In the days when he still had hair, Theo Wilson used to attend “barbershop talks” which are what they sound like. The talks helped people connect, preserve the culture and create community.
“I used to get a fade and stuff, you know what I’m saying? I remember when they start pushing my line a little further, a little further,” Wilson said, laughing.
Currently, Wilson facilitates conversations and discussions about racism at colleges across the country. On Feb. 26, he came to Clark College to share his message. He approached the topic with gravity and humor, knowing that people will shut down and stop learning if a topic becomes too heavy.
Wilson is an internet star famous for his Facebook vlogs regarding racism and going undercover within the online alt-right. He spoke about his experience in a TED Talk in 2017.
He first started learning about the online alt-right in the late 1990s. When talking about modern-day racism, particularly within the alt-right, Wilson described it as “open-face bigotry.”
“I first saw the images, the caricature they would try to paint of African Americans. You know what I’m talking about, them Sambo pictures, them blackface pictures with the big old red lips and us talking in broken English and ebonics, trying to mask our humanity through a caricature so that they did not feel bad for discriminating against and killing us.”
Wilson visited Stormfront.com, one of the earliest and more prominent white supremacy websites. The site’s founder, Don Black, claims the site existed only to preserve white people and culture. However, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the real identities of many of the users show they organized protests for the alt-right and were responsible for almost a
Wilson’s undercover work was similar to Ron Stallworth infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan in the 1970s. Stallworth’s story was recently told in the 2018 film “BlacKkKlansman.” This is why some have called him the “New Black Klansman.” He did not know about Stallworth when he infiltrated the alt-right however and is not sure if he deserves the comparison.
“I almost don’t feel like I deserve to be in Stallworth’s shadow, because what he did was absolutely courageous,” he said.
Wilson discussed a huge variety of topics during the speech. He called race a “mass hallucination,” and lamented how much capital has been used throughout history to oppress people over “hair and hue.”
He then explained how his many childhood experiences shaped his beliefs. Born in the 1980s in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver, Colorado, his greatest fear was not the Klan, it was gang activity.
“My childhood had a shadow cast over it by straight-up gang activity. That was the thing I was afraid of, the Bloods and the Crips,” he said. “There was war in my community.”
Shopping for school clothes, his mother purposefully bought neutral colors, avoiding anything too red or blue so he wouldn’t be shot by a gang member.
Wilson told about his experience attending Florida A&M University at the time of the bombings in 1999. According to Wilson, the bombings did not receive near as much media coverage as the Columbine shooting which occurred the same year.
“This feels like a kind-of benign neglect,” he said to himself after the bombings.
Wilson is also a police brutality survivor.
During his graduation celebration at a club, a fight broke out. While looking for his friend, a police officer told him to go home. When Wilson explained he was looking for a friend, the cop put him in a hold. When Wilson struggled free, the cop pushed him into the street.
Knocked to the ground, four additional officers swarmed and handcuffed him as Wilson screamed, “Police brutality! Police brutality!”
People started to notice what was happening.
Cops took him to an upstairs room above the club and handcuffed him to a chair. One officer began beating Wilson repeatedly.
“Slapped me around and punched me in my ribs,” Wilson said. “I remember yelling to the other cops, ‘Do you see this? Do you see what he’s doing?’ They all turned their backs, just like I felt the world turned their backs on A&M University. At that moment I said, ‘This is it, this is how I leave here.’”
Wilson remembers crying, wondering if people would know if he died, what his mother would think. The officer eventually stopped and told him, “You don’t know my name, you don’t know my badge number, if I see you again tonight you’re going to jail.”
After the beating, Wilson was thrown down a flight of stairs. He saw a newspaper headline that said “powerless.” Wilson said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the beating.
Not long after that, his childhood friend Alonzo Ashley was tased to death.
“Please don’t let this be my boy Alonzo Ashley,” Wilson said to himself. “Not Alonzo Ashley, who’s grandma Irma Ashley used to babysit me when I was a kid. Not Alonzo Ashley who I used to share birthdays with because his birthday was literally the day before mine. Not him.”
Wilson remembers thinking to himself, “I gotta do something positive with this rage before I do something stupid with it.”
This is why ASCC representative Timothy Kintz, who organized the event, believes Wilson can bring a more “progressive conversation” to campus.
“I think he acknowledges he’s spent a lifetime building his view,” Kintz said.
“I began to pick up a pen,” Wilson said. “I began to write a little bit more. Now at this time, I fancied myself a . . . ‘rapper?’ I had what are known as . . . ‘bars.’”
Eventually, these raps turned political. Wilson started winning spoken word and poetry slam competitions.
One day a friend said they needed to bring back the “barbershop talks.” As popularity grew, the talks grew to standing room only. Wilson brought the talks online through Shoptalk Live. People would have discussions and resolve issues in person then uploaded videos of it online.
Today, Wilson gives talks on college tours and posts videos on ClipHash.
At the end of his speech, Wilson opened the floor for audience questions.
“One of the reasons why history is not always correct is because textbooks don’t have all the historical information so they can sell better. How do you think textbooks can be more accurate?” student Larson Winger asked.
“I think it’s interesting what they put in and what they don’t put in, in regards to the space they allow,” Wilson said. “I certainly wish they took the time to take a deeper dive.”
He took time to discuss survivors remorse and trauma response, as well as the fact that “equality needs to be mechanized” and that anything is possible. He pointed to humanity’s technological innovations as proof.
He passionately read a poem he wrote which asked serious, contemplative questions, but also made the audience laugh out loud.
At the end of the speech, everyone was in good spirits, inspired and talking about Wilson’s performance, passionate style and commentary on racism.
If Wilson’s goal was to get people talking, mission accomplished.