ijeoma-oluo

Ijeoma Oluo

Thinker

So You Want To Talk About Race

Intro

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, the rise of anti-racism, and the Black Lives Matter movement, it has become more commonplace to have conversations about race and racism. However, this was not always the case, and still today, many people feel incredibly uncomfortable having difficult conversations about race.

The Nigerian-American writer Ijeoma Oluo knows that conversations surrounding racism, sexism, and discrimination are uneasy and imperfect; but that is exactly why she urges people to have them.1 Oluo is most well known for her book So You Want To Talk About Race, a guide full of tools and techniques for how to approach conversations surrounding intersectionality, race, gender, and discrimination.2

Since Oluo turned to writing in her mid-30s, she has accumulated an impressive repertoire of articles that tackle topics such as misogyny, feminism, harassment, white supremacy, and minority representation. She is also a speaker and a self-proclaimed “internet yeller,” dedicated to having the conversations people are too afraid to begin themselves.

Being privileged doesn’t mean that you are always wrong and people without privilege are always right. It means that there is a good chance you are missing a few very important pieces of the puzzle.

– Ijeoma Oluo in her book So You Want To Talk About Race3

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Misogynoir (A Building Block on Intersectionality)

You’ve likely heard about misogyny – prejudice against women – but might not be as familiar with the term misogynoir. Misogynoir refers to the specific and unique experience of misogyny that Black women face. As a Black woman, Oluo believes that feminist activists need to take into account the different ways that Black girls face prejudice, and that anti-racist efforts need to consider the particular ways Black women are racially discriminated against.4

Accounting for the unique experiences of oppression faced by Black women is called intersectionality, a school of research Oluo built upon in her coining of the term “misogynoir.” Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American lawyer who believed the law was missing the bigger picture when it took cases of discrimination as single-issue cases: either sexism or racism, but not both. Intersectionality was a viewpoint to account for both forms of discrimination.5

In the fifth chapter of So You Want To Talk About Race, Oluo defines intersectionality as “the belief that our social justice movements must consider all of the intersections of identity, privilege, and oppression that people face in order to be just and effective.” 6 A focus on intersectionality pushes feminists to center those voices that are experiencing overlapping and concurrent forms of oppression.7

While feminist efforts have led to a great deal of change for white women, Oluo urges people to understand that such activism often fails to account for women who are not just discriminated against for their gender. White feminism is often willing to trade in real liberation for proximity to white male power. For real feminism – feminism for everyone – to be made possible, white women need to risk their security and focus on their bonds with women of color instead of their bonds with white men.7 Oluo suggests that patriarchy needs both racism and sexism to survive, and that white feminism therefore enables the perpetuation of the patriarchy. White women’s liberation can only truly exist when all women are liberated.8

In her mission to combine radical, intersectional feminism with a stress-reliever for Black women, Oluo started sketching coloring pages of her favorite feminists and sharing them with her family and friends. She received positive feedback, which pushed her to start a Kickstarter to fund a fully bound coloring book: The Badass Feminist Coloring Book. 9

The official coloring book published in 2015 showcases feminists of different ages, races, body types, sexualities, and gender identities. In an interview with Bustle, Oluo said that her primary motivation for the diverse representation is her belief in the power of visibility. Many of the women Oluo drew were Black, as she urged people to recognize that Black women have multiple characteristics for which they are discriminated against, but that these same characteristics are also what make them strong and beautiful.

Often the only people we see representing movements are those who most closely fit into the preferences of white-hetero-patriarchal society. When many people think ‘feminist’, we think of a youngish, middle-class privileged white woman who took a lot of women’s studies courses in college… but the beauty of real feminists doing their bit every day to make a more just society comes in all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, gender identities, and sexualities. Anybody who believes in gender equality can be a feminist.9

“Identifying as Black” as part of White Privilege

A bulk of Oluo’s career has been spent talking about race, marching in protests for racial equality, and having uncomfortable conversations with white people about race. Although having the conversations herself has great impact and influence, Oluo recognized that people needed to start having these conversations on their own. To not talk about race is a privilege afforded by whiteness. Black people, and other people of color (POC) don’t have the luxury of avoiding race conversation because the color of their skin governs their daily life and their movement in the world.

