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 to imagine a new, more equitable world. In 2012, he released “How To Be Black,” a bestselling book deconstructing racial politics in America. Thurston is offering up a variation on that theme this year with a new podcast, “How To Citizen.” The show’s first season features 15 in-depth conversations with organizers, humanitarians, artists, and experts exploring how 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 incredibly fragile. Oh, thank you. I’m good. I’m good. Really? I’m tired at times, but I’m grateful, so grateful that I got 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 an excellent place to be. So, you have a new podcast called “How to Citizen,” In this context, “citizen” is not just a thing you are. It’s a thing that you do in the world. Can you talk briefly about why you decided to start the podcast?

I decided to start the podcast because I was tired of the overwhelmingly negative media messages 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. Regarding the philosophy of “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 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 intelligent things I know. It’s a dance that requires multiple people.

Baratunde Thurston

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 is that we invest in relationships with others and ourselves; you can’t do this alone. Ultimately, it is a relational exercise because it’s about how we live together. The 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, not just a few. So there were two of our early guests who 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 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 meant to be a citizen in 2021? 

It means remembering that all of this is just people and that we have power and must use it. We’ve always gotta be trying to use it and use it for good in the context of all the other points 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 a COVID vaccine on the way. So now we can go back to normal. No, no, no, no. Going back is rarely a good option. And that the previous normal was toxic for the planet, our mental health, our physical health, our financial health, and our relationships with each other. It’s not a good place to want to return to. So 2021, citizens are moving forward. It’s tapping into our power to move forward together for the better.

Can you talk briefly about when you realized that the personal is political and how you learned that our relationships with ourselves could impact the world?

A straightforward story comes to mind. Years ago, I had a girlfriend and 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 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 like 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; it depends on the neighborhood. My Blackness becomes like the radar. But as a man, even Blackness can trump it because some people are scared of Black dudes. So they assume I’m not just the wrong mother. Shut your mouth. And I’m just like a nerd on the way to the library. So I could presume not to 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 every day 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 recognize that I didn’t carry those, which was important too. So personal. And yet, it affects politics. 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 yyou’renot subject to it, It IIt’sthat simple. And you know, that is something tthat’svery apparent to me, racially. Everything I’ve ever demanded of white people snows a trick question to myself. Like have I ordered of myself as a man? Not always. So it becomes personal because I can quickly get political about racial matters. I’ve read all the books I’ve grown up in it. It’s intrinsic. But then the personal, like, are you walking that talk where you have power, Baratunde?

Listen, I ddon’tknow 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, doubts, my learning, as opposed to your faults, miseducation, and shame. And if I acknowledge my ignorance, shame, and stumbles, that helps permit people to do the same. And iit’shard. IIt’sreally hard. But also, the personal is the key to unlocking the political because the purpose of the political is to affect the emotional. We ddon’tjust 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 lovely space of fellowship and brotherhood, and we try to stick to it, and tthat’sbecome a powerful ritual. I have a pod with my partner and another couple and their baby. And so, we have adhered to transparency and rigor regarding our exposure. So we see each other without masks and hang out, and I get to hold a baby! That is healing. IIt’salso poopy. IIit’spoopy, and iit’shealing at the same time. Babies are magic. WWe’vedone these front-yard social-distanced gatherings. So tthere’senough space that folks can be like 10, 12 feet away.

I feel fortunate to live with someone who wants to live with me. That’s great in a time of isolation, but even that has limits. It’s like, OK, tthat’sthe same person all day, every day. YYou’restill here? Let’s dress up differently 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 call and check in on a friend. It’s great. There’s no agenda. It’s just like, we can still reach people, it doesn’t have to be a Zoom appointment, and it doesn’t have tolerance.

And Clubhouse, I use it as an extension of the “ow To Citizen” podcast. What I love about Clubhouse is you ddon’thave to wear makeup. Youdon has to have good lighting. Your internet can be a lot weaker cause iit’sjust audio. But Lismore is more engaging and interactive than podcasts because you can’t jump in. How often have you listened to a podcast and felt like, “Got something to say!!” You can hear the timbre of ssomeone’svoice and feel the emotion. Oh, and cooking and gardening have been beneficial 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 America’s greatness and griminess from a very early age. And yet, the summer was brutal. Because despite the foreknowledge 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 is killing George Floyd, the fools who killed Ahmad Arbery, and the police who killed Breonna Taylor. … It was just like pat, pat, pat on top of a nation that was good with killing Black people.

