Transcript by Rey Smith
Jini Palmer (00:15): Welcome to Town Hall Seattle civic series. On Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019, writer and editor-at-large for The Establishment and Seattle Magazine Ijeoma Oluo came to our Great Hall stage to talk with writer, filmmaker, and editor Charles Mudede about Ijeoma’s book, So You Want to Talk About Race. Together, they had an honest conversation and navigated questions of race that arise in the news and in our daily lives. To watch a video of this event, check at our Town Hall Seattle YouTube channel. And now, Ijeoma Oluo in conversation with Charles Mudede, and So You Want to Talk About Race.
Ijeoma Oluo (01:12): Hi. Oh my goodness.
Charles Mudede (01:17): I’m going to be bad about this. Everybody, thank you for coming tonight. I’m not gonna hide the fact that I’m a touch nervous, only because there’s so much stuff to cover and talk about. I want to first bring out that, when we were in the back, Ijeoma informed me that the paperback that she’s now promoting is number 7—
IO (1:42): Four.
CM (1:43): Four—sorry—four on the bestseller list today. (applause) Seven would be me, if that happened. But no, it’s a really, really, really significant achievement. And it’s interesting cause the book was written 2 years ago—or at least it was published 2 years ago—and it’s still very relevant, even after all of these rapid changes in our culture; not rapid changes that are fundamental, but the fact that so much of the discourse that was happening when the book was written has now been altered by recent events. I mean, just to give an example, Trump wasn’t president when you wrote this book and I actually wanted to ask you about that. I mean, what did it mean? Obviously, Trump is all over the book, in a quiet way—not in a quiet way, in an obvious way—and now it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, here we are.’
IO (03:03): Yeah, it’s been weird. I wrote the book, I mean I started the book in 2015, so Trump was still kind of an oddity, right? Like we knew he was racist, but the chances at that time, people were still thinking ‘Hmmm’ when I started really diving into writing and I turned the book in shortly before the election results. And I remember the next morning being like, ‘Oh, this is the worst job security ever. Like, this is not how I wanted to secure writing gigs.’ And I think there was this overall panic. Someone asked me in an interview if I thought the book would have sold as well if Trump hadn’t been president and I can say no, it was just as necessary before, obviously. But it was like election day happened and all of a sudden white people were messaging me going, ‘What went wrong? We have a problem. And we’re like, is there a book?’
And it’s been interesting to see how so many of the things that I think that we’ve been writing and talking about—Black writers and scholars—have been talking about for hundreds of years are just now being so blatantly obvious for the first time, I think, in our generation that people are going, ‘Hmm, maybe there is something to worry about with this whole racism thing. Maybe I need to look into this.’ And so at first I think there was this real panic that drove people to the book. Now, I think it’s more utility. I think that people are starting to realize, now that we’ve kind of accepted that a large portion of our population is trash—[laughter, applause]—that they’re not doing enough to balance all that trash and that they’re aiding and abetting the trash. And now it’s about finding it in their day-to-day life. And I’m so happy to have built something that is helping people find where they are aiding and abetting white supremacy, and at least start down certain paths of trying to rectify that. I do think the book would have done well—I was a writer who was doing well—but I think there’s a large segment of liberal, white America that really thought they had nothing to work on. People continuously talked about—before the book was coming out—they were saying, ‘Oh, I have all these relatives I’m going to send it to, I’m going to send it to my racist uncle. I’m going to send it to—’ Like, you should read it first. And I think that, now that it’s become a part of this discussion and this movement, people are reading it first and kind of keeping it for themselves and realizing maybe their uncle’s not ready for this yet, but they certainly need to be reading this and working on it.
CM (06:52): No, that’s really interesting sense because I think that people might’ve thought that this book was, at that time, related to the Black Lives Matter movement and that’s what it was addressing, because people didn’t understand what the issue was with cops. And you talk about police enforcement—actually you have a strange way of expressing policing, I always loved it, you repeated it and it really interested me. I’m sorry, I’m not going to look in the book because that’s embarrassing. But if I was on a desk by myself, I would have looked and said, ‘This is the way you say it,’ but it won’t pop in my mind. But you talk about policing and the history of policing, the way it’s tied to racist institutions and you delve into that. And so there was this idea that this book might just be related to that specific time; it might not have any relevance consequentially. And that’s the whole thing; like actually you’re talking about the deeper structures of racism and precisely, there’s no way that a Trump could resurface or become powerful in the context, except for the one that you’ve sort of established and wrote in your book. I want to say something in that respect really quickly. A number of books in the top—we were talking about this in the back—a number of the books also in the bestseller list were also considering the situation in the United States as it is today. So it seems like a lot of people want to have answers as to like, how the hell did we get here? You know what I mean? So to me your book, in a sense—because it has such a huge investment in the historical side of these questions. I mean, you go from yourself and your situation with your family, and then you go right into the past; you always dip into the history and say, ‘No, these are structural issues,’ in a sense. But I wanted it to stop there. That was my thing. And I now wanted to delve into the book, in a sense, because there’s all these things in it that make me pause, and I’m going to bring them up to you one by one. The first one is Africa Lounge.
IO (09:24): Yes. It still exists. I thought maybe I had the power to end Africa Lounge and I don’t; I still walk by it every time I fly. And I’m like, ‘Why?’
CM (09:38): Okay everybody, Africa Lounge is at the Seattle SeaTac. And the reason why I bring it up is because it’s in the chapter where Ijeoma talks about cultural appropriation and she opened it in a discussion. But it’s a very wonderful thing cause I’ve walked into this bar several times, as an African, and all my mind was like, ‘I need a glass of wine before I get on the bloody plane.’ And I didn’t even know I was walking into an African-themed—right? And I get the wine and I walk out; it’s only really like, ‘Oh my God.’ You know? What did I walk into? And I just love the way that you pick certain things. And you’re like, ‘This is crazy.’
IO (10:29): It is!
CM (10:30): And we accept it and nobody’s done anything about it. Like, why do we have an African restaurant in SeaTac that sells no African food—
IO (10:37): That just serves nachos. I mean, have you looked at the art on the walls? They are, like, cave drawings. It’s ridiculous. Someone was like, ‘Nachos, but make them Africa,’ like, what does that even mean? And this is an international airport, right? What an opportunity to showcase what international means. And instead they’re like, ‘Oh, it means it means burgers and fries, is what it means. And exploitation. It means you’re going to sit on a zebra print stool with your beer.’ And it just amazes me how often people walk by it. If it weren’t for the fact that I was so excited about the possibility of encountering African food after eating airport food for so long, and then discover that no, I was encountering, you know, beer and nachos, I may not have written it, it may not have struck me the same, but I was just like, ‘Oh!’ And I was like, ‘Oh no, this is the opposite of what I needed right now and what I was expecting.’ And it just sits there and I keep walking past being like, ‘Why is nobody else even surprised? Like, why is everyone walking past this full costuming and just being like, ‘Ooh, cool,’? I don’t understand it.’ But that being said, I’m actually doing an event next week in Wisconsin for the Wisconsin Library Association and they asked me specially to come in because they booked this association at a fake safari, years ago, and then realized it was a problem. And they can’t get their deposit back. I’m not even joking. And so they’re like, ‘Can you come into this fake safari and yell?’ And I’m like, ‘Um, okay.’ And they’re like, ‘We’ll book you a room.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m not staying there.’ I’m not going to sleep in this fake safari. It’s called Kalahari and it’s a themed safari resort in Wisconsin. In case you’re missing the safari, you can find it in Wisconsin. And yeah, I’m just like, how did whole committees—like, ‘Oh yeah, this sounds fun.’—and make this decision and then you get close to the event and someone’s like, ‘Excuse me,’ you know? And you know it was the one black person that’s like, ‘Oh God, do I have to be the one to say I don’t want to go to a safari?’ So it’s a pretty common thing that people don’t recognize.
