Authors: Ijeoma Oluo
Racial oppression is a broad and cumulative force, it is not a system that puts all its eggs in one basket. And racial oppression will interact with many other privileges and disadvantages to produce a myriad of effects. So yes, you can have a black athlete who won the
genetic lottery and combined it with a superhuman amount of dedication and then sprinkle him with a lot of luck and he will turn into a professional superstar earning tens of millions of dollars a year. And yes, you can have a white man born to riches who loses everything he has in the stock market and winds up living in the streets. And you can have a beautiful white woman born with disabilities
that set her at a distinct socioeconomic disadvantage, and an able-bodied black woman who was able to claw her way to middle-class comfort, but when it’s all tallied up the end result will still show, more often than not, measurably different outcomes for people depending on race. There are very few hardships out there that hit only people of color and not white people, but there are a lot of hardships
that hit people of color a lot more than white people.
As I said earlier, just because something is about race, doesn’t mean it’s only about race. This also means that just because something is about race, doesn’t mean that white people can’t be similarly impacted by it and it doesn’t mean that the experience of white people negatively impacted is invalidated by acknowledging that people of color
are disproportionately impacted. Disadvantaged white people are not erased by discussions of disadvantages facing people of color, just as brain cancer is not erased by talking about breast cancer. They are two different issues with two different treatments, and they require two different conversations.
It is about race if it fits into a broader pattern of events that disproportionately or differently
affect people of color.
When I was in an abusive relationship, it was not just about one incident. It wasn’t about the time he called me stupid, or the next time, or the next time. It wasn’t about the time he threw our dishes in the trash because he didn’t like how I washed them. It wasn’t about the time he said he didn’t want my friends to come over because he was sure they thought they were
better than him. It wasn’t about the time that he didn’t talk to me for hours because I’d accidentally erased an important message on the answering machine.
Actually, it was about those times, but it wasn’t about just one time, it was about all of them. I’d try to talk about it with him, to bring it up. “It’s not okay to call me stupid,” I’d say. “So I lose my temper once and now I’m abusive?”
he’d reply. And before I knew what was happening, I’d be on the
defensive, trying to defend my right to a relationship free of abuse. Trying to say that no, calling a person stupid once did not qualify as abuse, but calling a person stupid a few times a week did. To him, it was just an individual incident, and the next abuse was also an individual incident, to be forgotten as quickly as the words
left his mouth. To me, it was a daily onslaught of emotional pain. But whenever I tried to step back and look at the big picture, he’d pull me down to look at a tiny piece: “See this? It’s so small. Why would you get upset about this little thing?” I could not address abuse in my relationship because I was too busy defending my right to even call it abuse.
Often, being a person of color in white-dominated
society is like being in an abusive relationship with the world. Every day is a new little hurt, a new little dehumanization. We walk around flinching, still in pain from the last hurt and dreading the next. But when we say “this is hurting us,” a spotlight is shown on the freshest hurt, the bruise just forming: “Look at how small it is, and I’m sure there is a good reason for it. Why
are you making such a big deal about it? Everyone gets hurt from time to time”—while the world ignores that the rest of our bodies are covered in scars. But racial oppression is even harder to see than the abuse of a loved one, because the abuser is not one person, the abuser is the world around you, and the person inflicting pain in an individual instance may themselves have the best of intentions.
Another analogy: imagine if you were walking down the street and every few minutes someone would punch you in the arm. You don’t know who will be punching you, and you don’t know why. You are hurt and wary and weary. You are
trying to protect yourself, but you can’t get off this street. Then imagine somebody walks by, maybe gesticulating wildly in interesting conversation, and they punch you in
the arm on accident. Now imagine that this is the last straw, that this is where you scream. That person may not have meant to punch you in the arm, but the issue for you is still the fact that people keep punching you in the arm.
Regardless of why that last person punched you, there’s a pattern that needs to be addressed, and your sore arm is testimony to that. But what often happens instead
is that people demand that you prove that each person who punched you in the arm in the past meant to punch you in the arm before they’ll acknowledge that too many people are punching you in the arm. The real tragedy is that you get punched in the arm constantly, not that one or two people who accidentally punched you in the arm might be accused of doing it on purpose. They still contributed to the
pain that you have endured—a pain bigger than that one punch—and they are responsible for being a part of that, whether they meant to or not. And if you just punched somebody in the arm that would not be the time to talk about how important it is to protect your right to gesticulate wildly, even if sometimes you accidentally punch people. Once you know that your wild gesticulation is harming people
(even if you’ve been raised to believe that it’s your god-given right to gesticulate as wildly as your heart desires without any thought of consequences), you can no longer claim it’s an accident when somebody gets hit.
