Author of the New York Times Best Seller So You Want to Talk About Race? Ijeoma Oluo, the fourth speaker in the annual spring Lowell Humanities Series, talked about her book at a virtual lecture on March 24 .
“Every time I ask a college or university, especially a predominantly white college or university, what the racial climate is like … I am met with blank stares,” Oluo said.
Oluo unfolded her experiences of combating white supremacy and institutional racism during her webinar “So You Want to Talk About Race?” Julianna González-McLean, assistant dean of student services and diversity & inclusion in the Connell School of Nursing, introduced Oluo, while CSON assistant professor Nadia Abuelezam and Akua Sarr, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs, selected a series of questions that registered viewers asked during the Q&A section.
Over 742 viewers watched Oluo explain the patterns she has found at predominantly white institutions. The author said she hopes that as these college students begin their anti-racist journey, they can learn to make decisions that will lead to them creating meaningful work and change.
During the lecture, Oluo relayed her experience with institutions that have zero-tolerance policies, which often lack a clear plan of what to do when a racist act happens.
“I’m wary of [zero-tolerance policies] because those always seem to come for people of color first,” Oluo said.
Although there may be immediate demand for change after racist events occur, the aftermath is usually met with inaction because there’s a lack of procedures set in place that are designed to handle these issues. Without a system in place, demands for resignations are the primary way to address the severity of racist actions.
“People are demanding something because the process never went into action, because the process doesn’t exist,” Oluo said. “So [people of color] are saying, ‘You have to fire this person!’”
She explained that institutions often do not understand how racial climates get to the point where students and faculty feel unsafe and do not know where to go from there. Oluo stressed the importance of communication and clear understanding in making a policy for zero-tolerance institutions, where when racist incidents occur they are immediately addressed.
“The process has to be clear,” Oluo said. “It has to be informed by the students and faculty of color.”
Throughout her lecture, she continued to encourage BC administrators to reach out to people of color on campus in order to properly define what is safe for these students so the administrators can further define what violence is. This is crucial for creating a transparent and informed policy, Oluo said.
Sarr asked how people can create space for voices of color at predominantly white institutions. In response, Oluo emphasized the difference between catering to white allies and truly honoring voices of color. She reflected on her personal experiences in which people, especially white people, have praised her for her book and her speeches that prompt dialogues about race.
“People have told me that they appreciate me so many times,” Oluo said. “I don’t care!”
She continued to explain how well-intentioned comments continually miss the mark because they are just that—comments.
“If you appreciate me, I will feel the appreciation in the work that you are doing,” Oluo said. “… I can’t cash in [an] ‘I appreciate you.’… All it does is make you feel good.”
In response to the hard work that Oluo and people of color have done, she has often been met with a “Good job, girl” and “I appreciate you,” which has almost no value, she said. She challenged people of color to reach out to white people who say “Black Lives Matter” and to task them with anti-racist work so people of color are not alone when addressing these issues.
Although institutions require examination at their core in order to address systemic racism, Oluo also said individuals must take it upon themselves to create change.
“If you do not come out of your anti-racist work fundamentally changed, you weren’t doing anti-racist work,” Oluo said.
She emphasized that systems of racism have planted themselves deep in the roots of many institutions, and without intentional efforts to uproot these systems, it is impossible to divorce these practices and embrace anti-racist change.
Every webinar viewer was encouraged to look to So You Want to Talk About Race? as an instruction manual or workbook—something to refer back to when confronted with racist behavior and when given the opportunity to speak against these acts, just as Oluo said she had hoped for.
Screenshot by Victor Norman