CM (13:41): I call it the Toto effect.
IO (13:43): Yes.
CM (13:47): That particular song ruined us. The rains of Africa, ohhh. The hamburgers of Africa, the italian salad, the pasta of Africa, it’s all there. But I want to then switch right back to the beginning of the book cause I jumped ahead, cause I love jumping ahead. That’s how my thinking happens sometimes. Everybody who writes a book always has someone they’re writing to; I always believe a writer always sort of says, this person is an imaginary person, and I wanted to know who’s the imaginary person for this book?
IO (14:32): Oh man. So that’s a bit of a tricky question, I would say, cause for this book, I had different people I was writing to and I had people I was writing for. So the person, every step of the way, that I imagined needed to benefit and approve of everything I wrote was a Black woman. But sometimes I’m writing to white people. Sometimes I’m writing to Black people. Sometimes I’m writing to Latinx people, to Native people, to Asian Americans. But the for: when I went through my final read, I was like, ‘Is this either speaking to the imaginary black woman in my head reading this, is it making her day a little easier? Is it lifting some burden from her?’ That was kind of my check. For something like race, when we’re talking about systemic racism, there’s so many parties involved and there were times where, in order to make sure that Black woman wasn’t increasingly burdened, I had to be really deliberate and say, ‘I’m talking to white people here. You have to do this particular thing. I’m talking to people of color here. You need to know this particular thing,’ because there’s so many different ways in which anti-racist movements are oftentimes run on the backs of people of color and in particularly Black women. And I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t doing anything to contribute to that. So that’s really what I kept in mind. I always tell writers, write to know your audience and write to that audience no further, but this one, because everyone has a race, I had to know at least who I needed to benefit completely from it.
CM (16:19): Right. You also have then the consequence; when you’re developing this story and you’re developing a sort of, I always call it the point of departure, the point at which something launches, right? And to me it was really your interactions with employees in this book. Right? And I wanted to get into this notion and I wanted you to elaborate it because—you know what I mean? Like that thing is really, is really complicated. Black people have to enter a workspace—often it’s dominated by white people—and then they have to have these interactions and they have to also be sensitive, or at least alert, to the idea that they could get fired or their lives could be miserable. And from my point, I always thought that’s sort of this launching pad, that we have to shut up, you know what I mean? And I wanted to get into this because it’s hard to explain this to anybody who is not black, from my point. That’s what we go through normally.
IO (17:32): Yeah. I think for me, everywhere I go, it’s been interesting. I’ve been touring on this book and I’m going to people’s workplaces—whether I’m speaking at universities—people work there and I can see the apprehension, fear, and pain on staff members of color, and I will say in particularly, black women, especially in academia. I think black women are carrying a really cruel amount of burden for their students of color and for other academia of color. And I can see them quietly nodding, listening and knowing they’re not going to say a word when they have their next meeting while white people are like, ‘Oh, we’re going to have so many great talks! This is going to be so fun!’ And you can just see the women of color in particular being like, ‘Oh God, I don’t want to do this. I’m going to say something, someone’s going to get mad. I’m going to get fired. Or I’m going to find myself isolated. It’s never going to be worth it.’ And you know, I remember living that, life day-in and day-out, of questioning, ‘Okay, is it really victory if I get fired and can’t feed my kids? Where is it? You carry this guilt of the things that you let slide and you don’t live as a whole person. And part of why I knew I needed to start writing and talking more about race was I saw myself at 60 and 70 still just swallowing down all these things, still trying to find a way to work my hardest for a company that would be afraid the moment I got too loud or excited, that was never going to pay me what I was worth, that was going to see me as expendable, was never going to see me as management material, you know, all of these things. And I would still have to bend over backwards to get to that point. And I couldn’t live like that. And now I get paid to do the opposite. And yes, there’s a steep price I’ve paid these last couple of years for speaking so openly. But oh my God, I walk into every room as a whole black woman. I know that I don’t have to swallow a single thing anyone says to me. I’m not going to get fired by calling out the racism I see. No one’s going to tell me I’m too loud. No one’s going to tell me I’m too angry. I mean, people tell me I’m too angry, but they’re not my target audience. And whenever I find myself in situations and I’m looking out and I see people of color, even in the spaces I try to create where we talk about this, swallowing down their experiences cause they know it’s still not worth it, it guts me. People like to say that I’m brave for what I do, but the truth is, I’m so privileged. And there are so many people holding it down for their kids, for their families, swallowing immense amounts of abuse and fighting when they can and trying to figure out where that fight lives and what part of the battle is their own, what part has to wait till later, because it’s still going to come back, right? You can decide you’re going to fight this comment today; someone’s going to make that comment again tomorrow. And it’s just the strength that takes. In the book, the reason I write about it so much is a) it was so crucial to why it came to writing. But also because I feel like so often in narratives around race and racism, you are only allowed to talk about what’s happening if someone dies, if someone is beaten; the day-to-day struggles are never felt to be worthy of being put on the page. And I would read so many books and just not feel seen and heard. And I wanted other people to feel seen and heard. I wanted them to find little bits in these day-to-day interactions and know that at least it’s worth being put down on paper, it’s worth being moralized. It’s worth discussion, even if they don’t feel safe having it.
CM (22:16): Yeah. There’s a lot to be digested in what you’ve just said. There was one element that you brought up and it’s one of those things where you’re looking for that kind of thing that you know could only happen in a situation of that kind, of just ordinary—you know what I mean?—taking it and living with it. It’s funny, but it’s really sad in its ultimate consequences. When you were talking about Good Hair and Chris Rock and how the employees—the white employees—would say, ‘I understand Black hair, I understand the issue because I watched Chris Rock’s Good Hair.’ You don’t know where to begin; how do you have a conversation along those lines? And yet, if you keep quiet, you’re being weird. And if you say something, it may sound too angry. And it’s just one of those things where, ‘Yeah, okay. I did watch Good Hair by him, Chris rock, and that says nothing,’—and you say that [in the book]—’that has nothing to do with what the situation is.’ And that aspect of the battle enemy to me was like, ‘Oh, that’s it. Nobody would get—yeah.’