Alternatively, deciding how the conversation on race should go is also a product of white privilege. After running a series of workshops on how to talk about race deliberately and thoughtfully, Oluo reflected on the participation of the attendees. White people, especially white men, were always eager to share their thoughts on race, while minorities did not speak up in group settings. They would thank Oluo privately afterwards, but often did not feel safe to contribute in public. All too often, white people center themselves in conversations about race – they want to know what they can do, they want to silence their guilt, and they want Black people to educate them about racism. 10

Centering oneself as a white person is a reflection of a social and political system that has always centered white people. Oluo came to this realization after her now-viral interview with Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who infamously self-identifies as Black. During her interview, Oluo repeatedly asks Dolezal how her ability to identify as Black was anything more than a reflection of white privilege, which frustrates Dolezal. Oluo also points out that Dolezal can ‘pass’ as a white person which means she is treated differently by society.

Oluo came to the realization that Dolezal’s inability to see her own privilege was a manifestation of everyday white supremacy. Many white people, including Dolezal, “take what they want from other cultures in the name of love and respect, while distorting or discarding the remainder of that culture for their comfort.11

Realizing that people, white and POC alike, did not even know how to have these conversations about race, Oluo decided to write a book. The book intended to compile much of what she had already written regarding race in various online articles and guide readers towards fruitful conversations. So You Want to Talk About Race, published in 2018, quickly became a New York Times bestseller.

The book is intended for people of all races because for racism to be challenged, everyone needs to be able to discuss it. The book can help white people better understand how racism plays out in ways they hadn’t noticed they were implicated in, and it can provide Black people tips on appropriate ways to breach the topic of racism in personal and professional settings.11

Each chapter in So You Want to Talk About Race begins with a commonly asked question. Some chapter titles include: “What if I talk about race wrong?,” “Why can’t I say the ‘N’ word?,” “What are microaggressions?,” and “What is the model minority myth?”12 These questions are ones people often have but avoid in conversation out of fear. The answers to these questions are not simple and can often induce feelings of guilt and discomfort ; it is for that reason that their conversations are so pivotal.

Oluo reminds us that we should feel uncomfortable about racism, but that working through that discomfort is our only path forward.

Historical Background

Ijeoma Oluo was born in 1980 in Texas to an American white mother and a Nigerian Black father. When Oluo was two years old, her father returned to Nigeria to complete some work as a political activist. After a few months away, he ceased communication completely with his wife and his daughter.13 Having the most prominent Black influence in her life disappear meant that from a young age, Oluo had a complex relationship with her identity as a biracial individual.

Her mother tried her best to raise Oluo and her younger brother, Ahamefule, just outside Seattle, but struggled financially. Oluo was given advice about how to behave with police officers, what it meant to have Black hair, and was warned that she might be treated differently because of the color of her skin, but conversations with her mother about race never went deeper than surface issues.13 Oluo’s mother, like most, thought her children could achieve anything they wanted. However, as Oluo has later said, her mother’s perspective was clouded by her whiteness, preventing her from understanding all the challenges Oluo and her brother would have to overcome.14

Oluo attended Lynnwood High School in Washington and worked at a bookstore.15 She got married while still in high school, to Chad Jacobson, with whom she had one son, Malcolm. The two were only married for four years.16

Oluo pursued a bachelor’s degree in political science from Western Washington University.12 She was enthralled by the workings of political systems and felt that her degree connected her to her father.13 After graduating in 2007, Oluo began a career in tech and digital marketing. She had another son, Marcus, in 2008.

In 2012, 17-year old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot. Martin was a Black teenager visiting his father’s neighborhood when George Zimmerman, a white man on neighborhood watch, followed him and shot him.17 When Oluo learned about Martin’s death, she was appalled.

She said in an interview with Vogue,As a black woman, as a mom, and sister, [Martin’s death] was really traumatizing to me. Not only because of seeing that this baby was murdered and knowing there wasn’t going to be justice for his family, but also recognizing how unwilling many white people that I had grown up around were to talk about the issue and talk about racism in the area.17 Oluo was in fact right – a year later, a jury would find Zimmerman not guilty.18

The 2012 incident inspired Oluo’s writing career and her 2018 bestseller. If people weren’t having the necessary conversations, she wanted to make sure she was speaking up. Oluo began publishing personal articles on various news sites, including Jezebel, The Stranger, and The Guardian. Her writing began to attract attention, and soon enough, she was writing for bigger outlets, such as TIME, New York Magazine, Medium and Huffington Post.

