Perception Changes (Cross-cultural Exchange of Actual Friendship)


The interview with Baratunde Thurston, on his book “How to Be Black,” differs greatly from Brent Staples’ essay “Black Men in Public Space.” Thurston is a comedian who administers a satirical newspaper called The Onion. He also was a co-founder of a political blog called “Jack and Jill.” Brent Staples is a journalist who earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago. From reading the short biography of these men inserted just before the articles, the reader perceives that both men are highly successful. The interview of Baratunde Thurston accommodates this notion but also displays much more than just his success. Brent Staples’ essay displays a different identity. Rather than the successful man he is perceived to be, the essay he writes about himself displays the obstacles he witnesses almost every day of his life. Brent Staples sees himself vastly different than strangers do, but Baratunde Thurston is seen successful to himself and the public. Both authors are aware that being black affects their everyday lives, but the differences remain in how they chose to let this piece of their identity affect them. 

Brent Staples believes himself to be a typical, friendly man walking on the street, but he experiences not everyone sees himself this way. In his essay, he opens with an encounter of a woman being afraid to be walking in front of him. He uses language such as “first victim”, “a worried glance”, and “menacingly close” to describe his experience (Staples). This encounter revealed how his perspective of himself is different than how others perceive him. In his essay he writes, “As a softy who is scarcely able to take a nice to a raw chicken—let alone hold one to a person’s throat—I was surprised, embarrassed, and dismayed all at once” (Staples). Prior to this experience Staples was not aware that he appeared threatening to people walking on the street, he always saw himself as a kind man. As the essay progresses, Staples gives various examples of how he is perceived as menacing. He is unsettled by the idea that people thought of him as dangerous. Although he personally sees himself as a soft, kind man, others perceive him to be threatening.

On the other hand, Baratunde Thurston sees himself as a typical black, yet an outlier in the same way. He expresses, “My version of being black adheres as much to the stereotypes as it dramatically breaks from them, and that’s probably true for most of you reading this, if not about blackness itself than about something else related to your identity” (Thurston 43). Although Thurston is seen to be very successful, he still experienced the injustices in his black community. The public sees him as this man who was able to break these barriers of being black quite easily, but for him, it was much more work than that. 

Staples chooses to remain silent on how the injustice of being black affects him. He never speaks out and tries to make a difference. Staples writes, “Over the years, I learned to smother the rage I felt so often being taken for a criminal” (Staples). It is evident that he is very upset he is being treated this way, but he hides these emotions and continues to live with this injustice. The only way he acts out against this is by changing his method of acting around the public such as, humming classical tunes, giving space from others, and being extra polite to police (Staples).  This is only a silent change, he chooses to not cause any disruption. 

Nonetheless, Thurston uses the injustices he experiences in a positive manner. He values his childhood private school, Sidwell, for preparing him to deal with occurrences against his identity of being black. Thurston describes how the N-word would be written on his locker, or on other school property (57). He faced injustices and determined that these actions are going to naturally occur. He uses these experiences to prepare him for life and became so accustomed to actions like this that he knows how to deal with them. Thurston explains, “Black became more of a part of my identity and less of kind of an ongoing protest movement, which it can often be because you often can feel besieged” (57).  He came to accept that black is a part of his identity and he cannot change that. Thurston joins groups at Harvard and hung out with everyone regardless if they were white or black. He is comparable to Staples in accepting that they are both black and aware of how this affects their lives, but Thurston takes it much more positively. Staples focuses on his disadvantages of being black; Thurston speaks of overcoming it 

Thurston argues that blacks and whites coexisting is a positive thing. This helps reduce racism. Thurston claims, “So, it’s actually very important to have this cross-cultural exchange of actual friendship going on and the black friend is a really, really big part of preventing that conflagration” (57).  He believes that whites accommodate blacks, and blacks accommodate whites. Staples’ essay does not express any positive solutions to blacks and whites coexisting, only the idea that him being black puts him at a disadvantage. 

Thurston speaks of racism among blacks. This is not a typical concept society makes apparent today. One of his early experiences of blacks being racist to blacks is learning of the “Oreo concept.”  He was taught that an “Oreo’s somebody’s who is black on the outside and white on the inside” (54). At this moment he realized that blacks taunt other blacks for not being authentic enough. He was often judged for his name being Baratunde rather than Babatude because it was not the original Nigerian name (45). Thurston brings up this atypical concept that racism exists within the black community. On the other hand, Staples deals with racism that still occurs today in society. Staples cannot even walk on the street without being perceived as a threatening character. He becomes aware of this by observing how others react to him. African Americans experience similar injustices such as Staples’ even today. 

In Brent Staple’s essay “Black Men in Public Space” he expresses the injustices he experiences being black yet remains silent. He conveys his message of this by changing his walking methods and writing of the subject. Staples’s message is that African Americans face injustices daily. Baratunde Thurston’s interview on “How to Be Black” expresses how his background influenced who he is today and how he overcame his injustices of being black. Thurston sees being black much more positive than Staples does. These differences allow the assumption that your perception of a situation can change how you view something drastically. It is important to have a positive outlook, such as Baratunde Thurston. These differences in both works allow readers to see how perception can change from something negative to positive. 
 

Works Cited

Staples, Brent. “Black Men and Public Space.” Course materials, COMP 120:02FTE, Spring 2021.

Thurston, Baratunde. “How to Be Black.” Identity: A Reader for Writers, edited by John Scenters-Zapico, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 42-63. 

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