Comedian Baratunde Thurston says patriarchy is a trap, and men keep falling for it

Comedian Baratunde Thurston says patriarchy is a trap, and men keep falling for it
Image: Baratunde Thurston
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Questioning authority is Baratunde Thurston’s second nature, and his life’s mission. It’s a serious pursuit, which he prefers to tackle with humor.

A self-defined “technology-loving comedian from the future,” Thurston wears many hats: He wrote the bestselling memoir How To Be BlackHe’s the former digital director of The Onion, was a producer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and an Obama White House advisor. But above all, he’s part of the resistance.

“It’s so easy for Americans to believe the myth of success when it comes to a heterosexual white man,” Thurston recently wrote in a viral Twitter thread tied to Brett Kavanaugh’s US Supreme Court confirmation. “Trump was BELIEVABLE because of the gender and race he inherited. The press believed it. Entertainment producers believed it. Voters believed it. White supremacy is believable.”

Chief among Thurston’s beliefs is that toxic masculinity, sexism, and racism are deeply intertwined, and that none can be resolved without a resolution to the others. “We’ve all breathed in racist air and breathed out racist outputs, and the same goes for misogyny,” he said in a May 2018 video for the Wall Street Journal. “I can’t be free as a black man until you’ve been free as a woman, and vice versa.”

In conversation with Quartz, Thurston explains why men are the biggest threat to other men in America today, why the “woke” must make space for the “still-waking,” and how he reacted when Me Too turned personal for him.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

I did. Being involved in the fields of media and tech, I subconsciously counted people in the room. How many black people are in this room? (My own reflection in the glass door doesn’t count!) How many women are in this room?

Me Too has expanded my awareness of the horrors that can exist in many workplaces and the degree to which inequality can permeate every aspect of an environment, not just sexual harassment, but promotion opportunities, compensation, etc. I’ve been reminded that where there is power, corruption can easily follow. Power is a vector for corruption, and where the gap in power is greatest, that’s where some of the most corrupt and exploitative behavior happens.

This movement also has me thinking a lot about process, and how we report, reconcile, and restore. This point was made even more personal when I discovered my name had been added to an anonymous public spreadsheet that, according to its creator, was “a collection of misconduct allegations and rumors” against men with vague claims that ranged from rape to inappropriate flirting. Even though readers were advised to “take everything with a grain of salt,” I was surprised to see my name on the list—I’ve never been accused of giving a woman unwanted attention—and one year later I still don’t know why I was included.

More important than me or that list, I realize just how much pain women have been forced to bear alone and how our institutions have failed to address their experiences. So many of our institutions lack a process, and a lack of process is often indicative of a lack of respect. “Why should we have a process for people that don’t matter?” is the implicit thinking. That institutional failure was so significant that someone created another outlet, a digital whisper network, albeit imperfect, for women’s voices to try to fill this larger void. The list is yet another indicator in the greater Me Too Movement of how much work we have to do to make the world a more safe and just place for everyone.

As a man, I am committed to talking with men even more than before about how we treat and are received by women.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

I do. I think most of my actions are consistent with feminism and certainly my intentions and beliefs are. That is, I believe in equality and in equity, in treating people the same AND in giving people what they need to succeed.

I want to live in a world in which everyone has a stake in the outcome, in which we all are treated with dignity, and in which our various talents and contributions are valued. Look, if we were just killing it as a nation or a species, and everyone had housing and nutrition and their own Netflix account, and the planet’s climate was stable, that would be one thing, but we have some serious challenges, and we can’t really afford to be underutilizing entire groups of people, so out of collective self-interest, I’m a feminist.

But I would stress, I don’t think I’m a finished feminist, fully baked or something. It’s a process, and I have more to learn and more ways I can adjust. So I’m a feminist-in-process.

3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?

I love the phrasing of this question. It gets at what is required to actually make the world better, and I’ve got many more years in racial equity and politics discussions, but there are many parallels to gender, chief among them: We have to actively work to achieve justice, not just think or say the right things. 

As for my own actions, I’ve realized I have power. It’s a small sentence but a big statement. Sometimes that power comes in the form of who I follow or amplify on social media. Other times it’s about who I consider for a work position.

I’ve become increasingly aware of that power and I’ve sought to use it more consciously to create that more equal world I want to see. When I had an opportunity to make a TV pilot, we made sure to consider and then hire beyond the typical comedy writer profile and had women filling half the roles.

I often get invited to speak, and most of the time I can’t make it work. Instead of simply saying “no,” I started a “No, but…” file. As in “No, but you should consider X.” It’s not exactly Mitt Romney’s binders full of women, but I consciously keep and update a list of folks to recommend for opportunities and make sure women dominate that list. I developed that process in collaboration with a professional coach I worked with for years, so Julia Lynton Boelte deserves some credit. I’m not saying I figured all this stuff out on my own.

I’ve even caught myself looking at what I recommend when interviewers ask about the books I’m reading or the podcasts I’m listening to. Am I going to say the default choice that anyone could, or will I use my voice to elevate a voice that might not get as much shine?

I don’t always do this. But I actively and increasingly realize that my voice is one of my greatest powers (I don’t have much money!) so I should be conscious of how I use it.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

That’s easy. Other men. I mean quantifiably, men harm men.

In a more metaphorical sense, I think “manhood” is threatened by a perceived loss of status and a definite loss of clarity about just what it means to be a man. Two writers have helped me think about this in a racial context I think applies here.

