MARLA LOVE: Good evening, and welcome. My name is Marla Love, and I serve as the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Interim Dean of Students. And on behalf of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Event Planning Committee and the entire division of Student and Campus Life, I want to welcome you here tonight.
I would like to begin by acknowledging the Indigenous people of all the lands that we are on today. While we are gathering this evening on a virtual platform, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the importance of the lands we each call home, whether you are here in Ithaca or elsewhere. Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogohono, the Cayuga Nation.
The Gayogohono are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign nations with historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York state, and the United States of America. We are grateful for the ability to organize here and wish to extend our respect to the people and elders of the Cayuga Nation. We acknowledge the painful history of Gayogohono dispossession and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogohono people, past and present, to these lands and water, and we reaffirm our commitment to improving our own understanding of local Indigenous peoples and their cultures.
And now, a word about this evening's event. The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration at Cornell aspires to be a cross-campus and community partnership that makes accessible the life and legacy of Dr. King for contemporary times. The King Commemoration seeks to bring together Cornelians, Ithaca College, and Ithaca community colleagues to plan and participate in this event. Past speakers have included those who worked directly with or knew Dr. King, along with scholars, activists, journalists, and religious leaders whose work is informed by and represents a continuation of his legacy. These speakers have highlighted the continuity between past and present, providing a critical examination of King's legacy in contemporary issues.
Cornell has long felt a special connection to Dr. King, who visited campus and spoke from the Sage Chapel pulpit in November 1960. As we reflect on the events of the past year, we are keenly aware that these issues with which Dr. King grappled remain with us today, issues of systemic racism, income inequity, militarism, imperialism, and barriers to community based on ethnicity, religion, and creed. The manner in which these issues continue to be addressed may well determine our collective future as a society. It is our sincere hope that tonight's event, which represents a campus-wide and community partnership, will catalyze and recommit us to carry forward the values and actions that were so central to the beloved community that was inspired by Dr. King. And I want to introduce Oliver Goodrich, Associate Dean of Students for Spirituality and Meaning Making and chair of the Martin Luther King Commemorative Event Planning Committee.
OLIVER GOODRICH: Thank you, Marla. My name is Oliver Goodrich, and I serve as the Associate Dean of Students for Spirituality and Meaning Making and Director of Cornell United Religious Work. And on behalf of everyone who had a hand in planning this evening's event, I want to extend a warm welcome to each of you this year. It's so good to have so many of you with us this evening.
Speaking of our planners, I want to take a brief moment to thank our incredible planning committee who has been preparing for this event for months. I also want to thank our generous co-sponsors who helped to make this evening's event possible. We are grateful to see you tonight Programming Board, the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, Black Students United, and the Gender Justice Advocacy Coalition. We're also grateful to our community partners, including the Greater Ithaca Activity Center and Tompkins County Public Library.
And now for what you've been waiting for let, me introduce our featured guest. Moderating tonight's event is Dr. Edward Baptist, who serves as Professor of History at Cornell. He teaches about the history of slavery, the US Civil War, American capitalism, and offers an engaged learning course that brings US-based students to work with a community partner in rural Jamaica. He is the author of The Half Has Never Been Told, Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism from 2014, and he's leading a project called Freedom on the Move, a collaborative effort in digital history that is building a crowdsourced database of fugitive slave ads. Given his scholarly research on the history and social impact of anti-Black oppression in the US, he is well-equipped to moderate this evening's conversation.
And it is also my privilege to introduce our featured speaker this evening. Many of you are no doubt familiar with the work of our distinguished guest. Ijeoma Oluo is the author of the number one New York Times best seller, So You Want to Talk About Race, and also the recently released Mediocre, The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. Her work on race has been featured in the New York Times and the Washington Post among many others. She's named on the 2021 Time100 Next list and has twice been named to The Root 100.
She received the 2018 Feminist Humanist Award and the 2020 Harvard Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association. She joins us tonight from Seattle, Washington. Welcome to both of our distinguished guests. You all here with us tonight will have a chance to join in this conversation later in the hour, so please feel free to write your question in the Q&A, and we'll try to get to as many of those as we can later on. But for now, I want to turn it over to Professor Baptist to begin the conversation.
EDWARD BAPTIST: Great. Thank you so much, Oliver, and I just want to echo the thanks to all who planned the event. It's really an honor to participate in this event and to be asked to moderate and try to launch a conversation, which you'll all be able to join in with our honored guest who has indeed written these two fascinating and interesting books. And I can say that I thoroughly enjoy reading her journalism. Her clarity of writing is just spectacular.
And so I want to throw out a question, and we'll see where it goes. But we'll do that a few times, and then we'll be able to switch to a sort of wider scope of questions from the audience. But the idea, again, is to get a conversation going.
