Ijeoma Oluo made me cry. I’m sure she didn’t mean to. It’s just rare to encounter a fellow Black woman writer who speaks truth to power and is explicitly committed to working in service of Black women. Oluo, a Seattle-based writer and speaker, has built her ever-ascending career on exploring how race, in particular, is misunderstood, and exploring the structures that exist to create this confusion. Whether she’s chiding media organizations for their cliché examinations of Trump supporters or tweeting a haunting list of activities Black people should avoid to keep from being gunned down by cops, Oluo’s distinctive perspective and clear voice has been a beacon of light for so many Black writers—myself included.
With her debut book, So You Want To Talk About Race, Oluo continues to foster a cultural conversation about how to confront privilege and work toward dismantling white supremacy. I spoke with her about the importance of confronting racism, how she creates personal boundaries in her life, and, of course, her famous Rachel Dolezal profile.
So You Want To Talk About Race is a guide for those who are newly invigorated and want to have conversations about racism and white supremacy. What prompted you to turn your thoughts about race into this specific book?
My agent suggested it to me. I didn’t really want to write it, but my agent, who contacted me before anybody was really paying me any attention, recognized my unique gift for offering explanations about how race works. So she said, “You should write a guidebook that answers the questions you’re answering every day in your essays and the questions you get on social media.” I really didn’t want to do that. [Laughs.] Think about how much time you want to spend, as a Black woman, talking about race, and then dedicating a whole book to talking about race. It’s tough for me. My agent said I should think about it because it’s a really unique space for me and it could make a big difference.
I thought about it for a while. In the meantime, I found myself continuing to answer similar questions over and over. I started asking people, What issues do you have when talking about race? And a surprising number of people of color reached out. That’s when I realized I could write this book, and maybe I wouldn’t have to [keep answering] those same questions. I could give people something they could hold in their hands. There’s a difference between reading an article in an online magazine and holding a book in your hand.
Early in the book, you write that you reached a point where trying to make your voice quieter in meetings no longer worked, and you felt compelled to speak about race. Was there a specific incident that moved you from silence to action?
I wouldn’t say that race was something I was always silent about. Part of my problem has always been that I don’t necessarily have the ability to not say anything. I got a degree in political science because I was always seeing patterns in the world and I wanted to speak about them. That was the struggle I always had. As a Black woman, I knew very early on that having a strong opinion at work would be viewed as overly aggressive. I always had to bend over backwards to let people know that I wasn’t aggressive; I was just excited and I had good ideas. That was really hard for me. There would be little things that happened at work around race, and I would set [them] aside to get through my day.
I found that it became even more difficult to address these race issues because it was expected that once I got a promotion I would be completely satisfied. I found myself alone. I was the only Black person in my department. Of course, there were things happening around the country, like the death of Trayvon Martin, which hit me intimately. I have a teenage son, and I just found myself in personal crisis. At the time, I was working [at a job] where I had to travel all the time, so I was completely away from my community and my family.
My brother, sister, and I are incredibly close. My brother and I are 18 months apart, and he was on tour, going to areas of the country where he’d never been before. He was touring with a band that wasn’t his band; it was a popular, white band, and he was playing trumpet with them. So he was the only Black person in this group, and finding himself in areas he’d never been as a 6’6” Black man. [He’s] always thought of as a threat when he’s around white people who don’t know him just because of his size and his skin color. I was worrying about him, and I wasn’t able to reach anyone or talk to my community. I was devastated, of course, for Trayvon Martin, thinking about a future for my children, and worrying about my brother and so many people that I love.
I would go online to see what my friends were saying. [But] my local community in Seattle, which is a predominantly white city, was just silent. I started to realize that this community I’d spent so much time building with my coworkers, who said they loved, wouldn’t stand up to say anything about something that meant so much to me, my life, and my family. I woke up in my mid-30s and realized that I really didn’t have a community. No one really had my back or my family’s back.
How did you make the decision to move from having this internal dialogue to putting your work about race in the world? How did you find the courage and confidence to write publicly about race?
It was really desperation, more than anything else. For a while, I felt like I was almost losing my mind, especially during that time when my brother was on tour. The only time he’d ever been handcuffed was when he was on tour, so I was very worried about him. He was devastated by what was happening around the country, and he wasn’t answering the phone because he was stressed on tour, and I was looking at my community, hoping and begging that someone would say something. I would go online and say, “I need someone say something about police brutality in this country. I really need someone to say something about Trayvon Martin.” There would just be silence.
