Authors: Ijeoma Oluo
We often focus on the outcomes of the school-to-prison pipeline as the ultimate tragedy—the
high drop-out rates, future poverty and joblessness, the likelihood of repeated incarceration—but when I look at our school-to-prison pipeline, the biggest tragedy to me is the loss of childhood joy. When our kids spend eight hours a day in a system that is looking for reasons to punish them, remove them, criminalize them—our kids do not get to be kids. Our kids do not get to be rambunctious,
they do not get to be exuberant, they do not get to be rebellious, they do not get to be defiant. Our kids do not get to fuck up the way other kids get to; our kids will not get to look back fondly on their teenage hijinks—because these get them expelled or locked away. Do not wait until black and brown kids are grown into hurt and hardened adults to ask “What happened? What can we do?” We cannot
give back childhoods lost. Help us save our children now.
HE FIRST TIME
WAS CALLED A NIGGER
. My mother had a business trip for a week, and as a single mom, had to find a place to put my brother Aham and I. We were sent to her friend Liz’s house in the town of Goldbar, about two hours’ drive from our apartment. We were excited for the visit—Goldbar, a small town nestled in the mountains, was drastically
different from our depressing apartment complex surrounded by strip malls. This was a rare chance for us to climb rocks and wade in a river. Liz and her husband’s house was a large log cabin with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on tall trees. Our windows just looked out on other apartments.
When we arrived at the house, Aham and I said goodbye to our mom, plopped our bags on the floor, and
set out exploring with Liz’s kids, Amy and Nick. Outside of the typical annoyances of being guests in someone’s house, the first few days were glorious. We scaled giant rock faces (which I’m sure to my now adult eye would only look about 10 feet tall), we built stick forts, we played hide-and-seek and pretended that we were the last people on earth. At night, I’d climb into a sleeping bag on Amy’s
bedroom floor and we’d giggle about boys.
The weekend came to a close and Monday morning Liz suggested that we walk Nick and Amy to the school bus. Aham and I were both pretty excited about this. Maybe we’d make more friends and we’d all play together after school! We walked down the gravel road and waited together at the next street. When the bus pulled up we waved goodbye to Nick and Amy and
eagerly looked in the bus windows at the other kids as Nick and Amy made their way to the bus. Some of the windows were down in the warm morning.
“Look!” one of the kids shouted. “Look, niggers!”
It took me a second to realize what had just been said. I’d only heard that word said in movies by hateful southerners and slave owners. But before it could fully register, another kid shouted.
Look at the niggers!”
Within seconds, before Nick and Amy had even climbed on the bus, there was a loud group of kids laughing and shouting at us out the back windows.
The words hit like buckets of cold water. I tried not to shake.
I looked at Nick and Amy. They would know what to do, these were their friends. But they weren’t saying anything and they weren’t looking at
us—they were laughing.
My brother and I watched silently in horror as the bus drove off, the kids’ laughter echoing back at us down the road. We
turned around and walked slowly back to the house. I don’t think we talked about what had just happened. We didn’t have the words to describe our first encounter with such hate.
The next morning, as Nick and Amy put their backpacks on, Aham and I stayed
put at the table.
“Aren’t you going to walk them to the bus?” Liz asked, when it became apparent that we weren’t moving.
My brother shook his head and quietly said, “No, we don’t want to.”
We hadn’t discussed this, but Aham knew that I felt the same.
Liz looked at her kids briefly and then at us.
“Why?” she demanded.
Aham looked at her, and then at Nick and Amy. “Just don’t,” he said, and
Liz was instantly angry. “Oh, you think you’re too good for us?” she sneered.
My brother and I both shook our heads. There was nothing we could say. We couldn’t say, in front of Nick and Amy, “The kids all called us niggers and your children laughed.” So we just sat silently and I tried not to cry.
“Your mom sure has spoiled you,” she muttered. “Ungrateful little…” she muttered. “Go
to school, kids,” she snapped and then left the room.
We didn’t know what to do, all we knew was that we had obviously done something very wrong.
For the rest of the week, we were afraid to leave the house. This town was not safe. What if we ran into those kids? Those kids who hated us? Those kids who shouted the same words that the Klan members on TV had said as they lynched people who looked
like us? We didn’t want to be out in the woods, we didn’t want to go out on the river. We wanted to go home, to our dingy apartment complex where nobody called us nigger, where nobody laughed at our blackness.