IO (23:59): Yeah. It’s the weirdest—like, ‘I’m not going to try to actually get to know you as a person. I watched this film, so now I know, and we should be able to talk about your hair.’ And the amount of times people asked me if I’d seen that documentary. Like, I know what my hair is. I don’t need to know the history; it’s my hair. And people are like, ‘Have you seen Good Hair? Oh my gosh, it’s so amazing what Black women do to their hair.’ I’m like, ‘Really? What?’ And it was so frustrating because I know what white people do to their hair all the time. It’s everywhere. Right? Every fashion magazine has a thousand ways to style white hair, every commercial, right? Every friend star that got a haircut, it was the haircut everyone got. I know so much about what white people do to their hair and the thought that you could watch one documentary and then know all about my hair and come tell me about my hair and tell me I need a watch this is just so absurd. And there’s so many ways in which white people are like, ‘This is my olive branch to you. You should be glad. You should be grateful. I’m engaging in different culture,’ as if white culture isn’t shoved down my throat 24 hours a day, you know. Like, ‘Oh, well, okay, I’m going to go celebrate another St. Patrick’s day, I guess.’ And then someone’s like, ‘Oh, I watched a documentary,’ and they stare at you expectedly. And you’re just like, ‘And?’ It’s the weirdest, like it’s so fake. It’s so dehumanizing and small and people don’t get why it bothers. People are like, ‘Oh, well, they’re just trying to be nice, trying to have conversation.’ I posted after Black Panther came out: my family and I were eating, having a fun meal—and we have fun—and there was this white couple sitting at a table across and they were not having fun. They’re just eating like sad wasps. And this woman kept looking at us as we’re laughing, talking about our day, like longingly. And I was like, what is wrong with this woman? Like, she just kept being like (Ijeoma does impression, laughter). And finally, she just couldn’t take it and she turns to us and she goes, ‘Have you all seen Black Panther? I really loved it.’ And we’re like, ‘Ah, yeah.’ And we just stared at her. And then she just turned back to her food. And I posted about it and people are like, ‘You’re really mean; that woman was trying to make friends with you.’ And what frustrated me is that this woman, I am not the only person of color this woman’s ever encountered. There are people of color in her life, in her work, in her space. And she—instead of meaningfully engaging with them, finding out what’s happening in their community, trying to have conversations—she’s like, ‘What if I interrupt this family’s day? And we’ll become best friends because I watched a movie that they probably watched cause they’re Black.’ And it was just so insulting to me. And people were so mad that I even commented on it. Like this anonymous lady, right? They’re like, ‘She’s going to feel so bad.’ I’m like, no, she doesn’t follow me on Twitter. if she did, she wouldn’t have dared.
(28:12) But you know, it’s these little things that happen all the time. Every person of color I know has someone who would come up and give this weird non-sequitur, that’ll be, you know. Even before the Obama years; I worked in this company and I worked remote so I had never seen my boss and I talk like this, right? And we had been talking on and off for years, you know, weekly calls. And then one day I mentioned something about being Black and she was like, ‘You’re Black?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ She’s like, ‘You sound like you’re from California.’ It’s like, ‘Well, I don’t know how to break this to you: Black people exist there.’ And she pauses. And she goes, ‘I hate George W. Bush, by the way.’ And that was it. And this was before Obama. And then it’s just like [pause, silence]. Alright, well, let’s get back to this meeting, you know? It’s so weird how we can exist and know a whole library of stuff. I’m sure you know so much about white people. I know so much, more than I ever wanted to know. And they know so little about us. They know a film, they know a hair documentary, they listen to an album, they like some music and then they think we’re going to be best friends.
CM (29:44): Yeah, I know. I saw some Italian guys and I said, ‘You know, I watched The Godfather. I’m down with you guys. I get what’s going on at this table.’
IO (30:04): That’s why you have your back against the wall. You’re just waiting, you never know when someone’s going to come murder you, as all Italians do.
CM (30:15): Well, we have to live through this all the time and what still sort of amazes me, is that, even though there’s—okay, there’s this thing, it’s this little thing. It’s a point that I come to again and again when I think of your work and it comes out of a very small comment that you make to somebody who’s looking at poverty and you do two things. You say, ‘This person is dealing with poverty,’ and they say, ‘Oh, they should do drug tests to get welfare,’ in the sense that I do drug test to get into a job and then they say, ‘Oh, we should sterilize all the poor because they’re basically trying to get money from babies,’ and you say something which is totally stunning to me. And it’s something that haunts me to this day because I really did believe that stuff like that was dead and that people will actually say that and believe that. And I was like, ‘Okay, okay. Ijeoma, when did that comment happen?’ Because—
IO (31:26): Yeah. Let’s see. I mean, it was probably about 8 years ago. But it’s still—I have family members who post stuff like this on their Facebook pages. It’s, ‘If I have to get a drug test for work, you should get a drug test for welfare.’ You know, all of these things: ‘Pull up your pants, get a job.’ And sometimes I feel like I’m in this weird farce, right? Where I’m like, ‘Oh, this is real life? Like people are actually this vile and have these simplistic views of the world and thinks so little of—’ [inaudible] Capitalism is cruel.
CM (32:11): Right.
IO (32:12): Right? I don’t know what more evidence we need that it’s cruel and punishing and grinding and that there are certain people who will never, ever be able to get out from under those gears. And we still have a huge segments of the population that are like, ‘People are buying steaks with their welfare checks,’ you know? It just appalls me, the commitment to ignorance and hatred that people have, because it takes work. It takes work to look at all the evidence we have that says otherwise, and still come out with those beliefs.
CM (32:52): Yeah. And still, also to—in the worst way—to force us to continually battle against such stupidities without end. I’m sorry, that’s a comment that—there was a thing Ijeoma also pointed out in her book: often the thing that people don’t get is that a lot of people don’t want to write about this stuff all the time. And one would love to deal with other themes and other subjects, but if you’re so far back that people today actually believe that, in a classic situation where you say, like, sterilization means something specifically to Black people, because that was a program—
IO (33:36): Forced sterilization, yeah, for Black and Native people and Latinx women as well. That was [an] actual program to stop us from procreating and to thin us out of the population, like that happened to us. And you can’t divorce these conversations, especially when you look at that same oppression as why so many people of color live in poverty, and then say, we’re gonna talk about bringing back these horrifically cruel, unethical practices. It’s always going to have—no matter what your intent—it’s going to have a racial tinge. You know, it’s funny you talk about how I don’t like having these conversations. I actually—you haven’t read the paper back yet, but I actually mention you in the paper back.
CM (34:22): Oh. [laughter] By the way, I didn’t get the paperback. What are you saying about me in the paperback?
