Writer, activist, comedian. That is how Baratunde Thurston is described on his website. But when you take a deeper dive into his body of work, those three words don’t begin to encompass his wide range of work. The overarching theme of his work is how each of us can become involved in addressing tough issues and, hopefully, making a change in the world, especially when it comes to the issue of racism.
Some people may know of Thurston from his 2019 TED Talk on “How to Deconstruct Racism, One Headline at a Time.” In the talk, with 1.3 million views to date, Thurston “explored the weaponization of white supremacy, the deadly consequences of policing, and the power of language to write a better narrative for us all to inhabit,” according to his website. In his talk, Thurston reworks headlines snatched from the news and shows the power of language and how it can affect the outcome of situations. He began collecting and diagramming each of the headlines in the following way: A subject takes an action against a target engaged in some activity.
In the course of his talk, Thurston provides profound insights and ways in which we can each work to make changes to the societal structure that often puts Black people at a disadvantage.
Five years earlier, Thurston presented a TED Talk on the subject of “Hacking Comedy.” The focus of the talk was on ways to combine humor and technology to effectively bring about change. And Thurston knows something about humor. As a part-time comedian, he also served for five years as director of digital for the satirical news outlet The Onion. He also briefly worked as supervising producer for digital expansion at The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
That combination of tough topics and humor is what makes Thurston such a powerful influencer. He has a way of calling out the world’s challenges and inspiring us to do something about it, but not in a way that plays to the contentiousness those issues can often cause.
But his TED Talks are not the only way Thurston is working to get people’s attention. His book, How to Be Black, which is a satirical guide to race issues, is a New York Times bestseller. Most recently, he served as the host and executive producer of the PBS television series America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston, a six-part travel and adventure series that followed Thurston “on an adventure-filled journey to explore the diverse array of regions across the United States and how those landscapes shape the way Americans work, play, and interact with the outdoors.”
He also hosts the podcast How to Citizen with Baratunde, in which each episode he “reimagines the word citizen as a verb and reminds us how to wield our collective power.” On the podcast, he invites guests on, such as Chef José Andrés, to discuss ways in which we can reclaim what it means to be a citizen of this country. With his work in so many various projects, people will surely be able to find some way to connect with Thurston and his message. Trust me, it’s worth it.