Culture Hacker

Trabian Shorters is changing the future of race relations in America, one story at a time...

When Trabian Shorters was fifteen he was plucked from his poor black community and inserted into a rich white one. His genius-level test scores landed him a full scholarship to Cranbrook, the legendary upper-crust boarding school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, an affluent suburb only about five miles from where he grew up. He hadn’t even applied for it. A college-access program called Horizons Upward Bound found him and, just like that, teleported him to the peak of social society.

At Cranbrook, Trabian was exposed to his first computer. Within a year, he was hacking his peers on the school’s mainframe, gathering extra RAM he used to build his own computer games. It was hacking—understanding an existing system well enough to make it do something new—that would define the rest of his career, only not with computers.

After college, Shorters founded a tech company, invested in social entrepreneur startups and became a force in the foundation world. He was hired as Vice President of the Knight Foundation, where he oversaw direct grant investment to twenty-six key communities nationwide. He rolled that position into his own project, BMe Community, a social network and content producer with a remarkable mission: bringing Americans together around a new race narrative.

BMe became a success. Today, it brings together over 22,000 members in six cities and brands over 200 events a year, with a full media reach of over 500,000. But how does it work? How do you reframe a narrative so deeply ingrained in the fabric of our nation? And what do you reframe it to?

The answers might surprise you. 

Cranbrook. That’s a private school!

Haha right, right. Yes. A very beautiful private school.  

What was it like moving from a blue collar black neighborhood to the peak of white wealth?

Talk about switching planets, my God! I went from one world to another world. I was born to a very hardworking teenage mom in a dying factory town. Zero to fifteen years old was poor, in a stereotypical black community with the onset of the war on drugs, crack and violence. Then at fifteen I went to live with the ultra-rich. I didn’t meet the middle class until college.

What did you learn by going through such a shocking transition?

There’s a couple things. One, which I still carry in my work today, is that everyone struggles, has pains and deficits. If you’re raised dirt poor, you don’t imagine wealthy people having challenges or emotions, or emotional challenges. I didn’t realize you could be rich and deal with doubts, alcohol and drug abuse, issues of personal and emotional safety.

At the same time, I realized that folks in those conditions couldn’t imagine the neighborhoods I grew up in. When I would share stories I thought were funny about my neighborhood, a lot of my friends would be like, “Man…your stories are depressing. They’re bringin’ me down, man.” Our norms were unimaginable.

You remember any specific examples?

I remember talking to a friend who was graduating and was stressing about getting his trust fund signed over to him. I was like, “What’s a trust fund?” Basically he explained how he’d be a millionaire by the time he was 18. I was dumbfounded. I was like, “Why are you stressing?”

That’s on the affluent side. On the neighborhood side, I would tell a story about how my brother and I used to crack up about “low-striding.” It’s a way of running where your head is as low as your knees. You do it when people are shooting. In those situations you “wake up running”, meaning you don’t remember starting to run but when you snap to consciousness you’re already in full stride. That’s what my brother and I would joke about and we would laugh, but at Cranbrook my friends would be shocked!

"I didn't meet the middle class until college."

That’s really funny, how in one case something seems so normal and in the other its so appalling, in both directions. Do you think that the sides are ultimately equal? Or do you think the rich have it better than the poor?

You make an important point. The rhetoric says “people are just people,” and that’s true in one sense. That said, whoever has the most money usually gets to decide what happens in a city. Usually folks with money do things innocently or ignorantly of how much friction they are creating—how much pain they are engendering. Because we don’t know each other, we assume each other’s motives, and we start to engender hateful ideas that bubble up later.

So how do you get different communities to get to know each other better?

You need a hack. I grew up a tech nerd. When I got to Cranbrook, I was introduced to mainframe computers for the first time, the Spock PDP11. It was a big deal back then, it’s junk now. I literally taught myself coding by reading discarded code out of the trash, retyping it, and seeing what it did. The first real program I ever wrote was designed to steal other student’s passwords because I needed more memory for the games I wanted to write. What I’d do is create a fake login screen, people would type in their info, and then the software would log them into their actual account, but save their login information for me. It wasn’t malicious, I just needed more room in order to create more. Everyone had an account but most were virtually empty.

I love hacking for one very simple reason: it is understanding a system well enough to make it do something it wasn’t designed to do. When I look at our cultural situation, we keep making the same mistakes. We literally reinvent racism, sexism, classism, etcetera every generation. We don’t start out with them; culture perpetuates itself. BMe is a cultural hack because I spent a ton of time analyzing what is the same about people and what is different. What are the cultural axiologies and stories that perpetuate these differences? BMe is about hacking that; elevating certain stories that force us to reconsider who we think we are, because identity is destiny.

Trabian with Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP

Trabian with Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP

To use your own definition of hacking: what is the system supposed to do and how does BMe use it to do something different?  