So welcome virtually to Cornell, to Ijeoma Oluo, and I want to ask you a question to kick things off. Simply, why did you write your most recent book, Mediocre, The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, which I have right here, and why did you write it? What did you hope the book would accomplish? And is its goal different from that of So You Want to Talk About Race?
IJEOMA OLUO: Yeah, I talk quite a bit in the first chapter about, like, what brought me to writing the book, but to narrow it down, it was really frustration. I'd say people who write about race, especially people of color who write about issues of race, many of us have expressed this frustration with this fascination with individual bad deeds by white men or the individual white male psyche, and that kind of supplants focus on the humanity of people who are harmed by white supremacist patriarchy in this country. And so for me, it was this frustration with people not wanting to see how our systems work and see how this story has played out over and over and over again in our history, and that it's the result of choices that we are making as a society and the ways in which our systems work.
And so I wanted to paint that picture, and I wanted to tell a true story so that people could really visualize and see what's happening today, how it happened 50 years ago, how it happened 100 years ago, how it happened 150 years ago. And not to make it seem like a foregone conclusion that it will happen again. but instead to show that, time and time again, we've been given choices. We've been given opportunities to make better choices. And the question now is, will we?
So I really wanted to name a thing that many women and people of color know very well, which is the problem of the ways in which we cater to and in fact empower white male mediocrity in this country and make it part of our systems and the violence with which our country will go through to protect that and how much it harms us. And it's something that many of us are very familiar with, and I wanted to name it. And I wanted people to find themselves in it. I wanted people to find not only where they've been harmed in it, but how they've participated in it. And so that's kind of what I set out to write.
It is a different book, in So You Want to Talk About Race. I think that books can serve many purposes, and especially when we're talking about issues around racial justice, there's this tendency for people to want a book to be all things. And I think that So You Want to Talk About Race was like a workbook. I always envisioned it being a thing that you would take and go back to over and over again, use to springboard into other books on topics. But it was something to help you through a particular conversation, through a particular issue.
Mediocre is a diagnostic. It's really naming a thing that we don't talk about enough , and it's really aiming to be kind of opening a door to an area that I think we don't focus on enough in trying to create real change and real racial justice in this country. So I would say, if you couldn't read So You Want to Talk About Race, you absolutely cannot read Mediocre. Like, it's just not something you're ready for. But I do think that there are people to whom So You Want to Talk About Race may not be necessary. But Mediocre will be. And I think that it's going to depend on where you are and what your lived experience is when it comes to issues of race and gender in our society.
EDWARD BAPTIST: Yeah, thanks. I mean, there's so many directions we could go in from that, but I'm a historian, so I want to ask about this, the concept of mediocrity. Because one of the ways you diagnose it is by, in a sense, retelling the history of the United States with that sort of diagnostic account of both the symptoms and the cause. And so I want to just ask you to walk the audience a little bit through that diagnostic account of the history of the United States.
IJEOMA OLUO: Yeah, I mean, I think you could have written 100 books about this. And we did a ton of research and probably had enough research for quite a few workbooks, if we chose to. But what I wanted to show when we think of mediocrity and we think of things sometimes that are just milquetoast, you know, oh, it's not good. It's not bad.
But when we look at systemic mediocrity and the protection of it, and then when we build entitlement into it, what we get is something quite violent because it's this enforcement of a norm of this hierarchy that says that there are certain people, white men in our society, who shouldn't have to try hard, who shouldn't have to ever adjust or accommodate, who should never feel threatened or challenged. They should always have power, regardless of what they put out into the world, regardless of their skill or talent. But then there's also an inverse of that, which is that women and people of color and people who aren't men should only be able to accomplish so much. Any actual greatness that could be, could arise, is a threat to this norm that says, no, this is the best. This is the pinnacle.
And so a lot of how we reinforce that is through storytelling, by saying that these things that were really quite violent, that were really quite oppressive, that were exceptional maybe only in their banality, are heroic and wonderful. And these men who often accomplish little more than heartache and heartbreak are heroes because you can write this new story that's exciting and wonderful. To normalize what we've sold many people in America, which is the thought that no, of course you're great. Don't question it. You were born great, and this country is great. And you will take your place in it, and it will be wonderful.
And never questioning, what does that mean? What do you actually accomplish? And so there's so many stories that are our history and so many periods of time that we look at because of the story that's been told, and what I really wanted to do was to strip the myth away from a lot of it and just lay it there. And not only to just show these instances for what they are, but to show the patterns and how often this happens and how susceptible to it we are and how it really infects the way that we think of manhood and heroism and leadership in this country.
