'Black Women Need to Be Recognized for the Work They Do': A Conversation With Ijeoma Oluo

The writer discusses her new book, and what all of us can do to combat racism
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Ijeoma Oluo.

Ijeoma Oluo.

Ijeoma Oluo's So You Want to Talk About Race is an unapologetically honest read about race in the United States. Those who follow Oluo's work have come to expect this sort of realness, whether in her essays on race and identity for Elle and the Washington Post, or in her work at The Establishment, a media outlet created by women that prioritizes marginalized voices, where she is editor at large. Now, in her breakout book, Oluo aims to shift the public discourse toward a more intelligent and proactive way of discussing race.

To help guide better conversations about race, Oluo dedicates each chapter to a specific concept integral to social justice movements. For instance, in chapter eight, titled "What Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?" Oluo breaks down how K-12 school policies encourage the harsh treatment of black and brown children, and eventually contribute to mass incarceration. In chapter 10, Oluo takes on cultural appropriation and its detrimental effects on how people of color are allowed to celebrate themselves and their traditions. With each chapter, Oluo takes points well examined by activists and critical race theory scholars, and makes them simple enough to be understood broadly, in the hope that these conversations can become widely transformative.

To make her points as accessible as possible, Oluo often starts a chapter with a story about herself. She is up-front about the privileges she enjoys (a college education, light skin, an able body) and those she does not (class, race, body type), and uses that frankness about herself as an opening into larger issues. Through a combination of illuminating anecdotes, tips for talking about race, personal reflections, hard statistics, and trenchant commentary on the best tactics for achieving social justice, Oluo argues that the most important goal in any discussion of race is to create a strong, inclusive movement to dismantle racism. Advice goes both ways in this book. In one section, to people of color, Olou writes: "Nobody has authority over your right for racial justice. Those who tone-police you are trying to manipulate you into thinking their validation is required to legitimize your desire for racial justice." To white readers, she explains directly, "You are not owned gratitude or friendship from people of color for your efforts."

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One line that really stood out to me in your book is when you write: "As a black woman, I'd love to not have to talk about race ever again. I do not enjoy it. It is not fun." I think it's pretty common to hear refrains like, "Oh, black people love complaining," or "She's playing the race card." What motivates you to continue talking and writing about race, even though it is not fun to do?

It's really funny because there's this weird myth that black people absolutely love it. But it's like people forget that we have to live it and then talk about it in order to fix it. It's not as if we are just observing racism and then talking about it, which is how many white people come into these conversations. They don't have to live it. They aren't commenting on their lived experience. But for people of color, not only are you bringing up trauma and things that have happened to you, and talking about real pains and experience, but you are also risking that pain being used against you and that pain causing even more pain.

When I asked a lot of people about what they feared entering into conversations about race, it was striking to me the differences in fear. A lot of white people were like, "Oh, I'm afraid I am going to look stupid" or "I'll look racist" or "I'm afraid that someone will yell at me." And then people of color were like, "Well, I've been fired from jobs for talking about race so I'm afraid that's going to happen again," or "I've been physically hurt for talking about race and I don't want that to happen again." When people of color talk about these things, I wish [white] people understood the pain and risk that comes along. We do it because we have to. Our lives are just as whole as anyone else's. There's plenty of other things that we would all love to be talking about.

So You Want to Talk About Race?

So You Want to Talk About Race?

Chapter 14, which focuses on the harmful effects of the model-minority myth, talks about the importance of including the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) community in movements for people of color. How do we do that, and whose responsibility is it to make that happen?

There are a lot of young Asian Americans who are not only marching for Black Lives, but trying to figure out where they belong in this movement as well. I think it's important for us to remember that this entire thing is manufactured by white supremacy. It doesn't mean that black people have the responsibility to be, like, "Let's go find all the Asian Americans and make sure they know that they are welcome and they are here." But I think it is important, when we talk about issues of people of color, that we remember that Asian Americans are also people of color. This is a system that harms everyone. Nobody, except for white people, can be a part of it and come out positively. And what looks like benefit on the surface—because the model minority is often used against us, black people, indigenous people, and Latinx people—is a different type of trap for Asian Americans.

You also talk about not using one bigotry to combat another—so, not using rhetoric steeped in fatphobia or classism to combat someone who has been racist. We see it in the way people use body-shaming tactics to attack people in government on all sides. Why is it so hard, for even the best of progressives, not to regress into this tactic?