IO (34:28): It’s just brief. I’ve forgotten until now, when you mentioned that. So Charles and I used to work together a lot. I’m sure many of you are aware of my Rachel Dolezal interview; that was Charles’ brain child and I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for his very insistent prodding and just the overall glee in his voice, when he called me: ‘We can really do this to Ijeoma. We can really do this.’ I knew what he was going to ask me before he asked me, too, because I had just gotten all these texts about Rachel Dolezal and then I get this missed call from him, and I’m like, ‘Oh, that bastard.’ The thing I loved most about working with Charles—and I miss writing with you all the time, I complain about it constantly, it really has broken my heart to not be able to—is he would call me, you would call me, and say, ‘Can you write about this?’ And I would be like, ‘Meh, I’m so tired of this. I hate this and never want to write about this again. The world is awful. Why do I have to waste my time talking about what white people are doing? And I don’t want to.’ And then you would be like, ‘Well, then write that.’ And some of, I think, the pieces that I’m most proud of came out of that. And that was a behavior too that I tried to practice and mimic and other spaces, you know? We were going to do a film review for Suffragette and I went to go see it—you remember Suffragette?—and I even met with the director. And then I watched this film and I was like, ‘Ugh, oh my God.’ Not only were there no people of color in this movie, as if women of color didn’t exist in the suffrage movement, they invented a whole new white women. They had the power to invent a whole new white woman, but they couldn’t actually document the actual women of color that were there fighting for this. And I just couldn’t do it. And it was supposed to be for print, too. I remember. And I just kept dragging my feet and I’m not usually late like that. And then Charles was like, ‘Okay, are you going to write this?’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just, I can’t do it. I can’t legitimize another film that erases women of color and even writing about it to say I didn’t like it, writing this interview, means that it’s something worth debating in—what was it?—2016, I think.’ And you were like, ‘Okay, write that.’ And so I did, and I wrote a piece called “Why I’m Not Going to Review Suffragette.” [laughter] And it was interesting because I heard from so many actors, like on major television shows. There was an actor from this vampire show that was like, ‘Look, I finally got some major screen time and they made my character mute. And I’m the only Black vampire.’ And just hearing from all these people who had been in the business. That’s the one thing I really loved, was that frustration; I knew there was no one else, there was no other editor I could talk to that would get it if I explained why I didn’t want to do these pieces, why things frustrated me and made me angry. And I think that even if you didn’t always immediately get it, you trusted my voice enough and you have enough of your own frustrations, I’m sure, in the industry to just be like, ‘Oh, it sounds like you’re pretty passionate about that. You have a lot of words. Go.’ And that was beautiful because it helped me break that cycle, that I had to engage in these things that, honestly, it was an insult to engage in. There were some times where I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I’m writing this again. I can’t believe I have to say this again.’ And some times where I’m like, ‘Oh, wait a minute. I don’t.’ And I think part of that was working with you. I loved that. Anyways, that’s what I talk about, just briefly—much more briefly than I just said—in the book, because I think it actually helped shape me as a writer in many ways, and I’m really grateful for that. That’s my little sappy moment but it’s true.
CM (39:11): Yeah, actually that piece was one of the biggest pieces on the website. Anyway, I’m very happy and proud of it. And I always wanted to thank you for that. But I wanted to sort of start wrapping around the book because there’s something you told me in the back—I’m sorry, when you talk in the back and you think like, ‘Oh, I want to talk about everything that I’ve been thinking about for the past week.’ And I talk about everything that we just said 10 minutes ago, back there. And I said, ‘Ijeoma, are you going to read a bit of your book?’ And you said you wouldn’t and I wanted you to, I’m sorry. I was kind of like, you know, why you wouldn’t do that? Are you upset about me asking that question?
IO (39:59): No, I’m not upset about it, cause I think it’s an important part of the discussion of how a lot of these books work. I had to include personal narrative in every chapter and I did it focusing on people of color, hoping they would see themselves in it. But the truth is, unfortunately, it’s also the hook, right? 400 years into the system of white supremacy, we still have to tug at heartstrings in order to get white people to accept that maybe these are issues they have to care about. Which means that for every chapter of the book, I had to pull myself apart and find lived experiences that showcase the trauma of these issues. And every time I read a chapter, I start crying and I don’t want to do that, especially not for white people. And I don’t know if you notice, there’s a lot of you out here. And the book exists. I did the work, I put the pain out there and to come out and perform it, to make it part of the experience, I just don’t want to, and I shouldn’t have to. And so I just don’t. So, you know, you’ll have to read it yourself and feel bad on your own time.
CM (41:42): Okay. Before I go into, there’s a passage I have to read. My own thing; if you aren’t reading your own book, I’ll read it for you. And I took it out because I had to; I couldn’t stop laughing and I’ve always laughed at certain things. And this is in chapter 5. It’s the chapter on intersectionality. And I mean, we can go into that a little bit afterwards, but I want to just to read this because there’s a mystery here and I wanted you to resolve it on this stage tonight. And here it is. Okay. [inaudible] with Twitter, which you’re involved in, you mentioned this a lot. “But it started quietly enough, weeks earlier. I found out that a famous Black male musician was coming to town to perform. This musician, who shall remain nameless, was long-believed by many, including myself, to be a sexual predator of multiple young, Black women and teenage girls. How could a [inaudible] under notorious suspicion of such heinous offenses sell out an arena in liberal Seattle?” Who’s this nameless person?
IO (43:11): Yeah. The nameless person is R. Kelly. Yeah.
CM (43:15): That was a joke, by the way. I knew it was R. Kelly. If anybody thought I did not know, you don’t know me.
IO (43:26): It was amazing to me, you know? Cause I mean, I think 2015 was when this happened and—or yeah, I think it was 2015—and people, when the book came out, were like, ‘Is it R. Kelly?’ And then, of course, dream’s amazing documentary came out and people are like, ‘Oh, it’s R. Kelly.’ Like in the know, whereas Black women have been talking about it for so long, for over a decade, trying to try to get people to understand this. But yeah, it was so funny cause legally, of course—before this was all very, very public—you just couldn’t put a name in there and it was so frustrating. So I was trying to make it as obvious as possible, in a world full of really trash dudes, that I was talking about this particular trash dude. But yeah, it’s been funny to watch now; since the documentary came out, people been like (Ijeoma motions a sign of understanding with hands).
CM (44:32): It’s just one of those things. But speaking of which, I know that a lot of people on Twitter were upset about it and they started writing you and filling your boxes and saying stuff. And you’re saying that, ‘Oh, my thing was dinging,’ and all this stuff, but I wanted to talk about that in relationship to what’s happening to you recently. I want to make a transition to that, because, of course, you have a big presence on the internet and that was the first situation where you’re facing this reality of being visible on Twitter and other social media platforms. And now you’re at another level, you know what I mean?
IO (45:20): Yeah. It’s been a lot. I’ll say, first of all, what’s been happening to my family these last few months is something that I think any Black woman who’s semi-prominent on Twitter could have predicted and had. It’s kind of been my worst nightmare come true. If you aren’t familiar, my home address was doxed, which happens. It means my address was put online, my contact information, but it was put online on a specific white supremacist site with aims towards swatting. Swatting is where you spoof a phone number that’s near the house of the target, call the police, say you murdered someone or you’re holding someone hostage. The intent is to get an armed SWAT response in the house. And, as a Black woman, this has been one of my biggest fears in this work. This first started in the gaming community and a lot of people thought it was just pranks amongst gamers, but oftentimes targeted were women in the gaming community, a way to keep women out of the gaming community or men who spoke up in defense of women during Gamergate. I immediately saw—because the venn diagram of these dudes and white supremacists is a big circle—that it was just a matter of time before we’d be targeted. I got an alert that I was on this website and I saw they had lists of dozens of people and they had these symbols: money if they had your financial information, checks if they’d verified your address. And then they had a little gun if they had successfully swatted your house. I called the police, let them know I was at risk, and they flagged my address. And they were like, ‘Hopefully you won’t have to use it’. A few weeks later, I was in Boston, flying home and it was 6 AM Seattle time and I was getting a bunch of frantic calls from a number I didn’t recognize and they answered, and it was the Sheriff’s office. And they said, ‘We have a report of shots fired at your house.’ And immediately you’re half panicked and half angry, like part of you thinks that chances are there’s no shots fired, but what if? And I said, ‘I think this is a swatting. We don’t have a gun in the house.’ And they said, ‘Well, that’s why we’re calling. We saw the flag,’ they said, ‘but we still have to send a response.’ And so I’m on the other side of the country and my 17-year-old son is asleep cause it’s 6 in the morning and cops are coming to the house. And I don’t know if y’all are familiar with teenagers; they don’t wake up and they’re not known for making rational decisions, and when boys of color, in particular, act like boys of color in stressful situations, they often end up dead. So I was in a complete panic because I couldn’t get my son up. Luckily I had a neighbor who was awake and I had him go pound on my son’s window and get him to answer the phone. I said, ‘Honey cops are coming, they’re trying to call you right now. I need you to answer. I need you to talk to a dispatcher. No one’s hurt, but they’re going to be coming.’ Six officers with rifles showed up at the house. My son wasn’t dressed; he was in his pajamas. He didn’t have shoes and socks on. There was some sort of miscommunication, they’re yelling at him to put the phone down. He was pulled out of the house. He was scared half to death. They’re asking him, ‘Did you call, did you do this?’ And he had no idea what anyone was talking about. They went through the house, you know, found out that there were no dead bodies in the house.