And so things like talking about Buffalo Bill, that was probably the first chapter I knew I was going to write in the book. I had known from the moment I was going to write the book, that was going to be a chapter in it. And it's so interesting because I get letters from people saying, we have so many towns and cities, we have football teams named for this man. And we never actually talk about who he was and how the only thing that really made him exceptional was his ability to wreak carnage on people and animals and what a good liar he was. And that's about it, and how eagerly we bought into it.
And so there's so many stories like that in our life, and what I want people to look at and say, OK, so what does this mean about the movies I'm watching now? What does it mean about my elected officials? You know? And so it's there in the history.
And there are so many stories I would have loved to include that just fascinated me but just didn't fit in the book. We weren't quite there. But I hope that people will find their own stories as well within that that kind of fit into these patterns.
EDWARD BAPTIST: Yeah. I'm really reminded of the power that naming things by their actual descriptions holds. And I think your book is, among other things, an exercise in giving things more accurate names. I was also reminded of the debate that we've heard that was pretty active over the previous four years. Is this the moment of fascism? Is it not?
What are the sort of characteristics or points of identification, if you want to think about birdwatching? But of course, there was a whole tradition in the era of the rise of fascism in the 1930s of African-American critics of Jim Crow, political scientists, activists, and others saying there is a thing that we're going to call racial fascism. And it was around for many years before Hitler ever attempted the Beer Hall Putsch or anything like that.
And so we have this tradition, I think it seems to me your book argues, of not calling the things by the actual names that apply to them. And your point about watching movies gets to how we reproduce that sort of self-willed blindness in this country, which perpetuates the sort of Buffalo Bill-style assumptions. But I want to also turn to a point you made just a minute ago, which is that we have to understand these phenomenon intersectionality, right? And so I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about how we're not only talking about race, we're also talking about misogyny and, maybe more significantly than anything, the intersection between them.
IJEOMA OLUO: Yeah, I would say, when I was writing this book, while I think I knew this on some level, I don't think it had ever been more clear to me that as a Black woman, that patriarchy and white supremacy cannot be unlinked in this country because we're talking about what upholds hyper-capitalism in this society. And it really is. It needs patriarchy and racism, especially anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenated to survive.
And so it helps me recognize that our liberation is shared, but also that often, because we refuse to see how it's linked, and I would say there are so many temptations to pull it apart and not see how it's linked, that that's all by design. And it's designed to stop us from actually looking at how these systems function and seek to exploit. And one thing I think that became really clear was that the promise made to what we call middle white America, which is really middle white male America, is that you will have domain over women at home and people of color in public. And that promise keeps people attached to this horribly oppressive and exploitative system of capitalism that we have.
And we can't let one stand and expect the system to fall. And we can't cling to capitalism and expect racism to fall. We can't cling to sexism and expect racism to fall. We can't cling to racism and expect sexism to fall either.
It is all linked to survival. They function together. And so time and time again, when I was reading through, there were moments where I would be so not at all surprised, but it's always kind of a bit of a gut punch to see Black men coming for Shirley Chisholm or dismissing her. White women dismissing Shirley Chisholm.
You know, all the ways in which we constantly are told, no, this isn't your battle. This is your battle. Because we are told to not look at the systems and how they function.
So if there was one thing that made it really clear for me, especially when thinking about white women, which is something I would say, you know, Black feminists and womanists have to think about quite often, is that white women need to understand that there is no women's liberation so long as systemic racism is allowed to exist. That, like, as white women, they will never be free so long as they keep thinking that they can sell people of color out, especially in proximity to power. Because the power that they're trying to cozy up to is the same power that oppresses them. And I hope that men of color, as a Black woman, Black men recognize that as well. And so we need to really look at the way these systems work, and I hope we can see similar reflections.
When I was working on the book, one thing that kept popping up for me is just recognizing how, in contemporary culture, a lot of the ways we define success for women and for people of color is to mimic the way in which we idolize white men in these harmful ways. And so we have a whole section of self-help books and professional achievement books that are aimed around how to act like a man, how to put on this suit and act this way. And the system is never going to work that way.
If there's one thing I hope made it clear, especially in the chapter of [INAUDIBLE] women, is there is no winning, that the system doesn't want us to. But it can keep us scrambling and keep us from recognizing the problem is the system itself and not how we play the game with the system. As long as it can do that, it can preserve itself.
EDWARD BAPTIST: That was a really interesting answer, and I'm kind of reminded of this clip from the New York Times that has been circulating on social media really for a couple of months, since we found out there is going to be a Shirley Chisholm movie. And it's the New York Times' account of Shirley Chisholm in 1972. And it describes her in these terms that are just completely driven by anti-Black racism, or so it certainly looks in 2021. And one of the reasons is because other such uses of language and ways of discussing people come under fire much more quickly on the internet than they would have before the advent of social media.
