Theo Wilson took a more humorous approach to starting his speech about the Nazis, alt-right, KKK members, and other white supremacists that still rain heavily over this country by stating that his presence in the state of Oregon was “pissing off a lot of dead white people.” And it was then as the audience laughed together, that they knew that his hour or so speech would go by in a flash, and yet every word would be held onto.
His story was started by him describing how growing up as a black boy in the 80s, his biggest fear instilled in him by his mother was the gang rivalry between bloods and crips. It was a preventable concern for Theo though, as he joked that he simply didn’t wear blue or red. But then the Columbine Massacre happened 9 miles from his home in Colorado. He recognized one of the names, Isaiah. During this time, the surviving and deceased victims of the shooting were being mourned by the country. While Theo recognized that these families needed this, and was in no way opposed to the condolences they were receiving, he was also able to recognize that this wasn’t the first shooting he had noticed or been aware of. And nobody cared when multiple young people were being shot in “bad neighborhoods”.
After going through this experience that literally hit close to home, he decided to attend A&M University in Florida. He said in his speech: “what better way to escape racism than moving to the South?” But after two weeks into his freshman year as he was on his way to the administrative building, the president of the university came out with his staff behind as they said “turn around, there’s been a bomb.” His campus had been bombed, and yet none of the media had showed up. The university is a historically black college, and today it’s 87% black, according to the school website’s diversity statistics. The bomber was a racist who was trying to kill students on the campus. Theo describes the incident with the SWAT Team and Men in Black in a terrifying way, that they weren’t interacting with the students and that it wasn’t anything like movies or TV. The incident resulted in a different kind of campus culture, as surveillance cameras were put up around the university.
Almost immediately after this attack, Theo explains how he became “at the center of the universe” again. The election in 2000 between George Bush and Al Gore, which resulted in the longest recount in U.S. history was happening in the same city that his university is located in. He said it was only seven blocks from his campus, so obviously students on campus were wanting to participate in voting. An hour before these poll stations closed, his peers and friends right to vote was refused. Theo said in his speech: “About a thousand FAMU lost the right to vote that day. George W. Bush won the presidency by less than a thousand votes after the recount. My university had they been allowed the right to vote, could have changed the outcome of the election.”
When Theo learned about Bush’s family history, how their money came from supplying materials to Nazis, he began to understand the significance of this loss. And still, Theo had yet to face his most overwhelming and devastating experience with white supremacy.
He mentions how he has his degree in theatre, and this makes him feel slightly more untouchable than other black men. Because the stories we hear in the media about black men being shot, they’re always “thugs”, “aggressive”, “thieves”, “criminals”. So a college educated man who writes poetry and acts isn’t going to be stereotyped by the police in this way, right?
This is what Theo thought until he was in a dance club one night, he playfully describes going there that night with a friend to get over his breakup. A fight broke out, and someone got aggressive with the bouncer causing the security team to be on edge. When he and his friend get separated as people are being escorted to different exits, and he stands still as he sees a cop pushing black women off of the sidewalk. When Theo sees this and continues to scan the room for his friend, he realizes he’s standing still; this is when he catches the attention of a cop.
Him and the cop get into a fight, which results in the cop pushing him into the street and had a car been coming, Theo would’ve been hit. So, he threw his sunglasses at him. The cop hits him and Theo falls, multiple cops stand him up and arrest him and Theo yells: “police brutality” over and over. As the cops grow frantic, they pushed him up a staircase where he gets brutally beat by one cop as the other cops watch for a moment before turning their backs. Theo started wondering if he too would be labelled as a criminal of some sort as well if the cops were to kill him.
The cop lets him go, says if he sees him again he’ll arrest him and throws him down the stairs. But Theo is able to catch his balance. Upon seeing the headline of a newspaper describing a New York blackout that read “Powerless” Theo recognized how despite his father and grandfather serving the country, the three of them were powerless. After experiencing this, he described how he handled suffering from PTSD.
This was when he started getting into slam poetry, and one summer he won a contest with other poets he worked with. It was the same summer, Alonzo Ashley, his friend was killed by police. He was publicly tased to death at the zoo.
This is when Theo decided he wanted to begin taking action. He started Barber Shop Talks which was like group therapy for black men. Right after they started these discussions, Trayvon Martin was killed.
It was after Theo lived through Travyon Martin and Eric Garner’s deaths that he decided to create a social media presence by putting out Youtube videos. Though his first ones didn’t go far, when he summarized Ta Nehisi Coates’s work (which exposed Theo to the concept of institutionalized racism) in a Youtube video, it went viral. While he received praise, upon reading the hate comments below his videos, he decided to try firing back, providing factual evidence as to why they were wrong, but their minds couldn’t be changed.
This is when Theo decided to go “undercover” as a white supremacist and use a new account to change his internet algorithm to bring up the ideas that racists and white supremacists shared. He came to the conclusion that behind all of the evil, and poisoned minds the common underlying factor was fear. Being afraid of being treated differently (losing their privileges) and the fear of not having what their fathers and grandfathers had.
But Theo recognized that the upbringings of these individuals and the interactions they shared with the white men who raised them, grouped in with the sugar-coated version of history, and growing up in parts of the nation where they may have never had a friend of color to educate them are all contributors to why they feel and think the way they do. He found sympathy and compassion for them, and he admits this wasn’t what his goal was. He explains two sides of trauma that both white and black people experienced because of slavery. While black people experienced the degradation of their former masters and abusers, white people conformed to a culture of silence and were raised to accomplish things without regard for how it affects other individuals.
Theo simplifies it by saying, “The alt-right saw the correction to oppression as oppression itself.” Or in other words, in order to protect themselves, to protect their own successes in the future they must tear down others. But by recognizing these differences, and offering a hand out to these people (the same people responsible for the oppression and abuse himself and his community has faced), and offering to educate them, he is working towards making a change.
Today, Theo helps run Barber Shop Talks, speaks to schools and universities, gave a TED Talk, wrote a book, and continues to fight for social and racial justice. His website is: theowilson.net