I first became aware of Seattle native writer Ijeoma Oluo and her work early January after a link to a Twitter conversation she was engaged in was shared on Facebook. The title “Win of the Day: Woman Defeats Twitter Troll with Words, Kindness on MLK” immediately caught my attention. The injustice of the non-stop onslaught of deaths of black children, women and men at the hand of police officers had left me raw. I was emotionally exhausted from grief and anger. I was ready for kindness. Reading through the exchange brought tears to my eyes in a way that only true compassion can. Ijeoma reminded me that compassion was a tool that should not be easily forgotten.
I met with Ijeoma over brunch and she is as funny and witty in person as is reflected in her writing, with a confident firmness that serves her well in her profession as a writer who has chosen to tackle the uncomfortable intersecting topics of ethnicity, social justice and feminism. Although I had never met her, our interaction was easy and she unflinchingly discussed with me topics that most shy from, especially with someone they don’t know well.
Alexis: We’ve discussed how you began writing as a form of self-care. Writing offers something that many other forms of self-care do not, a voice. How important do you feel, in our current environment, is it to engage in a way that gives a voice to the complex emotions many are feeling?
Ijeoma: I think that giving your experiences the respect that they deserve is important – regardless of how you express that. I think that a lot of people (especially women and people of color) are told that their experiences don’t matter, that they aren’t worthy. Even if you never share your words with someone else, they are worth your time. Never be afraid to take up space.
Alexis: The attacks to your articles online are vicious. I find myself compulsively reading the comments even though I know I am descending into the underbelly of humanity. These attacks are usually very personal, from your appearance to your name. Do you read all of them? Are you able to remain detached?
Ijeoma: I do read a lot of them, but there are certain publications where I know the comments are going to be pure hate, so I avoid them. But I like to read comments because there are some really great ones in there – some insight that I wouldn’t get otherwise. The hate doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t know these people, they don’t know me. They are having an impulsive, ridiculous reaction to something I said that obviously touched a nerve. It’s my job to be out here, to challenge the status quo, to be where they say that black women should not be. The hate comes with that. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t need to be out here.
I get far more upset by the “well-meaning” people who are so caught up in themselves that they don’t want to see how they are contributing to a racist, patriarchal, classist, ableist society, so they take up your time trying to get assurances that they are good people instead of actually doing good. That sort of entitlement wastes everyone’s time and takes away from the issues at hand.
Alexis: It would seem that some people are simply incensed by your audacity to discuss race as a biracial woman. Thoughts on the obsession with your ethnic identity?
Ijeoma: The obsession with my racial identity is really weird. As a kid, it was other black kids who insisted that I wasn’t “black” enough. Now as an adult, it’s mainly white people trying to take my blackness from me. Although the moment I make some black people mad, the fact that I have a white mom is always brought up.
I think that this all ties into white supremacy – their owning and defining of blackness. Unfortunately, some black people have internalized that – but I find that is becoming less common. But this thought that white can be anything, but black can only be one thing, is a tool that white supremacy uses to imprison us. We should always be aware when that creeps up in our consciousness.
I’m black, proudly black. And I’ve always identified as such. My mother is white, which means that I have a lot of experience with Whiteness (and the privilege afforded to lighter skin), but the Whiteness from a parent doesn’t get passed down to brown children. White is a pretty exclusive club, they don’t let us in. Knowing half of my ethnic heritage is from a population actively working to suppress my racial identity has always been really strange. I think a lot of people are threatened because they see my identification as black as a voluntary rejection of Whiteness – which it is. But let’s not be fooled, it’s not like I have much of a choice.
Alexis: Beyond ethnicity, there is the added layer of your unapologetic femininity. Your writing is bold and clear. Why do you think there is such an issue, still, with accepting such straightforwardness from a woman?
Ijeoma: Men are very, very threatened by strong women – surprisingly so. I think that when you are raised to think the world is yours, you view women’s actions as a direct statement on you. Women doing for themselves means that men aren’t doing enough. Women voluntarily being single means that men aren’t good enough. When we have a society of men raised to believe that women are here for their benefit, any action we take that doesn’t directly benefit them is an insult.
Alexis: You don’t appear to be afraid of vulnerability in your writing. You speak of your fears, hopes, struggles and dreams openly. Is this an active choice or does it just come naturally to you? Has anything you have every shared ever been used against you?
Ijeoma: I’ve always written, even as a little kid. But sharing my feelings and experiences with others did not come naturally to me at all. I had a wonderful and horrible childhood – all at the same time. And my role was always as the protector, the one who fixes it all. It was never about me. My brother was always the storyteller. But I realized that I was missing from the narrative. I realized that I couldn’t own my life if I couldn’t face it. So I started writing.
The first really personal piece I wrote was “There’s a Penis on my Backpack.” I almost had a breakdown writing it. I kept thinking “you selfish bitch, nobody cares about your story.” I cried and cried the entire time. I was terrified. But I wrote it anyway. Then Jezebel picked it up.
Everything I feared would happen did. My mom was devastated. We had a huge fight. She felt betrayed. Some commenters were awful. But I survived, and it was out there. From there on, I knew I could do it.
Alexis: Since the discussion about racism has moved to the mainstream, a common experience of people of color has been the painful silence of white friends and/or loved ones. You’ve experienced this. What advice would you give to those who remain silent to the people of color in their life?
Ijeoma: My advice would be to listen and offer support. Don’t make it about you, but definitely show that you care, that your sense of community goes beyond skin color. A lot of people say “all lives matter” and that shit, but they have nothing to say about the systemic oppression that affects a lot of those lives.
People act like racism is a POC problem, but it’s a white problem. It’s a problem that the white community has to fix. There is no action that a person of color can take that will end racism and racial oppression. It has to be ended by the oppressors. So just silently being “not racist” is doing absolutely nothing to help when you are still part of a system actively oppressing people of color.
Alexis: I don’t have children, but love the articles you have written on parenting especially “We Should Raise Our Brown Kids to Talk Back.” You write of your children “I want them to live fully in their own power. This is how many white children are raised. They are raised to inherit the future, to build a great tomorrow in their names. They are raised to argue, to demand. I want my kids to do the same.” A parent must be free to pass on the spirit of freedom instead of oppression. How did you come to your freedom of spirit?
Ijeoma: I definitely got my freedom of spirit from my mother. It’s funny, because she was never a very confident woman herself. She’s always second-guessing herself, rarely reaching for big things. It caused a lot of pain in her life. But none of that ever applied to me or my siblings. She always thought we were magic – that we could do anything. We never heard “you can’t do that” from her. Anything that we said we wanted to be she put her full support behind. She honestly believed (and still does) that we could change the world. I’ll always be grateful for that. My mom has never had money, fame, prestige – but everything that my brother, sister and I accomplish – that’s her legacy. Her love helped build that.
Alexis: What’s in the future for Ijeoma? Where do you plan to take your writing?
Ijeoma: I’m now writing full time! I’m very excited and terrified about the change. I would love to get into writing longer pieces. I’m starting to do more investigative work. Also, I’ve been drawing cartoons – which is great fun. A lot of these concepts around race and gender work well in animated form. I’m also going to be teaching a class on culture writing this summer, with Teen Tix. I’m really just trying to put my whole heart into communicating, as long as there are people who want to hear what I have to say.
More of Ijeoma’s work can be found at ijeomaoluo.com.