As long as race exists and as long as racial oppression exists, race will touch almost every aspect of our lives. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Race is more than just pain
oppression, it’s also culture and history. Personally, my blackness is a history of strength, beauty, and creativity that I draw on every day; it is more that than the history of the horrors that racism has wrought. My blackness has its own language, its own jokes, its own fashion. My blackness is a community and a family and I’m very grateful for it. Humans are resilient and creative beings,
and out of a social construct created to brutalize and oppress, we’ve managed to create a lot of beauty. We can fight racial oppression while still acknowledging and appreciating that.
While just about everything can be about race, almost nothing is completely about race. It is important that we are aware of the different factors in any situation of oppression or conflict (please see the chapter
on intersectionality for more very important discussion on this). A lot of people feel like acknowledging race in a problem will make that problem only about race, and that will leave a lot of people out. But race was designed to be interwoven into our social, political, and economic systems. Instead of trying to isolate or ignore race, we need to look at race as a piece of the machine, just as
we’d look at class or geography when considering social issues. Race alone is not all you need to focus on, but without it, any solution you come up with just won’t work. We live in a complex world, and when looking at socioeconomic problems in our society, we simply cannot come to a viable solution without factoring in race.
We like to filter new information through our own experiences to see
if it computes. If it matches up with what we have experienced, it’s valid. If it doesn’t match up, it’s not. But race is not a universal experience. If you are white, there
is a good chance you may have been poor at some point in your life, you may have been sick, you may have been discriminated against for being fat or being disabled or being short or being conventionally unattractive, you may
have been many things—but you have not been a person of color. So, when a person of color comes to you and says “this is different for me because I’m not white,” when you run the situation through your own lived experience, it often won’t compute. This is usually where the desire to dismiss claims of racial oppression come from—it just doesn’t make sense to you so it cannot be right.
But if you
are white, and you are feeling this way, I ask you this: is your lived experience real? Are the situations you’ve lived through real? Are your interpretations of those situations valid? Chances are, if you are using them to decide whether or not other situations and opinions are valid, you think they are. So if your lived experience and your interpretation of that lived experience are valid, why
wouldn’t the lived experience of people of color be just as valid? If I don’t have the right to deem your life, what you see and hear and feel, a lie, why do you have the right to do it to me? Why do you deserve to be believed and people of color don’t?
And if you are a person of color, know this: the world will try to tell you that what you are seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling is wrong.
The world will tell you that you do not know how to interpret what is happening to you and to your community. But you are not wrong, and you have just as much right to be heard and believed as anybody else. If you think it’s about race, you are right.
T WAS AN ARGUMENT WITH A COWORKER THAT STARTED
where many arguments with coworkers start nowadays, on the Internet. This coworker had posted a meme about how poor people should be given drug tests if they want to get welfare benefits. You know the kind of post I’m talking about, one that sends a message like “If I need a drug test to get a hardworking job, you should
have one to get the free stuff my hardworking tax dollars are paying for.”
I’ve seen these memes countless times and they are never anything less than a gut punch to me. I pointed out that as someone who had grown up on welfare and was subjected to this attitude her entire childhood, this sort of stigmatization really hurts poor people who are just trying to survive. Poor people shouldn’t have
to prove how much they deserve to have a roof over their heads and feed their children.
There are a few ways to react when somebody tells you that your language is unintentionally hurting them. And while I was hoping for a quick apology or maybe just a quick correction, my coworker decided to double down on her claims—and add that she thought that poor people should also be sterilized because
“a lot of women take advantage of the system by having more kids to get more money.”
Suddenly it was like I was on a TV talk show circa 1984 talking about Welfare Queens. I honestly didn’t think that people really believed that myth anymore. A myth that was used to dehumanize a generation of welfare recipients. And, as someone who wouldn’t have existed had there been forced sterilization of poor
people, I took offense to this comment. In addition, as someone aware of our country’s racist history of forced sterilization of women of color, I knew how dangerous statements like these can be.
The discussion became heated quite quickly as my coworker tried to both state that she had not intended to offend me or my brother (who also worked at the same company and was witnessing this argument
online), but maybe I needed to be “less angry,” because this was why people like me got a bad reputation. Note: “people like you” is a good warning that a conversation is about to head into pretty racist territory. Shit got pretty intense (black-on-black crime was even brought up, I believe), and an entire evening was dedicated to an emotionally draining, and ultimately fruitless, conversation.
