Entertainment

Ijeoma Oluo wants to talk with you about race. But it's not going to be easy

Ijeoma Oluo
Ijeoma Oluo Courtesy of Ijeoma Oluo

Ijeoma Oluo doesn’t like to talk about race. But she has to.

She talks about race so that maybe the gap that separates white people from people of color can be bridged.

Her new book, “So You Want to Talk about Race,” came out earlier this year, and since then she’s been in hot demand for TV appearances and public events.

Harper's Bazaar put the book on its “10 New Books to Add to Your Reading List in 2018.”

On Saturday, the Seattle resident will speak about the book and the subjects it covers in an appearance at Lakewood Playhouse, part of Pierce County Reads.

Oluo is a lightning rod for not only her books, tweets, articles and appearances but for who she is: a black woman.

“If I get a response where someone heard themselves in my (writing) because they are recognizing their own behavior or situation I get this, ‘How dare you?’ ‘Let me explain what you don’t know about me.’ That is a response to the content,” she said in a phone interview earlier this week.

Alternately, when a Tweet goes viral and she’s inundated with hate-filled replies she knows it’s about who she is.

“That has nothing to do with what I said,” Oluo said.

The most vitriolic response she has received was over a Tweet she made regarding a stop at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in 2017. The restaurant has paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits over racial discrimination regarding black diners and employees.

"At Cracker Barrel 4 the 1st time. Looking at the sea of white folk in cowboy hats & wondering 'will they let my black ass walk out of here?'" she tweeted.

She was besieged with attacks for days on both Twitter and Facebook. When she posted some of those responses on Facebook the social network suspended her account. It later issued an apology to her.

“The tweet wasn’t that big of a deal,” Oluo said. “Weeks earlier I had an article titled, ‘White people will always let you down.’ Nothing. Crickets. Not a word,” she said.

“(The Cracker Barrel incident) has nothing to do with what I’m saying,” she said. “Those are people who want to unload steam.”

PRIVILEGE

Oluo covers a lot in her book — micro-aggressions, police brutality, the N-word — as she attempts to bridge the racial divide.

One of those subjects is privilege.

The term is often used in conjunction with race: white privilege.

Some of the biggest push back to the notion come from white people who grew up poor.

“When people hear ‘privilege’ it means you’ve never suffered,” Oluo said. “Your life has been a breeze."

They can feel that since they weren’t raised with economic privilege it negates all other categories.

But privilege, Oluo said, is much more than money. In addition to skin color, it can include class, gender, sexual orientation, language, physical ability and many others.

“If you’re rich and white, you’re doing better than most rich and black people and if you’re poor and white you’re doing better than most poor and black people,” Oluo said. “It doesn’t mean you never suffer hardship."

Recognizing the privilege you have in some areas doesn’t negate the areas in which you suffered, were held back or hurt, she said.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Personal stories of discrimination can have a powerful effect on people. Oluo relates several in her book, including one in which her boss loudly asked her — in front of all her white co-workers — if her hair was real or fake.

“I need to pull people out of the abstract,” Oluo said of personal anecdotes. “I need people to realize that there is an impact in day-to-day life."

It’s effective for her to do so, Oluo said, because it’s part of the work she does and she has platforms that reach a vast audience. That’s not the case for most people.

People who have suffered discrimination can find it painful to recount those stories and often don’t get to choose the time or place to do so, Oluo said. She also questions how much impact those stories can have versus the emotional price people pay to tell them.

White privilege shapes even the discussions of race, she said.

“Almost the entire burden of fighting racism in this country is placed on people of color,” she said. “And they are expected to do this without compensation and be grateful that everyone is listening. That continues the exploitation of the labor of people of color."

"So You Want to Talk about Race” was written for people of color as much as it was for white people, she said.

"We think people of color are born able to talk about race,” Oluo said. “When I wrote my book I had just as many people of color reach out to me. They are not given the language. It’s just that some of us have a better idea that something is wrong, that something’s hurting us.”

BUT WHAT ABOUT REVERSE RACISM?

Oluo defines racism as any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power.

That perspective shuts down the reverse racism argument, the calls for white history month, and other situations where white people feel they are suffering the effects of racism rather than prejudice.

“If you believe that we actually live in a meritocracy and we actually live in a place of independence where everyone can pull themselves up by their boot straps then you absolutely cannot believe in systemic oppression,” Oluo said.

In order for a racist system to perpetuate itself, Oluo said, white people must remain ignorant of the system’s very existence.

“It’s not because they’re evil. It’s because they aren’t,” she said. “Most people would not want to exploit people of color.

“Race is bigger than whether you like people of color or not,” Oluo said.

"How can you be a proud American in a country where the average black household has 1/13 the net worth of the average white household? You can only be a proud American if you think that has nothing to do with America and everything to do with how hard people are trying."

At public forums, online and in other exchanges, Oluo often is faced with a demand. She is asked to acknowledge that life for people of color is better now than it was during slavery days, or Jim Crow days or even 20 years ago.

“I can’t understand these weird requests for credit, for not being the worst,” she said.

Oluo isn’t looking for Nazis behind every tree. She has more pressing concerns.

“I’m really scared that if I go to the doctor because I have pain in my chest, they’ll send me home and I’ll die of a heart attack,” Oluo said. “Because doctors don’t think black people feel pain like white people do.”

CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

The wholesale lifting of other people’s culture is a hot topic in social justice circles. The subject isn’t easy to understand.

“It’s just as complicated, if not more, than people think it is,” Oluo said.

Culture is owned by people and there are varying opinions, even within a culture, over what is sacred, what is important, what is a commodity.

Oluo’s advice, especially when it comes to commodities, is to determine who is the primary benefactor in a cross-culture transaction.

If a tourist buys a traditional bowl from a Pueblo Indian, for example, the artist benefits. But if you mass produce your own bowls, or put the bowl in a film and charge money to see the film, you are now benefiting from another culture and depriving the people of that culture of potential income.

“Beyond that, when people tell you that they are harmed by something, you have to decide how much you respect that and how much that matters to you,” she said.

That lesson can be applied to many other aspects of life, Oluo said.

Try as hard as they might, most people will never fully understand what it’s like to be a different race, gender, sexual orientation or other traits, she said.

That often plays out in a dominant culture when someone says they wouldn’t care if their music, food, art and other cultural aspects were used by another culture.

“If I filter what you’re saying to me through my experience and it doesn’t compute, oftentimes (people) think they get the right to dismiss that,” she said.

“If I trust you as a human being and I think you’re capable of looking at your world and knowing what is harmful and what is not, then my basic respect for humanity dictates that I say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better.’ And mean it.”

Craig Sailor; (253) 597-8541

A CONVERSATION WITH IJEOMA OLUO

When: 1 p.m. March 31

Where: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd. SW

Tickets: Free but sold out. Some seats may be available day of event. The event will be livestreamed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P15dkIibq3E.

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