The system in this case is cultural. There are an inherited set of beliefs and behaviors that enable the current system to survive. In America’s narratives around race, there are “good” people and “bad” people. We associate competence, worthiness, respect, and goodness with white males specifically. Our history books tell the stories of white men’s accomplishments so when picturing a leader, our country pictures a white dude, right? That’s very normative so that’s okay. It’s cultural.

But the problem is our culture is dichotomous; we like to have an opposite to everything. The inverse image over the last fifty years in America has been a black male.  White males are seen as enterprising, black males are seen as poor.  White males are associated with college graduates, black males with high school dropout.

We become oblivious to realities that don’t fit those narratives. We don’t talk about how many black millionaires there are or how many black kids there are in college. We don’t know that African Americans give 25% more of their income to charity than the national average. The data shows black people are the most generous and among the most enterprising people in the nation, but I’ll bet the narrative you’re told doesn’t say that.

So BMe hacks the system by defining everyone by their aspirations and contributions. That way, in a dichotomous culture, we can all be “good” and focus on conditions that are “bad.”

Why is narrative so important?

I did a lot of psychology and social psychology research while at Knight Foundation, and we looked at cognition and decision-making because we wanted to understand how people make decisions. It turns out that narrative is the number one determinant of decision-making. For instance, the student who believes they are college bound, when they fail their Algebra II test, they think “Oh shit, I better dig in. Maybe I should talk to a tutor?” And they pass the second time around. If that same student doesn’t believe they’re college material, and fail that same Algebra II test. They think “I knew this isn’t for me.” Your narrative identity absolutely determines your course in life. At BMe, we say, “The stories you tell create the life you’ll live.”

How do you change the narrative without making stuff up, or putting too much emphasis on certain stories to the point where it becomes corny or marketing-y? 

At BMe we’re not interested in changing the narrative, we just want to tell the truth. It’s not about defending black males. It’s about telling the truth; that beyond leading rates of incarcerations black men also lead in rates of military service. Despite inaccurate reports of dropout rates, the US Census reports that 85% of black men have graduated high school and 40% of black males between the ages of 18 and 24 are in college or already have a college degree.

When we were forming BMe, we asked 2,082 black men, “What issues would you work on even if no one else was working on them?” When we examined the answers we went, “Holy shit! Here’s our opportunity.” Their responses broke out into five major buckets: youth development, education, economic opportunity, public safety, and matters of the environment. We realized that none of these were exclusive to black men. That research revealed to us that we literally all care about the same things.

I think some conservative people misperceive organizations like BMe. They think that you’re trying to get people hired or get them attention because they’re black. Whereas that’s not what you’re doing at all, is it?

I don’t believe in doing that. Not at all. Many people say they can’t find great black people for a job. But what we see and find is also influenced by a narrative that says they aren’t enterprising. The ironic thing is that census data shows the rate at which black folk start businesses has been growing at more than double the national average for over a decadeThey are very enterprising.

One of the myth-busting things we like to do at BMe is to point out positive measures that black men lead the nation in. One is patriotism, according to rates of military service. Another is fatherly engagement. According to the CDC, black fathers are the most active dads in the nation.

Well that certainly busts the myth; that’s the total opposite of the stereotype!

Exactly! Our narratives are inaccurate and outdated; older for an older time. There was a time when racial division was a way of maintaining advantage, but it clearly limits American growth now.

"Narrative is the number one determinant of how people make decisions."

Is there such a thing as racial difference?

Absolutely. But it’s cultural. It’s not genetic.

How is Black Culture different from White Culture?

There’s an industrial psychologist named Dr. Edwin Nichols who breaks down the axiological differences between Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin countries. These differences are far subtler and more interesting than people realize. Western logic is dichotomous and objective. African logic is diunital and relational. They both work. But being relational in orientation, black people all over the world will use “brother” and “sister” normatively to refer to people whereas that relational assumption is not standard in the West.

What is the difference between diunital and dichotomous?

That’s a fun question. Dichotomy is “either-or”. Diunital is “both-and”. In dichotomy you look for opposites. In diunital you look for the relationship between things that may appear opposite. So dichotomy says, opposite of hot is cold, leader is follower, etc. But is opposite of leader truly follower? Diunital says what is relationship between hot and cold – they are measures of energy. What is relationship between leader and follower – they are measures of conviction. So the opposite of leader is not follower because they both have some conviction; the opposite is an apathetic person. If you can apply different logics then you can learn to understand anything.

That is absolutely fascinating. What I love about life are the little differences between things, and that includes differences between cultures and races. To say there are no differences between us, to me, is to deny the beauty of those differences. Do you worry about erasing the differences when really you’re trying to celebrate them?

BMe’s approach to people is called “Asset-framing.” It is simply defining people by their positive aspirations and contributions. Once you do that, you can share difference and even faults and failings without stigmatizing or condemning anyone. You can also come together sincerely.

By Isaac Simpson

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