Ijeoma Oluo, a writer and speaker on issues of race and identity in the U.S., started her work late, publishing her first piece in her 30s. According to Oluo, there was nothing more important to do.
“I started this work out of a place of desperation,” Oluo said during a virtual talk hosted by the Cultural Center Sept. 7. The event was named after her best-selling book, “So You Want to Talk About Race,” a popular read over 2020’s summer of social justice.
During the conversation, Oluo outlined the role of academia in the racist history of America and what needs to change in order for academic institutions to commit to the fight against racism. “Academic spaces are at the center of the fight over white supremacy,” she said. “Books like mine have been banned in certain cities and states around the country.”
According to Oluo, academia is most vital to the anti-racism movement because of its power to shape society interpersonally and systemically. “Academia has been a driving force behind much of our capitalism for the last 150-200 years, and it has been a willing participant in systems of violent white male supremacy,” Oluo said. She went on to explain how capitalism and racism are inextricably linked in university systems.
“We have seen opportunities for populations of color rise out of academia, while at the same time we have seen the violent pushback to any change often come from academia,” she said.
Oluo further argued that universities are often “willing to say the words and not do the work,” in the anti-racist movement. Every decision made in higher education, including which textbooks are purchased, which conversations are forged, and which classes are chosen should be informed by the anti-racist movement, Oluo said. “When you find where your privilege intersects with someone’s oppression, you have the greatest opportunity to make change.”
As an introduction to finding individual power within the movement, Oluo provided tips on being anti-racist. First, she said, “It is important to understand that we don’t all have the same role in this battle.” She then added that the university system disproportionately distributes power amongst students of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds, and students will need to see themselves within that context.
“Prioritize the safety and humanity of populations of color in doing this work,” she said, “Prioritize the voices that have the most to lose in this battle.”
Equally as important to Oluo is the recognition of the work that is being done in the movement. “Give credit where credit is due,” she said. At the same time, Oluo says to stop crediting insufficient actions and “lip-service.” The author contends that white people are often praised excessively for minimal effort in the movement, and can “put up a Black Lives Matter sign and get praise.”
As the talk wound down, Oluo emphasized the importance of achieving the right kind of success in the movement. “If you are successful in today’s college campuses what you are successful in is white supremacy,” she said. “We do not want a Black or brown version of white success.”
Besides achieving real change, Oluo said it is vital for activists to take care of themselves and know that the successes are deserved. “If at the end of this battle we are not nourished, did we win?”