Triumph amid tragedy is always bittersweet—a unique type of survivor’s guilt many of us have become all too familiar with in recent months, as we reconcile profound loss with the rare but very bright spots that have occurred during this incredibly devastating year. It’s a dichotomy bestselling author and 2017 and 2018 The Root 100 honoree Ijeoma Oluo knows well, having watched her 2018 bestseller, So You Want to Talk About Race, once again hit the bestsellers’ list following the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd amid what has felt like an all-too-familiar onslaught of assaults on Black life and liberty, this spring and since.
“I don’t know any Black person who wants their book to hit the top of the bestseller list because more Black people were murdered,” Oluo told The Root’s Editor-in-Chief Danielle Belton and me while taping the fifth episode of our new literary podcast, The Root Presents: It’s Lit!
Nevertheless, white people are finally ready to talk about race. And while we’ve never stopped talking about it, thanks to Oluo, there’s a handy guide for that that does much of the heavy lifting for us, basically providing a primer on privilege, bias, and structural inequality—or, as I told her, “doing the Lord’s work.”
“This is an incredibly difficult time for Black people to be talking about race right now,” she says. “You know, white people are like, ‘I’m eager, I’m ready.’ And Black people are like, ‘this is the most traumatic year of my entire life. Can I have a nap?’”
While, aside from a nap, in our frustration, our inclination may also be to simply tell even the most well-meaning white people to figure it and their people out—after all, we are not their mules. Some may wonder why Oluo feels it necessary to devote her labor to educating those who have historically remained willfully obtuse—and she concedes that she might have written the book slightly differently, two years later, saying, “honestly, we could all serve to be less patient Black people in these discussions because we have to practice our self-care.”
But as she also reminds us, none of us is entirely exempt from bias or occasional failings at inclusion—which can go a long way in establishing at least a modicum of empathy for the failures of others.
“Like, where was that space where you learned? Because you didn’t, like, come out of the womb being like, you know, ‘Let me talk to you about intersectional feminism,’” she laughs. “Like you didn’t know any of this, right? You didn’t know why these things were important. And you got to this space and something got you there, and go back to that space before you knew and spend a little time there and figure out who you were and why this appealed to you. And that will give you an idea of what you need to do to have conversations with people who aren’t there yet and bring them forward and talk with humility about your steps in your process. And remember that you were a person who deserved care at that time, too. And you also deserved accountability.”
Hear more about how to talk about race—plus the inspiration behind Oluo’s already buzzy next book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America—in the fifth episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!, featuring the exceptional Ijeoma Oluo. Now available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public.
A transcript of The Root Presents: It’s Lit, Ep. 5: Ijeoma Oluo is available below: