Talking About What It Means 'To Be Black'

Dec 27, 2012
Originally published on December 27, 2012 1:08 pm

Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Each December, we try to catch up on a few of the important books we missed earlier in the year. "How to Be Black," by Baratunde Thurston is our choice for today; part memoir, part commentary on what it's like to be black in the U.S. right now.

The book is largely about all the misconceptions and misunderstandings between people of different races and how to overcome them. And on that note we want to hear from you. When did you have a conversation about race that worked or didn't work? Tell us your story. The number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll hear the latest on the fiscal cliff and what to expect if a deal is not reached. But first, writer and comedian Baratunde Thurston joins us from our bureau in New York. He's the author of "How To Be Black" and co-founder of the black political blog Jack and Jill Politics. Welcome to the program.

BARATUNDE THURSTON: Good day, Celeste, how are you doing?

HEADLEE: I'm doing great. It's nice to hear from you.

THURSTON: It is nice to hear from you, too, and I've got to hand it to you. Your show's music is beautiful. It just evokes this image of like an eagle soaring and a U.S. flag blowing slowly in a winter breeze. It's very...

HEADLEE: Well how nice. You know, they say you should always start a conversation with a compliment. So nice score on that, Baratunde.

(LAUGHTER)

THURSTON: But let's get to you, OK, because, look, if you want to count the number of scholarly books on race, there's a lot of them, right. I mean, there's no way to house them all. So why did you feel like you needed to write another one?

Oh, man, that's a great and pointed question. One, I hadn't written one yet, so there was an opportunity to add that to the egocentric view to the world. But I also thought that the time that we live in was a good opportunity to - both to kind of take the temperature again, to put forth a statement, and to use an approach that combines humor with some personal memoir and narrative to bring ideally more people to the table who maybe don't want to talk about race because it's, like, difficult and defensive and offensive and annoying and challenging.

HEADLEE: And you also include - in your book you have a panel of contributors, right, and there's also one white person there, Christian Lander, and I want to read here what you say about him. You say: He isn't black. I had to include one white person to defend against the inevitable lawsuits claiming reverse discrimination and also to establish a control group, which I assume makes him token. Is that the...?

THURSTON: Well, look, I mean mostly I'm a scientist, and I use words sometimes to try to examine what's going on in this country, sometimes jokes, and Christian was the whitest person I had access to, and I really wanted to balance the perspectives in the book. He is the author of "Stuff White People Like" and helped create that really popular website.

He's actually Canadian, too. So that added a whole other twist. His experience of blackness and identity was important, and so I somewhat jokingly included him but also somewhat seriously because I wanted in the book itself to have white people deal with it and, you know, this topic of race and deal with the same questions I was asking my panel of black experts, who were people who'd been black their entire lives and so had decades in the game.

HEADLEE: Well, the book - I mean, it's really funny. I couldn't put it down, and the people on the subway train were wondering what the heck I was laughing about, but...

THURSTON: Now were you reading the physical copy on the subway?

HEADLEE: I was, and I did - with the cover visible, "How to Be Black," in great, big, bold...

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: I appreciate how large you made that title, Baratunde, thank you, thank you for that.

THURSTON: I did it for you, I did it for you.

HEADLEE: But, I mean, you and I both know that joking about race doesn't always end well. Were you worried? I mean, were you trying to avoid certain pitfalls about making jokes about what's really a serious issue?

THURSTON: Doing comedy and avoiding pitfalls are somewhat counterintuitive, counterproductive, I would say. So I wasn't - in some ways I was aiming for the pitfalls for my own fiscal cliff, if you want to loop back in the crazy America stuff. But - so I wasn't going out of my way to try to avoid things. I wasn't trying to antagonize anybody. I wasn't just trying to say outlandish things to get a rise out of people.

And I was braced for a reaction that on the negative side didn't occur as strongly as I had expected. I think there's sort of a matrix of feedback that I've received from the book, you know, people who've read it versus those who haven't, people who are black versus those who aren't, people who have a sense of humor versus those who don't.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: Well, I mean, everyone should read this. This is not a book for black people. We're speaking with Baratunde Thurston. The book is called "How To Be Black." But let's take a call here. This is from Keyon(ph), I hope I'm pronouncing that right, in Waterloo, Iowa. It's Keyon?

KEYON: Yes, it is.

HEADLEE: And I can understand what you're saying here. You're saying that you have sometimes an identity issue because you're biracial.

