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'SXSW isn't real': Fest favorite Baratunde Thurston on racism, digital freedom

Addie Broyles
Austin 360

It's easy to tell that Baratunde Thurston is comfortable speaking to a large crowd. 

The author, activist, comedian and South by Southwest fan favorite typically captivates a few thousand people packed into a convention center ballroom to hear his presentations on technology, society and being Black in America.

Even without a crowd, Thurston, who hosts the podcast "How to Citizen," captivated a digital audience on Tuesday at his 30-minute solo presentation called "For Brands Who Want To Help Us Be Free." 

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Author, activist and frequent SXSW speaker Baratunde Thurston gave a 30-minute solo presentation on the first day of the online-only event.

In the pre-recorded, single-take video, Thurston covered a lot of ground, from the abrupt cancellation of last year's festival, through the summer protests over racial injustice through how racism shows up in the surveillance economy

For most of the talk, Thurston elaborated on the idea of what it means "to citizen," to work toward a more liberated society for all of us through our work, our civic engagement and our mutual aid. 

A system built to disenfranchise people will take longer than our lifetimes to fix, but it is difficult work that we can no longer afford to delay, he said. We might not ever get to "there," a place that is free from oppression and racism, but that shouldn't stop us from committing to the journey.

The author of "How to Be Black" also said that participating in this work isn't a charitable action that white people take on to "help" Black, indigenous and other people of color; "it's work we take on to liberate all of us," he said. 

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Businesses and brands need to invest in places that have been divested from and find new ways of doing business, of hiring and retaining employees, of telling the stories of our past, he said.

In one particularly interesting section that touched on Afrofuturism, Thurston talked about the importance of using our imaginations as we work toward creating a more just society. "SXSW isn't real, it's a delusion," he said. "Money, the Federal Reserve. We believe in it. That's what makes it happen. ... As marketers, makers and community builders, we conjure up realities all the time, so let's conjure up a new one that benefits all of us."

This anti-racism, anti-patriarchal, anti-colonial work that we all do as individuals is how we, as a society, make wider change.

"A greater 'me' equals a greater 'we,'" he said.