But we couldn’t go home, and our fear of the strangers outside had forced us to stay inside with a woman who now vehemently disliked us. For the rest of the week she watched us like a hawk,
yelling about every misplaced dish or any neglected please or thank you. The rest of the week the words “spoiled” and “lazy” were hurled at us as if they were our names. Sensing the change in environment, Nick and Amy started acting more cool toward us, treating us as annoyances, rather than friends. They didn’t want to play games or talk about friends, they just wanted us to leave.
At the end
of the week our mom came to get us. We silently packed our things into the car and waved goodbye at Liz and her family. On the way home, mom told us about her business trip. It had been a great trip, hard work, but exciting—and her job had never sent her away before. This was as close to a vacation as she was going to get. Aham and I listened to our mom talk about her trip and silently agreed to
not tell her about how our week had gone. Our mom didn’t get a lot of trips away, and she didn’t have very many friends. We didn’t want to cause any more trouble.
ORDS HAVE POWER
ORDS ARE MORE THAN THEIR
dictionary definition. The history of a word matters as long as the effects of that history are still felt. Take, for example, the history of the word “nigger.” First simply a take on the
(black), the word became a slur used to demean black slaves in the US. From the 1700s on, the word “nigger” was used almost exclusively to express hatred. Nigger was a word shouted at black men, women, and children by slave masters as they lashed their backs with whips. Nigger was a word hollered by white men in pickup trucks as they chased down black kids. Nigger was a word repeated
by men in white hoods as they got ready to burn a cross on the lawn of a black family. Nigger was a word spat at hanged black bodies. Nigger is a very powerful word with a very painful history.
As long as we have had the spoken word, language has been one of the first tools deployed in efforts to oppress others. Words are how we process the world, how we form our societies, how we codify our
morals. In order to make injustice and oppression palatable in a world with words that say that such things are unacceptable, we must come up with new words to distance ourselves from the realities of the harm we are perpetrating on others. This is how black people—human beings—become niggers. All oppression in race, class, gender, ability, religion—it all began with words.
Not all words are
equally powerful, because not all words have the same history. Take the word “cracker.” Cracker is a slur sometimes used to refer to white people. Many white people have argued that it is just as bad as using the word “nigger.” But say both words aloud right now—loudly, which one turns your stomach? That feeling in your gut when you say the word “nigger” loudly and clearly, that is the history of
the word being invoked with it as well. Cracker simply does not have that. Cracker does not invoke the mass lynchings of white people, “blacks only” lunch counters, snarling police
dogs aimed at white bodies—because that simply did not happen in our history. Cracker has not been a tool of racial oppression against white people, because nobody is or has been racially oppressing white people (note:
if this is where you say “what about the Irish” note that the word “cracker” certainly played absolutely no part in the oppression of the Irish, and that oppression was perpetrated by other white people).
In our history of racism, words have had a starring role in the brutalization of people of color. Beyond “nigger” and beyond black America, words have been used in the oppression of many races.
I will not use those words here, because I am a black woman, and I do not feel comfortable invoking the painful history of words used to oppress Native American people, Asian American people, Latinx people, and more, when my community has not had to suffer the consequences of how those words have been used to justify genocide, internment camps, and more. But, looking at American history, words
have been used to separate, dehumanize, and oppress, and the power of those words is still felt today. Picture a water fountain with the sign “colored” on it. Picture a lunch counter sign declaring, “Whites Only.” Picture a group of angry white men encircling a terrified black boy, shouting, “white power.” Think of the words used to subtly signify race. Words like ghetto, nappy, uppity, articulate,
thug. All of these words can conjure up powerful emotions because they conjure up the powerful history, and present, that they have helped create.
People of color have inherited the pain of these words. The oppression they face today is a direct result of how these words were used in the past. Today, black people are still suffering from the ghettoization, poverty, police brutality, and everyday
discrimination that these words helped build.
In contrast, white people have inherited the privilege that these words made possible. They have inherited the advantage of not having, in this generation and previous, the specific set of disadvantages placed in their way that these words placed on the lives of people of color. This is why, even if some of these words have been “reclaimed” by some
in the community they were used to oppress, when these words are used by white people, that use will continue to be abusive. Because they are still benefitting from how these words have been used while people of color still suffer.
Does this mean that a well-meaning white person who is not trying to oppress people of color, absolutely cannot use these words—just because others may have had ill
intent? No, you are free to say just about anything you want in a country with free speech. And even if people of color wanted to force someone to stop, we have very little power to do so. But the important question is, why would a well-meaning white person want to say these words in the first place? Why would you want to invoke that pain on people of color? Why would you want to rub in the fact
that you are privileged enough to not be negatively impacted by the legacy of racial oppression that these words helped create?