KEYON: Yeah, I have conversations with some of my friends in my personal life, and we always have conservations - we tend to have those conversations about what white people do to blacks and so on and so forth, and it always falls out of somebody's mouth: Man, you don't count. You're not even all black. And it's because I'm mixed, I'm biracial, that they don't consider me black, you know, and I guess because I don't walk around dressed the way my friends dress and everything else. So that's always an issue.

HEADLEE: That's Keyon calling from Waterloo, Iowa. Thanks for that. And Baratunde, this is something that you address. You have a chapter on "Do You Swim?"

THURSTON: Yeah, "Can You Swim?" was one of the more important chapters and questions that I posed to my black panel, and it started - you know, I proposed that question really as a joke. I'd say 90 percent of my interest was, like, this will just be a fun thing to talk about, and there's a stereotype about black people's unwillingness or inability to swim.

But what I got back from people was a lot of humor but also a lot of pain and a lot of tragic experiences in their childhood and discrimination at pools and expectations and how do you manage your hair with the pool, especially for women. In terms of Keyon's call, that's an interesting point that there's no full chapter addressing that, but we're in America, where half-black equals black, if you look at the president.

He's rarely referred to as the first biracial president, the first half-black president, the first half-white president. He is the first black president, for all intents and purposes. So when Keyon's friends are throwing that in his face, and he wants to wear a black flag around himself, just hold up a picture of Obama and then see what his friends react to in that sense.

HEADLEE: Well, let's go to Lynn(ph) here, calling in from Monticello, New York. And this is another kind of a biracial issue, but I assume, Lynn, that your granddaughter looks black.

LYNN: Yes, actually, she's a beautiful cappuccino color with black curly hair.

HEADLEE: And you were telling us a story about what happens when you take her to the park.

LYNN: Yes, my son and his partner were walking her in a stroller, and an older couple were walking and approached them and said, oh, you know, what a beautiful little baby, but why didn't you just get a white one?

(LAUGHTER)

LYNN: And my son said: I'm sorry? And she said, well, you know, you're white. And it didn't bother her that they were gay. It bothered her that they were white, and they had a black child, you know, a mixed-race baby. And, you know, my son, who's usually pretty witty, he couldn't even think of anything to say.

HEADLEE: He was struck dumb.

LYNN: Yeah, he just said, well, I think that's kind of rude. And she said: Well, why? You know, I think you probably get the question a lot. And he was, like, no, actually we don't. You know, and when he told me about it, I said, you know, God, what the heck, you know. I just thought we really have not come far enough.

HEADLEE: Yeah, that's clear.

(LAUGHTER)

LYNN: We just have not come far enough, you know. And I mean, after thinking about it, I was sad for him. I was sad for him that, you know, that that's what she said, that's the only thing she could think of to say, and, you know...

HEADLEE: Yeah, I imagine.

LYNN: Yeah, and I just think that, you know, there's a generation I believe of biracial children that are going to have to deal with that regardless.

HEADLEE: Yeah, I've been dealing with that most of my life. That's Lynn, thank you very much for the call, calling from Monticello, New York. And Baratunde, maybe your next one is how to be multiracial.

THURSTON: How to be cappuccino I think would sell better.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: That sounds beautiful, doesn't it?

THURSTON: There's a set of accusatory and privileged questions that get launched at biracial people a lot, and it used to be, you know, just straight up: what are you? And I think that still happens to a lot of people. But the presumption that you are a thing that needs to be labeled and categorized, that you are undecipherable by the outside world and that you owe it to some stranger to explain yourself and your whole genetic history.

And so this is an interesting progression, or regression depending on your perspective, on that question, which is why didn't you get a white one, like there is a Wal-Mart full of babies where you get to choose the flavor that best suits someone's expectations of who you should love and...

HEADLEE: Well, it works with Cabbage Patch Dolls, doesn't it, Barantunde?

THURSTON: I guess it's about the same.

HEADLEE: All right, let's go to Jules calling from Sheridan, Wyoming, because this is kind of a similar issue here, Jules. What we're talking about here is why it's so difficult for people of different races to converse. So what's your story?

JULES: Well, I grew up in Sheridan, Wyoming, I still live in Sheridan, Wyoming. There is hardly any racial diversity in our little small town. And so when I was at college in Colorado, I had a couple of friends who were black, and one of my very good friends would just - we would just sit around and ask each other the most ridiculous questions, like questions I never felt comfortable asking anyone before.

