Author Ijeoma Olou Discusses Race in Portland and Beyond

Seattle-based writer Ijeoma Oluo did not want to write a book. She was content writing articles, in part due to her attention deficit disorder and in part due to the perceived death of print media. She became frustrated writing articles, however, in reaction to seemingly unending acts of racism: the shooting of Alton Sterling, the Sunday barbeque in Oakland, and the list — as we all know — goes on and on. And as a result, the impermanence of her words, articles which seemed to be immediately forgotten after a week, caused her to begin writing her book, So You Want to Talk About Race, as Oluo explains in the preface.

Oluo spoke to the Reed community last week on January 28 in Vollum Lecture Hall. I arrived 5 minutes early and already nearly every seat was taken. Soon dozens of people were seated on the steps and spilling in through the doors — some even remained in the hall and simply held open the door to try and peak over the many shoulders. 

Oluo opened her speech, joking that a third of Portland’s black population showed up to see her speak. However, looking around the room, the audience was still predominantly white. “There is a reason why I am in Portland,” Oluo said.

Out of the top 40 largest cities in the U.S., Portland is the 5th whitest. While Portland is commonly understood as having a culture of acceptance and progressive politics, over 77.1 percent of the population are white; only 5.8 percent are black, 8.1 percent are Asian, and 9.7 percent are hispanic, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey. “We’ve allowed ourselves to build this good, liberal, crunchy identity that never gets tested,” Oluo said. 

Which brings our focus back to Reed’s campus. 58 percent of 2019 enrolled students are white, 14 percent are Asian, 8 percent are hispanic, and only 4 percent are black. Reed’s numbers will slowly but surely change — most likely long after we have all left — but for now, Oluo encourages people to focus on the people already around them. “You have to start embracing the people of color in your midst,” Oluo said.

Oluo urged people with more privilege to stand up for those with less, using her mom as an example. Oluo is of mixed race: Her dad is Nigerian, while her mom is white. Only following the release of Oluo’s book did she and her mom begin to have difficult discussions about their racial differences. Oluo had to explain to her mom that she does not experience the same world that her children do. Through these discussions, however, Oluo’s mother was able to recognize her privilege and use it to help those with less. Understanding that it is difficult for people of color to advocate for themselves and their race when they are the only person of color in the room caused Oluo’s mom to take the first step and use her privilege to begin the conversation. “Racism was created by people… and it’s been maintained by people,” Oluo said. But people will also be the ones to end it, she continued.

As her speech began winding down, Oluo urged white people to start a conversation, but also to avoid zeroing in on the nearest person of color to ask their opinion as soon as the event ended. “Chances are whatever you’re wondering can be Googled,” she explained.

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