Editorials — July 28, 2015 13:12 — 0 Comments

A Sandwich for Ijeoma Oluo

I love making sandwiches. I love making sandwiches and I think I’m really good at it. I also like talking with interesting people. In this column, I make sandwiches and talk with interesting people.    

Ijeoma Oluo is a Seattle-based writer whose work deals largely with issues of race and gender. Her essays have appeared in The Guardian, The Stranger, Jezebel, and this magazine, among many others. Her work and her online personality are marked by an undaunted, unapologetic, often inflammatory drive for social progress.

I met Oluo at her home in Shoreline. She seemed a bit anxious, and I had my own gloom looming about me, so I was happy to oblige when she offered white wine. As I prepared the sandwiches, we chatted as easily as possible about heavy matters. The video of North Charleston police officer Michael Slager fatally shooting a fleeing Walter Scott had been released that morning, and an air of hopelessness suffused the day. The regularity of these news stories held the emotionally paradoxical effect of simultaneously illuminating the desperate and much-ignored reality of police brutality, and of giving momentum to the movement for racial justice. The pervasive, unavoidable ubiquity of racial violence, and its history of obscurity, its out-of-sight-out-of-mind quality in the white world, would prove to be a driving theme in our conversation. The complexities of “Whiteness” – a condition almost invisible to most white people, Oluo noted – is always on a black person’s mind.

The auspice of levity that the shared sandwich is meant to provide felt feeble given the context. A feeling of alienation preoccupied me, a feeling that I presumed was mutual. I tried, as best I could, to make my awareness of my whiteness obvious, my racism transparent, but these attempts were accompanied by the sticky feeling that I was angling for acceptance as “one of the good ones.” As the conversation played out, running nearly three hours, I realized that the acceptance was mine, not hers. I had, simply, to be ok with the fact that my very personal desire to be liked, to not be the bad guy, had very little to do with the conversation. The sense of alienation was real, but not prohibitive of substantive discourse, and not complete.

Oluo was gracious and generous with her time. She was patient with my questions and thorough in her answers. She was, by turns, solemn and funny, exasperated and determined. When I asked how she liked the sandwiches, she said that the smoked trout with cream cheese and cucumber was good, but that she preferred the slow-cooked pork. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

On hopelessness:

It feels that way sometimes. It’s funny too, because my mom is white. My relationship with white people… I love a lot of white people, but my relationship with whiteness… I get Stephen Biko. He was the revolutionary in South Africa that was killed. He basically wanted a self-sufficient African movement, separating blacks, blacks removing themselves from the structures of white supremacy altogether. There are so many times where I wish I just could create an island where it’s just us, because I can’t think of any way out of it. Everyone is like, “It’s way better than it was in the fifties.” It’s not, actually. It just looks different. And people don’t get it. We have bigger income inequality now than we did in the fifties. We lose more black men to police shootings than we did to lynchings. It’s just as bad, it just looks different. It’s so frustrating to be having these conversations in this day and age, still. And to still see people see that cognitive dissonance, from people even you know, where they see it, and even if they feel bad about it, it doesn’t feel like them. That skin barrier is so strong. It’s really frustrating. It gets really hard to feel hopeful. And you have to, because we’re stuck here.

On the increased exposure of the world via the internet:

It’s just shedding light on things that people didn’t have to see, or could turn away from. In many ways, I think that’s really, really good, because people are still suffering from it, whether you see it or not. The only way it gets better is if people recognize it. At the same time, we have a problem where, because all of this is available, we tend to focus on the loudest thing. And that’s not necessarily the root cause of things. So when I look at things, when we talk about race, or even when we talk about sexism, or any of these things, the focus is always on what’s the most sensational. And that doesn’t do much to help actually solve the problem. As absolutely heartbreaking and terrifying as it is to see a black man shot by cops in the middle of the street – I’ve said this before, if all we had to worry about were cops, we’d be cool. But it’s not. And that’s what the focus goes to. What we need to be marching for are the things that don’t make headlines and have fallen into the din of the internet with all the other stuff: better education, better access to the health care, better job training programs, bring back affirmative action to the place that it was before. The cop is just the armed wing of this entire system, and getting rid of him doesn’t get rid of the system. It’s the actual system that needs to be addressed. And that’s not sexy, and that’s not cute, and it actually takes work from everyone.

On who bears the burden of change:

It’s a really weird dichotomy, in that racism almost exclusively affects people of color, but it is a problem that almost exclusively lives in whiteness. So you have this weird mix of the people most impacted by it, and who have the most insight into what it does, what it looks like – they are not the people who can do anything to change it. And that’s really tricky, because you walk a line, I’m sure, as a white person, wondering, “Ok, I want to fix this, but how do I do so in a way that respects people already suffering from this. How do I do this in a way that addresses their individual needs?” and that’s tricky. It’s this thing that’s been imposed on people of color, but then it changes, it adapts to the people that are being oppressed by it. But people of color can’t fix it. And I think that’s one of the biggest issues, it’s one of the things I have the hardest time getting people to understand. At the end of the day, there is nothing a person of color can do to change it.