And so your emergence as a journalist is I think connected to social media over the last 10 or 15 years. And many people have documented the critical role that the internet has played in giving visibility to incidents of anti-Black racism and police brutality. Social media has been a major factor in anti-racist organizing in recent years.
I wonder if you have a kind of 30,000-foot account or view of the role of social media and the emergence of new kinds of anti-racist. Maybe they're not, actually. How would you describe the ways in which social media has changed the limits, the possibilities, and maybe the cost of activism?
IJEOMA OLUO: You know, I would say what it does is, especially for minority populations, I don't think it's creating necessarily new ways in connecting and organizing, but what happened before was you needed to at least have numbers. You needed to have a group of people you could communicate with and organize with. I think that part of the reason why, especially, I would say for people of color, and in my experience, Black people in the US, really took to and were able to harness the power of social media so quickly and easily is because we are used to finding each other, holding onto each other, communicating what needs to be communicated. We have had to be communal in order to survive.
And so what social media allows is it allows us to take the way in which we work and organize in community and break down barriers of geography. That means that no one, no Black person lives in a neighborhood too white to find a group to connect with and to be able to share stories with and find issues to focus on. And that wasn't the case 20 years ago, 30 years ago. It was these actions that you had to wait until it hit national news, and then people could learn and connect and figure what was happening. And so what it's really doing is speeding up that process and breaking down those barriers.
And I would say that where it is changing things is the time it takes usually for, speaking from a Black perspective, for Black people to change the zeitgeist, which we have always done, is much shorter because it used to be you had to be doing decades and decades of work and community. And then a white journalist would pick up on what you were doing, and it would enter into the zeitgeist, challenge it for a while, and then become norm, right? And now it's screw that journalist. We're going to have these conversations on our own. And then people who wonder why this audience is flocking to it are picking up and kind of scrambling to catch up.
And so it's really shortened what would take-- it would take people maybe their entire lifetimes to really be appreciated for their contributions to language and to thought and to organizing, a couple years. And so I know that I've seen this firsthand. When I would first get published in a place, in a space like The Guardian, and the outrage that someone who spoke like me and didn't feel like changing words or translating when I was using dialogue and slang that worked for what I was trying to communicate, there would be comments like, how is this person published in The Guardian?
I can't believe I'm seeing this in The Guardian. This is horrible. What's happening to my paper? It's trash. You know.
And within a few years, we're the sought-after speakers because if we say, fine, I'm taking it elsewhere, and I have, I've turned down so many writing assignments that try to change my language, we know we have a vast community there. But I will also say the internet is interesting because there's this oversaturation of voices. And many of them don't say anything. So many people trying to figure out how to duplicate things that have shown to work in the past. So many voices we've heard over and over again.
And what that means in this sea of confusing and conflicting information is that sometimes authenticity rings so true. And it's like this beacon that people flow through and say, I have not heard this before. And I would say that for a lot of marginalized voices in this space, it rang so true for so many people that it really started kind of revolutionizing what people wanted to see and hear.
And then in the years since, publications have tried to catch up, and they still have not. And so it really has changed a lot. But I will say also it's important to recognize that the platforms themselves are not revolutionary in any way.
These platforms were created in the image of white men and therefore work the ways in which many white male structures function, which is to try their best to stifle voices that threaten them. And we see this time and time again throughout social media, not only with the ways in which we are penalized by the platforms themselves for speaking out, but the way in which abuse is allowed to continue to try to push us out and silence us in these spaces. The cost is very, very high for doing this work and existing in these spaces.
EDWARD BAPTIST: Yeah, thanks. In that last part, I started connecting up some of the sort of deeper links in the book that lead to the chapter on football and activism, Kaepernick, and the University of Missouri. And I really recommend that people take a look at that, and I think it's fantastic how you build off the account of the University of Missouri, the interview with Dave Zirin, and so on. So that's great.
I'm also reminded, you make the point that in fact, the activism we see getting catalyzed in different ways by the internet and the networks we see getting catalyzed in different ways by the internet are not necessarily new. The practices of organizing are not necessarily new. So let me ask you another question about things that maybe seem new in this moment to some, but are not.
They're not actually new in certain other ways, which is about student activism. And that brings us back to Dr. King, who relied heavily on student activism on college campuses, particularly with the sort of energy that flows into the movement out of SNCC. So what do you see today as the role of student activism in challenging white supremacist systems and patterns of behavior?
IJEOMA OLUO: I think that there is such amazing potential in student activism for challenging white supremacist behavior and patterns, but also I think in challenging white supremacist education. And I think that that is really vital. But I think that it is really, really important that we recognize the ways in which institutions and governments are fighting to ensure that students don't do that. And if we look at the quick ramifications of the protests in Missouri and how quickly the school was punished and the students were punished for allowing what was obviously a beautiful display of not only student activism, but student citizenship, to really say, like, we own our education, and we have a say in what happens here.
