Tapestry@25: Writer and speaker Ijeoma Oluo
(Originally published in April 2018)
Writer and author of bestselling book So You Want To Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo wants to change the way we talk about race and racism.
"We have, for so long, only spoken about race and racism as far as the intentions and most extreme actions of individuals. So when we think about racism, we usually think of things like the KKK, or neo-Nazis, or people being lynched," said Oluo, an American writer based in Seattle.
"A lot of people, because that imagery is so strong, feel immediately when we try to talk about race that something is going to pop up that is going to tie them to clan members and skinheads — defences immediately go up."
Every brutality we've seen against people of colour in this country has been upheld by everyday mundane actions, how we structure our economy, how we vote and what sorts of behaviours we are willing to overlook.- Ijeoma Oluo
But Oluo says that to fully address racism, we need to look beyond these extreme examples and examine the systemic issues of oppression and discrimination.
"Every brutality we've seen against people of colour in this country [U.S.] has been upheld by everyday mundane actions, how we structure our economy, how we vote and what sorts of behaviours we are willing to overlook."
One particularly uncomfortable conversation Oluo had about race was with her mother.
Oluo's mom is white, and even though Oluo frequently writes about race, Oluo shared the moment she realized that they hadn't had a conversation about race.
Oluo received a message from her mom saying, "I've had an epiphany, call me." When they spoke, Oluo's mom told her about a joke she made at her office.
"She was telling this joke, not a joke making fun of Black people per se, but an in-joke in (the) Black community," and the only person of colour in her office pushed back against her joke.
"This coworker of hers rightfully was skeptical and asked her, 'What do you know about being Black?'" Oluo said.
Oluo shared another uncomfortable encounter on Twitter:
And this lady was doing that thing where you really want to be a part of the group in the next table so you are like, self consciously chuckling when something funny is said & then quickly looking away & pretending to care about whatyour boring husband is saying.—@IjeomaOluo
& both my kids are like "WHA.." but that only lasts a second because of course we have. So they just answer "yes?" Like she had asked "DO YA'LL BREATHE OXYGEN?"—@IjeomaOluo
Then she eagerly follows up with, "Did you like it?"<br><br>And my kids are all, "Um... yeah? Of course?"<br><br>And then she awkwardly laughs like, "yeah. I liked it too." As she realizes that she blew her one shot at being a part of our awesome family with her weak follow up questions.—@IjeomaOluo
Oluo said the takeaway here is that in situations like these, it's important to understand the context of the people you're trying to connect with.
"There's nothing other than the fact that she thinks that my family is having cute conversation that shows that there would be any benefit to us having community or friendship," she said.
"Chances are there are people of colour in her life that she's not building genuine communication with."
Do intentions matter?
These encounters point to a reality of racism that Oluo said is important to understand — that racism continues to happen even when people have the best of intentions.
"We need to look at what racial oppression actually is. It is not a collection of people who don't like people of colour, and in fact it never was."
What we have to realize first is that [racism] doesn't necessarily mean that you are morally corrupt.- Ijeoma Oluo
To really talk about race, Oluo said we need to move away from only focusing on the intentions of individuals and look more at systemic and everyday instances of oppression and discrimination.
"Your intentions can only motivate action if you choose them to. They're not going to make me safer if you don't put any actions behind them," she said.
"Where we are being harmed the most are in these seemingly benign actions by people who don't think they have a racist bone in their body."