I would ask her, like, can you get sunburned? What's the joke about watermelon and fried chicken? Why is that funny? You know, and just asked her really weird things, and she was able to ask me really weird things back.

HEADLEE: That's probably, like, the best education there.

JULES: It's nice to be able to have a conversation.

HEADLEE: Yeah, thanks. Thanks so much. That's Jules calling from Sheridan, Wyoming. So Baratunde, that sounds to me like a solution to the problem, like making a comfortable and forgiving environment in which people can ask questions.

THURSTON: Yeah, the - I address some of this in a chapter specifically targeted to people like our recent caller, how to be the black friend, which explains your duty and opportunity, you know, the rights and responsibilities of the black friend to kind of explain your people and diffuse racial tension in an environment generally free of judgment and more full of love than distrust.

And so what she's proposing, sort of talking about, I mean, I would imagine it as a sort of - instead of a study abroad, study within, some kind of exchange program, where we could ship people to different zip codes in the country and mix things up, kind of like bussing on steroids, but - and have an agenda of, you know, the most absurd questions you wanted to ask but didn't want to be called racist or dumb, we've got, you know, five minutes a month allotted to get those out, and then move on.

HEADLEE: Well, as soon as you call someone racist, the conversation's over.

THURSTON: Yeah, it's a pretty - "Key and Peele" is one of my favorite shows that's up right now on Comedy Central.

HEADLEE: On Comedy Central.

THURSTON: And I'm pretty sure it was them who, you know, did a sketch about, you know, calling a white person racist is the equivalent of the N-word for them, and it just, like, it ends everything. It's like, no, I can't be racist, some of my best friends are Chinese, black, Puerto Rican lesbians. Like, that's impossible.

HEADLEE: We are going to have - we actually have someone calling in to talk about that very issue. We're going to get to them after a short break. We're speaking with Baratunde Thurston, who is the author of "How To Be Black." After a short break, we'll continue our conversation.

And we want to hear from you. When did you have a conversation about race that worked or maybe didn't? Tell us your story. The number is 800-989-8255. You can also send us an email, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. In his really hilarious book "How to Be Black," Baratunde Thurston offers a number of advice, including there's a list of 10 ways adults can celebrate the contributions of African-Americans during Black History Month. Option number eight, since you mentioned it, Baratunde, acquire a new black friend.

And he writes: Denzel and I are busy men. We can't be the black friends for all of non-black America. So it would behoove those of you who are not black to get your own. If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of being black-friendless, you can either go to the nearest black church and strike up a conversation or just fire up Facebook, search for black people and start clicking add friend on the names in the resulting lists. Technology is amazing and quite a time-saver.

That was from Baratunde Thurston's book "How To Be Black." In an excerpt on our website, you can find out just how he got his name. Go to npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION. Baratunde Thurston is with us from our bureau in New York. The bit I just read was talking about celebrating Black History Month. This book came out in February. You said you did that intentionally.

THURSTON: Yeah, yeah, I mean I try not to work against my own interests, and so the idea of putting a book out called "How to Be Black" during the designated blackness gift-giving month and acknowledgement month seemed, at a minimum, to make sense. And so yeah, it came out the last day of January, and then the paperback came out a few weeks ago. But that was very intentional.

HEADLEE: All right, well, let's hear from Lee(ph) here, calling from Loomis, South Dakota, because we spoke about this earlier, Lee. You're talking about when it is OK or maybe not OK to use the N-word.

LEE: Yeah, oh, I was at the bar one time, and I was there with my black friend Corey(ph), I've got one, I guess, but I was trying to bum a cigarette off of someone, and someone offered me a Newport, and I said oh, I'll take that N-word mint - I don't want to say it on the radio.

HEADLEE: Thank you, appreciate that.

LEE: Yeah, but called it a mint, and my black friend was standing right next to me, and he had no problem. He laughed. And, but a white girl standing right behind me heard me say it, and she pretty much lost her mind and was screaming at me: You can't say N-word, only black people can say N-word, you're white, you're not allowed to say it. And she said it probably a good 10, 12 times in a row.

HEADLEE: So she really drilled it in.

LEE: Yeah.

HEADLEE: All right, well, let's get...

LEE: And me and my black friend, we were both just standing there laughing. He thought it was funny as hell, too.

