Authors: Ijeoma Oluo
Push your mayor and city council for police reform.
It is almost guaranteed that whatever city or town you live in, its police force can better serve its population of
color. Ask your mayor what he or she is doing to address
racial bias in policing. What training are officers undergoing? Do your officers have body cams? What sort of civilian oversight is there when there has been a complaint of bias, discrimination, or abuse? Put pressure on your city government to make this a priority, and keep that pressure up, otherwise police unions will bully city government into supporting the status quo, even if it risks
the lives of black and brown people in your neighborhood.
Demand college diversity.
If you are in college, getting ready for college, or have a kid going to college, let your college know that the diversity and inclusiveness of students, curriculum,
staff is a top priority for you. Make sure colleges know that you expect any quality higher-education institution to embrace and
promote diversity if they expect your tuition money.
Vote for diverse government representatives.
Help put people of color into the positions of power where they can self-advocate for the change that their communities need. Support candidates of color and support platforms that make diversity, inclusion, and racial justice a priority.
I know that the issue of racism and racial
oppression seems huge—and it is huge. But it is not insurmountable. When we look at it in its entirety, it seems like too much, but understand that the system is invested in you seeing it that way. The truth is, we all pull levers of this white supremacist system, every day. The way we vote, where we spend our money, what we do and do not call out—these are all pieces of the system. We cannot talk
our way out of a racially oppressive system. We can talk our way into understanding, and we can then use that understanding to act.
I’ll never forget the outrage in 2016 over a district prosecutor who refused to press charges against a cop who was filmed shooting an unarmed black man. People were tweeting their anger at the prosecutor, sharing Facebook posts about how frustrated they were that
once again, a cop was going to get away with murder. But when I looked up information for the district attorney, I realized that he was up for reelection later that year. I immediately started replying to the Tweets and messages of frustration that I was seeing: “THIS PERSON IS RUNNING FOR REELECTION—GIVE YOUR MONEY TO HIS CHALLENGER. MAKE AN EXAMPLE OF HIM.” Because I already knew that if moral
arguments and outrage were going to persuade a district attorney to press charges against an officer for shooting an unarmed black person, we would have seen more than only eighteen officers charged with unlawful death in 2015, in over 1,100 killings of civilians by police that year. But everyone responds to threats to their livelihood. And declining to indict an officer when there is video proof
of severe misconduct should be a decision that a prosecuting attorney cannot afford to make.
We saw that action take hold in the March 2015 reelection bid of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who after numerous high-profile police brutality cases where Alvarez was seen as less than responsive—including what many view to be a cover-up and thirteen-month delay in pressing charges in the
horrific shooting of seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot sixteen times as he walked away from officers—was handed a resounding defeat to challenger
Kim Foxx. This defeat was the result not only of numerous protests in and around Chicago, but of organized efforts of Chicago activists to support Alvarez’s challenger and get out the vote on election day. Not only was a prosecutor that
many felt was a defender of police brutality and corruption removed from office, but a warning message was sent to prosecutors around the country: you cannot afford to protect a corrupt and violent police system.
You don’t always win the fight at first, but small actions add up, especially when you don’t give up. In my hometown of Seattle in 2016, activists were engaged in a fight with the city
over plans to build the most expensive new police precinct in the country. In a city with a housing crisis leading to rising homelessness, school funding so poor that the state supreme court has declared that it is in violation of the state constitution, and a rising opioid addiction problem—many balked at the thought of spending $160 million on a new police building. Add to that the fact that
the Seattle Police Department was found by the federal government in 2011 to be practicing widespread abuse against its citizens and put under consent decree to reform its practices, and the fact that the consent decree process still had not been completed as of 2016, many felt that our cops who had been dragging their feet at reform did not deserve a shiny new building with taxpayer dollars.
Yes, we talked about it on social media—spreading the word about why the prevention of this new department headquarters (nicknamed “the bunker”) was important. But we also took action. City council meetings were filled with concerned citizens waiting hours for the public comment period
to voice their shock that the city would be taking money that could go to so many in need, and giving it to a
police system already found to be broken and failing in their promises of reform. At first, it was defeat after defeat. I remember taking my sons with me to a city council meeting where there were so many “Block the Bunker” people there that we were moved into an overflow room. We watched people get up to speak, sixty seconds each, for over two hours, only to have the City Council vote 11 to 1 to
move forward with the project. My nine-year-old held his “Black Lives Matter” sign and asked “Why aren’t they listening to us?”
