plane, I couldn’t have excuses of all these meetings. There were fewer distractions. I mean, there was more Netflix, but there were fewer distractions. I had more time with myself. That second pillar — “invest in relationships with others and with yourself” — I actually got to practice that a lot more in 2020 than I knew was possible. And I never would have pushed for that level of intimacy with my partner or with myself. And it wasn’t all beautiful. I think that’s the beauty. I saw parts of me that I got to work on and figure out and just keep learning. So it was a blessing, but not a cheap blessing. It didn’t just feel good all the time. That’s part of what makes it a good and even great part of the year. It has allowed me to personally feel more accepting of discomfort, and acknowledge the parts that are not always great and recognize that that’s a part of the whole of me or the whole of the relationship. And that’s part of what makes it whole, you know, not that it’s all good all the time. That applies to a lot of things. That useful personal perspective helps me see the broader picture. The personal perspective was a great gift of 2020.
How are you nurturing yourself or practicing self-care?
I meditate regularly, usually twice a day. I exercise every day in some form. I’ve learned that my body affects my mind and my mind affects my body. It’s one thing to know that, it’s another to feel it. And I have felt the difference when I sleep well, when I have some movement every day, and when I pause. So those are really helpful. And then I’m working on having fun. I am a fun person, I enjoy making people laugh, I enjoy laughing. But I actually have to practice having fun just for myself, just with folks in my immediate circle. I can so quickly slip into like, “Let me analyze this. Let me try to figure that out. Let me try to help or solve.” That’s all work. So can we just have fun? Doing puzzles with my boo has been fun. We had a little film club with this app Movies Anywhere. I don’t shill for this company, but it’s just a feature I’ve wanted for over a decade, to be able to remotely watch a movie at the same time with friends. And so we watched “Tenet” with a friend of ours and we broke it down together. I mean, this is a two and a half hour movie that I have spent 20 hours of my life on. Now, is that self-care? Yes and no. But I think the discovery and the joy and the hanging with friends and seeing how they react and how I react is so fun.
I go on walks every morning and once a week, I always make sure to call and check in on a friend. It’s great. There’s no agenda. It’s just like, we can still just call people, it doesn’t have to be a Zoom appointment and it doesn’t have to be this designed experience. I think with all the apps and all the optimizing, all of the social where you passively absorb pieces of people’s lives, it’s been really simple to just pick up the phone and call and that’s helped me stay grounded, stay connected, feel loved, share love, in the most simple of ways.
What music, art, movies, anything has been getting you through the bullshit?
For music, I really, really love me some Rosalia. I grew up in D.C., and D.C. has a form of music that never escaped the Beltway, go-go music. There is a go-go music artist from back in the day, Chuck Brown, who I’ve been playing a lot, because it’s the sound of an era when I remember just, like, love on the block. Block parties before violence, and before not just the violence but like branding. It’s a little romanticized in my memory probably, but that late ’70s, early ’80s, a little funk, a little soul, early hip-hop vibe is such a positive party energy. So that’s been on rotation for me.
I just finished “Lupin” on Netflix. It’s a way to travel. You get to kick it in Paris with a Black lead, which I’ve never seen before. Not that it hasn’t happened, I just haven’t seen it. It’s a clever story. It’s not the deepest of shows, but it’s not pure candy either. It plays with race and with power. It’s also just a great heist series and it’s funny. I think the thing that stands out to me most is he achieves his victories not through violence, but through wit. A movie I can’t get out of my head, it’s coming out this week, is “Judas and the Black Messiah.” It is so good. I got to see it early because Variety asked me to write about it. Really good from the writing to the acting and everything in between. So those are pieces of the puzzle.
What are you imagining and manifesting for 2021 and beyond?
I am imagining a world where we are actually wealthier because we are more just. We don’t see justice as a cost, we see it as more revenue. We see it as more equity, literally more equity, in all meanings of the word. And I’m imagining an awakening of people who see their own self-interests served by pursuing a common good. A world where we see ourselves interconnected, dependent on, intertwined with that common good. That it’s not a trade-off. And I see the end of the false dichotomy of climate versus economy, racial justice versus qualified jobs and corporate growth earnings, entertainment value versus women’s representation in media. I know we would all be more powerful in that version of the world.
I’m imagining a world where people are not afraid of their own shadows — I’m quoting from a friend, the same friend we did that “Tenet” hangout with, Dr. Sam Rader. She does a lot of powerful work around our styles of coping with the world and the stuff that we drag with us because of various levels of small-T trauma. I’m imagining a world where we greet those parts of ourselves with love and respond to them and embrace them and hug them and hold them rather than run away from them, shame them. Because when we do all of those things, we show up with others with that shame and that fear. A friend of mine — Shaka Senghor, who’s become quite a notable public figure in the realm of decarceration criminal justice reform — was the first person I met who said “hurt people hurt people.” I’m imagining a world of healed people, healing people.
This interview has been lighted edited for clarity.
This interview is part of the “Getting Through…” series, which explores the ways in which people from all backgrounds and walks of life — artists, scientists, entertainers, healers, activists, entrepreneurs and “everyday” folks — are processing, connecting and taking care of themselves and others during these wild times. Hopefully, these conversations will serve as a record and a guide for anyone who reads them. Read interviews with author Fariha Roísín, yoga instructor Mominatu, writer and actor Tavi Gevinson, singer Shingai Shoniwa, and actor Taylour Paige.
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