Oluo has decided to remain a freelance writer and primarily publish online because it provides her with more freedom and an ability to stay true to her own voice. When asked about her decision, Oluo said that, “Especially as a Black woman it’s really important because you have to amass enough power in your own name to be able to say ‘no.’ Otherwise, your work is continuously shaped by other people.” 13

In 2015, Oluo’s mother told her that she’d had an epiphany about race. For the first time ever, Oluo and her mother engaged in a serious and uncomfortable conversation about race. The two talked about the differences of being a white mother with Black children and being a Black person. They talked about how people could talk about race without placing the burden on POC to educate white people. The conversation was exhausting and emotional, but left both Oluo and her mother feeling more connected and understanding of one another.14

In the same year, Oluo was named one of Seattle’s Most Influential People by Seattle Magazine. She also began her role as editor-at-large of the female run multimedia company The Establishment, which shut down four years later in 2019.19 In 2017 and 2018, Oluo was named one of The Root’s 100 Most Influential African-Americans.19 She was also awarded the American Humanist Association’s Feminist Humanist Award in 2018. 13 In 2021, Oluo was chosen as an Emerging Leader Shaping the Future on the TIME100 Next list.20

In 2020, Oluo published her third book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, which examines the privileged position of mediocrity.

Insights

On intersectionality:

  • When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change. 3
  • Disadvantaged white people are not erased by discussions of disadvantages facing people of color, just as brain cancer is not erased by talking about breast cancer. They are two different issues with two different treatments, and they require two different conversations.” 3

On white privilege:

  • To refuse to listen to someone’s cries for justice and equality until the request comes in a language you feel comfortable with is a way of asserting your dominance over them in the situation. 3
  • If you live in this system of white supremacy, you are either fighting the system or you are complicit. There is no neutrality to be hard towards systems of injustice, it is not something you can just opt out of.” 3
  • “When somebody asks you to ‘check your privilege’ they are asking you to pause and consider how the advantages you’ve had in life are contributing to your opinions and actions, and how the lack of disadvantages in certain areas is keeping you from fully understanding the struggles others are facing and may in fact be contributing to those struggles. It is a big ask, to check your privilege. It is hard and often painful, but it’s not nearly as painful as living with the pain caused by the unexamined privilege of others.” 3

On race:

  • 1. It is about race if a person of color thinks it is about race. 2. It is about race if it disproportionately or differently affects people of color. 3. It is about race if it fits into a broader pattern of events that disproportionately or differently affect people of color.3
  • Just because something is about race, doesn’t mean it’s only about race. This also means that just because something is about race, doesn’t mean that white people can’t be similarly impacted by it and it doesn’t mean that the experience of white people negatively impacted is invalidated by acknowledging that people of color are disproportionately impacted.3

Where Can We Learn More?

Ijeoma Oluo has written three books: The Badass Feminist Coloring Book,So You Want To Talk About Race and Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. Information about the latest two books can be found on her website. On her website, you can also find a list of selected writings published on various news and media outlets.

You can also find a list of all the articles Oluo has written for The Guardian here. Noteworthy articles on this list include her article about the US Treaty’s decision to put American abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman on $20 bills; her article “Confronting racism is not about the needs and feelings of white people”; and a unique piece about how white people should talk about Kanye West.

Oluo also used to write extensively for The Stranger. A list of all of her articles can be found here. The list includes Oluo’s viral interview with Rachel Dolezal, as well as her opinions on movies about race such as Hidden Figures and 13th.

As a mother, Oluo has also written various articles about the trials and tribulations of parenting in general, and specifically about parenting as a Black mother with Black children. Take a look at her article “My Parenting Advice: Don’t Kill Them,” or her Esquire piece, “Raising a Black Family in White America.”

If you’re interested in Oluo’s thoughts on the activism spurred by George Floyd’s death, and the hope she feels as a result of white people beginning to understand deeply ingrained systemic racism, you should check out her interview with Vox.

Oluo has also given numerous lectures. Thanks to her background in tech and digital marketing, Oluo provides valuable insight into how racism intersects with technology. In her X Talk, Oluo discusses ways tech companies can create more inclusive digital environments. She also was a guest on The Daily Show, where she discussed the ‘pyramid scheme’ of white supremacy. If you’d like to hear more about her bestseller, So You Want To Talk About Race, you can check out her Talk at Google.