But we didn’t give up. The bunker was brought up at every public event the mayor or members of the city council attended. Every city council meeting, members of the council had to stare at an ocean of Seattleites wearing “Block the Bunker” T-shirts and holding “Black
Lives Matter” signs. When the mayor voiced his intention to attend a highly popular community block party, he was informed by organizers that he could come, but they wanted him to know that they did not approve of his support of the new police headquarters. People wrote to our local newspapers and television stations asking them to increase their coverage of the Block the Bunker movement.
the tide began to change. Our major local papers, usually the voice of the status quo, came out against the new headquarters. More city council members voiced their concern. Finally, after almost a year of protest, the mayor announced that he was shelving the $160 million project. Then activists, partnered with Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, were able to get the city to commit
a large portion of those funds to low-income housing. It was one of the highlights of my year to be able to tell my kids that they had helped bring positive change to our city, that we can accomplish just about anything if we don’t give up.
All around the country people are effecting real change with small actions. Change that improves the lives of people of color in their towns and cities and
weakens an oppressive system. Racial oppression starts in our homes, our offices, our cities, and our states, and it can end there as well. So start talking, not just problems, but solutions. We can do this, together.
HERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE TO THANK
so lucky in my life, I could fill an entire book with the names of those who have helped get me here. It is very stressful to boil down these acknowledgments to a page (or two), but I must try.
My mother, Susan, raised my brother and sister and me on her own, through extreme poverty and heartbreak. With all of the pressures that
she was under, all of the ups and downs of being a single parent, not once in my life did I ever feel like she didn’t love me. Not once in my life did I ever feel like she didn’t believe in me, or that I had let her down. I realize now what a rare gift that is that she gave us. Mommy: Thank you. I love you. And I will change your diapers when you get old, I promise.
To my siblings, Ahamefule,
Jacque, and Basil. Aham: You have been my closest companion throughout my entire life. When we were little and we were the only brown kids in school and we had no friends but each other, I remember standing with you in front of the bathroom mirror pointing out the things we liked about ourselves—the nose that people said was too wide, our brown eyes, our dark skin. You were my other “other.” Thank
you for being an annoying little bro for as long as I can remember. Jacque: I’m so proud of you and the woman you are becoming. You are an amazing aunt, a great sister, and a great friend. I’m excited to watch you charge down your own path in life. Basil: Thank you for being so persistent. Thank you for never giving up on the family that you knew was yours. You make our family stronger, and funnier.
I’m so glad you’re here.
Shane Kalles: Thank you for being the friend who visits in the hospital, the friend who has wished me a Happy Mother’s Day every year for sixteen years, the friend who wrote me into his wedding vows, the friend who has known me since I was a mopey seventeen-year-old and has loved me every step of the way. I am not good at keeping friends, so thanks for keeping me. Joseph
Becker: From the age of fifteen you were the best and the worst, the most infuriating and the funniest, and always the most stalwart friend in my life. Seeing how hard you fought for yourself encouraged me to go back to school. I never told you that, and you deserved the chance to lord that over me while you were here. I miss you, and I wish you could know that you are in this book, you asshole.
I had a sixth-grade teacher who used to keep me in at recess to redo classwork that she was sure was not my absolute
best. She was convinced I could be a great writer one day, if only I would give it my all. For a long time as an adult, I forgot how much I had loved writing and spent many years ignoring the words that were inside me. But I never forgot that, on my last day of sixth grade, my teacher
told me to dedicate my first book to her. So, Mrs. Fitzpatrick, wherever you are—you encouraging and infuriating taskmaster—this is for you.
This book would not exist without the work of strong black women both past and present who have changed the way we all think about black womanhood and have made the world better for it. Audre Lorde, Michelle Alexander, bell hooks, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela
Davis, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and so many more amazing women. Thank you for the generosity of your intellect and spirit. I hope one day to enlighten, encourage, and inspire a fraction of as many young black women as you have done and continue to do.
This is a very hard business for black women to get into, let alone make a living off of. When I was just starting out, and scared
to put my words out into the world, there were some amazingly kind and generous writers and editors who gave me council, encouragement, and opportunity. Thank you to Lindy West, Jess Zimmerman, Jennifer Cumby, Charles Mudede, and the entire crew at The Establishment: Nikki, Kelley, Katie, Jessica, and Ruchika.
And of course, this book would not exist if not for the enthusiasm of Seal Press, the
watchful eye of my editor Laura Mazer, and the foresight and support of my agent Lauren Abramo—who knew I should write a book before I did and has promoted my work with zeal and care. Thank you Lauren for believing in me so strongly.
Some people are fortunate enough to have a light that guides their way through life. I have, since the age of twenty, been lucky enough to have been guided by the
light of my insightful, kind, and creative son Malcolm and, since the age of twenty-six, his hilarious, curious, and compassionate brother Marcus as well. Malcolm and Marcus: everything good I’ve done in my adult life I’ve been able to do because you make me believe in the beautiful possibility of humankind. I will work the rest of my life to repay the gift that was given me when you came into this
world. Thank you for blessing me with your love and wit. You have been my home for the last sixteen years, and I cannot imagine who I would be without you. I am so unbelievably proud of you both. You are magic, you are entire universes, you are the reason why.