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Author Ijeoma Oluo speaks to U.Va. community on how to become an actively anti-racist instiution

Oluo adopted topics from her best-selling book “So You Want To Talk About Race” in virtual conversation as part of the Racial Equity Speaker Series

The Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion hosted Seattle-based author and speaker, Ijeoma Oluo, for a virtual conversation on anti-racist work Friday. Assistant Dean Shilpa Davé moderated the conversation. 

Uluo spoke for 30 minutes before taking questions from guests, adopting topics from her book, “So You Want to Talk About Race” — a New York Times bestseller that came out in 2018 — to make suggestions on how the University could become a more supportive anti-racist institution for people of color. 

Davé explained that Oluo’s book is important to read because race is a foundation of many of our systems and institutions. 

“Talking about race is a necessity for all of us as it helps us examine the foundations and underlying assumptions of many of our systems and institutions that we value highly, including better education, better living and health conditions and better economic and social relations,” Davé said.

Each chapter of Oluo’s book is organized around a specific question that comes up when one does anti-racist work and offers a practical step that both institutions and individuals can use to bring about change in their everyday lives. Oluo said she wrote the book to bridge the gap between what schools teach about race theory and what can be done practically in businesses, schools, churches and neighborhoods.

“The truth is that racism is one of the most important factors in determining well-being, health and wealth in this country. And it is vital that we all recognize the ways in which race and racism impacts our systems, and therefore our lives,” Oluo said. 

In her talk, Oluo offered the University eight suggestions. Some of her tips included listening to what's already been said about race, relying on structure before sentiment, disinvesting from white supremacy and committing to learning and growing. 

Listening to what’s already been said is important as a sign of respect to faculty and students of color, Oluo said, because faculty and students have been speaking about issues of race for a long time now. Trust will be built with faculty and staff when there is a transparent process for receiving and acting upon racial concerns.

Next, Oluo argued that committing to strong policies and procedures that ensure a safe and inclusive campus environment is important because people change their behavior when they realize there’s no alternative. 

“The truth is that nothing changes culture faster and more reliably than a change in policy and procedure,” Oluo said. 

Oluo also asserted that it was vital for college institutions to disinvest from white supremacy — when an institution is financially tied to white supremacy, she said, it undoes the institution’s anti-racist work. Some of those financial commitments to white supremacy include being beholden to alumni that want campuses to continue to center around white supremacy and investing in harmful corporations who make money off of the exploitation of people of color, Oluo said. 

Finally, colleges need to change their alumni model to recognize students of color as future donors. Students of color will become future donors when they feel safe at their university. 

“You must disinvest from white supremacy, that is not negotiable — you will never be able to be an anti racist institution so long as you rely on white supremacy for your funds,” Oluo said. “If anti racism is not tied to the continued well-being of your campus, if it is not what helps you continue to exist, you will not do it.”

Attendees asked questions anonymously in the chat. Some questions included how people afraid of making mistakes should approach anti-racist work, how to establish a safe and healthy environment for students of color on campus and how the conversation about race has changed in the last few years. 

Oluo responded that people shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes while doing anti-racist work, but instead about repeating that harm over and over again. She said that people are often afraid of making mistakes online because of a fear that they will be labeled “a racist forever and never recover,” but she believes that people are allowed to grow and change. Oluo re-framed mistakes as an opportunity for people to try again to live up to their ideals.

“People bring racism to you because they want you to do better, because they think that if they tell you, you can do better,” Oluo said. “Where you find yourself in big trouble is when they give you that opportunity and you push back, instead of taking accountability and growing because then people say, well, ‘what's our next tool to create less harmful behavior?’ It’s going to be shame, it's going to be retribution.”

For Oluo, making sure students and faculty of color feel safe and can thrive on university campuses is four-fold. It involves setting clear, enforced codes of conduct on how white students should be culturally sensitive and effective roommates and housemates to students of color, having a robust and nuanced reporting procedure for racial incidents on campus, making talking about issues of race safe and encouraged and defunding campus security and policing. 

Finally, Oluo said that anti-racist work has become easier the last few years because more people acknowledge that systemic racism exists. 

“We spend a lot less time now trying to get people to see that racism exists,” Oluo said. “If you look into this past year — [the] horrific killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd [and the] disproportionate impact of this pandemic on communities of color… if you don't see the way in which systemic racism is harming us, you don't want to, right?” 

She also said that activism is becoming safer and thus more intergenerational. The internet has made generations shorter and more interconnected, which makes it easier for activists of different generations to collaborate. 

“In the 60s and 70s … prominent activists [and] organizers were often locked away or murdered to disrupt the intergenerational education of activists,” Oluo said. “What we saw this year was the generations that came up from 2012 to 2015 really mentoring a lot of the younger activists, [leading to] some real steps towards systemic change in cities and towns and schools across the country.”