A lot of people want to skip ahead to the finish line of racial harmony. Past all this unpleasantness to a place where all wounds are healed and the past is laid to rest. I believe that this is where some of the desire (excluding openly racist assholes who just want
to make people of color feel unsafe) to use racially taboo language comes from. But words only lose their power when first the impact of those words are no longer felt, not the other way around. We live in a world where the impacts of systemic racism are still threatening the lives of countless people of color today.
Yes, this does mean that people of color can freely say some words that white
people cannot without risking scorn or condemnation. That may seem very unfair to some, maybe even to you.
But it is fair.
It is completely fair that a word used to help create and maintain the oppression of others for your benefit would not be able to be used by you without invoking that oppression, while people of color who had never had the power to oppress with those words would be able
to use them without invoking that same oppression.
The real unfairness lies in the oppression and inequality that these words helped create and maintain.
“Just get over it,” some people say, as if the pain of racial oppression is a switch you can just turn off.
You can’t “get over” something that is still happening. Which is why black Americans can’t “get over” slavery or Jim Crow. It may be
quite a while—likely past all of our lifetimes—before white people will be able to say “nigger” without harming black people.
So yes, the fact that people of color can say words that white people can’t
an example of injustice—but it’s not injustice against white people.
F YOU TRAVEL A LOT, YOU BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND THE
importance of airport food. When you are frazzled, frustrated from long lines, and nervous about your upcoming time in a metal capsule hurtling through the air, airport food can be the much-needed pause to collect yourself and feel human—or the final indignity that sends you to tears. And so it was, at the
airport for my third trip of a very busy week, that I thought I’d found the respite that I desired.
I had spent the entire week driving from city to city eating fast food and disgusting edible cardboard from gas stations in my job as a marketing consultant. In the airports, I’d been lucky to find food that hadn’t been shipped in prepackaged and then microwaved into a rubbery mass, and I’d have
been even luckier if said restaurant sold a glass of wine fresh from a Franzia box. So by the time my last trip of the week had arrived, I was sick to death of travel food. But I’d been running around in meetings
all morning and hadn’t been able to eat properly before leaving for the airport. After having to return home ten minutes after leaving the house, realizing I’d left both my laptop charger
and underwear at home, I’d fought torturous traffic, stood through the long security lines, took off my shoes, stood in the scanners, and finally made it to my gate with my bags, a tiny piece of my sanity, and a cavernous hunger.
Having safely located my gate and reassuring myself that I had enough time, I searched for a place to grab a quick bite and a glass of wine. I would catch my breath
and the board the plane with a little less anxiety than had followed me through airport security. Provided I could find the right place to eat. This was not a gate I was used to, it was far off at the end of a terminal, where the nice seated restaurants are often replaced with vending machines. But I had hope. And after a few minutes, I found what I was looking for.
I found better than what I
was looking for.
I found Africa Lounge.
Could this be? Had I possibly found African food in a sea of stale bagels? What type of food might it be—West African? Ethiopian? We had a large Ethiopian population in the area. What a great idea, to put an African restaurant in the international airport and to showcase to new arrivals some of the ethnic and cultural diversity of the area and to make
people of different backgrounds feel more welcome. Also, have you had African food? No matter which region you are sampling—it’s delicious. I almost jogged over, smiling in excitement.
But as I got closer, the warning signs started to appear. Were those zebra print chairs? Oh no, was that a caveman mural on the wall? My joy was rapidly plummeting.
The menu was placed on a placard out front.
I took a look with a small bit of remaining hope
Bacon & Swiss Burger.… hmm, okay not that.
Grilled Italian Chicken.… nope.
I scanned further and quickly saw that there would be no African food. No fried plantain, no kitfo, no egusi soup. This wasn’t an African restaurant; it was an American restaurant with “African-themed decor.” And a pretty sad one at that.
And suddenly, I was very sad.
