Authors: Ijeoma Oluo
This is not an easy process, and it is not at all fun. And at times, it seems never-ending. At times it may seem like no matter
what you do, you are doing something wrong. But
you have to try to adjust to the feelings of shame and pain that come from being confronted with your own racism. You have to get over the fear of facing the worst in yourself. You should instead fear unexamined racism. Fear the thought that right now, you could be contributing to the oppression of others and you don’t know it. But do not fear those
who bring that oppression to light. Do not fear the opportunity to do better.
M SURE IF WE COULD JUST TALK ABOUT IT, YOU’D
have me all straightened out.”
This was the stubborn insistence from a theater director who had just finished loudly repeating “nigger” to a group of people of color at what had at first been a wonderful dinner discussing an upcoming art project and how we could ensure that it would be inclusive.
A lot of painstaking effort had gone into making sure that the people of color (many queer and trans) felt safe in this environment. It is very hard as a person of color to feel comfortable in Seattle, especially in the upper echelons of the local art scene. But we were bringing a different show to this theater, one that focused on voices of color and hoped to bring in a community of color.
So we had gathered for dinner to talk about how we could accomplish this.
Everything had been going well, until one of the theater directors, a white man, decided after what was likely a few too many drinks to tell a story that he felt required him to say “nigger” loudly and repeatedly, without warning. Each time he said it, people of color at the table flinched as the word hit. It wasn’t just
the word “nigger”—we’ve all heard it. It was the fact that it had come after we’d let our guard down, after so much effort to let us know we were safe.
The dinner ended very quickly after that.
Once it was over, the head of the group that was going to be performing let the director know that what had just gone down was unacceptable and that they would not feel comfortable performing unless the
staff of the theater underwent racial justice and awareness training to ensure that this would not happen again.
The director looked at me pleadingly. He didn’t need training. He knew a lot of black people. He grew up with black people. He was practically black himself. He just needed to talk. With me. He repeatedly insisted that if I could just sit with him in a bar and talk this out with him,
whatever had caused him to drunkenly repeat “nigger” at a dinner table surrounded by people of color would never happen again.
But I did not want to talk with this man, especially not over drinks. I had just been talking with this man, we all had. We had just spent hours talking about racial and social justice, and he still decided to say “nigger.” I wanted this man to take some action for change.
F YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE, THERE IS PLENTY OF
opportunity. There are countless memes you post, tons of outrage you can share, limitless “thought exercises” you can participate in. But it is easy to get caught up in this talk and think you are doing so much more than just that—talk.
While many people are afraid to talk about race, just as many use talk to hide from what they really fear:
action. The more that I write about race, the more I’ve been surrounded by this talk disguised as action. From the white men using my Facebook and Twitter feeds as their own virtue signaling playground, to the white women sending me five-paragraph-long emails letting me know how the racial oppression of people of color makes them feel personally—I’ve seen how addicted people can get to the satisfaction
of knowing they are saying all the right things, that they are having “deep conversations”—so addicted that it becomes the end-all and be-all of their racial justice goals.
I write about concepts that I think people are not understanding. I write about pieces of the puzzle that I think people aren’t seeing. I write from perspectives that I think many people don’t get to hear. I do not do this
just to increase general knowledge. I do not do this just to make people feel better. I do this in the hopes that what I write and say, and what others write and say, will inform and inspire action.
But so often, that is missed.
Recently I was explaining online and on a local radio station why I will not be participating in a local protest march focusing on women’s issues. I had been asked to
speak, and told how very important it was that the event have speakers who were women of color, especially in a predominantly white area like Seattle. I asked what the commission for speaking was, and was told that speakers were expected to donate their time and services. I declined the invitation.
When I wrote about why I would not be participating in the march, I explained that I could not
ignore how much the economic exploitation of women of color had contributed to the racial oppression of women of color. And I did not believe that women of color should be asked to put forth the emotional and mental labor of discussing their racial oppression to a majority white audience for free, especially an event with a large budget like this one. I was very careful in my explanation of why I
felt that this ask was problematic, and how important it is for us to not further exploitation and oppression within our movements.
It wasn’t long before I got a message in response from a white woman I didn’t know. She understood that I didn’t want to work for free, but she didn’t understand how asking for that work had been exploitative. Could I please take the time to explain to her further,
personally (and, I’m assuming, for free), so she could understand?
She is not alone. Countless people read my work about racial justice and instead of taking action, want to shake that Etch A Sketch like it never happened and ask for the same conversation all over again.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to end a conversation with someone about race, because instead of listening and engaging
they were trying to deny my experiences as a woman of color and bully me into agreeing with them, only to have them reach out later that day to ask me to join them for coffee in order to “talk some more” about the subject. After a few times of agreeing to “talk some more” and once again finding myself “talked over” I realized that “talk” was all they wanted to get out of it.
