When I first dialed the number I was given to interview New York Times bestselling author Ijeoma Oluo, an automated operator told me the number was no longer in service. I double checked the email from her agency, dialed again, and got the same response. I panicked a little, but a quick scroll through her Twitter profile revealed the issue.
I knew that Oluo, the author of So You Want to Talk About Race, and her family had been victims of swatting this past August. (Swatting is prank calling emergency services to dispatch armed police officers to a particular address.) Writing about race, feminism, and social justice has made Oluo and her family targets of online and real life harassment by white supremacists and other bigots. I’d already planned to ask her about it. But I did not know that just two days before our scheduled phone call, her and her son’s cell numbers had also been compromised—by the same police department that handled the swatting incident a few months before.
Thankfully, I was able to contact Oluo via Twitter and the phone interview went on as scheduled. We talked about the paperback release of So You Want to Talk About Race; the 2020 election; and the myriad ways people of color experience, process, and speak about racism in America, whether in the South or the West Coast. Even two days after the doxxing incident, Oluo spoke passionately and honestly, from a place of authority and surprising humility. She doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but she’s determined to help America find them.
Ariel Felton: How has this recent incident affected your family?
Ijeoma Oluo: There’s a lot of tension still in the house, and a lot of general anxiety as we try to address the issue. It’s been difficult to find a balance—how much my sons want to talk about it versus how much they want to just live their lives.
Mostly what they’ve both wanted from me was just to know that they’re safe.
AF: Having these conversations about race in the public eye sounds exhausting and scary for you. How are you taking care of yourself?
IO: For me it’s about having very strong boundaries. I’m always asking myself, “Is it worth it or not?” It’s important for people of color—and especially for Black women who are expected to carry a disportionate burden in these conversations—to recognize and remind yourself of your own inherit value. Sometimes that means you’re not going to continue a conversation if the reward isn’t great enough. At its core, white supremacy devalues us, and we can’t fight it while also devaluing ourselves.
It’s important for people of color—and especially for Black women who are expected to carry a disportionate burden in these conversations—to recognize and remind yourself of your own inherit value.
Also, having a strong support system is so helpful at times like this especially. My two wonderful kids keep me grounded. And I have a really supportive and loving partner, who as a Black man inherently understands a lot of the work I’m doing in a way that can help ease this burden a lot.
And finally, people of color have to recognize that the real work in deconstructing white supremacy has to be done by white people and we can’t kill ourselves trying to make up that gap.
AF: You felt moved to start writing and sharing that writing after the death of Trayvon Martin. What was it about sharing your feelings on this issue that hooked you as a writer?
IO: I wouldn’t even use the word “hooked.” I think it was just a necessity. Now that we've had such an onslaught of this type of brutality, it’s easy to forget what a gut punch the death of Trayvon Martin was, and how shocking the lack of any sort of justice or accountability for it felt. I was so gutted by the murder of Trayvon Martin as a parent, as a Black woman, as a human being. And what struck me was just the absolute silence in what was often a very political and vocal Seattle community. It was really crazy making to live in a city that has such progressive values, that protests about all sorts of things, and find everyone was silent about this.
I started writing because I needed to talk to someone. I wasn’t intending to be a writer, but it was then that I found out that my voice can maybe do something, that I could get used to speaking my mind, and perhaps there was a reason I had such a strong desire to do so.
AF: In the book, you write about friends falling away after you started publicly confronting issues of race. Why do you think that is?
IO: A lot of it has to do with what is expected of Black people in interracial friendships, how one-sided these relationships are expected to be, and how little of ourselves we’re actually expected to bring into them.
It made people uncomfortable to discover that they hadn’t seen these areas of me and to hear me demand that this be a part of my relationships, that I be seen as a whole Black woman. It threatened the way people always talk about interracial friendships: that we’ll get to know each other and discover that race doesn’t matter. But in fact, the opposite is true: you get to know someone and you realize just how much race matters.
AF: Your initial response when your agent asked you to write about having conversations about race, was that you weren’t the ‘white people whisperer.’ What made you change your mind?
IO: Oh, I’m still not the white people whisperer! (laughs) I think America works very hard to make sure no one of any race knows how to effectively talk about issues of race.
When I started asking around to see what issues people had when talking about race, I was struck by the amount of people of color who responded. Often, they asked about situations in which they would know inherently that something was wrong, but they wouldn’t have the words to say why and it was making it difficult for them to advocate for themselves in the way that they wanted to.
I started writing because I needed to talk to someone. I wasn’t intending to be a writer, but it was then that I found out that my voice can maybe do something...
A lot of what I heard was ‘I talk about this issue at work and I get blown off because I’m not saying this in a way that they’ll hear me,’ or ‘I don’t know how to explain this to my children’ or ‘my interracial relationship is suffering because I can’t quite figure out how to move forward.’ That’s when I knew I could write the book.
AF: So, this book is really for everyone. Do people of color and white people respond differently to this book? How so?
IO: Absolutely! Unfortunately, from the very beginning, white people assumed this book was for them. The emails I got said things like ‘thanks for writing this book for us white people.’ It was probably 8 months to a year into this book being released that I started hearing from people of color, and the responses I got said they had no idea it wasn’t only for white people until they started reading it.
Honestly, it was marketed that way and I was very unhappy with that. Part of the issue is the publishing world: everyone who touched the book other than me was white. And part of it is just that white culture likes to assume everything is for them.
