After The Tide: Confronting Race in America Now

George Floyd protesters in Washington, DC
Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Baratunde Thurston
October 6, 2021

Back in the spring of 2019, I delivered my first original talk on the TED main stage. It was titled “How To Deconstruct Racism One Headline at a Time,” and in it, I dissected the barrage of news stories about white people calling the cops on Black people for no good reason. It was a talk born of the moment, during the summer of “BBQ Becky” and “Permit Patty,” before social media consolidated around the Karen epithet to describe such entitled and damaging behavior. Yet it was a talk that connected to our nation’s long history of racial terror lynchings and violent policing of Blackness from its inception.

I talk a lot. I was born with the gift of gab, and consider words to be the primary medium for my art, whether written or spoken. I’ve used that gift to lay a foundation of standup comedy for almost a decade in Boston and New York. I’ve used it on MSNBC. I’ve used it to tour the world as a public speaker and intellect. Words come easily after so much practice, but for that talk, I dug deeper. Both my wife and my TED speaking coach urged me to deliver something more personal. I could be superficial, clever and witty, they said, but this was a chance to offer a window into myself that I rarely do. 

I trusted them and lifted the veil more than usual. I shared the profound fear I felt being pulled over in the suburbs of Milwaukee with my white wife in the passenger seat. I shared the exhaustion I feel just inhabiting this Black skin in a nation designed to destroy us. That exhaustion is not something I’d publicly acknowledged much. I’ve always come across as the consummate go-getter, high-stepper, optimist type. But the deeper truth is that much of that is a mask I wear out of a sense of survival. It’s an instinct so honed that I sometimes forget it’s not completely me. In that TED talk I also acknowledged the parallel systems of oppression that I benefit from as a man in a society invested in misogyny. And more than most talks I give, I grounded myself emotionally to pull from a deeper well than usual. 

So when I arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the annual TED conference takes place, and found out that my talk was on opening night, I felt ready. I worked out, meditated, and avoided alcohol. I made a playlist including Miriam Makeba and Kendrick Lamar. It turns out I would need all of that.

I would deliver my talk right after Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, messaging manipulator, and all around pernicious force in our republic. Luntz had burnished his reputation as an early and vociferous critic of Donald Trump. Yet it was also Luntz who got everyone to refer to the estate tax as the death tax, who rebranded global warming as the less terrifying “climate change” and, in the late 1990s, counseled Republicans to describe Democrats as “sick” and “traitors.” This man who helped set the stage for today’s insurrection-friendly G.O.P. was going to tell the TED audience how to heal America. Listening to that talk would have completely knocked me off my center. So, thanks to a suggestion from my wife, I didn’t. I hung out backstage, blasting my freedom fighter playlist and saw Luntz on the monitor but didn’t hear a word he spoke. At one point he went into the audience and took his wallet out. Was he handing out free money? Didn’t know. Didn’t care. The one thing I did care about was that he went far over the allotted time. The standup comedy host in me, who has emceed hundreds of shows, was annoyed by this act of disrespect to the other speakers, but it didn’t matter. 

He exited the stage, and I entered. Out with the old. In with the new. Or actually, in with the old-just-said-anew. The story of white people using their access to state power to police Black life is as old as the nation. My mildly novel contribution was to invoke a grammatical game in which I analyzed the structure of the headlines describing such behavior to reveal deeper systemic patterns. Across all the stories that flooded our feeds, the subject in the headlines varied. Sometimes it was a golf club manager or a passerby or a neighbor. But it was almost always someone white. The actions they took were always to call the police. And the target of that action was always someone Black. And yet the activities that aroused suspicion were everyday things: reading a book, entering a building, sitting in a Starbucks. We had built a system in which these headlines were normal because an uncomfortable white person could weaponize that discomfort and call in a cleaning crew: armed representatives of the state. 

I imagined how the world might be different if we changed those headlines and wrote something different in their place. What if it were Black people calling the cops on white people for riding unicycles in Brooklyn? What if the white subject in the sentence had chosen a different action, something other than calling the police? What if they had waved hello or smiled or just minded their own damn business? I liked those headlines much more. Language explains our world but it also shapes our world, so new language, I proposed, can create a new world. 

All that was before the inflammatory and revolutionary summer of 2020. My TED talk found new audiences as millions of Americans scrambled to make sense of the country that they no longer recognized. And I’ve scrambled to find new language to create the new world we desperately need.

Roughly one year after I got off that stage, Derek Chauvin decided to slowly murder George Floyd on the street, in broad daylight, in full view of the public and colleagues, while cameras rolled. This was the same day that Amy Cooper called the NYPD to falsely report that Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher, was threatening her life and that of her dog. Then, under the unbearable weight of Covid, shelter-in-place orders and lack of toilet paper, the United States of America exploded. 

In the time since that revolutionary summer, I’ve watched, I’ve listened, and I’ve talked. Talking and writing are how I process the world I’ve absorbed, and I have absorbed a lot. I feel as though I’ve swallowed a hurricane, and the talking has helped me make sense of the storm. I’ve addressed over 100 groups since Memorial Day 2020. As a representative sample, they include the Arkansas Governors School, Kellogg Foundation, Apple, and Target. I’ve talked with students, lawyers, media professionals, all-Black professional organizations, and all-white corporate executive teams.

I’ve faced questions from children whose family members work in law enforcement. They want to know if it’s possible to believe in shifting resources from police departments to social services without also believing their relatives are bastards. The answer is yes. I’ve had company leaders ask me how they should best hire and retain their Black employees because they believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion. The answer: why don’t you ask them?