I thought of the amazing African food I’d grown up with, and the few African restaurants I’d been able to find in the Pacific Northwest. Food that most white people had probably never reveled in the way I had. Food that wouldn’t be able to command the prices that four-star restaurants would, even though just as much time, care, and skill went into its preparation. Restaurants that would always be
expected to be a “bargain” until they were helmed by white chefs who drastically Americanized their menus and called it “fusion” so they could impress food critics. I thought of the Ethiopian restaurant that my mom’s best friend used to own. I remembered watching her spread large circles of batter on a griddle to make fermented bread (injera) to eat with spiced lentils cooked in butter. I told all
of my friends about how great Ethiopian food was even though I knew that there was a good chance I’d be met with the tired joke, “They have food in Ethiopia?” I thought of the really amazing Nigerian restaurant I used to go to years ago. It had to shut down because there weren’t enough West Africans in the area to bring in the revenue it needed. I had loved taking my oldest son there, to a restaurant
filled with traditional West African décor. Showing my son how to roll his fufu into round balls to dip in
his stew. The room smelled like my childhood, and the music brought me back to memories of slightly tipsy Nigerian men dancing in my childhood living room, full of Jollof rice and happiness. But Nigerian food hadn’t been popularized here yet—that is just beginning in the US within the last
couple of years. I thought about how great it would be to come across a restaurant like that in an international airport. What a great way to show how international an American city could be.
But instead what I was standing in front of in that airport was a caricature of my culture. A caricature of the vibrant decorations and festive music. Everything I’d loved about African food had been skinned
and draped around the shoulders of a glorified McDonalds. This was as close to African food as I was going to get here, and it was going to be served to me by a white man, in front of a caveman mural, and it would come with nachos.
NE OF THE TRICKIEST CONVERSATIONS YOU’RE BOUND
to have regarding race in America will likely be about cultural appropriation. While not as charged as “racist” or
“privileged,” “cultural appropriation” is a term that carries a lot of emotion and confusion for many people of all races.
At its core, cultural appropriation is about ownership of one’s culture, and since culture is defined
collectively and individually, the definition and sentiment about cultural appropriation changes with one’s identification and sentiment about aspects of their culture.
If that last sentence sounded really complicated, that’s because it is—and it becomes easy to see why cultural appropriation has been a difficult concept for many. But let’s attempt to simplify what we can, so that even if we can’t agree on everything about cultural appropriation, we can perhaps agree on some ways to discuss it.
We can broadly define the concept of cultural appropriation as the
adoption or exploitation of another culture by a more dominant culture.
This is not usually the wholesale adoption of an entire culture, but usually just attractive bits and pieces that are taken and used by the dominant culture. Some modern and fairly well known examples of cultural appropriation by the dominant white culture in the West are things like the use of American Indian headdresses
as casual fashion, the use of the bindi as an accessory, the adoption of belly-dancing into fitness routines, and basically every single “ethnic” Halloween costume.
In recent years, people of color have been able to draw more attention to the issue of cultural appropriation and the harm it causes, but it is still a concept that rubs many white people (and a few people of color) the wrong way.
Many of us who were raised in the US were raised to think of America as a “melting pot.” Our beauty and our strength came from the exchange of cultures in this nation of immigrants. Aren’t we supposed to be appreciating other cultures? Doesn’t this
These sentiments are certainly understandable, but they err in conflating appreciation with appropriation. Appreciation should benefit
all cultures involved, and true appreciation does. But appropriation, more often than not, disproportionately benefits the dominant culture that is borrowing from marginalized cultures, and can even harm marginalized cultures.
The problem of cultural appropriation is not in the desire to participate in aspects of a different culture that you admire. The problem of cultural appropriation is primarily
linked to the power imbalance between the culture doing the appropriating and the culture being appropriated. That power imbalance allows the culture being appropriated to be distorted and redefined by the dominant culture and siphons any material or financial benefit of that piece of culture away to the dominant culture, while marginalized cultures are still persecuted for living in that
culture. Without that cultural power imbalance, cultural appropriation becomes much less harmful.
Even if a culturally appropriative act means to respect culture, it cannot if it can’t understand and respect the past and present power dynamics defining that culture’s interaction with the dominant culture.
Let’s look at the ever-tired example of rap music. Rap music was born from the rhythmic
storytelling tradition of West Africa. Brought to the West by slaves, these rhythmic words wove their way through blues, jazz, and call-and-response and eventually birthed rap. From West Africa through slavery, the horror of the post-Reconstruction era, Jim Crow segregation, post-Reagan mass-incarceration—music has provided solace, hope, release, and strength to black people. And for all that black
music gave to black Americans, it was not respected by white America. Blues, jazz, and rock were all deemed dangerous and unseemly forms of music at one time. Even as the art forms grew in popularity, the black musicians who performed them were treated like servants, often forced to enter and exit white-only clubs through the service entrance, to perform for crowds of white-only faces, for fees
at a fraction of what white
performers could command. The gain in popularity did little to increase the respectability of black music, until white artists began imitating it—and then most of the respectability and fame was given to the white artists. Think of artists like Elvis Presley who have been canonized in the annals of music history for work that was lifted almost wholesale from the backs
of black musicians whose names most Americans will never know.