What was interesting to me too was the immediate silencing around it. It really was an effort to make sure that we never talked about that as a success because we didn't want people to get ideas. And I see the ramifications of this now.
When I was traveling up until this last year to various colleges, and I would meet with Black student groups, other activist groups, and I would ask them. They would say, we don't know what to do to get the school's attention. And I would say, do you remember what happened at Missouri? And they would have no idea what I was talking about.
And it's not, of course, because they're not interested . It's because how effectively media, government representatives, and faculty and the college administration worked to paint a picture that was not really what happened there, which was an incredibly successful resistance movement on behalf of the students. So I think networking is important, and I think knowing your history and being able to share your stories is really important.
I think that student press is vital. And I think there have definitely been attacks on student press across the country that need to be addressed. But I think it's also really, really, really important that we recognize that we have long had two different tracks of education for college students, depending on race and ethnicity. And so for white students, they were always being trained to be, especially white men, our future leaders, to shape the world, world-makers.
And the ways in which they have been embraced in their activism and in their work to challenge systems differs from the ways in which students of color especially have been taught, and women, which is you are here to learn how to be successful in a world not meant for you. You are here to learn how to survive it. But never you are entitled to change it, and this is how.
And I would say there are so many professors and faculty on campus who idealize their time, especially white men in college, and the facts and the arguments and the struggles they had and yet are completely-- the cognitive dissonance around the ways in which they shut down ideas that threaten them now that they are a part of the institution, and yet they think that because they had these experiences, they're still part of the vanguard. And so I think it's really vital that we recognize that. But I think that if it doesn't happen on college campuses where our young people are stepping into their power, where they are learning how systems work in their power within these systems, and where we are putting forth ideas that shape our governments and our cities and our scholarship and really are setting these ideals in thought and policy, where else are we going to do it?
And so I would say it's vital that we do it. But also one thing I will add that's really important is that institutions need to start looking at anti-racist work as a science and need to start actually investing in the work. You can't really have a robust student activism space where you're constantly undercutting and underfunding the teachers and faculty and staff who could be supporting and leading and teaching in these areas.
And I do know that it is massive protests that brought us our first gender studies programs and our multicultural studies programs and our race theory programs. But it can't be protests that keeps it going day in and day out. It has to be constant funding and support as well in order to keep the programs alive so that students can learn and are constantly being forced to educate themselves while also advocating.
EDWARD BAPTIST: Boy, I certainly agree with that point, and in warming up or sort of preparing for this conversation, we got a lot of requests about asking you to address this very difficult issue of how you have the conversations that make those kinds of transformations possible. And particularly, how you have the kinds of conversations that may be understood to confront. That they may be felt or experienced initially by those who are feeling defensive as confrontational. And multiple questions.
So I'm going to-- before we transition into some of the audience questions, I'm going to ask you, if you would, to talk about how to have those kinds of difficult conversations. Not necessarily in a way that are comfortable for those who perhaps might need to endure a little discomfort, as we all do at times, but in ways that are honest and authentic. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for this difficult problem?
IJEOMA OLUO: Yeah, there's a lot, but just some of them that I find, top ones for me are one is you have to know what you want to get out of the conversation and be willing to state that. A lot of times, spaces, colleges, workplaces, I'll ask, what are you doing to address issues of racism? And they say, oh, we're having a listening session. We're going to have a space where people can get up and say whatever.
OK, well what do you want that to accomplish? Is it a group therapy session? Or do you have a goal for this? And it is vital that you actually state why people are there because people come for all different reasons, and reasons often that can stop the conversation from moving forward.
So have a goal, especially because you're asking people, especially people of color, to really delve into their own pain in this conversation, to take real risks with their academic careers, with their professional careers, if you want them to speak honestly. And therefore, you have to tell them what they're going to get out of it. Because the conversation itself is not its own reward, and I think that that's something that we have to get past this idea that if it's tough enough if someone cries, if someone has an epiphany, it was a successful conversation. No, because we're talking about systems. And so it's only successful if we see an opportunity for change in the system where we create change in a system.
So know what you want out of the conversation. State it, and invite people into that conversation and allow them to give feedback as to whether that's the conversation they want to have. And then also I would say you need to outline what is appropriate behavior.
We know now what happens when people feel threatened, when they feel accused. We know what white fragility is. We know all of these things. We also know the ways in which people of color are often exploited in these conversations for their own emotional trauma and where to prove points.
So outline what is appropriate and what isn't. Say it's not no-holds-barred in this conversation. If you feel threatened and you are white or white-passing, this is an appropriate way to deal with it, and this is what's not appropriate. If you are a person of color and you feel like you're being exploited, these are the boundaries we can put in place to make sure that you have a way to back out of that or to make sure that that doesn't happen in the first place, right?