(49:23) What we found out was someone had called actually pretending to be my son, saying that he had killed his parents. So my son was deliberately targeted and I’m on a plane and trying to figure out, you know, I can’t get home and bawling in the middle of this plane trying to get someone to text me because I don’t have phone reception anymore to make sure everyone’s safe. And luckily he was. But since then it’s been harassment. You know, especially once it hit the news, it was pretty much verified that yes, this is where we live. It’s still there. My address is still there. My social security number is there. We get deliveries; one day we had 12 food deliveries in an hour, requesting payment, cause they’ll just call up wherever, we’ll come. Anyways, it’s been a lot, but it’s also something that I think anyone in this space could have predicted because online harassment is real-life harassment and the borders between that are very thin and the space that people of color take up and especially Black women take up on social media is a direct threat to white supremacy and so now it’s being targeted. I’m one of dozens of journalists—Black journalists, especially—who’ve been targeted by the same group and Leonard Pitts, the Pulitzer prize winning journalist that was swatted a few months ago, was targeted by the same group. And then, you’re trying to get the FBI to look at it, but the FBI, of course, still won’t take black identity extremist off their list of top concerns. And I think it’s important to recognize that what we have here isn’t kids who don’t know the impact of what they’re doing. These aren’t angry, bored, white teenagers. These are angry young men who have found a sense of identity and power in white terrorism. And that has been allowed by the complacency of everyday white Americans who continuously justify this white male anger at us that has never had any real justification, that continuously say, ‘Oh, well, let’s find out why all these articles, get to know the Nazi next door,’ are legitimazing this murderous hatred and providing identity where white men didn’t feel they had one. Their identity right now these—these people—is their ability to wage terror. And that is because we continuously look at these gateways as not a real threat. We continuously look at this dialogue; even treating the Trump election like it was about the economy and not about white identity is a gateway into this. It’s a place where people can hide and legitimize and give them a sense of power where they didn’t have one. And I need people to understand that they’re aiding and abetting an extremely violent radicalization of white identity that is going to kill people, but is killing people. And the community members, the family members, of these men need to recognize the role they’re playing in legitimizing this and giving a safe space for it. You know, just in Seattle, there was a debate about one of those neighborhood Nextdoor groups, when one of the members was found to be a member of Proud Boys and attending these white supremacists rallies. And the leader of the group said, ‘Well, it doesn’t mean he’s done anything wrong. We’re not going to kick someone out just because they’re part of a white supremacist group.’ That is where this is given room to breathe and grow. And the impact ends up being something like me, spending 6 hours in the plane wondering if my son’s going to make it out okay. It has a real-life impact and it’s not small. I don’t know any Black people who feel safe. I don’t know any people of color who feel safe in America. And whether it’s, they fear something like this, or just someone feeling like flexing their power out in the street, all of that naked hatred has been emboldened by a complacent white America and we need to start looking at it as a national emergency. We need to start looking at it as a real cancer and start actively rooting it out and preventing these safe spaces for it to grow.
CM (55:02): I just wanted the white supremacists to know the title of your next book.
IO (55:09): Yeah. The next book, because I like to make my life simpler, it’s called, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. What’s really funny too, is So You Want to Talk About Race got exclusively positive reviews. And it’s not, I think, because it’s the best book ever written; it’s because—and I’m not trying to say racists don’t read, cause that’s not true—
CM (55:46): Are you sure?
IO (55:47): But they don’t want to—[laughter]
CM (55:51): They do a lot of historical research.
IO (55:53): They do read, it’s been proven. But they don’t read books they will hate, whole books. Right. They’ll read an article. They read a tweet. I’ve gotten more hatred from tweets. So what’s interesting is, even that website that posted my address, they had to post quotes because they knew none of these students had read a single thing I’d written, but if they wanted them to hate me enough to attack me, they were going to have to then provide some words because none of them—they were like, ‘Who? What?’—they’re not going to invest that time. The next book, I don’t even think they’ll have to do that. So we’ll see how that goes.
CM (56:38): That’s always a danger with that. I wanted to know, I was thinking we were done. I got a feeling, nobody gave me an indication. I wanted to go down—before we switched to a conversation with everybody—I wanted to go down to a list of things that are happening at this moment. This is my last thing, because in a way, the book was written 2 years ago and I know that we’re still in this culture and things are happening all the time and there are these developments, but 10 years, what do you think about that?
OI (57:20): Hmm?
CM (57:21): Ten years.
OI (57:23): You’re going to have to give me more context.
CM (57:25): Well, there’s this woman who shot this Black man who—
OI (57:28): Oh, god, yeah. I mean, so—
CM (57:31): That was my joke, sorry. She got 10 years [inaudible].
OI (57:35): Ten years. Watching this, I mean, has been gutting in so many ways. One thing that has really, really pissed me off is when they allow the castle doctrine. Thank God there was still a guilty verdict because that doctrine has consistently come out against black victims. The castle doctrine is basically stating that, in defense of your castle, you can shoot someone, and they decided that they would allow this, the judge decided—a Black judge—would allow this to be considered, even though this white woman wasn’t even in her own home. She had entered the wrong home and killed a Black man who was eating a bowl of ice cream. And I keep envisioning it over and over and over and over: sitting there in your home and a white woman bursts in and shoots you in the chest. And I posted about this, about how this is how systemic white supremacy works, right? Systemic racism works is that you will create an environment of fear of Black people that will cause violence and then you will have a system that will justify that fear. And then, luckily, it was guilty. And then people immediately started saying, ‘Well, it’s guilty because she’s a woman.’ And trying to talk about how she was a sacrificial lamb. Never in the history of America has a white woman been sacrificed for a Black man. It’s just absurd. The actual premise is absurd, like the system decided to throw us one. What? No. I mean, whatever patriarchy thinks of white women—and it doesn’t think much—it thinks nothing of Black men, less than nothing. It doesn’t give a token conviction to white women who murder Black men, Black men have been killed on the word of white women. White women have been active participants in the murder and degradation in particularly of Black and Native people for hundreds of years. And to watch this discussion amongst white feminists immediately pivot—one white woman reached out to me on Twitter and said, ‘That’s intersectionality, right?’ And now it’s 10 years, 10 years. A 26-year-old man was gunned down by a racist white woman who was too busy sexting on her phone to notice she was in the wrong home, and saw a Black man sitting in front of a bowl of ice cream and thought, ‘I’m going to kill him.’ Ten years. He was worth 10 of her, and she gets 10 years and his family has to miss him forever. And it’s just gutting. And yet, if you would ask me 2 days ago if I thought she’d get any years, I would’ve said no. And I’m angry that I have to be grateful that it’s 10 years and not zero. It’s just so dehumanizing. It pulls a bit of you apart when you find yourself making these bargains of where to find relief. And I was prepared to be utterly crushed and have it be not guilty. And now I have to feel something about 10 years, and it’s still nothing, you know? The prosecutor started listing off Black people killed by police and saying, ‘This is for them. This is for them. This is for them. Ten years for Trayvon. Ten years for Sandra Bland.’ My God, how fucking sad that we have to take this for all of that. It’s a heartbreaking reality and this case has had me feeling a lot of ways.
