clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A woman with a Black Lives Matter T-shirt over her shoulders near the White House on June 8.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Filed under:

“Be wary of things that are purely symbolic”: How to join the conversation on race

Ijeoma Oluo on the “perfect storm” that finally engaged white America on racism.

Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

For much of America to wake up to the realities of systemic racism and police brutality, the context had to be extreme; the violence had to be prolonged — more than eight minutes of a black man suffering, a knee on his neck, saying he can’t breathe. The cameras had to not only be rolling, but the officer had to look directly at it without caring he was being filmed, or apparently worried that he was risking his own health in the middle of a pandemic. And an audience had to be watching, pleading “to let him breathe.” All over a $20 bill.

“Violent white supremacy doesn’t rest,” says Ijeoma Oluo, speaker and author of the book So You Want to Talk About Race.

But for many white Americans, this idea of active white supremacy is not one they have ever thought about before. Amid George Floyd’s death and the protests it has inspired over the past two weeks, the country is waking up. The issues demonstrators are pushing against aren’t new — especially to black, brown, and indigenous people who have experienced them their entire lives. But the diverse and widespread outrage over them we’re seeing right now is. Polls show swift and significant shifts in attitudes about police violence toward people of color.

But the conversation about racism in America, especially for those new to it, is uneasy and imperfect. Oluo knows: She dedicates much of her time talking about how to talk about race, as the title of her book suggests.

She and I recently spoke about her views on the current moment, the Black Lives Matter movement, and what it will take to create lasting change. It’s not inevitable that the protests will fade quickly — the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott lasted for 381 days — but it’s vital to have conversations now while the energy is high about what happens next.

We also talked about what it means to get educated on racism and to do the work and what isn’t helpful when it comes to solidarity. For example, those black boxes on Instagram last week — not the best idea.

“Be wary of anything that allows you to do something that isn’t actually felt by people of color,” Oluo said. “I always ask myself when I’m trying to do solidarity work, can the people I’m in solidarity with actually feel this? Can they spend this? Can they eat this? Does this actually help them in any way? And if it doesn’t, let it go.”

And those looking to help need to focus on more than police brutality. Racism factors into so many parts of the cultural fabric — education, work, housing, and much more. That requires attention, too. “It’s not just that we deserve to not be killed,” Oluo said. “We deserve to thrive in this country, just like everyone else.”

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

Emily Stewart

Just to start off, how are you feeling in this moment?

Ijeoma Oluo

I’m exhausted, honestly. It’s been a lot, and I’m preparing to do more. I think that right now we are tired and scared and sad and a little excited to see some steps toward real change, and I’m kind of holding all of that in me right now. But mostly, I’m very, very exhausted.

Emily Stewart

Is this a moment in your mind? Is this something different that’s happening right now?

Ijeoma Oluo

I would say it’s definitely a moment that we have not seen in at least 30 years, as far as a nationwide movement for change, where we’re actually starting to see some cities paying attention and seeing a shift in the national conversation about racism, systemic racism, and police brutality in America. What will come? I don’t know if it will lead to something different than what we’ve seen, but it is different this time.

Emily Stewart

What’s different?

Ijeoma Oluo

Right now, it’s really been a perfect storm. We haven’t seen protests in all 50 states where you could have a day where every state, and then multiple countries around the world, are joining in to say that black lives matter, to say that enough is enough. We haven’t seen that in a very long time.

What’s happening right now — when you have people who are already tired and scared and worried about the pandemic that we’ve been in — is that not only did it hit the black community especially hard to see that violence in the midst of this pandemic that’s coming for us, but to also see that violent white supremacy doesn’t rest. Police will still take the time and risk their own health to take the life of a black person.

It also shocked the rest of the country to realize this is how ingrained it is. It is this ingrained, when everyone is supposed to be staying home, when we should all have bigger things to worry about, that a supposedly fraudulent $20 bill will cost a black person their life.

I think that we were all feeling raw. We all had less reserves, and it was just a collective “enough.” It’s been enough for a lot of us for a very long time, but I’m still glad to see so many people coming out in solidarity.

Emily Stewart

How is the conversation about race different from in the past? Ten years, five years, even two years ago?

Ijeoma Oluo

When I started writing, “Black Lives Matter” wasn’t a phrase that was even said. I remember desperately getting people to just recognize why they should care about this. And Black Lives Matter itself was a movement just trying to say that we deserve to live. And a large segment of the American population that was still struggling with, “Is Black Lives Matter the thing to say?” have set that aside now. They’re saying okay, there is a problem, we’re not going to argue whether this is something we should be saying. We’re moving past that. And that is new. There are, of course, still some people who love to shout, “All lives matter.” But I used to run into well-meaning people asking, why do I have to say this? They’re not asking that question anymore.