HEADLEE: OK, well, let me get Baratunde's response here. That's Lee, thank you very much, calling from Loomis, South Dakota. So what's the - is there a final answer on this, Baratunde?

THURSTON: I'll go ahead and arbitrate this. First of all, I hope Lee does not constantly refer to his friend as my black friend Corey.

HEADLEE: I hope that's just for the purposes of this show.

THURSTON: That's inefficient. Corey probably suffices in that town. And on the subject of white people saying the N-word, I mean we've got a lot of cultural references, especially in music and film and TV, less on TV but certainly music and film where that word is bandied about. And people maybe in their showers might feel comfortable expressing it as they're singing along.

In general, when I say in general I mean all the time, not a good idea, not a good idea.

HEADLEE: Shower, yes; public, no.

THURSTON: And public shower, interesting conundrum.

(LAUGHTER)

THURSTON: But he was at a bar so hopefully not showering in public there. And to his friend, I would just say, you know, we have these monthly secret black people meetings. So we'll be taking up Corey's poor performance, I would say questionable judgment, and we'll be rendering a...

HEADLEE: Right, Corey, if you're out there, you need to call in and explain why you were laughing it up.

THURSTON: Like I get you're in Loomis, South Dakota, you don't have maybe a lot of support around you, you start to lose your way a little bit. We're here to help Corey. We're here to help Corey, just help your boy Lee out.

HEADLEE: We're speaking with Baratunde Thurston, the author of the book "How To Be Black," which we suggest is a book you should pick up. But let's go to Joe here, calling from Charlotte, North Carolina, because Joe, you have a question with actually the word black, right?

JOE: Yes, in conversations that I've had with co-workers and a friend, when describing whom I'm not necessarily - who I don't know, and they happen to be black, there's always - there's sometimes a comment to me that says, and they're black. And their tone of voice drops. However, if that person were to be white, that - first, the race doesn't even come into play, and second, their tone of voice and their level of voice maintains at an even level.

And I just - to me there's kind of something just peculiar about that and a bit regressive in that we should be able to refer to someone as being white just as we refer to someone as being black. And maybe that's just me being insensitive, but I don't necessarily think there needs to be that sort of discrepancy between one or another just because someone is black and someone isn't.

HEADLEE: This is - Joe is kind of making the same point you did - thank you very much, that's Joe in Charlotte, North Carolina - and Baratunde, about him calling him my black friend Corey.

THURSTON: Yeah, and I think if you're - you know, we do a very awkward rhetorical dance, in America especially, about describing people. And we go out of our way, we bend over backwards to avoid calling them out by race despite the fact that race plays such a huge role in the country. In other parts of the world, people are like yeah, that's my mulatto friend over there. The guy at the bar, that's my Chinese friend, the Asian lady. And you're like oh, the lady who looks Asian, that's who you're talking about.

And in America we get a little awkward about it. We get very awkward about it. I think the other thing that the recent caller brought up has to do with what we consider to be normal or mainstream versus other and the idea that we rarely call - like white becomes normal, and so calling out any other group creates this discrepancy and this value distance between the norm and some other.

And that's something we've got to work harder toward, you know, getting away from. And he may be experiencing it in a small way with people feeling really awkward and uncomfortable and dropping their voice and feeling some sense of shame or guilt or stress about is it OK that I called that black person over there. It's like yeah, it's fine. Like that's how they were born. As long as that description doesn't carry with it extra presumptions and discrimination around it. That's where the real problem. The description alone shouldn't be seen as harmful.

HEADLEE: All right, well, Baratunde, I want you to put on your counselor's hat here for just a second.

THURSTON: Never took it off.

HEADLEE: We have a situation that Brant(ph) wrote in about or emailed about from Birmingham, Alabama, and it sounds like he needs a little help understanding exactly what happened. This is what Brant says: I had less of a conversation and more of an event that changed everything for me personally for me and race. I'd worked with friends at a job as a freshman in school. I had a black friend I grew up with and had maintained a relationship with through conversations on music.

He asked to get a job with me. A couple weeks in, we were waiting for parents and friends to pick us up. I made a very racist joke in front of him to the rest of my friends and looked at him to get, I guess a check-in. He literally broke down and cried. His mom picked him up; I never saw him again. I lost a good friend, of course, but I lose a bit of my innocence in not knowing or being cognizant of the power of race on individuals.

What do you say to Brant?

