Ijeoma Oluo helps this writer understand her own privilege

Ijeoma Oluo was a featured speaker at Capitol Hill co-working space The Riveter. (Photo by Karya Schanilec)

Usually in a room of white people, it feels like I’m the only one thinking about race. But this time — in a room of people gathered to hear writer Ijeoma Oluo —  I knew it would be different.

Oluo is the leading contemporary communicator on race and a New York Times bestselling author for “So You Want to Talk About Race” — a straightforward guide for anyone, as the name suggests, who wants to talk about race.

Race is a topic that I would like to see addressed more often, but it’s complicated. I am an ethnically ambiguous and white-passing undocumented woman. In rooms where I’m one of the few people of color, it’s not rare for people to say racially insensitive things in front of me without realizing that they are offending me or the community I identify with. Talking about race is also complicated because of the level of privilege I have in my own community.

But because this event was full of people trying to be racially aware, the tension I usually feel was replaced by relief.

The event, hosted by The Riveter, a Capitol Hill work space for women and allies who want to make change, was bursting with conversation and banter. Women weren’t holding clutch purses, no. Within their palms they held Oluo’s book.

Moderator Ruchika Tulyshan, also a local writer who focuses on gender equity in the workplace, thanked Riveter founder Amy Nelson, for inviting Oluo in response to a controversy surrounding another writer Sally Kohn, the author of “The Opposite of Hate.”

Kohn has been criticized for quoting writer and podcaster Aminatou Sow — incorrectly and without Sow’s knowledge — and also for pitting Sow in contrast to Oluo, presenting the two writers as examples of unacceptable vs. acceptable behavior for black women.

“It’s an abuse of who I am and it harms black people more to make me into the good black person,” Oluo said.

The Riveter had originally planned on hosting Kohn, but following the controversy decided not to.

“I am upset with her, but I am more upset with what she represents,” Oluo said.

Oluo was also asked about the role of women of color in the #MeToo movement and eloquently brought up intersectionality, exploring the role of privilege in what stories mattered during the rise of #MeToo.

“What does this mean for a hotel maid who has their immigration status held over their head to stay silent about it?” Oluo said.

This was a moment that spoke to me.

I’ve often wondered about my own identity, as the phrase “person of color” has dominated the language in safe spaces.

Given that my mother was a maid for the majority of her time in the workforce I felt like finally, maybe, I could figure out where I fit in all of this through this moment.

Am I a person of color?

It’s a question I have recently contemplated with other people, often finding myself in uncomfortable conversations with no end solution.

But thanks to Oluo, her conversation helped me navigate the fluidity of both my identity and its afforded privileges.

Her discussion of Kohn reminded me of how the general public often portrays and pits young undocumented immigrants against each other in the debate on immigration.

Dreamers — those enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) —  are often featured in the media or in debates as examples of what a “good” immigrant is, which dismisses the inherent humanity of all undocumented immigrants.

Presenting Dreamers, like myself, as “ideal” immigrants who are goal-oriented and dedicated toward their ambitions — and in contrast to others not enrolled in DACA or eligible for it — takes for granted the privilege inherent in the program. The DACA program grants us legal permission to attend school, go to work and achieve our goals.

In the national conversation surrounding immigration, Dreamers are often the first examples used to justify why undocumented immigrants should be given citizenship, but exemplifying them perpetuates the idea that some immigrants are more worthy than others.

My parents were the ones who taught me how to be goal-oriented and ambitious, yet they didn’t go to college and they aren’t pursuing white-collar careers. So, does that make them less deserving of U.S. citizenship than me?

Oluo powerfully outlined the recognition of her own privilege as a lighter-skinned, college-educated black woman to reinforce this idea.

“The thought of how hard I’ve worked to be aware of that privilege and how much harder I know it is for darker skinned black women to say their truth without being labeled as angry,” she said.

In no way am I saying that I know what it’s like to be a black woman in America.

But Oluo’s words gave me some insight on how to explore systemic racism and its impact on me — including the privileges that I have that other undocumented immigrants don’t.

I don’t want to pull a Sally Kohn and misuse Oluo’s words for my own gain. My biggest fear would be to ignore my own power by writing this article.

Yes, I am white-passing, but under the systemic power of white supremacy I will never truly be white. That’s why every two years, I get fingerprinted under the stressful threat of deportation.

Oluo suggests during her discussion that people should try to live by our values by seeking out the harm we do when we neglect our own power.

I’m continuing to question my own identity and engaging with my privileges and traumas. I know I’m moving in the right direction because I’ve never ceased to question that.