That’s new, because it allows us to start talking strategy.

When I wrote my book, I remember talking in a chapter about police brutality and reform. My book is kind of an introduction to race, and I am so encouraged to see people move so far past that to be talking about what it means to defund, to completely restructure how we keep communities safe and healthy. I love seeing people who maybe a year ago thought reform was the way ago now saying, wait a minute, what if we imagine a whole system that doesn’t rely on criminalization, that doesn’t have a certain amount of brutality built into it as the thing we put up with to feel safe?

That is what is encouraging to me, seeing people move past, “Is this a big deal?” to “What is the best way to tackle it?”

Emily Stewart

A lot of white people seem to have been caught by surprise by the realities of police brutality and racism. Why do you think that is?

Ijeoma Oluo

Our culture still frames racism as something that lies fully within the hearts and minds of racist white people. It’s racism if you hate, and therefore if we can just find the few people who hate people of color, who hate black people, then we could solve racism if we could just solve them. What that means is that the everyday fear and heartbreak and stigmatization that we deal with in this country is largely ignored.

You don’t see after-school specials on racism that talk about the ways in which teachers don’t think you wrote your paper because you did really well on it, or how people with their hair in braids are seen as less professional. These are not issues that people think of when they think racism. When I give talks, when I say someone’s a racist, what do you think? And people say, “The Klan.”

For people to realize that it had to be so bad in our police forces, it wasn’t just the act. It wasn’t just the fact that the way George Floyd was killed was so shocking. It was the fact that things had to be so bad that all four of those officers knew that they would be completely fine to murder someone long and painfully in front of cameras, in front of a live audience. What it spoke to was not just those officers, it spoke to an entire culture. You can’t say it’s a few bad apples at that point. That’s where a lot of that shock is coming from.

It’s frustrating. I know that I’m frustrated, and I’m hearing from so many other black people who are so frustrated at getting phone calls from white people they’ve known for a long time saying they had no idea. And you think, “Why weren’t you listening to me? I’ve been saying this the whole time. I’m a human being with words who can say that this is what’s happening.”

Had it just been one officer, it wouldn’t have been as shocking. But to see four officers participate in this, in front of an audience, knowing they were being recorded, was really what showed that this goes deep. This is a systemic issue in a way that people who don’t have to worry about the system of policing had [not seen].

Emily Stewart

So when we see white people rallying en masse against racism now and in support of Black Lives Matter, do you think it really is just seeing George Floyd’s murder? Or what do you think is happening, that these protests are now finally very diverse?

Ijeoma Oluo

I think that’s part of it. It really did shock the conscience of people in ways it hasn’t before.

It’s important to note for the black community, for the indigenous community, it was not just George Floyd. It was the accumulation of Breonna Taylor and all these other beautiful black and indigenous lives that have been taken.

It’s also white people are seeing other people say something, speaking out, protesting. And they’re saying, “I can do it, too.” And it’s contagious. People forget that this sort of resistance is a social activity — it’s not a fun social activity, but it is a social activity. It is a collective movement, and it does cause more people to come out.

I do think people have more time. We can’t overestimate the impact of a lot of people being out of work, having time to get out there with protests and talk about this.

Our social connections to people via the internet are sustaining us in a way that hasn’t happened in the past, because we can’t see people in person. Therefore, we’re talking about these things in a way that we weren’t before. We’re not going out to a bar; we’re talking about the social issues of the day on social media. And I think that’s also contributing to it. I hate to use the phrase perfect storm, but it took a perfect storm of events to really engage white America in a way that hasn’t happened before.

Emily Stewart

So what is your advice to those white people who want to talk about race right now?

Ijeoma Oluo

Right now, you need to be running two tracks at the same time.

You have to be running your track of education, asking why didn’t I know about this? Why wasn’t I doing something sooner? Where am I lacking? What words are confusing me? Start reading up and start learning.

At the same time, look at being of use. Look at what your local protest leaders and resistance leaders are doing. Do they need donations? Do they need masks? Do people need certain messages amplified? Start looking at conversations you can be having in your cities, your towns, your school districts, in your offices to bring those issues forward.

It’s not just that we deserve to not be killed. We deserve to thrive in this country, just like everyone else.

Look how you can be of use to the people who have been struggling for justice and for black, indigenous, and people of color to really thrive in this country. Ask how you can help make sure that it’s something people actually want and can feel.

It’s not just money, but if you can, give money to causes. But give your time. Amplify voices. Open doors. If someone’s saying they’re having trouble at your office talking about the issue of race, can you add your voice to back that person up? If your school board is not talking about the ways in which their disciplinary systems are set up, or talking about getting police out of schools, that is something that you can bring up. And you can bring your friends in. Start looking at how you can be of use, and then also, at the same time, keep your personal education going.

