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Town Hall has followed concerns about Sally Kohn’s book The Opposite of Hate voiced by Aminatou Sow and Ijeoma Oluo, amongst others. We also heard from many in our audience who asked us to address this head-on prior to our event with Kohn on Tuesday, May 1st. Town Hall does not explicitly endorse or condemn the content of our speakers’ books or presentations, but given the context of this discussion and the demands of our audience, we feel it is necessary to include the voices of the critics themselves.
We reached out to Ijeoma Oluo to ask how she would like to respond, and she has asked us to share the following statement. Ijeoma Oluo authored this statement in full and it is presented here unedited.
This presentation of Oluo’s statement is not an endorsement of its content, and we cannot vouch for the accuracy of the claims made within it. Our goal is to give the principals involved the opportunity to voice their perspectives in their own words.
Statement from Ijeoma Oluo:
When a friend of mine reached out to me to ask if I knew that I was in Sally Kohn’s book, I was a little surprised. I had no idea that any of my work or words had been used in the book. But my work is available to the public, so I was not immediately shocked or alarmed. But my friend, a fellow black person and writer on issues of race, was concerned about how I was being represented in the book, and so he sent me screenshots of the passage that I was mentioned in so that I could take a look.
I was shocked to see that not only was my work misrepresented in Sally Kohn’s book, it was used in juxtaposition to the misrepresentation of the words of another black woman, Aminatou Sow. Sow had already been made aware of how she had been quoted in Kohn’s book, and had made her grievances public, stating that she had been misquoted by Kohn in a way that placed her at risk due to the violent nature of the quote attributed to her and the fact that she is a black woman. She talked about the multiple efforts she had made before the book was published to have this misquote that could harm her removed from the book. When that failed and the book went to market with the inflammatory quote, Sow went public.
The quote attributed to Sow, saying that she felt like she could kill a white person who was racist toward her, was juxtaposed against what Kohn described as my approach – one of love and connection. To get my position on how to deal with racist hate, Kohn did not reference my extensive work on the subject (even though she had followed me on social media for some time and had shared my work on Facebook and Twitter in the past) nor did she reference my regular public social media interactions with the racist hate I encounter daily. Instead, Kohn referenced one interaction I had with a racist troll, on Martin Luther King day, three years ago. This interaction was not something I advertised or publicized. I decided personally, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr, to confront the racist trolls who were seeking out black people with racist hate on this day with his loving words. I figured that if they were trying to force their hate into my space, I was going to force Dr. King’s love into theirs. It was a long and painful day. Most of the racists that I replied to with the words of Dr. King replied back with more hate. One long exchange with one hateful troll, who turned out to be an angry teenager, ended with him apologizing to me and saying that I was a nice person. I was pleasantly surprised with how that one exchange ended. But that was one exchange out of an entire day of being subjected to racist abuse.
When this exchange was picked up by feel-good click-bait sites, it was no surprise that it went viral. This story, the story of a black woman enduring hours upon hours of abuse to get one 15 year old kid to say sorry, is the type of “racial progress” story that white supremacy loves. In order to end racism, a black woman just has to be willing to endure it with enough love, and a white racist has to do nothing but tire of their hate. It is a harmful narrative, and it is one that has been shown in the 400 years that black people have been enduring violent racist hate in this country to be completely untrue.
And this was the story that Kohn chose to juxtapose with Sow’s “angry” quote. This one exchange with one racist is not in any way my approach to dealing with racists or white supremacy, and that is not a secret. I’ve been very clear about this in my work. To expect black people to endure even more pain than what white supremacy already subjects them to in the hopes that it will convince racists that we are human beings who feel pain is in itself a white supremacist expectation. We are human beings, and we do not have to prove that, and white America has no right to view themselves as the judges of our humanity. We should never even entertain that thought as to do so reinforces white supremacy. We are worthy because we exist.
Further, to act as if we have held the secret to changing the hearts and minds of white racists all along, and it was simply being nicer, and taking more abuse – is cruel. Any power we as black people have has been leveraged against white supremacy. Every tactic we can consider has been tried. We are oppressed because we lack power in this society. We are oppressed because this white supremacist system has built an entire country around our subjugation. To have a white woman who has never lived a day of that particular oppression misuse the words and work of black women to build a story about how we should endure even more pain for the greater good is an abuse of the privilege of her platform. We have our own words, we have our own ideas of what we need for our liberation, and a lot of it has to do with what people like Kohn – white people who benefit from and help maintain systems of white supremacy – are going to start doing with that power and privilege. But in order for those ideas to be included in Kohn’s book, she would have had to ask us.
Kohn does not appear to be interested in talking to us though. And as she has been traveling to multiple speaking events talking about how sorry she is about this, and how many lessons she has learned, I have not heard a single word from her. Not a call, not an email, not a tweet. This is not what allyship looks like. This is not what accountability looks like.
But beyond this interaction, I hope that those listening today understand power and privilege dynamic that allowed Kohn to write at length about a struggle she has never known and never will know, without reaching out to those actually living it. That allowed her to lift and distort the words and work of black women without anybody in the the publishing process asking if she really had the knowledge and perspective needed to responsibly discuss this issue. Power and privilege that has famous white celebrities and thought leaders reading this book and celebrating its genius without questioning how black people may be harmed by it. The idea that in 2018 we would still be okay with white writers talking about how they feel that black people should deal with their oppression is the most disturbing thing about this whole debacle.
Sally Kohn writes about hate, but it is not the only hate that is killing black people in America – in fact, it’s pretty far down the list. It’s the exploitation, the erasure, the basic lack of dignity afforded us. This basic disregard for our whole humanity fuels the everyday abuses that deny us jobs, representation, education, effective medical care, police protection and so much more. This basic disregard harms more than just our feelings, and the way that Kohn treated my work and Ms. Sow’s work harmed more than just our feelings. I hope that those witnessing this entire debacle see how easy it is for those who think they are on the side of good to fall back on their privilege and do great harm. I hope that we start looking at the power and privilege of who gets to talk about social justice and progress in this country, and we start looking for ways to elevate the voices of those in the crosshairs of these battles and looking for ways to ease their great burden by using our relative privilege to fight with them instead of trying to speak for them.