I think when we are stung by a bigotry, we want to hit back. And the easy way out is to hit back with another bigotry and say, "Now you'll know what it feels like." But that's without realizing, of course, this is never a direct hit. You know, if someone comes to me and gives me a racist slur and I hit them with an ableist slur, I'm not just hitting them. I'm hitting everyone with a disability. Just like they aren't just hitting me, they are hitting every person of color.

When I neglect that, when I think that what hits me is more important, I'm basically saying that my humanity is more important than the humanity of this group that I am using as a weapon. But we have to pause then and think about it. It's a real lazy way out. It's an easy instinct. And you think that's justice. But it's not because you are just perpetrating more bigotry. Because of intersectionality, you can't defend black people by insulting women because black women exist, you know? You can't defend black people by insulting disabled people because disabled black people exist.

Do you see yourself entering the realm of black public intellectuals with this book? There's been some debate over whether black women are even welcome in that intellectual space, kind of in response to the whole Ta-Nehisi Coates versus Cornel West thing.

I mean, I never wanna catch myself in some embarrassing public spat the way that Cornel West is in right now. Like, that's not my end goal. I never wanted to be a public intellectual—I never wanted to be a public anything, at all. Even with a political science degree, my goal was never to run for politics. It more along the lines of, I'm going to be at a think tank, in an office, researching (laughs). You know, that was my goal, that would have been the sexiest job for me back then.

I think that black women need to be recognized for the work they do. There are plenty of black women who inspire me every single day, and I do think they deserve so much more credit than they have. I think the fact that we get into these discussions of whether or not it's this one black versus this one black man who is the vanguard of the movement says a lot about how many black people are allowed to be center-stage at once, how uncreative white America can be in who they are willing to learn from. It's a really kinda gross thing.

There are multitudes of us, and we are contributing to solving a problem that is so huge and so vast that, so long as we are not doing harm to the space, it is OK for people to pick up different parts of it and to try different methods and contribute different things. Black women should have their due because when they aren't supported, when they aren't funded, when they aren't listened to, we are missing the perspective necessary in making progress on these issues. We can't act as if black women will be able to do their best work forever without funding and without support and without seeing other black women before them as role models.

Everyone who has been obsessed with whether or not you are Camp West or Camp Coates is highly unimaginative. And I think they need to step back and question what they are really saying about the capabilities of black people to be thought leaders and how many there are and can be. We don't say, "Who is the great white thought leader?" We don't have those debates. The fact that it has to be these two black dudes says a lot about how flat [white gatekeepers] think the black experience is, how flat they think black creativity and the influence of black people is, that there can only be two. It's important black people don't get caught in this. Everyone should be outraged, including West and Coates, that this debate is even happening. Because it's another symptom of white supremacy, that [Coates and West] are even feeling compelled to defend their space, when there should be hundreds of thousands of spaces, and they shouldn't have to defend that at all.

Is it possible for white people to be truly anti-racist? Or in a general sense, is it possible for anyone with a privilege to be against the system that allows for that privilege?

Yeah, I think it's possible [for whites] to be anti-racist. I think there's a difference between being anti-racist and being racism-free. Like, I can have cancer and be anti-cancer. In fact, I'm very likely to be anti-cancer, and I'm gonna fight it. But it doesn't mean that because I'm against it, I'm free of it. White people need to remember that if they are anti-racist, they means they need to be even more vigilant in fighting white supremacy.

There's this notion of white guilt, and I wonder if you think there's a balance for white people who are reading your book: being proactive about race without falling into the "I'm so guilty; I'm so sorry" hole.

So often, this discussion on white guilt once again centers white feelings and white experience. It's important to realize that guilt is a natural emotion after figuring out that you have been part of causing pain or oppression to someone. But you also have to realize that it is completely irrelevant to solving racism.

So you feel it, you recognize that's a valid emotion. But feeling [guilt], in itself, does not help people of color; it's not an achievement. It is just a natural part of the process, but it is a byproduct that has nothing to do with helping. A lot of people think that if they just feel guilty enough, that's magically going to help. Or they think that if they can avoid feeling guilty, it is going to help.

There's a lot of these weird conversations about whether or not white people are being overly shamed or being made to feel too bad. I think it's important to realize that in no way should white guilt enter the equation of solving racial oppression because it does not do anything. I think if you don't feel guilty, that says a lot about you and how much you are learning. But whether or not you do, if you don't do anything afterwards, it's pointless. And so I think people need to realize it's not going to kill you to feel bad for a little bit, but it's also not going to help anyone if that's the most you get out of it. And you need to find a way to get used to that feeling and then move past it and forward into something more productive.

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