THURSTON: Wow, when I'm next in Alabama, I would love to give Brant a hug, and I mean that with more sincerity than it may have come across. That's a painful experience on both sides. And I think because this person was - this wasn't like a strange person he didn't know, this wasn't a clerk in some retail environment that he was passing by, this was someone who they mutually considered each other as friends, and then he said something which destroyed that trust and that relationship, and that's got to have been painful on both sides.

And so, you know, glad to hear him willing to talk about it and to submit that to a national, you know, audio listening audience so that others might be able to learn from it, and hopefully his whole life hasn't been totally skewed and ruined by it but allowed him to discuss this a little bit more openly with other friends that he has. It sounds like a very personal and significant and painful tragedy, and I feel bad for both parties involved.

HEADLEE: All right, so let's take another call here. This is Bob in Nashville, Tennessee. And you have a story for us, Bob. What is it?

BOB: Yeah, well, I want to start off by saying that I was born in the Northwest and moved to the South when I was about 12 and in a small town outside of Nashville in a dry county, and...

HEADLEE: There's some culture shock for you.

BOB: Yeah, it was - and I had no history with race because everybody was white where I was from. I mean, and there was a mixed-race couple that lived in the neighborhood, and they had two brown kids, and I just couldn't care less because I just didn't have any points of reference or anything like that. So I moved - and I'm in eighth grade, and by the time I'm like in 10th grade, I had to choose between two factions at my school.

It's just the way it was at the time. I either had to like Hank Jr. or Prince, and I loved Prince. So lots of my...

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: Your choices were Hank Williams, Jr., or Prince?

THURSTON: Can we get some sound effects on this? This is like the dramatic music.

HEADLEE: Dun-duh-duh.

BOB: This is like 1985, and so Hank had a record out. He lived 40 miles away. The place was full of - you know, the town was full of people that loved Hank, and "Purple Rain" had just come out. And I kind of identified with "Purple Rain" much more, and I was in the band and all that. So I developed a really close friendship with a guy named Curtis Jones(ph), and Curtis and I used to hang out all the time, and I would take him to church. I went to a Southern Baptist Church...

(LAUGHTER)

BOB: And we would do stuff like that. I would take him to church with me, and we would, you know, just to see what would happen. And one day we wanted to get to this gal's house to go swimming, and the thing between us was the projects. And we were on bikes, and so we're just kind of chugging along. He's like no big deal. Don't worry about it, man. You're with me.

And so we get to this one corner where it's pretty sketchy, and he just takes off like a shot and - to the point where I literally couldn't keep up with him. And I was like gasping for breath at the other side of the projects, and I said - you know, I was just flabbergasted. I was like, what did you do that for, you know, what's up? And he said, man, you're crazy if you think I want to ride my bike through the projects with a white kid.

HEADLEE: Wow.

BOB: And I was like - and he kind of made a joke out of it too, and it - but I was really scared...

HEADLEE: Yeah. I can understand. And been dropped off there. Bob in Nashville, Tennessee, thank you so much for calling in. Baratunde, let me get your reaction to that.

THURSTON: First of all, that - the caller had like the whole racial history of America in one story.

HEADLEE: Absolutely.

THURSTON: This is like Northwest to the South. He had a musical choice forced upon him, a friend who abandoned him in the projects and gets thrown into the deep end of the awkward racial pool. That was a trial by fire, and that was not fun, and I'm sorry that that happened.

It's - you know, I think for many black Americans, Americans of color in general, we get metaphorically abandoned in communities not of our nature all the time. We get thrown into situations where we're the only one, where we're a little bit afraid, certainly uncomfortable at a minimum.

And so this guy was dramatically, as a kid, thrown into that situation as a version of that for him, which clearly never left him. He also reminded me - especially kids - we force choices upon each other. You know, pick a team...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

THURSTON: ...pick a clique, pick a song, pick a musician. I remember when I was a kid, it was "Cosby Show" versus "Simpsons," and if you were a black kid and you were - they had competing time slots for at least some of their history. And if you watched "The Simpsons" instead of "The Cosby Show," you were like a traitor to your race.

You would just abandon all hope for being considered a true black person because you're watching cartoons or pretend white people over real black people on television, which we never had much of in the history of this country. So we have a way of imposing our little...

HEADLEE: Yeah. That is very true. And we're speaking with Baratunde Thurston, whose voice you're hearing. He's the author of "How to Be Black."