CM (01:02:19): Yeah, no, no, I’m always about wanting to convict somebody for 28 years. This is the thing that I was like, bothers me. It’s like, I don’t believe in the justice system as it exists and I don’t believe—you know what I mean—the way it works. And so when the situation of somebody who’s clearly committed a murder and I want justice in the way that you’ve done justice to Blacks and all of this, I get angry because I don’t think that that was justice to begin with. So I hate being pushed in a situation where I’m like, ‘Give her 28 years,’ but that’s all you give people.
IO (01:03:07): Yeah. When you think like, what’s it going to take? Cause we know we’re not going to get the systemic reforms. We know that this murder isn’t going to cause cops to reup on anti-bias training. It’s not going to cause us to go all the way to the roots of anti-blackness in the police force. And you’re like, ‘Well, what’s going to make them stop? Maybe 28 years will make someone pause.’ I’m like, ‘What will it take to get someone to pause?’ And I don’t care, at this point, if they pause because they see a human or not, or if they pause because they see the possibility of 28 years: I just need them to pause and think, and they’re not. And that’s where we find ourselves, you know, even as abolitionists, wishing for prison terms, because we’re like, ‘God, what will it take? What will—obviously, hearts and minds aren’t doing it. So maybe it’s got to cost something,’ and that’s an awful place to find yourself in. And it’s simply because we can’t get the system to actually care enough to root out these issues, you know? And so then we start valuing life based on how many years are given to the person who takes it.
CM (01:04:24): Ah, well, that’s a bleak point, but it’s an important point. I think that people—when you’re reading that, that the way you’re wrapped up in it, the way you’re thinking of all the aspects of it. And you’re thinking of the amount of people who spent so many years in jails for such lesser crimes, it’s brutal. Right? You’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, really? I live in this society? I live in a society where that happens.’
IO (01:04:55): Yeah. Where Black men caught with weed are serving equal sentences.
CM (01:04:59): Right. The whole—
IO (1:05:01): It’s ridiculous.
CM (1:05:03): Yeah. You get it. So, okay. I didn’t want to get into any more contemporary news cause there’s a lot of different things, but I wanted just to open it up to the audience to ask questions. By the way, before we get started, I just want to remind you that Ijeoma and I were actually very busy last year cause I directed her in a film, Thin Skin. I want to say this: she’s an actress. And if you go to page 33 or so, you’ll see one of the scenes we took directly from her book and put on the screen. I didn’t want to say that; is that legal? Will the producer be upset I said that? I said that, but no,
IO (1:05:59): I won’t sue you.
CM (1:06:03): But it was great working with her and if you want to, you’ll get a chance to see her act in the near future.
IO (01:06:11): Yeah. That was such an experience. I’m so excited and proud of that. And that was so fun. And working with Charles the director was a riot. Let me tell you, one of these days, I’ll give you all of the stories of how amazing it was, but it was a lot of fun. There was a lot of wildlife involved. But yeah, I really enjoyed that. That was a great experience. I’m so excited. I’m so proud of this movie that Charles, my brother Ahamefule Oluo and Lindy West wrote and it’s really an adaptation of my brother’s story that, of course, because I exist, I am in as well. And it was just lovely and wonderful. And I can’t wait for people to be able to see it.
CM (1:07:01): Thank you. Alright.
Audience Member 1 (01:07:03): Good evening. My name is Omari Salisbury. I’m from Seattle, born-and-raised, Central District of Seattle, James A. Garfield High School. You already know. So my question: on the home town scene and everything else, from the Central District of Seattle, which, the Central District, Black people have been there for almost 140 years. A lot of people don’t know that, they think that it was World War II or whatever, but it’s 140 years, back when it was Washington territory, is as long as Black people have lived in the Central District. William Grose bought 12 acres of land from Henry Yesler, which is now the Central District. And I sit in a room here and—not to judge anybody—but in very liberal Seattle with a bunch of very liberal white people and I see the community and neighborhood is being totally gentrified by liberal Seattle and liberal policymakers. And I’m wondering, what’s the disconnect? You’ve written a book, you know what I’m saying? How can people understand that? It’s like, our culture has value in the Central District, our history has value. And other neighborhoods in Seattle, they look at their history and culture differently and they disregard our culture and it’s okay for us to be wiped away. And I think maybe a book like yours might be able to help to bridge the gap for people to see that our culture matters as well.
IO (01:08:28): Yes, thank you for that. I can tell you that it is so heartbreaking to see—there’s something about seeing all these Black Lives Matter signs on the homes of gentrifiers because you’re like in where, how, in what way? What, outside of the sign? You’re occupying and displacing and it’s a real issue. And part of the problem is that, when you have an extreme majority of whiteness like we have in Seattle, you can become really accustomed to calling yourself liberal without actually having to make any accommodations for people of color. Right? You get to build this whole identity and imagine yourself this crusader, because you’ve never had to do anything. And that becomes the norm, that if you say the right things, you share the right Facebook statuses, then woo, you’re a warrior. And then the moment that someone asks you to consider your actual actions, it becomes an attack on your entire identity. White Seattle has gotten way too many free passes to call themselves liberal. When we look at the bills we pass, the way we fund our education, the way in which we look at policing, the way in which we treat poor and homeless people, the way in which we treat addicted people, we are not a liberal city. And part of why I wrote was because I was realizing—I grew up here—that this wasn’t my community. They were never going to have my back. You know, people would come out harder for recycling then they would come out for Black lives. And I don’t know what it’s going to take, because what will happen, what is happening, is that the community that brought the culture and the commentary and the freshness that white people so desperately want—especially because, I hate to say it y’all, but white, Pacific Northwesterners are boring—it becomes white people come here, then they expect that it will be there so that they can and shove and surround it and raise the prices, they still want the same profits off their homes when they move into these neighborhoods for the culture. And then they call it progress when we have to move somewhere else. And what will happen then is it becomes, everything starts looking like Kirkland. And then we moved to another space that we’ve been shoved into and await the new storm of white people trying to leave Kirkland for something better. And we just keep moving and we can’t put down roots and we are robbed of community security, intergenerational wealth, opportunity. We’re robbed of any presence in schools. We’re robbed of designing our neighborhoods and then people will say, ‘It’s progress. You can’t afford to live here. You haven’t been trying hard enough.’ And it’s gross. Black people in Seattle have had to move from space to space, to space. The communities that would have given us opportunities to do what white people got to do—which is build community, amass intergenerational wealth, put down roots in political power—those foundations are consistently being torn out from under us. And if you live in the Central District, you’re a part of the problem. I don’t care how you voted. And you need to find a way to recon with that and find out what you owe, and figure out what it looks like to try to make that right. And that’s real; you can’t send a Facebook status to change that. You can’t come here and expect that to change. You owe, you’ve stolen. And I don’t think we need to keep letting people off the hook for saying things that sound nice. It means nothing when you look at the wealth disparities in King County for Black and Latinx and Native households versus white households—some of the steepest in the country—when we look at the opportunity gap in schools, some of the worst in the country. We’ve been robbed and y’all owe. You need to get together and figure out, if you honestly think Black lives matter, how much? (applause) Hi.