The next day, I was talking to a friend about the incident. I was still very upset about what had happened the night before. Believe it or not, I, like most people, really do just want to live in peace and not have four-hour-long arguments about
race and poverty on the Internet. And it is always a bit of a gut punch to realize that someone you have been sitting next to for months or even years
secretly harbors views that deny your basic humanity as a black woman. No matter how many times it happens, I have yet to get used to it.
“It’s really difficult to realize that you’ve been sitting next to someone capable of racism like that,” I explained over coffee.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, Ijeoma,” my friend interrupted, literally putting a hand up to stop me from speaking further, “let’s not get
ahead of ourselves here.”
“Excuse me?” I asked, stunned and confused.
“You can’t just go around calling anything racist. Save that word for the big stuff. You know, for Nazis and cross burnings and lynchings. You’re just going to turn people off if you use such inflammatory language.”
wanted this to just be a matter of misunderstanding. I really wanted this to be a case where
perhaps he just didn’t know how harmful everyday racism is, and once he did, he would change his mind. I tried to explain the real danger of unchecked racism and microaggressions to people of color. But he wasn’t going to hear it. There was “real racism” as he defined it, which was a post–reconstruction era horror type of racism, and there was whatever I was talking about (which he wasn’t comfortable
categorizing but he was pretty sure wasn’t that big of a deal)—the day-to-day reminders that I’m less than, that I should just learn to get over or find a more pleasant way to confront. He went on to discuss how his grandma, for example, said some racist things, but she was a kind person and it would be cruel to call a harmless old lady racist and would only make her more racist. It seemed far
more important to him that the white people who were spreading and upholding racism be spared the effects of being called racist, than sparing his black friend the effects of that racism.
No matter what I said, no matter how I described the effects that this sort of racism had on me and other people of color, he was not going to accept me using the word “racist” to describe it.
That was when
I learned that this was not a friend I could talk to about this really important part of my life. I couldn’t be my full self around him, and he would never truly have my back. He was not safe. I wasn’t angry, I was heartbroken.
We couldn’t talk about the ways in which race and racism impacted my life, because he was unwilling to even acknowledge the racism that was impacting my life and he was
unable to prioritize my safety over his comfort—which meant that we couldn’t talk about me.
ROBABLY ONE OF THE MOST TELLING SIGNS THAT WE
have problems talking about race in America is the fact that we can’t even agree on what the definition of racism actually is. Look at almost any discussion of race and racism online, and you’ll see an argument pop up over who is racist, who isn’t, and who
has the right to claim they are suffering from racism. The most common definitions of racism (in my own summation) are as follows: (1) Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race. Or (2) Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power. While these two definitions are very close to each other in many ways, the differences
between these two definitions of racism drastically change how you look at and address racism in America.
For the purposes of this book, I’m going to use the second definition of racism: a prejudice against someone based on race, when those prejudices are reinforced by systems of power. And this is a definition I recommend you use in your day-to-day life if your goal is to reduce the systemic
harm done to people of color by racism in America. Let me explain why.
When we use only the first definition of racism, as any prejudice against someone based on race, we inaccurately reduce issues of race in America to a battle for the hearts and minds of individual racists—instead of seeing racists, racist behaviors, and racial oppression as part of a larger system.
There are a lot of individual,
unapologetic racists out there. They’re easy to spot—they’re the people sharing the Obama = monkey memes. They are the people sewing swastikas to their jackets and talking about “White Genocide.” This book is not for them and they are not my primary concern. This book will not tell you how to get unabashed racists to love people of color. I’m not a magician. Furthermore, many of those people
have very little real power on their own and tend to stay on the fringes of society. We, as a society, like our racism subtler than that. What special power virulent racists do have can often be thwarted by just staying away from wherever you see “Obama is a Muslim” signs.
What is important is that the impotent hatred of the virulent racist was built and nurtured by a system that has much more
insidiously woven a quieter, yet no less violent, version of those same oppressive beliefs into the fabric of our society. The truth is, you don’t even have to “be racist” to be a part of the racist system.
The dude shouting about “black-on-black crime” is reinforced by elected officials coding “problem neighborhoods” and promising to “clean up the streets” that surprisingly always seem to have
a lot of brown and black people on them—and end with a lot of black and brown people in handcuffs. Your aunt yelling about “thugs” is echoed in our politicians talking about “super-predators” while building our school-to-prison pipelines that help ensure that the widest path available to black and brown children ends in a jail cell. But a lot of the people voting for stop-and-frisk crime bills
or increased security in schools would never dream of blaming racial inequity on “black-on-black crime” or calling a young black man a “thug.”