So plan. Plan these conversations. If it's important you, plan it with care, and recognize that often, we need to have protections in place to make sure that people of color who often don't get to choose when these conversations happen or how they happen, to show that we respect their autonomy, respect their humanity, by empowering them as much as possible around their own boundaries and their own goals. And then also making sure that white people who often are used to being able to back away from difficult conversations or lash out in order to shut down difficult conversations, that they recognize that you don't get credit for attending if you can't act appropriately. And this is what appropriate is.
EDWARD BAPTIST: Thank you. So I think we can turn to some of the conversations from the audience. And one of them actually I think emerged from this afternoon's fireside chat with students.
And this is from Aminah Taariq-Sidibe, who helped us plan the event. And she asks, how do we build coalitions across cultural backgrounds on a campus like Cornell? And this I think is maybe different from the last question that it certainly can imagine a conversation which white people aren't present, but it doesn't mean that everything is therefore simple, that there are other complexities at play as well.
IJEOMA OLUO: Absolutely. We had a similar question earlier, and what I would say that I recommend first and foremost, because people come up to me when I go to campuses, and I'll have African students come up to me and say, I don't know how to connect with Black American students, Asians students saying I have no idea where I belong in this conversation of racial justice. Mixed race students constantly asking this question.
And so I would say first and foremost, it's important to learn about how white supremacy and systemic white supremacy has impacted your life. And so start sharing that information, and recognize it. And so when I'm talking to-- my background, I'm Nigerian and American, right? So I literally have siblings who just came here a few years ago from Nigeria that are trying to make their way through in this experience.
Recognizing first and foremost how white supremacy has impacted my life and my brother's life and my father's life helps us find shared experience and helps us also be able to recognize the ways in which the system is acting in our lives in ways that come together, right? And so I think that that's really vital because you are on a predominantly white campus. And so you need solidarity. You need coalition if you want to be able to accomplish your goals.
But it doesn't mean an erasure of your own experience and the experience of your racial or ethnic group. It means recognizing the ongoing power structure. So first have that. And study it not only for yourself, but for other racial and ethnic groups so you have an idea how the structure works.
And then start reaching out. And reach out to see not only where you have similar goals but where you have differing goals that need support. But then also look at where you need to heal. And so this means being able to have conversations about the ways in which many of us have been manipulated by white supremacy to attack each other, to separate from each other. And if you don't know how white supremacy has impacted your life and the lives of other groups of color around you, you won't be able to do that healing work.
And so it comes with sharing and saying, this is my goal. My goal is to heal this rift so that we can come together and see our shared histories, our shared futures, and how we can support each other. But it really does require a reclaiming of space and time.
And I would say it really does require saying this is about us, and this is about our healing, and we deserve this. We deserve to be whole. We deserve to find coalition. And that means recognizing that for 400-plus years, white supremacist forces have been trying to make sure we don't do that and have been really building stories that kind of keep us apart.
And then I would say it's also really important to be specific as to what support and solidarity looks like for you. A lot of times we say we're in solidarity, and it means, oh, we ate dinner together or we shared an email. But there are specifics. And I think that there is no problem in saying, OK, this is what I would like to see in solidarity and then have other group say, OK, and this is what we would like to see.
What we see right now is often in times of crisis someone going, where's the solidarity? Where's the solidarity? But never in calmer times saying strategically, if this happens, I would like a backup. But these are the goals, the long-term goals we have, and would you stand in solidarity with us? And we will stand in solidarity with you when you say what you need as well.
Instead of it just being this, why weren't you here hit? And why weren't you here? Know that you can ask.
It can be a part of the relationship. It doesn't need to just be cookouts and then fighting when there's crisis. It can really be strategic, and it behooves you to make it so.
EDWARD BAPTIST: Yeah. I want to follow up if I can sort of reinject my own question here for just a second. Do you see solidarity and alliance as different, and if so, what do you see as a difference between those two?
IJEOMA OLUO: So I think that-- here's what I think. I try not to get caught up necessarily with the verbiage around alliance versus solidarity versus accomplices versus all of these things that we talk about, right? One, because I find that people will twist it and manipulate it however suits them.
What I will say is this. That I like solidarity because I feel like solidarity encompasses more than just standing next to someone. It's a relationship, right? It is a back and forth.
But it's only that if you show that, right? And if you're acting that. And I think that in order for it to be healthy, because I do think that we weaponize solidarity, in order for it to be healthy, it means a respect of the differing goals we might have. It means not just I'm next to you, but I see you, and I see your needs, and I see where they may differ from mine. And I see where perhaps I'm in the way of your goals, and I need to do better and different, instead of just I'm doing you a favor, which I think a lot of times, alliance people like to think of is we're coming together and standing next to this person.