At least once a week
an organization will ask me to come talk, free of charge, to them about race. They are big fans of my work and just want to be able to have their own private conversations with me. “We would like a safe space to really get educated,” one said. These are people who have read my work, had likely stopped by on social media to “like” posts and leave encouraging comments. These are people who have
read my words on the mental, physical, and financial exploitation of black people and especially black women and the way in which it contributes to oppression. They have read the pain in my stories, and it resonated with them enough that they wanted me to repeat it all on demand, for free. This is talk that will make them sad, make them frustrated, make them cry. But it won’t make them take action.
They want to feel better, but they don’t want to
Words matter, and I’m not just saying that because they are my job. Words help us interpret our world, and can be used to change the way in which we think and act. Words are always at the heart of all our problems, and the beginning of all our solutions.
We cannot understand race and racial oppression if we cannot talk about it. And
we can never stop the racial oppression affecting millions of lives in this country if we do not understand how and why it has been able to hold such power over us for hundreds of years.
But understanding, on its own, will never equal action. There are a lot of complex issues out there that many of us
have talked a lot about and understand fairly well. Take, for example, global warming. The vast
majority of Americans believe in global warming and understand that it is likely brought on by pollution. And while we talk about global warming and worry about global warming, most of us go about our days the same as we did before we ever heard the term because it’s just easier to talk than to do. And global warming continues.
Until we have dismantled the system of White Supremacy and racial
oppression, we will always need to talk about it. And I hope that you will use what you’ve read in this book to talk about it more successfully. And I hope that, as you continue to have these conversations about race, you will see opportunities for action and use what you’ve learned from your conversations to make that action more effective at dismantling oppression.
Talk. Please talk and talk
and talk some more. But also act. Act now, because people are dying now in this unjust system. How many lives have been ground up by racial prejudice and hate? How many opportunities have we already lost? Act and talk and learn and fuck up and learn some more and act again and do better. We have to do this all at once. We have to learn and fight at the same time. Because people have been waiting
far too long for their chance to live as equals in this society.
T IS EASY TO THINK THAT THE PROBLEM OF RACIAL OPPRESSION
in this country is just too big. How on earth can we be expected to dismantle a complex system that has been functioning for over four hundred years? My answer is: piece by piece. If you are looking for some small steps you can take right now to help create real change in
the fight against racial oppression, if you are looking for your little piece of the system you can dismantle, here are some ideas:
Your vote will never have more power than in local elections. This is where politicians and city and state officials have to work for your vote. And so often, this opportunity to flex local power is flushed away by those who only vote
in big, sexy, national elections. Vote local and demand that anybody asking for your vote (from school board to city council to state senator) make racial justice a top priority.
Get in schools.
Do you know what the racial achievement gap is in your school district? Find out, and then ask your school board, principals, and teachers what they are doing to address it. Are your schools
erasing the history and accomplishments of people of color from your child’s textbooks? Are your children only learning about people of color in February? Let them know that an inclusive education that meets the needs of
students is a top priority for you, even if your child is not a child of color.
If you are a white person and you see a person of color being
stopped by police, if you see a person of color being harassed in a store: bear witness and offer to help, when it is safe to do so. Sometimes just the watchful presence of another white person will make others stop and consider their actions more carefully.
Speak up in your unions.
I’ve watched with pride these last few years as my mother has leveraged her privilege
at her union
to help make her workplace more inclusive. A longtime union representative, my mom has not let a single meeting go by without asking about the union’s goals to promote diversity and inclusivity. When her union wrote racial justice goals into their platform for the year, she called me beaming with pride. Unions have a lot of power to combat racial discrimination and disenfranchisement at work, but
only if the union decides to make it a priority.
Support POC-owned business.
Economic exploitation is one of the cornerstones of racial oppression. You can help preserve financial independence for people of color by working with and spending your money with POC businesses.
Boycott banks that prey on people of color.
The recent housing crash brought many of the racist
practices of some of our biggest banks to light, but banks have been exploiting and abusing people of color for hundreds of years. Banks that sell bad loans to people of color should not get your business. Banks that hike up interest rates for people of color should not get your business. Banks that discriminate against people of color should not get your business. If you make these despicable
actions by banks too costly, they will stop doing them, but not before then.
Give money to organizations working to fight racial oppression and support communities of color.
There are groups out there fighting every day for people of color. They are running after-school programs, giving legal advice, providing job training, providing medical
services, fighting school discrimination,
and so much more. And this all costs money. Give what you can to groups like the ACLU, SPLC, Planned Parenthood, NAACP, National Immigrant Justice Center, National Council of La Raza, Native American Rights Fund, Native American Disability Law Center, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and more. Reach out to people in your local community to see what local organizations could use your financial
Boycott businesses that exploit workers of color.
Many businesses rely on cheap labor from people of color working in unhealthy conditions. Boycott businesses that cut costs by cutting out respect and living wages for workers of color.
Support music, film, television, art, and books created by people of color.
So much of our cultural representation is white
by default. Normalize the work of people of color by financially supporting it and asking your producers, museum owners, studios, radio stations, and publishers for more.
Support increases in the minimum wage.
Yes, there are many reasons why so many people of color are so much poorer than white people. But we cannot ignore the fact that a larger proportion of people of color work
in lower-wage jobs, and that a raise in those wages will disproportionately help people of color and can help address the vast racial wealth gap in this country.