Ijeoma Oluo’s book “So You Want to Talk About Race” is a no-nonsense, straight-forward guide to understanding the complexities of race in America. Oluo covers a lot of ground within chapters titled, “Is it really about race?”, “Why can’t I touch your hair?”, “Why can’t I say the n-word?” and “I just got called racist; what do I do now?” She blends her personal experiences as a Black woman with research into a precise picture that’s easy to follow. Oluo’s book debut goes beyond a publication one reads to gain knowledge on how to begin the work of being anti-racist; “So You Want to Talk About Race” can also be used as a tool to turn uncomfortable conversations about race into productive ones.
Oluo is a local writer, speaker and internet yeller. She gained national attention with a profile of Rachel Dolezal published in The Stranger last April. She is editor-at-large at The Establishment. Seattle Magazine named her “one of the most influential people” in 2017, and she was recently awarded the 2018 Feminist Humanist Award by the American Humanist Society.
Oluo is a mother of two and the daughter of a White mother from the Midwest and a Nigerian father. Her food blog transitioned into a place for her to write about her fears for her community and family. She lost White friends along the way, but those blog posts gained attention from people across the country and online publishers. Seal Press released her book in January. It has since become a New York Times bestseller. Real Change spoke with Oluo about her book, her relationship with her mother and her Facebook makeup tutorials (she loves wearing blush).
Lisa Edge: How has your life changed since the release of your book in January?
Ijeoma Oluo: I’d say it’s changed a lot and also not at all. Definitely changed as far as the work, the type of work I’m doing right now. I’m spending a lot of time traveling and speaking. A lot less time writing because I don’t have the time for it. But, you know, at the end of the day I’m still a single mom with two kids. I have this whole section of home life that kind of has to stay the same because I have kids who still accept rides to taekwondo and, you know, food and all those other things that children expect without much care for what your workload looks like (laughs).
LE: One of the things that’s great about following you on Twitter and Facebook is the window we get into your personal life, which I think helps engender connectedness. Do you think you’ve shared too much?
IO: I’m constantly re-evaluating and adjusting. I definitely don’t think I share quite the same way I used to. I know it seems like I share a lot, but a lot of what I end up sharing ends up being like light quips or funny things that happen in a day. But I know that, especially when it comes to my kids, what I do share has definitely tightened down. You know, before, when social media was just my space to connect with friends and community, it was different as far as what I’d talk about what my kids were doing. But now it’s something where I have think about whether it’s something they’d be comfortable with or just ask them, “Do you want this to go online or not?”
LE: In the book you describe White supremacy as a pyramid scheme and later you make the point that problems within the labor and class movements is that they will have you believing in trickle-down social justice. White allies often want to take the path of least resistance. Is this something you’ve encountered in your line of work?
IO: Yeah, I encounter it constantly. I think any Black person, a person of color in this work, encounters it all the time, and you don’t even have to be in the work. I think even just conversations amongst people on the so-called left pop up time and time again these kind of compromises that people expect us to make, but it’s really our humanity that’s expected to be compromised. We’re constantly told to wait to meet these “majority” needs first and then will be addressed eventually, and it’s really common and it’s another form of White supremacy that people don’t like to acknowledge. The thought that they would come first even if they are the least suffered or the least harmed. And it’s something that if we’re ever going to have with movements that are effective and that continue to hold the attention and the effort of people of color and are going to be effective in fighting oppression, we really have to start in-house first. We really have to look at where you absorbed these harmful ideas.
LE: You also write about your relationship with your mother frequently. In the book you recount a conversation about race you had with her stemming from a joke she told at work. Did you talk to her about it before you put it in your book?
IO: I didn’t talk to her about it before I put it in the book. My mom and I have had a lot of conversations about my work over the years. We had long talks when I first started writing about, you know, how my life is going to intersect with hers through a lot of the stories where perhaps maybe she didn’t quite get something right and it’s going to have to be included because that’s part of the story and it’s part of my story. It’s not to hurt her or anything like that, but it’s simply because we all have to kind of live with what’s happened in the world, and part of how we move forward is by being open and honest and it will always have a reason or a point. It will never just be I want people to know what my mom did. We had that discussion a long time ago.
My brother [Ahamefule Oluo] also references our mom in his work a lot as well. He’s a musician and a writer and a storyteller, so our mom has had a couple of years to get very comfortable, and I always do try to think — I never want to harm her. I try to figure where she is in the conversation. My mom actually has absolutely no problem with the chapter at all. The only complaint she had was that I didn’t include more things that she had said that were not helpful at all in the conversation.
LE: Growing up your mother made a point for you to know about your culture and encouraged you to embrace your Nigerian roots. That doesn’t always happen when White people raise Black and biracial children. Why did your mom make that decision?
IO: I think part of it is my mom’s nature. My mom is probably one of the most open and curious people I’ve ever known, so I don’t think it would have ever crossed her mind that Black was something she wouldn’t want her kids to be. It’s almost embarrassing when she runs across someone who is from a demographic that she hasn’t encountered. The light in her eyes. She’s like “more people,” just completely fascinated. Part of that, you know, I think is her nature. Not to say no White supremacy infiltrated her — of course she’s a White woman. But the idea of White supremacy held no sway with her whatsoever. A large part I think for my mom honestly was, my mom wasn’t really accepted where she grew up and wasn’t incredibly close to her family growing up. When my mom married my dad, they moved wherever Nigerian immigrants were. They lived in a really close, close-knit Nigerian-American community and that was I think the first time my mom ever felt like she had a family and community, and the thought that you would be loved and accepted and you didn’t have to fit any sort of ideal and that people would be open with their affection and their love was the exact opposite of kind what she had grown up with.