Ijeoma Oluo speaking out about police brutality on Twitter (Photo credit: Facebook/Ijeoma Oluo)
I was really questioning reality and my place in the world. It was desperation at first, [and] I think that’s part of the reason my writing style is so personal. I started writing with people in mind: Okay, if I write about myself and my family, maybe these coworkers or these friends from high school will understand or will start asking our local politicians about these issues. I was traveling for work, so I couldn’t sit down face-to-face to have these conversations. I used the food blog I was writing at the time as a place to write in the hopes of reaching people. It was a really painful process of realizing that my community wasn’t going to stand up. I lost 85 to 90 percent of my friends—they didn’t want to have these conversations, and they fell away. But then there was another community that started stepping up. A few people who were feeling the same way would share my Facebook posts.
Suddenly, Black women from Seattle were saying, “Thanks so much. This is exactly how I’m feeling.” It was really organic. Before I knew it, people were coming to me and asking my opinion about these things. I was getting the community I needed. Then publishers started asking if they could republish posts from my blog, and then people started asking me to write essays for their publications. I was taking a risk because I worked in a pretty conservative area in a very white-dominated field as a digital-marketing manager. The only advantage I had was [that I was] the only person there who knew how the internet worked. [Laughs.]
It took a while before someone [at work] said, “I saw you on TV talking about race.” I thought, Oh, this is going to get really, really hairy. I had this double life where I was working in an environment that was, at times, pretty harmful, and in the evenings and on my lunch break, trying to write about the world and what was happening.
Race is often a non-starter for conversations between people of color and white people, or it immediately devolves into a defensive conversation. How does your book work to create an effective framework for dialogue?
I really wanted to set aside some of the roadblocks that society has put in place in that conversation. Sometimes, we think we’re bad at talking about race because there’s something wrong with us or there’s something wrong with the topic of race. But the truth is that society has deliberately placed these fallacies and roadblocks in these conversations to make them more difficult. There’s a reason why when we think of racists, we only think about KKK men on horses who are burning crosses. That’s because real, genuine conversations about race change systems, and people are invested in those systems.
It’s important that people realize that they haven’t been given the dialogue [to talk about race.] It has been deliberately kept from them, so they don’t have a full understanding of what we’re talking about and how to approach it. I really wanted to update this conversation and take it out of the realm of Good Person vs. Bad Person. Nothing will teach you more about good people and bad people not really existing than taking a hard look at how race functions in society. When you look at it as a system, you realize that your intentions mean very little when it comes to whether or not you uphold racism. Getting people to set that aside and come to [those conversations] knowing that you’re talking about a system that’s harming people, and figuring out how you interact with that system, can help temper some of the emotions that arise. Whether or not someone is “good” or “bad” is beside the point.
It’s important that we start making more agreements as to what goals we’re trying to reach when we talk. A lot of times we enter these conversations about race with two completely separate intentions: white people’s intention is to make sure that everybody knows that they’re not racist; and people of color just want white people to see how they may be harming them. If the intentions aren’t stated outright, the conversation is never going to go anywhere. After an entire lifetime of seeing where this communication breaks down, I really wanted to pull that apart, and let people see where the stumbling blocks are, what’s really being said, and—if you are generally interested in progressing these conversations—how to bring [them] back to the core issues.
The moment the word “racist” is used, the conversation derails and becomes more about the accusation itself rather than racism as a system. How can white people ward off a gut response and really reflect on their relationship to the system?
No matter what, when you’re made aware of a privilege that comes at the expense of others or that you may have been actively harming someone through actions and words, it’s very easy to feel really defensive. We want to think of ourselves as good people who don’t harm [others]. It’s this weird, aggressive output of being people who don’t want to hurt people. If you’re someone who doesn’t care, you won’t care about harm, so it’s weird that we because we care so much about people, we often end up doing more harm when we’re confronted with our wrongdoing.
It’s important to get used to confronting these things on your own. Build up strength for it. Then realize you’re still here. That’s part of the reason why there’s an exercise [in the book] about looking at your own privilege and doing it often. You have to get used to that hit, realize you’re still alive, and then try and find the lesson learned. Find the opportunities this is [offering] you in order to do good work. If you ignore the harm you’ve done, you’re still doing the harm. That’s not going to go away—you’re just placing the entire burden of that harm on the person you’re harming. Yes, it does suck to find out you’ve hurt someone, but then, you have the opportunity to lift some of that burden and make better choices. You have to decide what’s more important—feeling like you’re a good person while you’re doing harm, or knowing that you’re actually working to become a better person. When you’re engaging with race, you have to decide what kind of person you want to be
Your Rachel Dolezal profile in The Stranger was the interview so many Black women, myself included, were waiting to read. Was that something you initially wanted to do? How did you approach that profile and rise to the challenge?
