Perspectives: Ijeoma Oluo on Racism in America

Exploring the themes of racism in the workplace and beyond with Ijeoma Oluo

“Race has always been a prominent part of my life,” New York Times bestseller, Ijeoma Oluo,  writes in her book, So You Want to Talk about Race. “I have never been able to escape the fact that I am a Black woman in America.”

Recently, the Office of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging at Capital One welcomed Oluo to a virtual discussion with our associates. Oluo has made it her mission to help people better understand race and how to discuss it more effectively and with more kindness.  

In our conversation, Oluo shared how her desire to openly discuss uncomfortable issues led her toward writing as a means for connecting with people. She wanted to help people understand that the concept of racial equity is not abstract and that we are all intimately connected to systems of oppression. But, we have the power to impact these systems through small actions that add up to meaningful change. One action is having uncomfortable conversations about difficult topics – namely race. In Oluo's book, she provides guidance on how to have clear, constructive and confident conversations about race in the workplace and beyond. Let’s dive in.

Racism is Systemic 

“I want to move people away from thinking of racism as a feeling of hatred, because it’s rare to find someone who blatantly hates people of color. But the impact of racial bias isn’t lessened because it’s not blatant,” Oluo said. “If someone denies me a job because I’m ‘not the right fit,’ without realizing that their idea of the right fit is almost always a White person, it doesn’t hurt me any less than if I’m told, ‘I won’t hire you because you’re Black.’ Racism is not necessarily an intention or a feeling. It is a system that produces predictable results.”

Oluo went on to say that there are large racial divides in our country in everything from infant mortality, to how much money people earn, to people’s chances of being arrested or incarcerated. “This is not because a bunch of White people wake up every day and decide to oppress people of color; it’s not just the actions of individuals with hate in their hearts. We cannot understand American racism unless we recognize it as a system that was built to run — and that still runs — on principles of oppression and domination. Four hundred years of history doesn’t go back into the toothpaste tube.”

Microaggressions and Tone Policing

In her book, Oluo provides deeper insight on several themes, including privilege, microaggressions and tone policing. 

Microaggressions, she said, are instances of subtle, sometimes unconscious racism – small, daily insults and indignities perpetrated against marginalized or oppressed people. She explained that microaggressions often cause real psychological damage to those impacted, leaving people feeling unseen and unsafe. For example, as a Black woman, she’s had to field questions about the texture of her hair, and has been told her natural hair looks unprofessional. 

“Some microaggressions are verbal: ‘Are you an affirmative-action hire?’ ‘That’s so ghetto.’ ‘You listen to opera? I thought you were Black.’ ‘Do your kids both have the same dad?’ ‘Your name is too difficult for me to pronounce. Do you have a nickname?’ Others are nonverbal: The woman who clutches her purse as the Black teenage boy walks by. Cabs that won’t stop for you. College professors who make it a point to check your sources but not those of White students. The store clerk who follows you around the store in case she can ‘help you find anything.’ And you don’t know how to react, because the person committing the microaggression is usually staring at you like they haven’t done anything wrong. You’re hurt, but you’re also thinking: Do I bring this up or let it go?”

She offered us advice on how to check ourselves before committing a microaggression with the question, would I say or do this if this person were White?

Tone policing can also trigger racism. Tone policing is when someone disputes a statement by focusing on how it was said, not on its content. It’s when a Black person is told to “calm down” or a woman is told to “be more ladylike” or “be less emotional.” 

In the same vein, Oluo shared that White people accused of racism will often insist that they intend no harm — so much so that they end up denying the pain they have caused, even as they try to apologize. “Saying things like, ‘I’m sorry you feel hurt’ is not the same as ‘I’m sorry I hurt you.’ Are you apologizing for how that person took your action or are you apologizing for your action?” Oluo noted. “I think people need to set aside the ‘I didn’t mean to’ defense. It doesn’t really lessen the hurt to know that the person who used offensive language doesn’t actually hate me. We should take responsibility for our actions. If you bump into someone on the street, you say, ‘I’m sorry.’ You don’t put qualifiers on it in an effort to make yourself feel better.”

She further explained that when it comes to racism, offenders often want to be exonerated. They might see it as someone “choosing” to be upset by what they said or did. But Black people can’t just will away the hurt. “It doesn’t happen to us once a year. We encounter racism every day. And this is difficult for White people to understand because it’s just not their day-to-day experience.” 

Intersectionality, Privilege and Allyship

That leads us to privilege. “Anytime we are trying to reduce harm, we must look at relative privilege and oppression,” Oluo stated.

Oluo relayed that understanding intersectionality is one of the most important parts of her activism because it invites people to come face-to-face with their privilege. Intersectionality asserts that people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, accent, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers.

“Intersectionality is not meant to make you feel bad, but to show you opportunities for really helping,” Oluo said. “Being Black, I’m automatically underprivileged in many areas of life, but I also recognize the advantages I personally have: I’m college educated. I’m not disabled. I live in a progressive area. I’m safely housed. I’m light skinned. The list is pretty long. There are times and places where I have advantages that others do not, where I can speak when others won’t be heard. I can put those advantages to use to fight systems of oppression.”

White people, Oluo goes on, have the power and privilege to be great allies. But allyship requires ongoing effort and support. She stated that some of the most useful things White allies can do is educate themselves on issues through the extensive set of resources available – books, articles, podcasts, etc. – and have tough conversations with other White people about racism, how it functions and how it perpetuates harm.

Oluo’s final recommendation to our associates at Capital One was to reflect on all of the systems we have access to during the day, and look for ways to flex that privilege into making real systemic change. For example, if we have time, attend a county board meeting to voice our opinion on important issues like affordable housing, or finding out which organizations need volunteer help or financial support to help drive change.

Capital One was honored to host Ijeoma Oluo, albeit virtually. We know the fight for equality is a long and often difficult journey, and that our response tomorrow may need to look different than our response today. But, we’re committed to strengthening our culture of diversity, inclusion and belonging. 

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