For her there was just this deep love for this community that was really, I think, as close to a large family that she had ever really gotten. And when our dad went back to Nigeria, she was just I think really devastated at the thought of us not having that. It was the best thing in her life and she really wanted us to have that. So she was constantly trying to seek out ways to keep us connected so that we could have, kind of, some of that joy that she had had in those years when she was with our dad.
LE: As a Black woman I’m grateful for all of the anti-racism work that you are doing, but it also places you in the crosshairs of trolls and racists. How do you handle retaliation?
IO: First of all I’m incredibly privileged that I’m able to pay all my bills writing and writing about these issues. Because I don’t actually have to worry about a financial impact, I turn down work often when the request doesn’t align with my values or when the editing process starts to pull my work away from my voice or what I feel like needs to be said, but because I don’t have to worry about an office job and getting fired there or creating a hostile work environment for myself. A lot of times people are like, “I’m going to get you fired.” And I’m like, “From where?” (laughs) Where are you going to get me fired from? From all the places who already know everything I say, who read this essay and decided to publish it? How?
A lot of writers especially writers of color, especially Black women writers are not able to sustain themselves financially just through their writing. And I wouldn’t say it’s just my writing but my writing and my speaking and things that are related to my words and they’re in a tricky position because they really can be fired from a job for talking about these things.
LE: You cover a lot in your book. Is there a topic that was a “must cover?”
IO: Pretty much all of them were musts for me. If someone had said I couldn’t include the chapter on the model minority myth, I probably would’ve pulled the book.
I don’t think one is more or less important than the other. A lot of them build off each other.
LE: What’s been some of the feedback that you’ve gotten?
IO: The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I was actually surprised. When you’re getting ready to publish the book after this couple years of process, you start thinking of every horrible thing that people could possibly say about the book and all the flaws they might find. Definitely none of that really happened. There was some critique here and there. The reviews were all positive. Part of it I think I hadn’t realized at the time that I realize now which is that racists don’t want to read an entire book that they’re not going to like.
It’s been really wonderful to hear from people of color who are using the book practically because that was my goal. I felt like if it wasn’t actually helping people of color, I wouldn’t have been able to call it a success. To hear from people of color who are using it day-to-day in the way that I hoped they would. People who are saying, “I work in this field where people are constantly asking me ignorant questions about race, and now what I do is I keep a copy of your book on my cubicle, and I hand it to them and say, ‘Hey, read this chapter.’” I’ve heard from multiple people who were kind of using it that way. I took this to my family member where we could never get peace on this topic, I brought this to them I asked them to read it and we were finally able to have a productive conversation on it.
LE: I think your work resonates with a lot of people and I think that’s in part because of your accessibility. Is there one piece of advice that you’ve given to White people that has struck a chord?
IO: I tweeted a couple of years ago, and I include this in the book just because of how it seemed to resonate with people, which was, you know, look where your privilege intersects with someone’s oppression because that’s where you have the most power to make change. And that just really clicked with a lot of people I think in a way that they hadn’t considered before, because people are so afraid of those words privilege. So afraid of looking at it and understanding that you really can’t make any meaningful change if you’re not willing to engage with your privilege not because you require that guilt or anything like that but simply because where else but where you have power and privilege would you be able to make change, and you really do have to be able to look for that and seek it out in order to be most effective. I would say that has probably been one of those light bulb moments for more people than just about anything else I’ve said.
LE: Do you have any advice for writers who want to become published one day, since you’ve been successful?
IO: I would say first of all just be proud of your writing. A lot of people really hide their writing or won’t make it public until it’s professionally published. They feel that’s the stamp of approval they need in order to share their work. But the way that it works now on the internet is the opposite. You kind of build your audience and then the work comes, especially if you’re in a marginalized population. That’s how I really got my start. I didn’t get my start by just going and trying to get published. I was writing and I had something I need to say to the world and that started picking up steam and I was putting it out there not even with the intention of becoming a writer. But with the intent of having my community read what I was saying. When that started gaining an audience that’s when publishers started reaching out to me. The internet is amazing and wonderful and I would say just if you’re going to write online today don’t necessarily look at publications as the legitimizer of your work. You legitimize your work by writing and writing and writing and listening to your audience and rewriting and having these conversations and then the publishers will come. You really have to do that work on your own terms first.
LE: In addition to your work with your anti-racism work, you also go live on Facebook for makeup tutorials. Why do you do those?
IO: That’s just pure fun. I absolutely love makeup. It is really kind of a nice stress relief for me. I’ve always loved art and I don’t have the time for a lot of large scale art projects. So sitting down to paint your face is kind of a loving thing to do and it’s fun and it’s creative. I started doing [them] primarily because when I would post selfies of something fun I had made I would hear these comments that worried me. People would say I wish I could do that but I don’t have the skin for it. I wish I could do that but I can’t carry off those colors. Things like that all the time and that bothered me because as a feminist it bothered me, as a Black woman it bothered me, but also as a someone who loves color and art and believes it should be accessible it bothered me. So I just started making these videos while I was getting ready.
LE: Your book has only been out a few months but I have to ask if we can expect more books from you.
IO: Yes definitely. I’m hoping to in the next couple of months get some time to work out a proposal for my next book. It’s really about just getting that time where I can sit for a good period of time and get the work out. I already have ideas that I’ve been discussing with my agent as to what I’m going to do next. It’s definitely not the last book that you’ll hear from me no matter what I promised as I was finishing this book that I would never ever ever do it again. There will definitely be more.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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