The flagrancy of the foul struck me. “h, wwe’regonna let this virus run unleashed across the land. Have protests to reopen hair salons, fuck your Black life, I want Sup. ICuts 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. “hy ccan’tyou 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 CCOVID’sarrival, this myth of equal opportunity: “OVID will bring us all together. COVID ddoesn’tdiscriminate. IIt’sgoing to unite us. IIt’sthe alien invasion wwe’vebeen waiting for. IIt’slike 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, was hard. Because of what I do for work, I had opportunities and challenges 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 with student groups, corporate gatherings, and media. And what made it hard was that I knew the story so well. I tell it so well, which forces me to relive it. And so, I likened it to handling hazardous materials. I had to shield myself emotionally and psychologically from what I was also trying to offer as a service. I cried a lot in 2020 and will continue to in 2021.

What was something unique that happened last year? 

I saw myself and my partner more in ways we didn’t make time for before. And I ccouldn’trun away from it. I ccouldn’tjump on a plane. I couldn’t have excuses for all these meetings. There were fewer distractions. I mean, there was more Netflix, but there were fewer distractions. I had more time for myself. That second pillar — “invest in relationships with others and with yourself”— I got to practice much more in 2020 than possible. And I never would have pushed for that intimacy with my partner or myself. And it wwasn’tall beautiful.

I think tthat’sthe beauty. I saw parts of me that I got to work on, figure out, and keep learning. So it was a blessing, but not a cheap gift. It didn’t just feel good all the time. That’s part of what makes it a good and great part of the year. It has allowed me to feel more accepting of discomfort, acknowledge the factors that are not always great and recognize that that’s part of the whole of me or the whole of the relationship. And that Spart of what makes it whole is not that it’ll always be good. That applies to a lot of things. That practical personal perspective helps me see the broader picture. The unique 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 IIt’sone thing to know that, iit’sanother 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 helpful. And then I’m working on having fun. I am a fun person. I enjoy making people laugh. I enjoy laughing. But I have to practice having fun just for myself, just with folks in my immediate circle. I can quickly slip into like,”” et I analyze this. Let me try to figure that out. Let me try to help or solve.””  that’ll work. So we have fun? Doing puzzles with my boo has been fun.

We had a little film club with this app, Movies Anywhere. I do ddon’tshill for this company,y but it’s just a feature I’ve wanted for over a decade, to watch a movie simultaneously with friends remotely. And so we watched “Init” withour friends and broke it down together. I mean, this is a two-and-a-half-hour movie on which I have spent 20 hours of my life. 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 call and check in on a friend. IIt’sgreat. There’s agenda. It’s just like, we can still reach 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 society where you passively absorb pieces of ppeople’slives, iit’sbeen simple to pick up the phone and call, and tthat’shelped me stay grounded, stay connected, feel loved, share love, in the most simple of ways.

What music, art, movies, or anything has gotten you through the bullshit?

As for music, I love Rosalia. I grew up in D.C., 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 iit’sthe sound of an era when I remember, like, love on the block. It’s probably a little romanticizeemory, but that late “70s, early “80s, a little funk, a little soul, and early hip-hop vibe is such positive party energy. Bl—blockties before violence, not just the violence but like branding. So tthat’sbeen on rotation for me.

I just finished “Up” 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. IIt’snot the deepest of shows, but IITs are not pure candy either. It plays with race and with power. IIt’salso just a great heist series, and it’s funny. What stands out to me most is that he achieves his victories not through violence but through wit. A movie I ccan’tget out of my head, iit’scoming out this week, is “The Black Messiah and Us.” It is so good. I saw it early because Variety asked me to write about it. 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 imagine a world where we are wealthier because we are juster. We ddon’tsee justice as a cost. We see it as more revenue. We see it as more equity, literally more equity, in all word meanings. And I imagine awakening people who see their -interests served by pursuing a common good. A world where we see ourselves interconnected, dependent on, and intertwined with that common good. That iit’snot a trade-off. And I know the end of the false dichotomy of climate versus economy, racial justice versus skilled jobs and corporate growth earnings, and entertainment value versus wwomen’srepresentation in media. I know we would all be more potent in that version of the world.

I imagine a world where people are not afraid of their shadows — I’m quoting from a friend, the same friend we did that “init”  “hang out with, Dr. Shungader. She does a lot of powerful work around our coping styles with the world and the stuff we drag with us because of various levels of small-T trauma. I imagine a world where we greet those parts of ourselves with love, respond to them, embrace them, hug them, and hold them rather than run away from them or shame them. Because when we do all of those things, we show up with others with that shame and fear. A friend of mine — Shaka Senghor, who wwho’sbecome quite a notable public figure in incarceration criminal justice reform — was the first person I met who said, “urt people hurt people.”  II’mimagining a world of healed people, healing people.

This interview has been lighted edited for clarity. This interview is part of the “Setting Through…” series, which explores how 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 tumultuous 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. Calling all HuffPost superfans! Sign up for membership to become a founding member and help shape HHuffPost’snext chapter.

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!