On the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King:

There was nothing Martin Luther King could do to change it. It got to the point where white people decided that it was too inconvenient or it was too embarrassing. But if they hadn’t made that decision… He was incredibly instrumental, but I think people forget that he was only instrumental because he was able to get white people on his side. If they hadn’t been, it wouldn’t have mattered. Even if every single person of color around the country had risen up, it wouldn’t have mattered. It’s really tough. It’s tricky to understand that. And people always go, “What about Martin Luther King? Martin Luther King preached love.” And I’m like, yeah, cool, and he got shot in the face because of it. And the changes that came through were only changes that were made when they became – where they affected whiteness enough that they decided to make a change. At no point could a person of color say, “That’s it! This isn’t happening any more, ever.” That’s the thing we forget when we talk about respectability politics and things like that.

On the tangibility of dismantling racism:

I do view it as a tangible thing. There are a couple of things: one, removing the structural systems that support it, things like affirmative action are important, and they actually matter. They do short and long-term help. People say, “It’s wrong to make people hire people of color.” But when you look at what happens when people aren’t forced to hire people of color, they don’t. And it’s not even, necessarily, a race thing. What is it, like ninety percent of white people only know one black person? And they’ve shown, time and time again, if you do studies, that the vast majority of people hired for jobs are hired based on referral. So if you remove affirmative action, even when you’re not even talking race, you’re immediately discounting the vast majority of the people of color, because they just don’t know the white people. And that’s one of those subtle things, where, you might not be racist, but you’re going to hire someone you want to work with, and if you don’t know any black people, you’re not going to hire any black people. And that’s not, on its surface, intentional bigotry. That’s people associating familiarity with who they want to work with. People aren’t even aware that there’s a racial bias to that, but there is, and they’re not even aware of it. When you look at education systems, studies have shown that teachers are more likely to see the same behaviors by brown children as aggressive, as playful in white children. When you have four times as many black pre-schoolers being suspended from pre-school than white kids…if you can’t handle a four-year old, then you shouldn’t be in education. These are structural issues. What changes it, is actual familiarity. If you never see black people, how are you going to form any sort of empathy? How are you going to be able to connect to any of these issues? How are you going to be able to acknowledge cultural differences and appreciate them, and see the similarities, if you never come into contact with them? That’s what affirmative action does.

On jobs and the need for positive media representation of blacks:

The more unemployed people we have, the more under-employed people we have, the less money we have for schools, which means the poorer education those kids get, which means they’re less likely to get well-paying jobs, and we’re just ghetto-izing our kids. Supporting these programs that people are uncomfortable with matter. Supporting summer school programs matters. Supporting healthy media representation matters a lot. Representation is so huge. Look at what it has done for the LGBT movement. If we didn’t have television shows portraying positive images of gay people, we wouldn’t be moving as fast to legalize gay marriage. We don’t have that for people of color.

On Tyler Perry:

I hate Tyler Perry with a passion. That shit is a cancer on the black community. He is so misogynistic and homophobic.

On narrative hierarchy:

There is a hierarchy, right? White men set the narrative. White women set a lesser narrative, and if it’s approved by a white man, then that goes down. Then you’ve got women of color, and black men, and Latino men… But each narrative below has to be approved by the narrative above before it passes muster. You get these layers upon layers upon layers, because everybody believes their reality has to match that reality in order to work. You see this in so many places. You see this in new atheism, which makes me so mad about new atheism, this demand that everyone’s reality matches up to yours. It’s no different from evangelicalism. I believe the fundamentals of human rights are really a respect for peoples’ experience. And one of our biggest barriers is this expectation that people have to be able to relate before they can believe, and you’re just never going to be able to do that.

On shades of black and white:

Being half white doesn’t buy me any whiteness. It doesn’t mean the cops won’t stop me. It doesn’t mean I’m not more likely to face sexual assault. Impoverishment, poorer education, worse health care – all of these things that black people are susceptible to, I’m still susceptible to. I do have some privilege because my skin is lighter, and therefore on the shade of beauty… There was a recent study that showed that white people, or lighter–skinned people are seen as more responsible, more intelligent, less prone to violence, but what went even further was, if they showed dark-skinned people who were known for being highly intelligent and responsible, they were remembered as having lighter skin! I’m fully cognizant that having lighter skin has gotten me a lot further. It’s gotten me further in my career, most definitely. Even just talking about race – I can say things about race that people with darker skin can’t say, without being viewed as hostile.

On not explaining:

Someone posted: “I just don’t understand why people of color don’t want me to touch their hair. Can someone explain this to me?” My response is, “Because I said so.” You don’t have to know anything else. You don’t actually have to know why. “Why can’t I say the n-word and some people can?” Because I said so. That’s it. It doesn’t have to make sense to you.

On the difference between understanding and respect:

You don’t actually have to understand or feel connected to people of color. You just have to respect their basic humanity. That’s really all it comes down to. It’s one of those things where it’s a catch twenty-two: here’s a black man, and he went to college, and he’s just as good as any white person. The truth is, it shouldn’t matter. He could’ve done absolutely nothing with his life, and would still be just as worthy of respect as anyone else. And when we draw empathy lines, or we say, walk a mile in someone’s shoes, what we do is put a boundary on empathy, because there will be times when you just won’t be able to. Basic respect of people’s humanity is what has to take over, and not just basic respect of humanity, but with that comes believing people’s versions of reality. We all have our own.


Caleb Thompson is a co-founding editor of The Monarch Review

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney