It’s Ijeoma Oluo’s goal to get people to have effective and productive conversations about race that America just simply has not been having. It can be very difficult because people are very uncomfortable talking about race. Even still, they are doing it more than they used to.
“Oh, yeah … I think we’re definitely talking about race more than we used to. If anything, this increased pushback we’re seeing is because we’re talking about it more. I remember 10 years ago if I had said, ‘I think that’s racist’ I wouldn’t have had anybody on my side. People would have been like, ‘How dare you? You’re ruining everything!’” laughs Oluo, a Seattle-based writer and speaker. “And 10 years ago people weren’t talking about things like microaggressions and privilege. That part is getting easier. Even people complaining about it [now] is better than acting like it never existed.”
It’s less difficult to talk about broad, systemic issues, she adds, but it’s more difficult when it hits closer to home.
“That’s when people shut it out,” Oluo tells Madison365. “People like to talk about racism when it’s ‘yeah, they really have a problem.’ But when you’re like, ‘OK, let’s talk about our neighborhood,’ people kind of clam up. I think the problem is that people are very willing to talk about racism but they aren’t very willing to talk about whiteness.”
Oluo is famous for her work on social issues such as race and gender that have been published in The Guardian, The Stranger, Washington Post, ELLE Magazine, NBC News and more. She has been the Editor at Large at The Establishment since 2015. The Wisconsin Book Festival will be hosting her tonight at Madison Public Library, 201 W. Mifflin St., where she will be talking about her very important book published earlier this year “So You Want to Talk About Race,” an everyday primer on how to have more effective and productive conversation on race. Oluo tells Madison365 that this is her first-ever trip to Madison and she is looking forward to it.
“The book is an overview of some of the more contentious topics around race. There are tips on how to discuss it and to make it less likely to escalate and more likely to get to a solution,” Oluo says.
The reviews for the book have been very positive. For example, National Review of Books said, “[T]his book is much-needed and timely. It is more than a primer on racism. It is a comprehensive conversation guide.”
“It’s been really powerful to hear from people who are using the book, not just ‘Oh, I liked it.’ But to hear people of color saying, ‘I’m using this book to have better conversations with my boss’ or to hear from organizations who are going through it together or families that are going through it together … that’s been really rewarding,” she says.
“I’ve realized as my career has progressed that the higher word count [in the book] the less pushback you’re going to get on race because racists just don’t want to devote that much time to reading something they don’t like,” she adds. “I’m not trying to say that racists are ignorant … because they are not. Some are very intelligent and well-educated. But I do think that you have to shut yourself off from a part of the world to maintain these beliefs and that means that you’re not going to actually volunteer to accept 8,000 words that you don’t like and threatens your worldview.”
Her agent first suggested she write this book and Oluo was reluctant. “She had asked me if I felt like writing something geared towards helping white people talk about race and I really didn’t want to do that,” Oluo remembers. “I write about race all the time and it does get tiring and it’s not fun. I just didn’t want to dedicate an entire book to that.”
But she thought about it for awhile. “It wasn’t just white people who were having issues talking about race; it was also people of color who may know on a deeper, more intrinsic level something’s very wrong but aren’t given the vocabulary and the in-depth knowledge on how it functions in our system and society in order to articulate that,” she says.
Oluo searched the marketplace and couldn’t really find a book like what she was thinking about writing.
“There are so many amazing academic books out there that a lot of my work utilized heavily as far as really getting to the nuts and bolts of race theory and systematic racism but I couldn’t really find something about how these amazing race theories play out in everyday life at work or with family or friends,” Oluo says. “I wanted to bridge that gap because there are a lot of people who are scared away from these discussions not only because it’s an emotional topic but because they feel like it’s something they should know better but don’t.”
You have to do more than just read the book. “There are a lot of people who feel like having read all of the books is enough and that’s their part in fighting racism in America and they never investigate what they are doing or not doing in their systems to help or hurt,” she says.
Her hometown of Seattle – like Madison – is made up of some very white, very intelligent, very well-read, very progressive-minded people. Both cities also have huge racial disparities and segregation.
“I grew up in Seattle and I think the book itself is something that anybody who grew up in a liberal area will deeply recognize. I start off each chapter in the book with an anecdote and almost 100 percent of those anecdotes are from this sort of environment. So, if you want to look at microaggressions, you will see an anecdote about the microaggressions I received in Seattle,” she says. “If you want to look at the school-to-prison pipeline, you’re going to see what that looks like to battle the school-to-prison pipeline in a liberal area like this.
“I knew my audience for this book. I wasn’t trying to reach out to unrepentant racists. I feel like there is so much more work to be done to activate the people who already have seen and admitted that racism is bad and racism is a problem … but they just aren’t doing anything effective about it,” she adds. “I feel like that’s the vast majorities of white Americans, to be honest with you. We keep focusing on the most hate-filled racists – and it is convenient – and we say, ‘If we could just win them over, we’ll win the war!’ But that’s not true. We could probably skip them.”
A lot of people, she says, are satisfied with just signing on to this “not being racist” thing.
“They put their signature on it and that’s that,” Oluo says. “But for black people and people of color who live in a city where race is a factor yet nobody is talking about it, you become incredibly observant. No one is going to give you the somewhat luxury of being really open and saying, ‘This is because you are a person of color’ so you have to observe really closely to figure out why the dynamics are different from you than everyone else in the area.”
Ijeoma has earned quite a few accolades for her work. She was named one of the Most Influential People in Seattle by Seattle Magazine, one of the 50 Most Influential Women in Seattle by Seattle Met, one of The Root’s 100 Most Influential Americans in 2017, and is the recipient of the Feminist Humanist Award 2017 by the American Humanist Association. She says that she feels privileged in many aspects but that privilege, for many people, is a hard thing for people to talk about. But it’s important that we do.
“It’s interesting because for me, understanding my own privilege has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my work,” she says. “I think one of the probably more damaging things to ever be done to the concept of privilege was that whole ‘privilege knapsack’ thing because it turned what is a very nuanced, complicated system into a plus and minus points game. It really turned people off. It made people think it’s a competition and it’s not and never has been.
“It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how privilege works and it’s so important to understand if you ever want to be effective in any justice work whatsoever … or just not want to be not a horrible person,” she adds. “It’s really important that you understand how you’re harming people so you can make better choices. That means sitting down with your privilege. A lot of my work has been getting people to look at it for the opportunity that it is.”
An Evening with Ijeoma Oluo will take place tonight at Madison Public Library, 201 W. Mifflin St., starting at 7 p.m. A Room of One’s Own will be on hand with copies of her new book “So You Want to Talk About Race” at the event tonight.