What I Can’t Teach Him – How To Be Black

19 09 2012

Baratunde Thurston of Jack & Jill Politics and The Onion published his first book this year, How To Be Black, and it an amazing read.  It is funny – as you would expect considering Thurston is a stand-up comedian.  And it is smart – as you would expect considering Thurston is a Harvard graduate.  And it offered a refreshing perspective on life as an African-American – as you would expect considering Thurston was named one of the 100 most influential AAs of 2011.

I have been struggling to write a review of this book, which I think was great and which I really want you to read (regardless of whether you are part of a trans-racial family or not).  Why am I struggling?  Because it keeps coming out like a third grade book report where I tell you the plot, the main characters and all the nifty things I learned, (like the paragraph above, which I basically just rewrote from the book jacket.)

I don’t want to tell you what is in this book.  I want YOU to read this book and discover the clever way he put it together.  I want you to discover that there are places in society where being a minority “representative” in a majority climate “the black guy at work,”  “the black friend” etc… is both awkward and enlightening.  In those places where some of us, okay – me for sure, have sometimes ended up in weird situations, there is potential to do better.  Without making me feel so guilty that I had to put down the book and drink a beer, Thurston pointed out some situations where my behavior was more than a little strange and completely, embarrassingly typical.  (Thank you, Baratunde, I will do better.)

But more important than what actually became tips on, “How not to be the foolish white person who is trying to be an ally but is looking like an ass” is that in the end the book reminded me of what I already knew.

The truth of this book reminded me of what I used to know but somehow forgot.  It reminded me of why even knowing the potential pitfalls of trans-racial adoption, we still moved forward.  It reminded me that my son will probably end up having a wonderful life despite the fact that I am white.

It reminded me that my son will be black regardless of whether he is a flute player or a football player.  My son will be black regardless of what music he listens to, what accent he has or whether he can dance (currently all signs point to no.)  If my son really wants to be black in America he better think about a career as a professional athlete (or a professional politician).  He ought to consider a traditional black college (and all the ivy league schools.)  He needs to be aware that there will be plenty of people trying to hold him down (and plenty of others trying to lift him up – not the least of all; his father and me.)

While I appreciate all the advice out there, I want to say to the ladies of the internet who insist my son’s hair-cut at the age of two is a reflection on the entire black race… you are wrong.  Ask Baratunde, I think he will agree with me.

This book put me back in the place I started from before I became distracted and distressed by so many who think they know everything.  Every single human being is unique and the sum total of each person’s life writes a new definition of what it means to be human (and also black or white, male or female, gay or straight, Christian or pagan…).  Those who wish to box others in, who in an attempt to promote unity tell others what they can and cannot do, are simply acting as oppressors.   And speaking of oppression…

In his chapter entitled The Future of Blackness Thurston reminded me that the “Black Struggle” can and should be solved by white people.  In fact, it can only be solved by white people.  Oh, and “gay rights” can only, ultimately be distributed by straight people.  The “dream act” will ultimately be passed by the children of immigrants – most of which are third or fourth generation – not new “illegal” immigrants.  And the folks who refused to pass the ERA – were men.  Women alone cannot fight for women’s issues – there are simply not enough of us in power.

If I want the world to be a better place for my black son, I need to get my white-ass in gear.  If I want the world to be a better place for my daughter, I need my husband to “man-up.”  (Wow, I really hate that expression, but I am hoping it makes my point without me having to mention my husband’s genitals – oops.)

Thurston called on some of his friends and colleagues to help with this book.  In this chapter two of them weigh in on The Future of Blackness.

Damali “I’ve done workshops where I have literally taken all the people of color out and left the white people and said, “Your job is to end racism, and I’ll be back in twenty minutes.  You set it up.  Take it down.”

Kanau   “I’ve recently come to the conclusion:  I think that all people who are fighting for oppressed people should only be allowed to work for the group that’s one over from them.  Black people should only be allowed to work for the Mexican immigrants’ struggle in America.  Mexican immigrants should only be allowed to work for gay marriage.  Gay marriage should only be allowed to work for black people.  I feel like if we all just stepped one group over, I think we would get things done a lot quicker.

You can’t end racism and make sexism worse.  You can’t end racism and make homophobia worse.  You have to put it all forward… So a big part of my how-to-be-black is actually trying to be inclusive of all the struggles.  Slow clap.”

In conclusion (yes, we are going back to third grade):

How To Be Black is funny.

How To Be Black is challenging.

How To Be Black is reassuring.

How To Be Black is motivating.

You should read How To Be Black.



14 responses

19 09 2012

OK, I put it on my request list at the library, thanks for suggesting this book and reminding us that our children will not experience the same white privilege that we, as their parents have (to the many of us who are white & female). There are many things we simply are not experienced in that they will have to navigate on their own. We just have to keep striving to stay aware and do the best we know how to do.

19 09 2012
Semi-Feral Mama

This book was actually the great counter punch to all of the stress that comes with recognizing – I do have white privilege and there is nothing I can do to give him my white privilege. At some point all of the talk of white privilege by a bunch of trans-racial parents started to make me feel like a life without it would necessarily suck … especially if you were raised by a white person who couldn’t possible prepare you. This book reminded me that the world is wide-open for Little Dude to create any life he wants despite not having white privilege.

19 09 2012

You just made me want to read it. A+

19 09 2012
Captain Murdock @Godwilladd.com

And I get no pub for recommending the book? 😉 Did you do the paper version or the audio version, because the audio version is even funnier with Baratunde narrating and the interviews with his panel. But, harder to take notes and write out quotes…

19 09 2012
Captain Murdock @Godwilladd.com

p.s. Love your alternate title “how to not be the foolish white person …”

19 09 2012
Semi-Feral Mama

It is true I learned of this book from brilliant you… Although, it turns out it was on a reading list of mine that I had completely forgotten. I read it because I am just not cool enough to listen to books – yet. And I admit, pathetically, that I actually turned down the pages in the book – and it was a library book. This is a sin that I consider ALMOST unforgivable.

19 09 2012

Okay, I’m starting my Christmas list right now and this is at the number one spot.

19 09 2012
The Lost Planetista

Next on my list!

19 09 2012
Rebecca K

I loved this book and your review is brilliant! Another great read to pair with this one is “Some of My Best Friends are Black” by Tanner Colby. Colby chronicles the story of integration in America, mixing his personal story (really funny!) with larger stories of how integration started, stalled and, in some cases, succeeded.

19 09 2012
Semi-Feral Mama

Oh Rebecca, I haven’t heard of “Some of my…” THANK YOU. Going to the library to return my slightly dog-eared copy of How To Be Black today and will look for this.

19 09 2012
Casa Bicicleta

I heard Baratunde Thurston interviewed on WNYC for this book tour and he is fab. Your review was great. Two thumbs up.

19 09 2012

Thanks for this. On it.

20 09 2012

THis sounds spectacular. Thanks for the book review! You know I always buy the stuff you recommend (because my library NEVER has it). It’s killing me that i can’t get yes, chef yet but this is going straight on my list!

29 09 2012
Scooping it up

I loved BOTH the books you just reviewed and whole heartedly agreed with your reviews. 🙂

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