In contrast, a lot of the racists holding “white power” signs aren’t even registered to vote. It’s the system, and our complacency in that system, that gives racism its power, not individual intent. Without that white supremacist system, we’d just have
a bunch of assholes yelling at each other on a pretty even playing field—and may the best yeller win. But there is no even playing field right now. Over four hundred years of systemic oppression have set large groups of racial minorities at a distinct power disadvantage. If I call a white person a cracker, the worst I can do is ruin their day. If a white person thinks I’m a nigger, the worst they
can do is get me fired, arrested, or even killed in a system that thinks the same—and has the resources to act on it.
Looking beyond the differences in impact of these two definitions of racism, how we define racism also determines
how we battle it. If we have cancer and it makes us vomit, we can commit to battling nausea and say we’re fighting for our lives, even though the tumor will likely
still kill us. When we look at racism simply as “any racial prejudice,” we are entered into a battle to win over the hearts and minds of everyone we encounter—fighting only the symptoms of the cancerous system, not the cancer itself. This is not only an impossible task, it’s a pretty useless one.
Getting my neighbor to love people of color might make it easier to hang around him, but it won’t
do anything to combat police brutality, racial income inequality, food deserts, or the prison industrial complex.
Further, this approach puts the onus on me, the person being discriminated against, to prove my humanity and worthiness of equality to those who think I’m less than. But so much of what we think and feel about people of other races is dictated by our system, and not our hearts. Who
we see as successful, who has access to that success, who we see as scary, what traits we value in society, who we see as “smart” and “beautiful”—these perceptions are determined by our proximity to the cultural values of the majority in power, the economic system of those in power, the education system of those in power, the media outlets of those in power—I could go on, but at no point will you
find me laying blame at the feet of one misguided or even hateful white person, saying, “and this is Steve’s fault—core beliefs about black people are all determined by Steve over there who just decided he hates black people all on his own.” Steve is interacting with the system in the way in which it’s designed, and the end result is racial bigotry that supports the continued oppression of people
of color. Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and by just letting it be, we are responsible for what it produces. We have to actually dismantle the machine if we want to make change.
So a good question to ask yourself right now is: why are you here? Did you pick up this book with the ultimate goal of getting people to be nicer to each other? Did you pick
up this book with the goal of making more friends of different races? Or did you pick up this book with the goal of helping fight a system of oppression that is literally killing people of color? Because if you insist on holding to a definition of racism that reduces itself to “any time somebody is mean to somebody of a different race” then this is not the book to accomplish your goals. And those
are real and noble goals when we call them what they are—we really should be more kind to each other. But when I look at what is putting me and millions of other people of color at risk, a lack of niceness from white people toward me and people who look like me is very far down the list of priorities.
However, if you came with the second intention—to fight the systemic oppression that is harming
the lives of millions of people of color—then you are who I have written this book for. But either way, I encourage you to keep reading, because understanding the truth about racism in America might help you make more friends of different races, too—and they have a better chance of being
friends who will feel safe with you.
If you are not yet convinced that the definition of racism as racial
prejudice backed by systems of power is the one to go with, I’m fairly confident that the rest of the chapters in this
book will do the trick. When reading the subsequent chapters, remember that the concepts and issues discussed in the book were not born from the ether, nor are these racial oppressions the work of a bunch of random white people waking up each morning and saying to themselves,
“Today I will do what I can to oppress a person of color” coalescing into the creation of a society with racial disparities of socioeconomic well-being so large and entrenched that they trap multiple generations in the same expectations of success or failure. We live in a society where race is one of the biggest indicators of your success in life. There are sizable racial divides in wealth, health,
life expectancy, infant mortality, incarceration rates, and so much more. We cannot look at a society where racial inequity is so universal and longstanding and say, “This is all the doing of a few individuals with hate in their hearts.” It just doesn’t make sense.
We cannot fix these systemic issues on a purely emotional basis. We must see the whole picture. How do you fix the school-to-prison
pipeline on an emotional basis? How do you fix an economic system that values the work done traditionally by white males over that done by women and people of color on an emotional basis? How do you change an education system tailored almost exclusively to the experiences, history, and goals of white families on an emotional basis? How do you address an overwhelmingly white system of government
on an emotional basis? We can get every person in America to feel nothing but love for people of color in their hearts, and if our systems aren’t acknowledged and changed, it will bring negligible benefit to the lives of people of color.