Audience Member 2 (01:14:03): Hi, my name is Belen Herrera. I am not from Seattle, I’m originally from California, so I just want to say thank you so much for being here. I’ve been looking forward to you speaking for weeks. And I was like, I don’t care if I’m sick, I was definitely getting out here regardless. So my question, [I’ll] give you some background context: I work for the city of Seattle. And I work in, specifically, transportation so my colleagues are actually here with me, which is really exciting. But in addition to my job, what’s, I think, incredible—at least within my department—in various city departments in the area is that they have this thing called a race and social justice initiative. And then there’s different change teams within the departments to hopefully move forward and break down institutional racism, right? This is all language and policy that, without action, doesn’t move forward and so hopefully these individuals help contribute to, you know, chipping away at it. But what I’ve started noticing just personally as I’m navigating, not just white spaces, but also the institution as a relatively recent grad, is—as I’m also educating myself and leading a few trainings, like how to talk about race, leading trainings about this video called “Race: The Power of an Illusion”—that when I try to hopefully apply my own lived experiences to projects, making sure it’s more equitable community engagement, understanding some cultural context to some of the projects, even though I’m not from here and understanding the community amongst my own colleagues, I hope—especially my fellow people of color, especially Black women and Black men in the workspace who I work with—I hope that I’m not reinforcing that white supremacy culture. And so my question to you is, how can I also be a better ally? I don’t know if that’s a good word, but it’s the closest thing I can think of.
Audience Member 3 (1:16:22): Accomplice.
Audience Member 2 (1:16:23): Accomplice, thank you, Jessica. Yeah.
IO (01:16:28): I think part of it, first, is just to start to pay really close attention to your environment and try to signal that you’re willing to put yourself on the line and have conversations and listen and center the lived experiences of people at the cross hairs of systemic racism in your workplace. Part of it too is, as you’re leading these conversations, one of the biggest risks I find oftentimes is that we so prioritize the edification of whiteness that we do so at the expense of people of color. And we think that whatever pain is brought up, whatever discomfort is brought up, it’s all worth it if, at the end, a white person gets it. And it’s not. And I think one of the most important things you can do if you’re trying to facilitate these conversations is to recognize that the safety and humanity of the people of color in the room is always going to be the most important thing. And that means oftentimes having conversations ahead of time with attendees of color as to what they would need for these conversations to be better, safer, what their boundaries are, what they’re expecting of you, what they would like to hear from white attendees, and being willing to really enforce that and center that and know that, being willing to offer scrap the whole conversation if it looks like something that will first do harm. We really need to shift the way that we look at these things and recognize that first and foremost, it’s the humanity of people of color that white supremacy seeks to deny. And so anytime we lose track of that, even in anti-racist efforts, we reinforce white supremacy. So rarely are people of color asked before these discussions, a) if they even want to participate and b) what problems they’ve had in the past, what their fears are, what would make them comfortable, what they hope to get out of the discussion. And I think starting with that, centering that, and then setting up real accountability for white people who trespass those boundaries is probably one of the most important things you can do in order to help.
Audience Member 2 (01:18:50): Thank you.
Audience Member 4 (01:18:58): Okay. So I wrote it down so I won’t fumble it. So, with the anti-racism consulting space being fairly young but the issue of our white supremacist power structure being hundreds of years in process with the same themes repeated over and over throughout time and written and spoken about thoroughly without compensation by Black people, how do you feel about white people making money in the equity consulting field by coining terms like white fragility—not naming names—that the Black community has been speaking about for ages. Should white folks profit off of equity work, or is this just another new space that white people will take the biggest fest first and most of?
IO (01:20:01): That is a great question. I will say, I feel so many different ways about this. One, I do think that white people absolutely have work they have to do to deconstruct white supremacy. For so long the burden has been placed on people of color, as if we magically are going to increase in power and be able to deconstruct a system that’s been placed upon us. White people have to do this space, but I would say first and foremost, they need to be doing it in white spaces. It needs to be informed by people of color and centering the needs of people of color. And I think that the way in which it is embraced and done needs to be cognizant of how it interacts with white supremacy. And I think that that’s the piece that’s often missing. People can have really important contributions to whiteness studies; people have, white people have. The problem is when they don’t look at how they then engage with the field and whether or not their reception reinforces white supremacy, or is boosted by white supremacy. There are people who do this work and don’t come back to communities of color to see if they’re still relevant, don’t have systems to hold themselves accountable. Whether or not people should make money off of it: I don’t think anyone should get rich, any white person should get rich off of it. I understand that in capitalist society, people have to feed their families, but I will say this: people of color are fighting racism every single day, and we don’t get a check for it. If anything, it costs us our livelihood and it takes us away from the work that feeds our families. And therefore, I think whiteness as a whole can really stand to do some of this work without the immediate expectation that they’re going to be making money or even getting thanks from it. I think, that as an industry, I’m very troubled with seeing how quickly and how much money there is in anti-racism consultancy, where someone goes into an office for a day, talks, leaves, especially when it’s white people. People of color, get that money, cause it’s not like they’re going to take it and give it to a better cause, it’ll go to, like, upgrading the coffee machines. So take it. But I think that it is very easy for people to toss around buzzwords and build a really lucrative career. And I think it’s especially easy for white people to do that in a way that people of color can’t. And that does trouble me and it troubles me that we would have this quick-fix industry in the first place. When I go and speak at places, I’m amazed at the magnitude of issues that institutions are hoping I’ll solve in an hour. And every time I’m like, ‘Look, the most I can do is make people of color in this room feel heard, maybe give them a little more backup for their next meeting.’ That’s all that I can accomplish in an hour, especially if you’re not going to give me any specific issues you’re having in your organization. You don’t have an org place to follow up on this, you don’t have an action plan, and to see white people offer this up as a lucrative—I know what the money looks like in this field. It’s obscene. We’re talking tens and tens of thousands of dollars for a single afternoon spent. While employees of color are struggling to get by and swallowing loads of racism for substandard pay. I feel a lot of ways about it. I’m not trying to say I don’t value the contributions that some white scholars have made, but I can say I can count those on one hand. But I think whatever ethical struggle white scholars are doing with the amount of money they’re making, I really hope it’s a struggle. And I hope it’s something that they work on and look at. I am more disturbed by the eagerness with which white audiences seek out this work than I am the people that are providing the work. I am far more disturbed by how much white people still want to hear discussions on lives of people of color filtered through whiteness before they will hear it from actual people of color. That bothers me more than anything. And that’s where I want people to see; I don’t necessarily hold a lot against white people in the field and I do think that some of the study and work done is valuable, but I hold a lot against the people who are disproportionately propping up a lot of this work and are daring, honestly, to recommend it in the same breath as the work of scholars of color who are living this reality day in and day out. That bothers me a lot. I would rather whiteness studies be looked at as whiteness studies and these books being recommended in the field of whiteness studies. But to dare say, ‘You should take up this book by Ta-Nehisi Coates and then this other book by this white writer,’ what? Oh God, you know, that that’s an insult to me. And that’s something that I think that white audiences need to look at, how comfortable they’re expecting to be when they pick up a piece of work and why they haven’t been making best-sellers of the black writers and writers of color who have been writing this stuff down for multiple generations. That’s a question I want white audiences to really grapple with.