But at the end of the day, what I will say is whatever it is that you want to call the work you're doing, you actually don't get to say you're doing it for someone else. That group's saying you're doing it for them. The title is one that's bestowed upon you, not one you get to choose. And so I would say more than anything than these debates about whether or not we're using the right terms, I would love for us to recognize and return the ownership of those titles to the people impacted by the problems that we're trying to solve.
And so when we used to always talk about alliance and allies, the problem wasn't that we were using the wrong term. The problem was is that the people who said they were allied to us got to determine themselves what that looked like and say that they were the allies. And no one actually asked us, does this feel like an ally to you? And so that's really where I would love for people to, like, focus on it.
Because it's so interesting to me. Like, these memes that go through, and people are like, oh yeah, no, we're not saying it anymore. We're saying this. And I'm like, OK, but what are you doing?
I believe in language. I love language. But I also can see easily how quickly it's manipulated. And none of these terms mean anything if we consistently give ownership of them to the most empowered people in the room.
EDWARD BAPTIST: Speaking of Dr. King, I hear a little echo of The Drum Major Instinct sermon, which is a fantastic one not as often quoted as-- or quoted out of context as some of the others tend to be widely available on YouTube. Another question from the audience, from Lisa [INAUDIBLE]. I have a question about Ijeoma Oluo's recommendation offered in the final chapter of her book So You Want to Talk About Race. She recommends that white people can combat systemic racism by not giving business to banks that don't give loans and mortgages to Black people when they do so at higher rates. I want to do this, but how do I know if a bank has racist lending practices?
IJEOMA OLUO: OK, so here's the thing. This is tricky because almost any bank is going to be tied to the exploitation of populations of color either here or overseas. So we're never going to-- like, we're not going to be like, oh, this is a good bank. Like, that's tough. But the more community-focused you can be.
There are studies being done. There are, we know, these notorious bad players who have been responsible not only for taking advantage of population decline, but, like, for the destruction of entire neighborhoods of color and for blocking people of color out of home ownership. And so I would say-- what I do-- this is what I do. When I get asked to speak places, I start Googling.
And I Google corporation and racism. I Google corporation and bias. And I start looking through the articles and seeing what's out there. There are also rankings out there as well that will tell you, like, best business practices. And so if you just go out there and actually start Googling for the information, you're going to find a lot.
You're not going to find everything. It doesn't mean-- but you're going to at least find a space where it's like, OK, their money isn't, like, directly tied to exploitation of people of color. It's all going to be tied to some level. I mean, honestly, there's just-- yeah. It's all going to be tied.
But you're not going to find, like, maybe, oh, another expose of them, higher points and more rejections for people of color. This bank wasn't directly responsible to the housing crash that devastated communities of color. Like, those are things that you just Google.
I mean, I have to do it constantly because I get requests all of the time to be in a space. And honestly, I don't want to be in a space that I know is getting 90% of its money from violent white supremacy. There's nothing I can say in that room that's going to change what happens. So it's really just more of one of those examples of ways in which doing a little research and looking at where you spend your money matters.
But I would say also, I don't know if I put it in there. It's been a few years since I wrote that book. But it's also really, really important to not only disinvest in businesses that are exploiting and harming populations of color, but to invest in businesses of color and really to invest in communities of color as well.
And so where you can find community-owned institutions, community-centered institutions that are heavily investing in communities of color, that's a place to put your money. It's not just taking money out of this place. It's put your money in a better place.
EDWARD BAPTIST: So here's a question from Andrea Husky. In what ways have white male structures silenced queer voices in similar ways? That is, how does their mediocrity attempt to eliminate the queering of public space in particular?
IJEOMA OLUO: Oh, I mean, I think right now we're seeing a ton of this. We're seeing this huge backlash against queer identities, queer studies, and just in general, like, bringing queerness into our discussions, we're seeing this kind of really frightening relegitimization of anti-queerness that is being disguised as academic questioning. And so I think that oftentimes what we see is a minimization of experience. People are often accused of silencing when what they were actually asking for is safety.
So the idea that queer identities are for observation are to be debated. These are all, like, really violent acts, the fact that we aren't people here feeling and experiencing what is happening but instead, we are questions to be asked. And we are obstructions. But there's also this I think generational pushback against queerness in general that basically accuses queerness of stealing from gay and lesbian identities, from women in general. In many ways, transness is as well, actually even moreso.
And it's all violent, and it's a way of people trying to recenter themselves and recenter what they know and what they've built their ego around. And so I think that is really important that we continue to call it out and that we continue to demand that we keep these spaces open and that we don't look at what is honestly an increasingly queer generation and future generations as a threat. But of course they are going to be seen that way because any changes are. But it's important to recognize it's legit.
