“Clearly, we need a playbook, a guide to help people get a bit of common sense and some behavior as they navigate today’s hyper-obsession with pop culture, social-media sharing and outright navel gazing,” writes Luvvie Ajayi in the introduction to her new book, a collection of essays titled I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual.
Ajayi is famous for her witty and astute pop-culture analysis on her blog, AwesomelyLuvvie.com. A contributing editor for The Grio, she has written for a number of other publications (including The Root) and serves on the board of directors of the Chicago Women’s AIDS Project. She is also the founder and executive director of the Red Pump Project, a national HIV/AIDS organization.
In I’m Judging You, Ajayi is the great equalizer, poking fun at everyone equally. But she is never willfully malicious; her humor is a combination of wry observation and gleeful side eye. And there is always heart—because, underneath, Ajayi really wants to help us do better. Skillfully, she skewers her own bad habits as well as those of everyone around her.
“I’m the person who shows up to the airport thirty minutes before my flight is supposed to leave, and ends up running through security like a madwoman,” she writes just after musing about “the people who are sitting at the back of the plane, and the moment the flight lands they jump up.”
Divided into four sections—Life, Culture, Social Media and Fame—I’m Judging you covers a diverse array of topics. In Life, Ajayi discusses body image, cosmetics and “the unfair standards of beauty that women have to adhere to.” In this section, she also explores a variety of social interactions—from the “Dinner Scrooges” at group dinners who want to split the bill equally after ordering half the menu, when everyone else just had a salad, to the friends who want to compete with you rather than support you.
Here, Ajayi also discusses romantic relationships—what to avoid and, well, what to avoid even more. Take Tina, Luvvie tells us, who is dating a gambling addict who owns only a bike, lives with his mother and gets thrown in jail for making counterfeit money to gamble with. But although Ajayi tries to get Tina to see what is going on, Tina can’t let the man go.
“I am a believer that you don’t know somebody until you’ve seen them handle conflict, or seen them at their worst,” Ajayi writes on relationships. Loyalty takes time to earn, red flags are to be heeded at all times and she has no time to waste on destructive relationships. She is not ride or die; she is “I’m ride-or-surely-you-understand-why-I’m-done-here.”
In Culture, Ajayi delves into racism, privilege, rape culture, homophobia, feminism and religious intolerance. “One thing is clear,” she writes. “[H]umans excel at using our differences as excuses to act like assholes and torment one another.” Her essay “Racism Is for Assholes” is an outstandingly astute and heartfelt piece of writing on the current and historical acts of racial violence against black Americans.
“The Privilege Principle,” in this same section, explores the hurtful racist microaggressions that black Americans face on a daily basis. Here, Ajayi enters into conversation with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Kiese Laymon's How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.
“There comes a time in every upwardly mobile Black person’s life when they encounter someone who tells them how ‘well-spoken’ and ‘articulate’ they are,” writes Ajayi. “It’s microaggressions and instances of casual racism like this that pepper our daily lives, leaving a terrible taste in our collective mouths, and it usually comes from white folks who consider themselves to be liberal, learned, and progressive.”
A standout from the Social Media section is the essay “Dumbed Down News,” which explores the way social media has affected journalism. It’s not all bad—social media has instigated investigations that have otherwise been ignored by mainstream journalism, such as the profound effect of the Black Lives Matter movement. But in an effort to compete digitally, the traditional press is not “taking the time to confirm stories, verify sources, and double-check facts,” and Ajayi desperately hopes for a return of journalistic ethics.
Indeed, a return to ethics—a return to a higher level of behavior for oneself and others—becomes the central idea of Ajayi’s book. This idea of the need to hold ourselves to a standard of doing better—whether it be in our interpersonal relationships, our work or our ways of thinking—is vital. Perhaps the most compelling piece of the collection on this topic occurs in the epilogue following the powerful essays in the Fame section. In this piece, “Do Something That Matters,” Ajayi lays everything on the line. She challenges each and every one of us to find a way to do better in our own lives—and then she drops the mic.
I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual is less about pointing fingers and more about building a positive, healthy self and society—couched in Ajayi’s trademark wit and humor. Although some of the jokes are a bit reductive—there is the obligatory joke about being on “Nigerian time”—Ajayi’s writing is consistently astute and, more than often, hilarious. She has a superb ability to get to the heart of the issue with eloquent analysis that is both personable and precise. Here is a phenomenal voice to be reckoned with.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.