Rap has been long vilified by many in “respectable” white America. It is the language of “thugs” and is responsible for numerous societal ills from “black-on-black” crime to single-parenthood. Rap music is the reason why your teenager is suddenly disrespectful. Rap music is the reason why kids don’t go to church anymore. Wife leave
you? Pretty sure rap music told her to.
Rap is, in reality, a difficult and beautiful art form that requires not only musical and rhyming talent, but a mathematically complex sense of timing. Rap is a very diverse art form that can entertain, inform, enrage, comfort, and inspire. Like many art forms, many people will spend their entire lives working at it and will never be better than mediocre.
Some, with rare talent, will rise to the top, others with rare talent will continue to toil in obscurity. But if you are a white rapper, you can be “okay” and go multi-platinum. Not only can a halfway decent white rapper sell millions of copies of a halfway decent album, raking in money that most black artists would never dream of, that white rapper is more likely to be accepted as “mainstream.”
That “legitimacy” bestowed by whiteness actually changes the definition of rap for the American culture. When the most popular rappers in the country are white rappers doing a decent impersonation of black master rappers, what kids see as legitimate rap changes. What they aspire to changes. Whom they give their money to changes. When these same white rappers are given Grammys for their attempts,
over more talented black rappers, it makes it harder for rap by black artists to be accepted by mainstream culture—because it sounds different than what they’ve come to know as “good rap.”
And in all of this, the music that we see on television and hear on our radio is further divorced from the struggle and triumph that inspired it from Africa, through slavery, and through today. The art form
that black Americans have relied upon for generations is no longer theirs. While the struggle remains.
So does this mean that if you are white, you should never rap? Should that avenue just never be open to you? This is the type of question that fuels the most heated debate around cultural appropriation.
First off, let’s acknowledge that you can do whatever you want. You can rap, you can belly
dance, you can do anything allowed by law. But whether you “can” or “should” do something is a different matter—that it may be racially insensitive or harmful is beside the point. You can. If you are reading this book, I’m assuming you are doing so because you
don’t want to harm or offend people of other races
. And there’s a good chance that at least part of you is hoping that not harming others
will also not cause you to have to give up too much of the social and cultural activities you have long enjoyed. But I’m not here to absolve you or condemn you for your rap aspirations.
And even if the question of whether or not you could become the world’s greatest white rapper hadn’t just been
answered, it would be completely beside the point. Continuing to look at rap as an example of cultural
appropriation verses cultural appreciation: if you really love rap, you love more than just the beats. You love the artists, the pioneers, the science, the history of it all. You love the meaning and the significance of rap—not only what it has meant to you, but what it has meant to the artists and its fans. If you love rap you love the strength it has provided black people. If you love rap you
understand that it is an art form that has been lovingly grown and nurtured in a hostile world. You also understand that the pain and adversity that helped shape rap is not something you’ve had to face. When you look at the history of rap, the heritage of rap, the struggle of rap, the triumph of rap—it may inspire you to want to rap yourself. But when all you can take is the art, and you can take
the enjoyment and the profit and the recognition—and you can’t take any of the pain or the history or the struggle, can you do so and honestly call it rap if you love it at all?
But there’s an even bigger point to be recognized in all of this. Cultural appropriation is the product of a society that prefers its culture cloaked in whiteness. Cultural appropriation is the product of a society that
only respects culture cloaked in whiteness. Without that—if all culture (even the culture that appropriators claim to love and appreciate) were equally desired and respected, then imitations of other cultures would look like just that—imitations. If all cultures were equally respected, then wearing a feathered headdress to Coachella would just seem like the distasteful decision to get trashed in
sacred artifacts. If all cultures were equally respected, then white college kids with dreadlocks would look like middle-class
white kids wearing the protest of poor blacks against the suppression, degradation, and oppression of white colonialists as costumes. But we don’t live in a society that equally respects all cultures, which is why what would otherwise be seen as offensive and insensitive
behavior, is instead treated as a birthright of white Americans. And because we do not live in a society that equally respects all cultures, the people of marginalized cultures are still routinely discriminated against for the same cultural practices that white cultures are rewarded for adopting and adapting for the benefit of white people. Until we do live in a society that equally respects all
cultures, any attempts of the dominant culture to “borrow” from marginalized cultures will run the risk of being exploitative and insulting.