And right now, I'd say there's really serious effort to de-legitimize queer young people and to embrace queer people of the past. The truth is is that I don't think we have more queer people today, more queer theory today, we just are a little bit safer to be able to be ourselves and be open and exist in the world. And so a lot of times what we find is that queer people are being erased from history as well to make it seem like we're an anomaly today and an intrusion today.
And many white men view it as just another thing chipping away at centering them. Another consideration that they were told they never had to make. And another thing that's kind of-- that their academia is legit, and this is trying to take space. And it's not. Because they've been told that they're filming people who are legit and their studies on anything that's legit.
And so it's something we absolutely need to keep pushing back on and recognize queer theory and the queering of academia in general. The queering of our entire society has long-existed. We just couldn't call it that. And we would not have a lot of what we have today, especially I would say in progressive education, if it weren't for queer people, especially queer people of color and queer disabled people.
EDWARD BAPTIST: Thanks. Yeah, we have I think time for just one more question. It's unfortunate.
We've got a whole page of great questions here, but I want to bring us back to Dr. King. Here's a question from Jim [? Losoya. ?] If Dr. King was with us today, would he be surprised, shocked, disappointed, or encouraged?
IJEOMA OLUO: Oh my God. I mean, if Dr. King was with us today, I don't think-- I mean, I guess we're not assuming he just plopped down in the middle of today as it is because I think he would have had his own-- he was always-- I mean, one of the things that made him so brilliant was always evolving. So what would someone who had dedicated their life to racial justice and seeing how hard our systems have fought it and sought to lock up and murder our leaders and keep generations and generations of people of color trapped in poverty and to continue to keep people tied to war and capitalism. I think he would have evolved and was evolving into a space that was going to tackle that much more directly. So I don't think it's about what he would say or think about this time.
I think he would be in there actively doing the work. And it would have-- I think he would have been at the front lines of a lot of our movements that we see today that people are saying are too radical. Because people were saying that about him before he was murdered.
So I don't want to, even in death, remove his agency and say he would do this or that, but I would say he was a man who was always trying to evolve and who was always seen as a threat because he was willing to evolve and reach outside of himself and what he had known, to learn something new, and always looking for opportunities to stand in solidarity with people and to grow his own personal racial theory. And I have no reason to believe that wouldn't have done that today, and he wouldn't have been at the forefront of the work that we're seeing today, and he wouldn't have been seen as just as much of a threat today as he was when he was killed.
EDWARD BAPTIST: Thank you so much. That was a, I think, really insightful answer and a great way for us to bring this to a close. And now I think I'm going to just thank you and hand over to Oliver Goodrich.
OLIVER GOODRICH: And Ijeoma, thank you both so much. This is so rich. I wish we had a limited time to keep talking, but you have done Dr. King's legacy proud, and thanks so much for the thoughtful conversation and for engaging with us tonight. We're deeply grateful to you, Ijeoma, for being with us, and Ed, thanks for moderating.
Before folks go, I do want to make just a couple quick but important announcements. There's some timely and some breaking news tonight. One of the-- an update that happened earlier today, I'm pleased to announce that we just finalized some details to host an evening with renowned author and interfaith activist Valarie Kaur. So three weeks from tonight, on Monday, March 22, at 7:00 PM, again, Valarie will be speaking to us about her book, See No Stranger, A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love.
This event will be the first in a new series hosted by Cornell United Religious Work called Into and Out Of the Echo Chambers. Picking up some of these same questions about social justice and social media that we touched upon tonight, really helping us think about how to grapple with this challenging cultural moment we're living through. So I'll drop a link to that in the chat and hope that you'll all be able to join us in a few weeks for that event.
The other quick announcement is that nominations are now open for the James A. Perkins Prize for interracial and intercultural peace and harmony and for the Student and Campus Life Diversity Awards. The Perkins Prize recognizes the Cornell student, faculty, or staff member or program who has made the most significant contribution to furthering the ideals of university community while respecting the value of racial diversity. The winner of this prize receives a $5,000 award for the program or organization that they represent to support their continued efforts toward intercultural understanding.
So for those of you who are interested, you can learn more or submit a nomination for a worthy person or program through the website. That's now posted in the chat. Or you can email email@example.com to learn more.
So lastly, but not least, I want to just quickly mention that there will be a recording of this evening's conversation that'll be available through CornellCast, and that link will be made available on our website later in the week. So check back into scl.cornell.edu/mlklecture, and we'll have a recording later on this week. Again, thank you to Ijeoma, thank you to Ed, thank you to all of our supporters and sponsors, and thank you for all being with us tonight. Take care, and we hope to see you again very soon.
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Author Ijeoma Oluo speaks during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture, this year a conversation with history professor Ed Baptist, March 1 on Zoom.