Photo credit The Moth
Interview by Ebony Aster
Writer, storyteller, and artist Ijeoma Oluo is unafraid to speak her mind. From her days as a blogger to her meteoric rise up the bestseller charts with her recent book, So You Want to Talk About Race, Oluo is fast becoming a household name with her thoughtful, intelligent, and unabashed examinations of race and power. Her book (structured around questions like "Why Am I Always Being Told to Check My Privilege?" "What Are Microaggressions?" or "Why Can't I Say the 'N' Word?") is a must-read for anyone looking to learn more about what we mean when talk about police brutality, white privilege, and intersectionality. We talked to her about her career trajectory, the space she makes for other creatives from underrepresented communities, and the power that comes from knowing your audience.
And it ended up being something that other people started really relating to and asking if they could republish. Then eventually people started asking me to write pieces for them and it kind of took off from there. It was really fast, writing part time to writing full time and then to actually being able to pay my bills. A lot of what I try and do now, when I'm not writing, is find ways to kind of make that path accessible to other writers, especially writers of color, women writers as well. Because writing is a space that either you make it because you have all of the connections or you make it out of, like, a combination of very, very, very hard work and a lot of luck -- and that shouldn't be the only two paths to making it. I'm trying to also find ways in my spare time to make that knowledge accessible to other people.
FemFreq: Can you talk a little bit about how you got to where you are?
Ijeoma Oluo: I've definitely had a trajectory that is different from a lot of other writers. It's been a fairly fast trajectory as well, but I did come to writing later in life.You know, I didn't publish my first piece until into my thirties. I did a lot of my work through social media. It was kind of an organic process. I started writing because I had things I needed to say and I was really writing to communicate with my community, and itâ€™s work that started picking up. At the time I was working in internet marketing. I think that by nature I had a good grasp on social media. I wasn't trying to advertise my work or anything, but people were used to seeing me all the time on the internet because of what I did for a job. It was kind of this real surprising thing for me because I was really writing for myself and for my own sanity.
Photo credit: KUOW/Bond Huberman
FemFreq: It can be a tremendous burden for people to think, I'm not just doing my art, but I'm also trying to ensure that the people behind me can come up. Can you talk a little bit about the ways that you try and work to make the conversation wider and expand opportunities?
Oluo: A lot of that work I do actually through my Patreon. My Patreon actually funds monthly free classes that I give to underrepresented writers, and these classes range on a lot of things. So not just, like technical writing information, but also things like how to write a pitch; how to market your work online; things like that. I take that fund from my donors and use that so that every single month I can offer free classes to women of color, disabled women, transgender women, and also have other people of other genders as well, you know, men of color -- but basically underrepresented writers, so they can take the class for free. And you don't have to beg or plead your case, you just fill out a quick form, check a box and you get a link to the class.
So that's really where a lot of that focus is right now for me. And it's something I can do, it's not a huge burden on my time to do a class online once a month, but also I feel like there's a real need. These are classes that are taught oftentimes if you have a journalism degree, and a lot of times what people hope for is that the journalism degree is going to get you contacts to get an internship and then you're going to learn that stuff. So for a lot of people there is no access to that information whatsoever. It is a burden to feel like you've got to do this work, but it's such a bigger burden to feel like you're going to be the only black woman in your field. Like that's my fear. [laughs] Like I'm trying to create a team that I want to work with. I'm tired of working with white dudes all the time. I need a diversity of voices in order for my work to be appreciated. I also need those voices to learn from as a human being in society. But also I just want coworkers that I can talk to and relate to, you know? And so that's why we do the work.
Photo credit: Seattle Colleges
FemFreq: Many people know you from two things: your Cracker Barrel tweet and the racist reaction to that -- and Facebook's non-reaction, or your profile of Rachel Dolezal for The Stranger. What's your relationship to social media?
Oluo: Yeah, I would definitely say that it's a necessity. I couldn't leave if I wanted. My work doesn't get out If I can't share it. I don't have that benefit of being a columnist at a high profile place that has its own audience, right? I have to draw an audience to my work and that's what keeps me marketable. It's what helps me get more gigs and I have to do that through social media because these traditional places don't necessarily value the voices of black women. So for me it's a necessary evil at times because it's also the place where, because there is so much power for voices of color in these platforms -- because we are able to circumvent these power structures that have kept us out on these platforms -- itâ€™s also where most of the effort to silence us oftentimes happens. Where a lot of people know that if they can get us to leave Twitter or leave Facebook, they will have scored a real measurable victory in silencing the voices of black women. And so there's always a lot of pressure. People think if they can just annoy me or make it difficult if they exact enough attacks on my space on social media, I'll leave. The truth is if I didn't need it for work, I probably would. It didn't used to be the case for me. I used to just keep up with family pictures and, you know, talk about my kids and things like that.
But it's such a brutal place. I still love the community. Itâ€™s still the place where I find a lot of solidarity or find what a lot of other brilliant artists and writers are doing and connect with them, but the tax is so high. But I don't have better options. A lot of people ask why. Why don't you not post? I do not have any other options. I would not have my career without social media, but I've had to pay a really tough price in order to stay there.
Photo credit: Comedy Central
FemFreq: Can you talk about how the book [So You Want to Talk About Race] is structured and why you wanted to structure it around those great questions that you get asked so often? â€œWhy Can't I Touch Your Hair?â€ and â€œWhat If I Hate Al Sharpton?â€ are my personal favorites. Itâ€™s more than just structure: it's about who you are addressing in the piece.
Oluo: Everything I write is always first and foremost, even if I'm not addressing black women, I'm always writing for black women. They're always forefront of my mind. I feel a great responsibility as one of the few black women who has this platform to always keep them in mind. And so definitely when I was coming up with the chapters and kind of the angle for the book, I focused a lot around the questions I get asked all the time or at least how you could boil down the myriad of questions. Most of them by the way, they're asked by white people, but not necessarily. Because I also get just, not just as many, but I do get quite a few questions from people of color who don't know how to answer those questions and they are being inundated.
So it was twofold: knowing one, this was a question people ask all the time; but also knowing that these were questions that people of color we're going to recognize when they opened the book. Like if anything, more of that than the other. People of color would be like, oh yeah, no, I've heard that that Al Sharpton thing so many times. I've heard white people say "why can't I say the n-word?" a billion times. Every white person may think that was written for them because oftentimes it's very easy in whiteness to believe that you're unique and every question you're asking about race is unique. I also knew that people of color were going to be like: if I had a dollar for every time that question was asked...And so that's really kind of the angle I came from. Because I'm also one of those black people who've been asked those questions countless times and that's how I knew that they were questions I needed to include in the book.
So the audience is definitely twofold. It's definitely for people of color and for white people, but they're going to come at it from different places. There are definitely areas of the book where I had to be very specific as to who I was talking to because I don't like this thought that we all have the same role in dismantling white supremacy because it's just not the case. But I definitely could not have written this book if it was only for white people. And at the end of the day, it's the emails I get from people of color and particularly from black women saying that they felt heard and that they had greater tools for having these conversations. That they were given a framework because we're all denied that framework. It's not as if black people go to a special school to learn how to talk about these issues.
We may be more aware every day that these issues exist because they're hurting us, but weâ€™re still not told what those are, how to talk about them, what the mechanisms of these issues are. We come up in the same school system. We come up in the same media, you know, we come up with the same history books. So that was really kind of my framing for the piece and why I started it around the questions because I do know that one way or the other, no matter what your racial identity, chances are...some of those questions, either you were asking or youâ€™ve been asked them.