I’ve seen companies make what they think are massive commitments to racial justice and small-d democracy through their foundation arms; I’ve had to remind them that they could do more good by simply paying their taxes. I’ve held space for people raising white children who fear the effects on young children, especially boys, who only seem to hear that they are the source of everything wrong with the world. I’ve also held space for parents of non-white children who worry they are instilling too much fear in their young children, by being honest with them about the world, while also fearing that withholding the truth presents its own dangers.

It’s hard enough sometimes just living in Black skin in America. But I’ve chosen to work as a sense-maker and storyteller to help others process this often nonsensical and maddening land we share. As I was largely confined to my home in the year after March 2020, I developed a rhythm. I’d wake up, take a walk, do my stretches, and then head out to my garage where I designed a makeshift studio. Once there, I’d fire up my camera, log on to a video conferencing service none of us should have to use, and submerge my soul in the hazardous material that is American racism. 

I make it look easy because I’ve had a lot of practice, but doing this has shaken me, stripped me down, and flattened me. I’m known as someone who can deliver laughs, and I did, but I also openly wept. I tend to show up as a calming force, but I have yelled into the spirits of my audiences with rage born of centuries of abuse. I am a person who sculpts words for a living, yet I’ve often found myself speechless at events I’ve joined for the explicit purpose of speaking. 

I’m going to share some of this experience with you. Specifically, I’m going to share some observations that I’ve made and conclusions that I’ve reached about what I believe is possible and what I believe is necessary for us to deliver on our founding ideals of liberty and justice for all. I will do this over a series of columns that I’m calling After the Tide. In this first installment I’m focusing on five notions that I realized during the past year—and which will help us, if not motivate us, to deliver on that promise.

I. America is not guaranteed. 

For some, the 2016 election was the wake up call. For others it was the January 6 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. For most, it still hasn’t come. That moment when you acknowledge that all of this—the relative stability of a relatively democratic society where we generally resolve conflicts with words and lawsuits—can disappear. 

One of the greatest threats to American democracy is our passive assumption that it is destined to exist. It is not. There is no law, physical or metaphysical, that says there must be such a thing as the United States of America. There is no guarantee that the place we call America will resemble in any way the lofty aspirations of the best interpretations of its founding. Many populations in this land have known this from the beginning. Ask a forcibly displaced indigenous person, and they’ll tell you that America has never been what Brand America has promised. Too many of us are operating under the dangerous assumption that authoritarianism and white supremacist fascism can’t happen here. It can. It’s happening already. 

II. We can neither coddle nor condemn white people struggling to grow.

Learning is hard. It literally rewires our brains as we let go of an old way of understanding the world and adopt a new one. It’s a process of loss and gain. Too many white people are approaching this moment so afraid of making a mistake that they risk nothing and choose to opt out of the project altogether, as has always been their privilege in this country. If you’re worried that any small error will lead you to being judged, criticized, or ostracized, welcome to humanity. This is what growth feels like. It hurts. Embrace the pain. It means you’re doing something.

At the same time, those of us who aren’t white have to remember that discarding and banishing people who have transgressed is just the sort of punitive system we are seeking to overturn. I can’t believe in criminal justice reform and second chances and also want to send every white person who makes a racial miscalculation north of the wall. If we don’t create space for people to make mistakes, we’ll end up driving them into the arms of extremists who will use our own intolerance as a recruiting tool. 

III. To love America is to know America.

This battle over “critical race theory” is foolish, though the consequences are quite serious. When we agree to argue, pro or con, that teaching about America’s racist past is un-American, we concede too much. There is no “critical race theory” outside of academe. There is simply American history. To love America is to know her fully, the good and the bad. 

Loving a country, after all, is like loving a person. If we only love someone for the parts of them that make us feel good about ourselves, then we’re not really loving them. We’re using them. So let’s know America and in so doing, love America. 

IV. This moment isn’t just about teaching white people.

I’ve often been put in, or placed myself in, a position of authority on matters of race. And I’ve seen from the books published, to the memes generated, that we’re spending a lot of energy trying to “fix” white people. 

But what if we’re tired of teaching? What if I want to learn too? The good news is, we all have things to learn and unlearn, and one of those lessons is not to center everything on whiteness. I’ve got to unlearn the racism I’ve absorbed by being raised in a racist society. I’ve got to unlearn the narrative of masculine domination I was taught and which co-exists with the narrative of Black suffering. And I’ve got to remember that everything isn’t about race all the time; that I should prioritize joy and exploration beyond the terms set by white supremacy. I’ve got to practice being free even before I’m actually free so I’ll be prepared to claim my freedom. 

V. Ending white supremacy is about liberating everyone, not just BIPOC.

Most of what most white people hear about ending racism is that they will have to lose something—privilege, access, jobs—so that all those resources can be transferred to some non-white (and presumably undeserving) person. 

I’d like to offer a different story. When you live in a story that justifies multigenerational abuse of power in your name and separates you from your own humanity, you’re not free. Freedom is letting go of that story and embracing a new one that sees all that you might gain from contributing to a truly multiracial democracy. We’ve been selling this idea focusing on what the people we want to change have to lose rather than everything we can all win.

It’s been a tremendously difficult time since 2020. We’ve defeated Covid about as many times as we defeated Al-Qaeda. We got rid of a toxic president but still live with the toxic culture he helped spread. I’ve never felt such a combination of emotions in my life. Sometimes, I’ve considered adopting another country rather than continuing to invest in this one. Other times, I’ve been so moved by the possibility of what we can still achieve that I’ve wept tears of joy. I still think we might make it. I know that if I believe we can, that belief helps bring the ideal of America closer to reality. 

I’ll be back soon with another installment, delving further into some of the ideas above. Meanwhile, if there are topics you want me to explore, you can write to me at