Oluo has also been a guest on various podcasts. In her episode on Amanpour, a CNN podcast hosted by Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour, Oluo discusses how her gender and race intersect, with references to So You Want To Talk About Race and Mediocre. If you’re curious about how Oluo switched careers in her mid 30s, you might want to listen to her episode on the Wanna Be podcast.

References

  1. Oluo, I. (2020, June 9). Be wary of things that are purely symbolic”: How to join the conversation on race. Interview by E. Stewart. VOX. https://www.vox.com/2020/6/9/21285062/ijeoma-oluo-interview-talk-race-book-george-floyd-protests
  2. So You Want to Talk About Race. (2018, January 16). Seal Press. https://www.sealpress.com/titles/ijeoma-oluo/so-you-want-to-talk-about-race/9781580056779/
  3. Ijeoma Oluo Quotes. (n.d.). Goodreads. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/14408819.Ijeoma_Oluo
  4. Assare, J. G. (2020, September 22). Misogynoir: The Unique Discrimination That Black Women Face. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2020/09/22/misogynoir-the-unique-discrimination-that-black-women-face/?sh=5127384356ef
  5. Coaston, J. (2019, May 28). The intersectionality wars. Vox. https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination
  6. So You Want to Talk About Race: Chapter 5. (n.d.). LitCharts. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://www.litcharts.com/lit/so-you-want-to-talk-about-race/chapter-5-what-is-intersectionality-and-why-do-i-need-it
  7. Intersectional feminism: What it means and why it matters right now. (2020, July 1). UN Women. https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/6/explainer-intersectional-feminism-what-it-means-and-why-it-matters
  8. Free Library Author Events. (2021, February 1). Ijeoma Oluo on White Feminism and Liberation [Video]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=902442233627340
  9. Mosthof, M. (2015, June 25). Three Words: Feminist Coloring Book. Bustle. https://www.bustle.com/articles/92924-badass-feminist-coloring-book-by-feminist-writer-ijeoma-oluo-should-probably-be-on-your-wish-list
  10. Oluo, I. (2019, December 16). Confronting racism is not about the needs and feelings of white people. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/28/confronting-racism-is-not-about-the-needs-and-feelings-of-white-people
  11. Bhatt, J. (2018, February 1). REVIEW: An Incisive Look at Race — And How We Should Be Talking About It. The National Book Review. https://www.thenationalbookreview.com/features/2018/2/1/pzq0lfjcpd3klmi89d5qinpawx15tr
  12. So You Want To Talk About Race. (n.d.). Falvey Memorial Library. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://library.villanova.edu/Find/Record/1896802/TOC
  13. Bardi, J. (2018, February 5). Humanist Profile: Ijeoma Oluo. The Humanist. https://thehumanist.com/features/profiles/humanist-profile-ijeoma-oluo/
  14. Oluo, I. (2018, January 17). The Conversation I’ve Been Dreading: Ijeoma Oluo Talks About Race with Her Mom. Literary Hub. https://lithub.com/the-conversation-ive-been-dreading-ijeoma-oluo-talks-about-race-with-her-mom/
  15. Oluo, A. J. (2011, July 6). My Father Is an African Immigrant and My Mother Is a White Girl from Kansas and I Am Not the President of the United States. The Stranger. https://www.thestranger.com/seattle/my-father-is-an-african-immigrant-and-my-mother-is-a-white-girl-from-kansas-and-i-am-not-the-president-of-the-united-states/Content?oid=8932130
  16. Ijeoma Oluo. (2021, April 12). AllFamous.org. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://allfamous.org/people/ijeoma-oluo-19801230.html
  17. CNN Editorial Research. (2021, February 17). Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts
  18. King, A. (2020, June 19). Ijeoma Oluo on How Self-Care Fuels Her Activism. Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/article/ijeoma-oluo-on-how-self-care-fuels-her-activism
  19. Ijeoma Oluo Bio. (n.d.). CASE. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://www.case.org/ijeoma-oluo
  20. Ijeoma Oluo. (2021, February 17). Time. https://time.com/collection/time100-next-2021/5937617/ijeoma-oluo/