The Honest Truth: Q&A with Ijeoma Oluo

Illustration by Kathryn Rathke

Mystery novels. Maybe some terrible fiction. Ijeoma Oluo doesn’t have to think twice about what she’d write in an ideal world. But America is still racist, so the Seattle author keeps to her day job: Writing about race and social justice for national and international media, including The Establishment, where she serves as editor at large. With more than 100,000 fans on social media, Oluo is beloved (and sometimes attacked) for her astute assessments of current events, endearing stories about her kids’ antics and elaborate makeup tutorials. Her first book, So You Want to Talk About Race, comes out this month. Like Oluo, it’s straightforward, funny and smart. When we meet in a bustling coffee shop in North Seattle to talk about her work, she matter-of-factly says, 
“I didn’t want to write it at first.”

What made you take the leap?
I got tired of writing the same essay over and over again. So many people reached out to me because they were struggling with talking about race. The recurring theme was that you can get deep in these discussions without really knowing what you are talking about, like affirmative action or police brutality. With this book, I created a safe space where I explain these topics and how to talk about them without being coddling. I’m hoping that people will use it as a toolbox with very concrete tips that they can go back to.

You combine advice with statistics, as well as very personal experiences, something you also do on your Facebook page with more than 50,000 followers. How do you handle the fact that so many people feel like they know you?
This sort of work and the attention it requires, even if it’s all online, is draining. The tough part is when people have personal expectations about who you are as a person. Suddenly what you write becomes fodder for people’s personal stuff. It can feel exploitative. That is of course part of writing online: A novelist won’t get that as much. I’m sure people are not mailing Jonathan Franzen that many letters.

It’s probably not filled with the same sexist and racist garbage.
Exactly. I think it’s hard for people to understand it’s never been my intention to garner any kind of following, I just want people to read my work. You can go back to my page five years in time and you’ll see the same commentary. I’ve never had the ability to know how to not say something. I don’t know how to be a different person than I’ve always been. I don’t know how to be the person who splits in two.

What are some things you do to create your private bubble?
Putting on copious amounts of makeup. I can’t think about writing while I’m doing it. Same goes for audiobooks: I listen to tons of British murder mysteries. My kids hate it! They mock me all the time. I consider myself lucky as a 
single mom with two kids. I’m not a race-car driver, so what I do for work or how many followers I have means nothing to them. That helps.

From harassment to death threats, you’ve seen the worst of unfiltered humanity online. Do you still believe in the good in people?
I believe in people’s potential. We like to think in good versus evil, but nothing will prove more that this dichotomy doesn’t exist than writing about racism in America. So much of this is systems and circumstances. Who you are as a person is irrelevant to the role you play in the system. You can be a really horrible person, but if you don’t participate in the system of white supremacy, you’re benefiting people far more than someone who donates to charity every week but votes for stop-and-frisk. Intention means little.

Are you hopeful for the future?
It’s easy to get despondent when you look back at 400 years of oppression. But you can be upset and at the same time marvel at the fact that there’s a place that we’ll get to that we haven’t even imagined yet. That keeps me going. We have a huge burden to overcome, and the process will be heartbreaking and devastating. But it’ll be so much more authentic than if we act like things are better than they are. Even if it means we’ll only get a little part of the way there, it’s still a story with a lot of hope. Every step is still a victory.

So You Want to Talk About Race (Seal Press) comes out Jan. 16.