Emily Stewart

What should people avoid when talking about race?

Ijeoma Oluo

If you are a white person, right now is not the time to go seek out the most racist person and try to tell them they’re an awful person and argue with them — not because they don’t need to know that, because I think that open racism should always be met with resistance and pushback, but because our time is precious and you need to be doing actions.

There’s something really performative about saying, “I spent all my day today arguing with my Trump-loving uncle.” I, as a black person, don’t know your Trump-loving uncle. I don’t feel that — the only reason why I know is because you posted that you did it. It does not help my life.

I hear from a lot of people saying, “I’ve never been black, but this happened to me, so I know what it’s like.” Don’t minimize the experiences of black and indigenous people with state violence by comparing it to the time that someone didn’t like you or you were accused of doing something you didn’t do. Recognize that you will never fully know what it’s like to live under white supremacy as a black and indigenous person in this country. You will just have to believe us, and you just have to take us at our word and fight with us. Don’t try to make it about you. Don’t try to make it about your pain and your journey, and keep your energies focused on where you can be of use to the struggle and to the movement that’s happening right now.

Emily Stewart

When you talk about the question of being performative on social media, I’m curious about your thoughts on Blackout Tuesday, when people were posting black boxes on social media to show solidarity. Is that helpful?

Ijeoma Oluo

It’s not helpful; it actually harms things. And I think it’s an important conversation to have.

This is very similar to me to the whole safety pin debacle after Trump’s election [where people put a safety pin on their clothes to signify they opposed acts of religious and racist violence and abuse in the wake of his victory]. What it is is people who are looking for something quick that they can do to feel like they’ve done something.

These are not things that black people come up with. When I’m thinking, what would help me feel safe in this country? It’s not “I wish everyone’s Instagram squares were black.” I can’t feel that. Especially when coupled with the disengagement — people do this performative gesture and then disengage. People aren’t even open to the feedback of why that’s not helpful or what they could be doing to be helpful.

Be wary of anything that allows you to do something that isn’t actually felt by people of color. Be wary of things that are purely symbolic; they are not helpful. We are not dying because of lack of symbolism in this country, so question who benefits from that. If what you think is, oh, it made me feel better, then you’re the one who’s benefiting from it.

Stay away from those things and question them, because that energy does take away. The time we had to spend arguing about this, to spend getting the word out, all of these PSAs [saying] take your squares down because nobody can actually see real Black Lives Matter protests — that energy could have gone toward amplifying a useful message, and it’s a waste of time. And when we waste time, we lose lives, so it’s not trivial.

Just always be aware. I always ask myself when I’m trying to do solidarity work, can the people I’m in solidarity with actually feel this? Can they spend this? Can they eat this? Does this actually help them in any way? And if it doesn’t, let it go.

Emily Stewart

Once these protests slow down, do you expect white people to keep doing the work?

Ijeoma Oluo

I hope that they can. I think it’s important to recognize that there are people out there who have been doing work for 10, 15, 20 years and will continue to do it even when the story is the protests are over. The work has continued and will continue, regardless of how many people are standing next to the people doing the work.

If we are going to sustain this, we have to start talking about what it means to sustain. We have to start digging into our history and figuring out how the Montgomery bus boycott lasted a year, how we had Freedom Summer. How did we have all of these long, sustained protests and activities that brought about real change? What did they do? What tactics did they use to keep people going? What was the support system?

And we need to start looking at that now while the energy’s high and ask what it would look like to hold cities accountable to keep pushing toward change, what connections we need to make, how to support people doing the work, how to rotate people in and out so that people don’t burn out. We need to have those conversations now while the energy is high. A lot of people are just assuming it will go away, and so planning to keep it going is important.

Emily Stewart

What should the work look like?

Ijeoma Oluo

It’s really important to watch what’s happening in Minneapolis right now, and Los Angeles, and New York, with the defunding and the allocating of funds from the police system and into communities. We need to invest in that and look at our own cities and towns and see what we can do right now to demilitarize our police and take some of those funds and resources and put them back into the communities that have been so harmed.

It’s also really important right now to see who’s been doing this work. Look in your city, in town — anywhere you have people of color, someone has been doing that work. Ask, “How can I invest in that work?” Let’s not reinvent the wheel.

What we’re hearing right now, the changes that are being pushed, are things that activists have been asking for for a very long time. It’s not new; they’re not new ideas. The plans are in place. We just need people to put their excitement behind it. It’s a little less sexy to go to the old head activists and ask what they’ve been doing, but that’s what we actually have to do. The plans are already in place.


How Israel’s war went wrong


An attempt to reckon with True Detective: Night Country’s bonkers season finale


Dakota Johnson’s aloof appeal, explained

View all stories in The Latest

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.