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Baratunde Thurston breaks down the importance of visible representation

'How to Citizen with Baratunde' Host Baratunde Thurston joined Yahoo Finance Live to break down the importance of visible representation.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

JEN ROGERS: Welcome to "A Time for Change." I'm Jen Rogers here with Kristin Myers and Sybile Marcellus. There's an old saying, you got to see it to believe it. And the more modern twist on that, you got to see it to be it.

Today, we are going to talk about the importance of what we see with our own eyes on TV, on our phones, in movie theaters, and Sybile, even in our town squares.

SYBILE MARCELLUS: That's right, Jen. So Black people make up about 13% of the US population. But are we accurately represented in culture? That's the topic of discussion today, Kristin.

KRISTIN MYERS: Now, our first guest has been doing his part to increase the number of Black men in the public eye. Baratunde Thurston is the host of the podcast, "How to Citizen" and the author of the book, "How to be Black." Jen and I talked with him recently to get his thoughts on Black representation in American media.

BARATUNDE THURSTON: I think we're getting better in the United States at showing the full range of the Black experience. I think shows like "Insecure," "The Chi," "Atlanta," "Black-ish" are really painting Black nerds, Black angst, Black joy, Black beauty, multiple shades of Black. So there's progress being made and in our films as well.

I always want more, especially it's Black History Month, you asked me this question. The answer is, more Black. But I am grateful to the producers, creators, directors, writers putting a fuller range of Blackness on display.

JEN ROGERS: When we talk about representation a lot, I feel that we put it in terms of inspiration. If you can see it, you can be it. The "Hidden Figures," in the movie, talking about that for little girls, inspiring them to be scientists. But how important is it actually for white people to be seeing people of color represented?

BARATUNDE THURSTON: I love this question. I've been asked all the race questions. No one has ever asked me that one. That's so good.

I think it's great for white people. I think it's great for all people. And why I love that question is, so much of what it means to be Black has been couched in the negative, in the suffering. And so much of the work that we need to do as a society to fully include everyone has been cast as, like, a benefit for the excluded.

We should hire more women because it's good for women. We should have more Black and Brown people because it's good for Black-- no, it's good for everybody.

KRISTIN MYERS: When do you think we'll get to a place where minorities in media won't have this burden of always having to discuss race, when they can create content that really explores everyday themes that everyone experiences, like coming of age and going through high school or falling in love?

BARATUNDE THURSTON: Everything you just described is what it means to be human. It's the human experience. So another way that I'm hearing your question is, when will we get to a place where we see Black people as human and not as a representation of trauma and not as a foil for white identity and white experience and not as a salve for white guilt or shame or fear or pain, but just as people?

When we can get to a place where Black people can fail upward as wildly as white people, that's a good place to be. I want to see terrible Black movies winning Oscars. That's how you know we've made it. I want to see one story mined repeatedly across generations from the same point of view that just happens to star Black people and has nothing to do with race. It's just a garbage over-milked franchise. But it's, like, run by Black people and starring Black people. That's when we will have arrived.

And we will have arrived when people who still control many of the gates don't feel like they're doing Black people a favor and don't recognize the financial and cultural gain that they benefit from when they greenlight these stories and then act surprised when they do well. How many cycles of, oh, I didn't I didn't know "Black Panther" was a real surprise. And yet it's an epiphany like every five years. Oh, yeah, I guess if we just let people tell their own stories-- that's when. It's a long answer. I'm sorry.

JEN ROGERS: What's so great about talking with you and also listening to you on your podcast, "How to Citizen," is you're really funny. You can make jokes about some of these really serious issues that we're talking about. Why is it-- and why is it important, I guess, to keep comedy in this conversation that we're having for you?

BARATUNDE THURSTON: Oh, for me, comedy's important because it keeps me sane. It provides a healthy stress outlet. There are many stress outlets that are unhealthy. Laughter, humor is a relatively healthy stress outlet for me.

And it's useful. So it's useful for me for communications. It's useful to build human connection. It's a nice way to build a bridge to another person. And it's useful to me because it just keeps me grounded and healthily processing my own stresses.

JEN ROGERS: We also noticed that you've been busy even talking about Bitcoin on the social media app Clubhouse. And it's gained a real following among people of color. And I'd be interested why you think that is and how it relates to the future of tech and social media in the midst of these larger issues.

BARATUNDE THURSTON: OK, that's like that's almost a gotcha question. I need to couch and add some context. I don't just constantly talk about Bitcoin on Clubhouse. I did one thing one time. It happened to be very recently-- maybe it was yesterday-- where I did a dramatic reading of Satoshi's Bitcoin white paper in a Clubhouse room. And yes, I will continue to do that.

I've learned a lot about cryptocurrency and Bitcoin in particular through Clubhouse and through Black Bitcoin Billionaire Club on Clubhouse. And I recognize I'm talking about an exclusive environment that's only open to iPhones and invitations. So my apologies to the vast majority of the world that's not in Clubhouse. It will open up soon to more people and more platforms.

I think it's relevant and potent for Black people. And I've connected with it as a Black person more so than as a tech nerd. I got introduced to Bitcoin back in 2013. I haven't taken to trying to understand it, except now hearing Black people talk about the idea of self-sovereignty, the idea of actually controlling your own money, of owning your own store of value, and of not being dependent on institutions to bless you with that legitimacy.

Bitcoin is a system built around establishing trust through the commons. And that's something that's been promised to Black people. But we always end up on the short end of the stick in this society. And so here comes a technology and a philosophy that allows us to really be self-determinant. One of the principles of Kwanzaa just spilling out my face right now. But that's something that we've struggled for and yearned for and fought for.

And so it makes a ton of sense that people who have been excluded from the financial system are finding their footing in a system designed to include everyone with a level of trust that third party banks, et cetera, who have not always looked out for Black people-- they redlined us. They over-leveraged us. They sold us a good of bills on the mortgage crisis.

We've taken the heat every time. So here comes something else that gives us more agency, more self-determination, more communal control. That makes a ton of sense to me. And that's part of my curiosity, why I keep exploring and researching and trying to understand what this thing is all about.

KRISTIN MYERS: Just one last question, one last question on Clubhouse. I'm wondering how you view the app, really, in its ability to kind of democratize content or really operate as a space for unheard voices and bring together folks that probably would have never met in real life or even on other social media platforms.

BARATUNDE THURSTON: Yeah, Clubhouse is getting that label right now. And I've been an OG in the internet game, online since about 1993, depending on what you're counting as online. But that's when I was on, like, dial-up bulletin board systems, a very early version of the internet.

And in every generation of a social technology, we say the same thing. We say what you just said, that new voices can be heard, that people can meet people they never met. We said that about Usenet groups and Internet Relay Chat and Friendster and Myspace. And it was true then. And it's true about Clubhouse now.

I think what is potentially different, it's live, and you can hear people. And the sound of a voice communicates a nuance that's not there when you flatten everything down to text. But it doesn't require the heft of a camera and good lights and makeup. And what's in your background? And do you have kids running around? And are you, like, ashamed of what's behind you?

So there's an opportunity there to connect differently in real time and actually hear people. It doesn't make it a guarantee that that's going to happen. It doesn't mean this is going to be a successful thing. But I find some hope and some promise in at least the possibility.

And I've been learning in a conversational space there, which is also a little bit different from some other internet outlets, where it's about posting things. This is about engaging live. And if you're not there live, you're not really a part of that moment. So that's a healthy limit that gives us a chance to experiment being together differently.