Oh, I absolutely did not want to do that profile. [Laughs.] I was actually really surprised that I said yes. If any other person other than my editor, Charles Mudede, had asked me, I would’ve said no—and I don’t think it would’ve been the same essay if I hadn’t worked with him on it. Charles is an incomparably talented editor, and he’s a Black man. He’s someone who knows my work more instinctively than probably any other editor I’ve worked with. He approached me on the day that Rachel Dolezal changed her name. She happened to pick my sister’s name. I was already angry because my sister lives day-to-day in a country that’s been ravaged by colonialism, and to find that [Dolezal] stole my sister’s name made me livid. I just wanted her to go away. Charles called me that day when it hit him that he could make this happen. I was recording an appearance for a podcast at the time, and I saw the phone ringing and said to myself, “I bet that asshole is going to ask me to do something about Rachel Dolezal, and I am not going to do it. [Laughs.]”
Charles left an amazing voicemail in his African-British accent saying he had a brilliant idea. I said no, and he called me the next day, and said that it would be brilliant and [that] I could put an end to this entire [Dolezal phenomenon.] thing. [So] I said okay, and I was really shocked that I did. I spent the next three weeks, as I was prepping to fly to Spokane, Washington, and spend the day with her, regretting the decision so much. I was having these dreams, like, What if I broke my leg? What if I fell and couldn’t go to Spokane? [Laughs.] It didn’t sound like my idea of a fun time, but I also feel very keenly about taking responsibility for what I’m adding to the national dialogue.
So much of the dialogue around Dolezal had been so hurtful. I felt the same frustration as everyone else that the questions asked to her up until that point were incredibly weak, and that she was often describing what it means to be Black. I thought that writing anything at all would cause more harm by keeping her name in the spotlight and keeping her as the focus of Black female identity. And I worried that I would go to Spokane and speak to her and find nothing of value to add. I was also scared that even if I thought I was right, what if I was wrong? Every day, no matter what I write, I’m still writing for Black women more than anyone else, and I really take that seriously. I was surprised that [Dolezal] showed her ass so blatantly throughout that whole day. I was really surprised. [Laughs.] I think a lot of it was contempt: She didn’t think very highly of Black women and I don’t think she thought very highly of me or thought that I knew what I was talking about. There were a few times when I turned to the photographer to say, “You’re here, right? You’re seeing this. I’m not imagining that it’s happening the way it’s happening.” He’s like, “Yeah, I saw that.” I had assumed that she would put out a better effort out to seem genuine. You know what it’s like to live in a white supremacist society where you can really walk around with that much open disdain for Black women.
I came back with 22 pages of transcript, and I had to turn that all into a 4,500-word piece. My first draft was 12,000 words, and Charles really helped me get to the core of what I wanted to say. I’m a Black woman who usually ends up writing for white editors, and I often have to fight to keep my pieces as hard and direct as they are, to push back and say, “No, it has to stay the way that I wrote it, or I’m going to have pull the piece.” [But] Charles was like, “You know what? I changed that word around because I thought you were trying to be too soft here. [Laughs.]” Being a Black man, he got where my frustration was. He fought for that piece, and he made sure my goals stayed true. In the end, I was focusing on showing, through [Dolezal’s] actions and her own words, how society had taken one woman with a lot of issues and a lot of anti-Blackness and used her [against] Black women. I’m glad I was able to show that. It’s a victory I share with Charles, and I’m glad he talked me into it. I never want to do it again, because it was the most stressful thing I’ve done in my career. [Laughs.]
How do you create boundaries around what you share online and what you keep close to your chest?
I’ve always had really firm boundaries. They’re just way out there compared to other people’s. A lot of my boundaries lie in, Would I be really upset if someone looked up something I said and quoted it to my kids? It’s not just about swear words or sex; I live in the real world, so I’m not worried about that. It’s talking about what’s happening in our personal life. How would that make me feel? If I’m not comfortable with the response, I wouldn’t put it out. I try to keep access to my being private. Have I processed what I’m saying? Am I comfortable with it being something people will talk about before I put it out there? Because I talk a lot about different things, including personal things, online. If I’m thinking “I would love to get something off my chest, but I’m embarrassed to or I’m afraid to,” then I have to post it because if I’m scared or embarrassed, there are many other people who are too.
That also means there’s a whole other set of things that people don’t need to know. There’s a whole aspect of my life that people don’t realize they don’t know. People don’t know what my house is like. They don’t know much about my dating life, because there’s not much that I can put out that will help other people. I like to keep it close, and people don’t see me out a lot in public. I’m a homebody, and I become even more so the more I put online. I love having this space where my kids come home and I’m home because I’m always home. I know that my work does well when I’m putting personal stuff out there, so it really does help to have this private space just for me and my family.