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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Author Ijeoma Oluo speaks on racial theory, anti-racist conversations

Ijeoma Oluo, author of "So You Want to Talk About Race" (2018),addressed the Tufts community in a webinar on Sept. 22. The event was a part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series. Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic LifeAlan Solomont (A’70) shared opening statements and Joyce Sackey, associate provost and chief diversity officer, was the moderator.

Solomont began the event by indicating that Oluo’s book was chosen for the Common Book program. Under the program, the Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM) selects a novel for all incoming medical students to read. This year, TUSM partnered with Tisch College to choose a book.

In light of the importance and timeliness of Oluo’s publication, the program was expanded to all students and faculty at the medical school, according to Solomont. 

He stressed the importance of bringing awareness to conversations about racial justice and praised the community.

Promoting conversation and action on racial justice is an indispensable part of preparing students to participate in civic life,” Solomont said. “I hope that all of us are heartened by the fact that so many peers and community members want to do this difficult work in community, together.”

Sackey then led the conversation with Oluo and asked if she could discuss the working definition of race, which she includes in her book. Oluo also shared an analogy between race and money. 

Race of course ends up being this … made-up category based on characteristics of skin color, hair texture, features,” Oluo said. “A lot of times people try to dismiss the idea of race ... [but] money was also made up and we can’t dismiss the idea of money because we won’t be able to eat. Race functions very similarly.

Sackey also asked Oluo to elaborate on an idea in her book, which states that anti-racism is an action, as opposed to a sentiment. 

Every time that you look into the system … you have the chance to do something, to make a measurable, felt impact in the lives of BIPOC people. But, the moment you don’t do it, you’re not being anti-racist and so it’s an action, not a state you arrive in," she said. 

After Sackey asked about the importance of speaking about race in an effective manner, Oluo underlined that it is critical to listen to Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), especially when decisions are being made in a community.

There’s kind of this idea that anti-racism ... is this ‘eat, pray, love’ journey for liberal white people,” Oluo said. “It’s not about you ... honoring the sacrifice of BIPOC people in these conversations, current and past, with action … is vital. Otherwise, all you’re really doing is taking a field trip in someone’s trauma.”

Oluo also said that racism should be viewed as a public health crisis. 

Sackey asked Oluo about the importance of intersectionality, while working to dismantle systemic racism. 

It’s important we try to understand [intersectionality] because if we don’t, and what we’re trying to do is anti-racist work, we’re only making the most privileged people safe,” Oluo said. 

Sackey later opened the conversation to questions from the audience. 

An audience member asked for the best ways to bring people into a conversation about racism, if they are uncomfortable or apprehensive to engage in a discussion. 

Oluo emphasized that it is essential to state the mission of the conversation and guide its direction. 

She also explained that it is important to move the conversation forward, regardless of whether the importance of the subject is understood.

If you manage to get to full adulthood without understanding how systemic racism works ... [you have to recognize] that like any other major important issue where lives are at stake, we don’t wait until everyone understands that it’s an important issue before we move forward,” Oluo said. “We say the lives matter and we’re going to do the work.”