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Ijeoma Oluo: 'I am drowning in whiteness'

caption: Seattle writer Ijeoma Oluo
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Seattle writer Ijeoma Oluo

Hi, I am Ijeoma Oluo, and I am a mixed race black woman who was raised by a white mother in this very white city.

I have a Ph.D. in whiteness, and I was raised in "Seattle nice." I was steeped in the good intentions of this city and I hate it.

I love this city. I love you guys. Also, I hate it. I really do.

And I'm going to talk a little bit about why. I write about race, and I'm regularly reached out to by really well-meaning white people who want to explain to me what my work is like to them as a white person and the white perspective that I'm missing.

And the only part of the white perspective I'm missing is the ability to be unaware of the white perspective.

That may sound a little arrogant, but if you are a person of color who grew up in an area like this, you understand that every decision you make, you're going, "What will white people think about this?" You have to. You find out around kindergarten, usually, that you've misjudged something and there were disastrous consequences. Maybe at a friend's house you're no longer allowed to go to, or a letter home from your teacher.

Do not wait until you are ready to sit down and address race to address race.

But you know really quickly that if you don't know what white people want – what they're doing and why; what's going to make them mad; what's going to make them scared; what's going to make them happy – you will not be able to go anywhere.

Not only are you hyper aware of your blackness or your identity of color because there is a spotlight on you 24/7, especially in a city like this where there are five of you, you have to be hyper aware of whiteness as well. And what I've noticed is that nothing really threatens the Seattle identity of liberal utopia more than asking white people to acknowledge what whiteness is and where it is in their lives.

People tell me to stop making things about race all of the time. But when you are not making things about race, you're making them about whiteness all of the time.

Every decision that you make with ease is made with whiteness. Every door that opens for you is opened by whiteness. And I know this sounds like I am taking away all of your achievements, and I'm not. But I need you to understand that from the Constitution to our education system to our pop culture – everything that we do is steeped in whiteness.

And when you do not acknowledge that, you make it about race. Because then I have to navigate what you won't see. I am tripping over the roadblocks that you don't even know that you're placing in front of me.

I am drowning in the whiteness, and you can't help me if you can't see it.

Be the person that nobody wants to invite to a dinner party.

Now, it's uncomfortable – it is uncomfortable to realize how much easier you may have had things. It is uncomfortable to realize that a lot of the benefits that you may have came at the expense of other people. That makes you feel bad; it makes you feel guilty. And I do not have a solution for that because it should make you feel bad and it should make you feel guilty. That is not my goal. (I mean sometimes it makes me smile.)

I have bigger things to worry about. But I will say this: It will not kill you. But if you don't see it, it will kill me, or it will kill my brother, or it will kill my son. You have to get used to this.

We are drowning in it and the least you can do is be uncomfortable. Be uncomfortable a lot. And if you are comfortable, take that as a sign that you need to make things more uncomfortable.

Do not wait until you are ready to sit down and address race to address race. Because I do not get to decide when to address race. I don't get to say, "I feel safe, I feel comfortable; I'm going to look at racism now," because racism hits me in the doctor's office. It hits me when I'm driving down the street. It hits me when I'm taking my kids to a movie.

Get used to being uncomfortable. Be the person that nobody wants to invite to dinner party. You are going to get pushback. And I think we've seen a lot of pushback to the change in national discussion around race. And a lot of what I hear from people is, "See, this is what happens. You push too hard. You're going with these identity politics."

Of course there's going to be pushback. To investigate whiteness is a threat to identity, to comfort, to privilege, to status.

But what is the alternative? Is the alternative then to back off? People are dying.

If black people could end racism, we would have ended racism.

You just keep pushing. You keep going. People push back when they are threatened. And I would love to say that this is not a threat. I would love to say that it is a win-win to address whiteness, but it's not.

Some of what you have, you don't deserve. But when you can see your identity clearly as it is, the good and the bad; when you can see where your whiteness is more than your heritage, more than just culture, but also a system of oppression, you then have the power to do the work to redefine it to something that you can be proud of.

You can't fake it. You cannot just pick up the positive and say that that's all that there is. This will be uncomfortable and it will be painful.

But if you continue to do the work, you will have a sense of authenticity in yourself that you have never known. You will stop having to steal all of our stuff. You will have your own stuff!

And that's really what I need you to do. I don't need someone standing right next to me doing what I'm doing. If black people could end racism, we would have ended racism. We have died trying to end systemic racism. I need you to do the work in your community. And it starts with looking at the day-to-day things. 

What will kill me may not be a cop. It will be my lack of access to quality medical care. It will be my lack of access to quality education. It will be the loans that I am denied. It will be all of the thousands of cuts that people of color endure every single day in white supremacist society. And that is where your life intersects with it.

Every time you go through something, and it's easy for you, look around and say, "Who is it not easy for? And what can I do to dismantle that system?" But in order to do that, you have to be willing to look at it and see it as a part of the system of whiteness because that's what it is.

And then eventually you will not be so tense. You will not be so defensive, because you will know that even if you aren't there, you are actually doing concrete things to make whiteness something that helps instead of hurts. And I know you can do that. I've seen what white people can do when they put their minds to things.

I love you, Seattle, and I hope that we can start looking at kindness, which is honest and built with love, over niceness, which prioritizes comfort over safety. We can do this. But first you have to start with yourselves, and then you'll find your place every single day. You can make a measurable impact on not only the lives of people of color but your own life as well.

Thank you.

Ijeoma Oluo, writer and speaker, is editor-at-large of The Establishment, a media platform run and funded by women. She shared her thoughts at “Interrupting Whiteness,” an event held on June 1, 2017 at the Central Library, co-hosted by KUOW Public Radio. This is a transcript of her speech.

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