Anand Giridharadas, in a speech at the Obama Foundation Summit, asked, “Is there space among the woke for the still-waking?” He was speaking of the need to bring along those who aren’t against progress and the future, but who don’t quite “get it” and risk being pushed away by The Woke Police (my term), who are sometimes more interested in shaming than inviting.

Tanner Colby and I co-hosted a podcast about race, and we debated often the question of whose responsibility it is to do the work of racial justice. My oversimplification of his point is that white people will need black people to help them along because we have the experience, and I can’t expect white people to just “know” what to do. It’s a collaboration.

So back to manhood and threats. If men, like white people, only hear how we are the problem and a threat and need to get out of the way, that’s risking an avoidable backlash and missing an amazing opportunity. Yes, men need to get our shit together and talk amongst ourselves and sometimes just shut up and listen. But we also need spaces to work with women and co-create a more equitable future.

The greatest threat to manhood is seeing changing gender roles and equality as a threat, when instead, I want us to see it as an opportunity; to liberate not just women but ourselves from the mythology and expectations and bad habits we’ve inherited. “Male privilege” isn’t just privilege. It’s a trap. Patriarchy is a trap. For everyone. We should want everyone to be free.

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?

When I’m wearing my race hat (which is all the time, btw), I often tell white people that we need them to talk to each other about race and work through some of this among themselves. I’ve been late to the obvious realization that as a man, I’ve got to do the same work. People of color alone won’t end racism. Women alone won’t end sexism.

So yes, I have been having more conversations with my male friends about sexism. Me Too accelerated that. Now, many of us are replaying our lives, and we’re asking each other, often for the first time, how were we taught to interact with women and by whom? What media have we consumed, and what does that media say about women? What power do we benefit from solely because of our gender?

The analogy to race was inescapable. I know so many white people who’ve never asked themselves these sorts of questions, not out of malice, but because they simply didn’t have to, and because the answers to those questions can lead to thinking you’re a “bad person.” But “good” and “bad” are rarely useful categories in which to place entire people or entire lives. We are all capable of both.

As a black person, it was so easy for me to see white people’s reluctance to go there. As a man, it was harder to see my own, but the blackness helped as blackness often does! I was literally in my head like, “Oooooh, so I’m the one who fears being labeled a bad person. I’m the one with some privilege I didn’t earn. Basically, I’m the white person in this scenario.” Now as my full self, as a black man, I can translate that unquestioned privilege and its costs to gender equity, and it’s been really helpful. Learning is a powerful drug.

In terms of talking about sexism with my fellow men, the most effective strategy has been when one of us brings up the topic in the form of questions. I definitely don’t go around hosting mini TED talks on “How To Be A Woke Dude” for my guy friends or vice versa. That wouldn’t work at all.

I’ve found that the biggest inhibition to having these discussions is a lack of practice, not necessarily a lack of will or ability. Prior to this moment, other than special occasions like a wedding or birth of a child, it’s rare that I’ve talked to another man about what being a man means, how we’ve been (mis)taught, or what kind of men we want to be. One of the most significant moments of this year happened when I went to meet a friend at a bar, and we ran into another friend of ours and his father. So there we were, three men in our late thirties and early forties talking with a father in his late sixties about children and marriage and money and manhood. It was heartfelt and so meaningful in part because moments like that are so rare. That is definitely changing, and it’s one of the most positive outcomes of this movement that I’ve experienced.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

Going bald! I’ve been blessed with a solid amount of hair, evenly distributed. I think my identity is wrapped up in it. I haven’t prepared for a world in which that changes. Not sure what I’ll do.

Other than that, it’s a more general anxiety of: Am I doing this man thing right?

7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?

Fun fact: I grew up in an entirely female household. My mother, my sister, all our pets even—female! I didn’t live with a man until college.

8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

It’s not about “us” winning or “them” winning. It’s about everyone living in a more just world. That said, I understand the frustration, not just about if and how to speak up, but about how to be. It is hard to know how to be when you haven’t been taught. It’s even harder when you face contradictory information from the society around you. Can you say this? Can you initiate like that? “It depends” is often the right answer and that leaves a lot of gray area sometimes.

In those moments, fellow men, it is okay to not know. It is okay to ask. I have carried the self-imposed weight of expecting that I should just know things that I don’t know. I think it’s better to put that burden down and pursue learning. Asking. Interrogating. Sometimes myself. Sometimes others.

9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?

Despite being in the business of communication, with my girlfriend I’ve often left the burden of initiating emotional communication to her. Without getting into our entire relationship (which is great, btw, and she’s the best!), I’ll just say she helped me identify a pattern on my part that unfairly left her to carry that weight, that “emotional labor” if you will.

As we proceed toward a more just, less Handmaids-y world, all roles are up for grabs when it comes to gender: child-raising, military combat, cooking, financial planning, president-ing, everything. That’s a massive opportunity and long overdue, but it requires a conscious choice and often discussion or negotiation among us all. When we just accept the assumptions or inertia built into the system, we are missing an opportunity to do better.

10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

In one of those man-on-man conversations I mentioned I’ve been having, a guy friend of mine put it so well when he said, with regards to sexism and sexual harassment, “there are perpetrators and perpetuators.” He drew a useful distinction. There are very few true perpetrators. They are easy to vilify and shame and punish. But far more of us, myself included, some women included, can be perpetuators. We can enable a system of bias and injustice by our action or our inaction. By our words or our silence. It is important to know the difference between these two. We should strive to reduce the prevalence of both, but the perpetuator class is the larger set and the greater cultural challenge. It requires us all to join the effort.