Audience Member 5 (01:26:36): My name is KB. I’m from Renton, Washington, so I’m from just down the street. Yeah. Renton in house. If you from Renton, you don’t say the T. But my question is: I see a lot of things from an educational lens cause I work in education. So, I actually work at the University of Washington for the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity and one of the things that I see that’s very prevalent in the work that I do as an admissions counselor is that we ask a lot of our students to fit into this white system that doesn’t serve them, and if they ever go against that, then it takes away opportunities for them. So it puts them in this weird space where if they don’t act white, then they can’t get to the things that allow them to change and bring those opportunities back to their community. But if they do, then the community sometimes will turn on them and feel like they are betraying their own people. So I wanted to know if there was a way that you feel. Because I went through this myself, like I’m from Renton, went to the University of Washington myself, but a lot of that—when I grew up—I had a lot of friends, like my best friend didn’t go to college and he saw me as that smart guy that went there, but we lost touch. And we came back together later, but it was after a lot of growth and understanding. So do you have any strategies of what students can do to, kind of, educationally code switch?
IO (01:28:15): Yeah. First and foremost, I would say talking more to parents than students. I think it’s really important to recognize that as parents of any race, if you’re not bringing up issues of systemic racism in schools, you are letting your children down. And I don’t care if your children are white, Black, or Brown; they are not getting a full education if they’re getting a white supremacist education. And the truth is that this burden is placed on students of color to master white supremacy if they want to get ahead, because the vast majority of white Americans think that victory lies there. They think that it is a valid educational system, a system that erases and degrades and sucks the life out of students of color, they think is valid. They think it’s the gold standard. And that’s where the core issue lies. Of course, communities of color are going to feel some sort of way, right? And even for students who go all the way through, I see what that takes out of them. I talk to academics of color all the time and the ways in which they’re constantly sacrificing themselves, that burden has been placed on us because white America has decided they are completely fine with a white supremacist educational system. And that’s what needs to change. What I would tell students of color to recognize is that a) you gotta do what you feel like you have to do. Don’t feel guilty if you’re not fighting, cause so many students of color feel guilt that they’re not battling every single thing. And 2) I always tell them, recognize—especially as you’re entering high school and college—that you have every right to demand that all of your teachers and your friends who say they care about these issues have to show their work. And this is a great time to start flexing that. And flex it in, I would say, one of the—I don’t want to say smarter—but more efficient ways, effective ways to flex it is by going to your professors that love to talk about how they are right on this and saying, ‘Okay, well, this is what it looks like to be right on this.’ Going to your friends that say they care about these issues—and college students love to care about these issues—and say, this is what it looks like: ‘It looks like you as a white classmate asking why there aren’t more people of color in these texts,’ right? Start looking at that and recognize you have every right to feel displaced to feel angry, to feel erased, to feel overburdened and that you shouldn’t be the only one. And that’s what I hope we recognize, that first and foremost, parents need to start taking this on. And I’m talking about white parents, cause that’s who schools are afraid of. White parents need to start taking this on. No one wants a white parent in their office. No one wants a white parent in that office. Schools are afraid of white parents. When I tell people to flex their privilege; flex that privilege for students of color in your school: start asking about textbooks, start asking about study guides, start asking about the disciplinary actions in schools, start asking about whether or not the expectations on students are fundamentally white supremacist, start asking these questions, instead of freaking out when they change the menu and your kid doesn’t like the milk being offered anymore. Freak out about the ways in which students of color are being erased and degraded every day and you’ll start to see real difference.
Audience Member 6 (01:32:10): Okay. Hi. There was a lot of heaviness in the room, clearly, and I do work in social justice in nontraditional ways. I also work in transportation for the city as well—I know Belen—and I also volunteer my time, I used to anyway, on the board of a youth nonprofit that’s based in Columbia City and their predominant audience are communities in the South side, Black and Brown folks. And so, faced with all this adversity—not just myself, but as Black, indigenous, people of color—what gives you power? What gives you power in this line of work?
IO (1:33:09): What gives me power, honestly, a couple of things: 1) I’m a parent and seeing children, how quickly they’re grasping a lot of these concepts, how fierce they are in their own protection and advocacy, it gives me so much hope and power and my drive to protect that for them really keeps me going. What I try to remind people, what I try to remind myself, what I always try to say is: you are more important than white supremacy. And I say that because I think it’s very easy for us to lose track of what we’re fighting for and instead constantly focusing on what we’re fighting against, but what we’re fighting for is freedom and liberation and joy. And if I keep my focus on that and I find where it’s existing in spite of everything, that’s an immense power, right? To look at what our community is, where we’ve found joy over and over and over again, even in the hardest, darkest times, to be honored with that heritage and with the task of protecting that—so powerful. Right? And that really keeps me going. And I have to always remind myself to go back into that well and spend time in that and protect it in myself. And if I don’t want—I don’t want any person of color to martyr themselves to white supremacy. That is a loss. A single person of color is more important than the entire white supremacist system. And if we don’t get through this intact, we will have lost. And that’s really remembering how we’ve renewed ourselves over and over again, how we have reaffirmed our humanity when everyone is trying to take it away over and over again. And just looking at like, you know, I’ll watch YouTube videos of black Babies just giggling. And to know that our babies still giggle and we get to enjoy that and protect that, like that will keep me going forever. I will never feel like it’s not worth it because I fundamentally believe in the inherent value of every single person of color. And that means that even if we lose so many battles, one victory is worth it, and that just keeps me going. Thank you.
JP (1:36:08): Thank you for listening to our Town Hall Seattle civic series. I’m Jini Palmer. Our theme music comes from the Seattle artist David Bazan and Seattle’s own Barsuk Records. A special thanks to our audio engineer, Moe Provencher. Check out our new season of Townhall Seattle’s original podcast, In The Moment. Each episode, a local Seattle correspondent interviews someone coming to Town Hall. They get you excited about upcoming events by giving you a behind-the-scenes look into a presenter’s content, personality and interests. If you like our civic series, listen to our arts and culture and science series as well. For more information, to check out our calendar of events, or to support Town Hall go to our website at townhallseattle.org.