5 Biggest Takeaways from Ijeoma Oluo at WOMEN’S WAY Book Prize

Originally published on Medium

March 6, 2019, 11:19 a.m.

Last night, on Monday March 4th, WOMEN’S WAY awarded their 11th Annual Book Prize to Ijeoma Oluo, author of “So You Want to Talk About Race.” The celebration took place at the Comcast Technology Center, with over 100 people in attendance. A discussion with Oluo took place after the ceremony, moderated by NBC10 anchor Erin Coleman.

Oluo’s particular combination of radical candor and wit allows to her bridge the racial divide in conversations in a unique way. In a diverse room full of women of many races and ages, Coleman and Oluo expertly led the group through an emotional, challenging, and inspiring journey on one of the toughest topics facing America today: race.

Here are the five biggest takeaways from a night that won’t soon be forgotten:

1. What privilege is (and is not)

“Privilege” is one of the most contentious words in today’s political landscape. Many initially respond defensively when challenged to face that they may have experienced privilege in one realm or another. This is a natural response, Oluo argued, since it can feel like a denial of one’s own hardships. Nobody has a perfectly easy life devoid of suffering and hard work. So what is privilege?

“Privilege is a lack of a specific set of barriers.”

As Oluo put it, white privilege is not simply being white and then someone “handing you a package of things”. Rather, “Privilege is a lack of a specific set of barriers,” she stated, “You may have had a lot of other hurdles in your past, but you don’t have this one.”

Oluo additionally challenged the assumption that examining our privilege is a disempowering experience. “It empowers me,” she said, “A lot of people don’t get that.” Every time we realize a space in which we have privilege, we are realizing a space in which we have the power to make a difference. With our voices, our votes, and our dollars we have the chance to amplify the voices of those who are most marginalized and ignored. Feeling guilty about our privilege helps no one, but using our privilege to topple systems of oppression is an incredibly empowering way to wield a weapon which may otherwise be used to cause harm.

2. Approach the conversation with the goal of understanding

Conversations about race can be tough (that’s kind of why she wrote a whole book about it). So how can we have these conversations in a productive way? Oluo said that she approaches these conversations with family, friends, and coworkers by stating her goal from the outset, and that goal is not to win or cause shame. Rather, she aims to reach a point of mutual understanding: “I’m hoping at the end of this conversation the rift between us will be closed.”

This approach centers the experiences of the individual who was harmed, without pointed attacks and accusations that can lead to defensiveness. “It is natural to become defensive in conversations about race, especially when you are implicated,” said Oluo. Since our society has a very black and white (excuse the pun) view of racism, anyone who does something racist can feel like they are being told they hate or want to intentionally harm black people. Instead, it is on white people to realize that no matter how anti-racist we try to be — we will mess up, and to take those opportunities to learn and grow in our advocacy.

3. Microaggressions aren’t a small deal

Microaggressions are called such for a reason. They are the small, seemingly harmless, racist comments and actions that people of color experience on a day to day basis. Viewed in a vacuum, these microaggressions may be seen as insignificant, and a person of color’s response to them may feel disproportionate. However, these microaggressions are anything but a small deal. Microaggressions prop up a system of racism that is much more insidious than any one small comment may reveal.

For example, while saying “Wow, you’re really well spoken!” to a black person may sound like a compliment, the underlying assumption here is that black people are less intelligent. This belief has been used to excuse centuries of violence against black people, so when we buy into it, even to a small degree, we are upholding that violence.

“Microaggressions matter because they reinforce the system.”

“Microaggressions matter because they reinforce the system,” said Oluo, “but also because they cause mental and physical strain from being considered other.” This mental strain is experienced by people of color every day from simply existing in a white supremacist society. Every little sting of a microaggression, while it may seem no larger than a paper cut at first, adds up. This is the pain that people of color live with, and it is not a minor issue.

4. Intersectionality is vital to a sustainable Women’s Movement

Why can’t you just be a woman first? Why do you have to be so divisive?”

Oluo faces this question a lot. Mostly from white women.

The women’s movement has always been white. Black women have been brought into the movement when it was convenient, and yet alienated and scapegoated when it was not. While white women have continually ignored the needs of women of color, they have demanded solidarity from them. Oluo shared her pain in trying to get white friends to show up for her: “For years I had been going to Black Lives Matter marches and I begged my white friends to go, but they didn’t show up. I thought they just didn’t like marches.” Then, when Trump was elected (largely through the support of white women), these same friends were buying plane tickets to DC to defend their own rights.

“I thought they just didn’t like marches.”

When we build our movement on issues and platforms that exclude others and further their own oppression, we are simply creating more work to undo down the line. White women have always benefitted from their proximity to the most privileged group: white men. Basing our freedom on this contingency not only harms women of color, but ultimately is not a path for total liberation as it keeps women dependent on men for safety and security.

While some argue an intersectional movement is too complicated and we should move in stages (white women first, of course), this “progress” is only that in name. Rather, this progress will have to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up anyways to move towards a totally free society. To have a sustainable movement, we simply can’t afford not to be intersectional.

5. Pushback Means Progress

Despite the current social and political climate, which feels more racialized than ever, Oluo left the discussion on a positive note. The pushback we are seeing today means that there has been progress. White supremacy is being threatened, and it is because of that threat that we see a greater resurgence in their efforts. She urged attendees not to become complacent and expect that white supremacy will simply “die off.” While we are seeing dramatic changes in the ways that kids today talk about race, we are also seeing active recruitment efforts of children, in hopes of turning natural teenage angst into racial hatred. Progress and pushback are two sides of the same coin.

“Don’t get discouraged now while we are here and able to be doing more,” said Oluo. She pointed to the packed room full of women from a wide range of races, ages, and backgrounds, “The fact that you are all here shows me there has been progress.”

Photos courtesy of Citizen Photography, all rights reserved.