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.