And we got this email from Jeremy in Cincinnati, Ohio, Baratunde, and the subject is forbidden questions about race. So let me read this: The question I wonder about as a white person is why do we have such a big barrier between black people and white people? I mean, if I'm walking along and I see another person, I can say hello and be friendly. I sort of feel there's an attitude that black people have that they're set apart and special. So the question I never - I can never ask: Is there any truth to that perception? Do black people want to be set apart from other Americans?

THURSTON: Oh, wow. Well, we're definitely special. I mean, we're awesome people just in general.

(LAUGHTER)

THURSTON: But, you know, every group should feel like they're special. Black people are right when we think it, and so that's something that you should take away. And in terms of saying hi to people on the street, I generally think that's a good idea. I expect it everywhere except Boston, which is generally a ruder town than most of America. So that's, you know...

HEADLEE: That's Baratunde Thurston at complaints.com if you're from Boston.

(LAUGHTER)

THURSTON: I love - I lived there 12 years. I can say that. Some of my best friends are from Boston.

HEADLEE: All right. Let me take care of some business here, Baratunde. You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And back with the author of "How to be Black." You know, I thought it interesting that so much of your book is memoir because it seems to me like you're trying to make a comparison between the world for blacks of your mother and yourself as a child - to now. I mean it must be a huge difference.

THURSTON: No, that was explicit in terms of my goals, and I even, you know, when I talk about the book and do shows and lectures and all kinds of things, I go back even before to my great-grandfather. And there is this arc, generally, of progress within my own family where my great-grandfather was born into slavery and taught himself to read.

And my grandmother was the first black employee at the U.S. Supreme Court building, and my mother was a rabble-rouser on the streets, essentially protesting outside of buildings that her mother worked in. And I, you know, was working for The Onion when the book came out and get to mock society and make fake news with no actual consequence. There's no risk to a lot of the things I'm doing...

HEADLEE: Right.

THURSTON: ...certainly not physically or politically, maybe emotionally occasionally. So there's been an evolution across those four generations that I think parallels and sort of, in a small way, indicates where the country has gone. And we are in a moment where, you know, my mother's generation was out on the streets and protesting and getting the legislation, really setting up what they thought would be a dramatically better world.

And it's - you know, we are in a post-civil rights, pre-, post-racial gray, brown area, where so many things are changing, where we have this half-black president, where Latinos are demographically growing. We have this great schism within our whole society of outcomes and achievements, so much progress, so many sad statistics and outcomes when it comes to criminal justice, when it comes to health, when it comes to education and other opportunities that we can measure with numbers.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

THURSTON: And so there's a great challenge still before us to keep moving. And for me as a 35-year-old, born in '77, raised in the '80s in D.C. during, you know, the crack wars with a mayor who symbolized it so much more than any other at the time, that I feel like I sit at that crossroads between past and future.

HEADLEE: Well, I have one last question for you, and I'm going to give you a whole minute to answer it, Baratunde.

This comes from Dan: I think humor, comedy and satire can be excellent tools for discussing complicated issues, Dan says, even for finding solutions. But is there concern about humor? Sometimes it turns serious dialogue into simply a joke. Are you worried your book will do just this?

THURSTON: I am not worried about that at all. And I think there is a minor risk of it but only if we assume that the humorist is all we have. If I am the only person talking about race, the only one contributing to this conversation and all I'm doing is making jokes, that's a problem. But I don't think either those are the case. I think in this book and in the rest of my own work in life there's a mix going on and certainly there are sociologists and preachers and politicians and on-the-ground activists in the field all contributing to this. So I see it as a parallel effort where humor gives us a bit of an extra option.

In fact, what I'm working on professionally now, having left The Onion, I started a company with some friends called Cultivated Wit. And we are using humor to address some of these contentious issues and do more with the tools that we have to bring more people to the table. So the follow on to this in some ways is an app we're considering. It's a location-based racism app.

HEADLEE: Right. Oh, boy.

(LAUGHTER)

THURSTON: And it uses data and mobility and Foursquare and Yelp and Twitter to find the racism that so many in the world say no longer exists.

HEADLEE: And people will have to keep up with you to find that. Baratunde Thurston, comedian, co-founder of the black political blog Jack and Jill Politics. His book is "How to be Black." He joined us from our studios in New York. Thank you so much, Baratunde.

THURSTON: Thank you, Celeste, really. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.