But now, people of color—and of varied races—come to me and talk about what it's like to feel heard, or to have something so plainly laid out. I’ve heard from a lot of Asian Americans who talk about what it meant to see a chapter on the model minority myth in the book and how often they’re left out of conversations about race.
AF: You were born in Texas, but spent most of your life in Seattle. In your experience, is there a difference between how Southerners and Northerners and/or West Coasters discuss race?
IO: Definitely. Because there’s a difference in the way people in the north, south and west experience racism as well. Often times in the north and west coasts, there is the idea that there isn’t a race problem, therefore it’s not talked about. There’s a lot of coded language, a lot that goes unsaid, and a lot of guesswork as to what’s actually happening, because people aren’t upfront about race. Racism is much more apparent in the South. A lot of people of color living in the South tell me they know where they stand with white people in a way that others don’t.
AF: What do you think the South can teach the rest of the nation about race relations, if anything?
IO: There have been quite a few articles in recent years about how hostile areas of the Pacific Northwest are to Black people, and about how Black people are moving back to southern metropolis areas. I think that was shocking to a lot of white people to hear. But when you have racism on top of isolation, as you do in these extremely white areas, where Black people are much more of the minority, sometimes people will choose to go where they at least have community.
I always write from a place of knowing there was a time when I got this wrong, a time when I knew nothing about this, and a time where I might have been hurting people around this issue.
If there's one thing the north wanted to learn about why this sort of reverse migration is happening, often times it’s economic policies in the north and west coast that are deconstructing communities of color, removing one of the only protections these communities have had against systemic racism—their ability to form communities of support for each other.
AF: In Chapter 3 of SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE, you write about having uncomfortable conversations about race with your mother, who is a white woman. Do you and your mom talk about the book, or delve into any of the topics discussed?
IO: It’s interesting, because you cannot undo a lifetime of white supremacist indoctrination in one book, even if your daughter wrote the book. (laughs) Sometimes I’m still surprised about the conversations we have to have, but I think she’s become more receptive over time. It’s hard to be confronted with the ways you might be harming the people you love, but I can tell she is genuinely trying and engaging.
But yes, she’s still a white lady who grew up in Kansas at the end of the day and I still shake my head at her sometimes, like ‘Oh my god, if my readers could hear you right now, I’d be so embarrassed.’ (laughs)
AF: This book relies on personal experience as well as documented research, and you do an excellent job of blending the two in order to get points across. In conversations about race, which of those approaches do you think is more effective?
IO: That’s tough. I find especially in race discussions, hard facts can be dehumanizing, and the unspoken rule of needing facts first only comes from the premise that people who are directly impacted by the issue are not reliable narrators.
But at the same time, there is also something so insulting about having these facts and people still needing to hear the heartbreak in order to respond, even though you can look at the numbers and tell something needs to be done, we still have to tug on the heartstrings.
When it came to writing the book, I knew that often times there is a gap between what people recognize as far as terminology around race and whether or not they can recognize what that looks like in real life. And I needed to bridge that gap.
AF: One of the most repeated compliments I saw about the book was your tone. Franschesca Ramsey praised it as being “brutally honest without being preachy or condescending.” How do you accomplish that while still speaking from a place of authority?
IO: As a writer and commentator on social issues, if you’re trying to sway people in an argument, you’re talking to people who aren’t where you’re at, and that requires humility to do so effectively. I always write from a place of knowing there was a time when I got this wrong, a time when I knew nothing about this, and a time where I might have been hurting people around this issue. I got to this point with a lot of grace, and it would be wrong for me not to communicate that, whether in tone or putting my own failures in there, or using humor—just something to show I’m not acting like I came out of the womb talking about race theory.
The chapter on privilege was really intentional, because I still struggle with it and I know that it’s hard. But sometimes if you leap first, other people can see that it won’t kill you and will take that risk with you.
AF: You give lots of advice on having conversations about race on a person-to-person basis. Do the rules change on the national level? How does America at large talk about race?
IO: Yes and no. Part of what I always tried to get back to in the book was the systemic issues. I discuss how to talk about race with our peers, because I think that a lot of what see in our national government starts locally. Our politicians that we see in Congress all started locally—they all started with what’s okay in your neighborhood, and what you say your priorities are. How we talk to our peers about our politicians matters. Are we tone policing in these conversations? Are we looking at intersectionality in the people that we choose to represent us? All of that matters on a national level.
It’s going to play a big role until we actually fix the system where your identity isn’t the number one reason you live or die!
The number one point of the book is to continuously keep conversations about race out of the hearts and minds categories. Do they like Black people or not? None of that matters. What matters are the oppressive systems at work.
AF: You talked in your book about what some called the “democratic mistake” of focusing too much on identity politics in the last election. How big of a role do you predict race (or other identity politics) will play in this upcoming election?
IO: It’s going to play a big role until we actually fix the system where your identity isn’t the number one reason you live or die!
People don’t realize that identity politics have always existed; we’re just forgetting that white is an identity. White identity politics have been the norm for years, and I think it’s absurd that we’re suddenly saying, ‘this is nothing but identity politics,’ as if the conservative right isn’t identity politics, as if every politician that’s ever been in Congress hasn’t been steeped in identity politics. This nation was founded on identity politics and to pretend otherwise just allows whiteness to work with complete impunity.
So no, people of color, women, trans people, disabled people, we’re never going to stop wanting our rights and wanting to be seen as whole people. We’re human beings with a fundamental desire to be free — that’s never going away.