But she is also inviting us, on occasion, to chuckle. There is levity and voice in “Mediocre,” which Oluo dedicates to “Black womxn.” The work presents nuanced historical accounts and analyses of America’s westward expansion, education system, mistreatment of women in workplaces, politics and sports, while interjecting the author’s personality and personal history.
Oluo’s central argument is this: “White male mediocrity is a baseline, the dominant narrative . . . everything in our society is centered around preserving white male power regardless of white male skill or talent.” Perhaps I should’ve started there.
It seems smart to stop chattering and let Oluo take the reins. Recently, she spoke with me about the heartbreak of racism, whom she’s writing for, and how she felt when her 2019 book, “So You Want to Talk About Race,” flew off the shelves after the police killing of George Floyd.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What brought you to writing about race and gender?
A: As a child, I loved writing, but that had fallen away by middle school — not my love, but the idea that I would be a writer. Like many poor Black kids, you were expected to find something practical that was going to pull your family out of poverty. So I worked in tech until my 30s. It wasn’t until the murder of Trayvon Martin that I started writing about issues of race. It took off from there.
Q: We haven't come very far since the death of Trayvon Martin. What does it feel like to cover this topic without seeing any substantive improvement?
A: It can be so difficult. It’s so painful, and at times it’s really too much. When we hit about May, early June, I wasn’t writing or giving interviews really at all. I think a lot of times people forget that we are human beings who would most likely love to be writing about anything but this, and that it takes a huge toll to live the trauma of being a Black person in a white-supremacist country and then write it as well. There’s no space where it’s not impacting you.
Q: A word that comes up a lot in this book is "heartbreak." Do you think that being a person of color, or a woman, means that heartbreak is an inherent part of your experience in this country?
A: Oh, absolutely. I don’t know any person of color, especially not a Black person, who doesn’t know the interpersonal heartbreak of racism, where people let you down. But there’s also that quieter and yet often more harmful heartbreak of all the ideals and systems that you’re told to believe in letting you down over and over and over again. I think that a lot of the time, for our survival and to fit with the messaging around America, we push it aside and stuff it down. But when you’re a writer, you have to sit in it.
I know there will be sections that will be really hard for people of color to read. But I also think that recognizing that the feeling is valid, that the terror is real, the heartbreak is real, that it deserves to be recorded, it deserves space, hopefully can help in some ways. Because we are often told to not aggregate the past, to not really take a clear look at it, that we have to take every incident on its own and we can’t look at the cumulative effect. I want this book to be a testament to the cumulative effect.
Q: How do you take care of yourself so that you can keep writing?
A: Man, it can be really tough. I’ve definitely been to the doctor a few times going like, “Why do I feel horrible?” And my doctor’s like, “Uh, because you’re writing about white supremacy all day and it’s 2020 and this is what happens.”
I do have a very strong support system. My partner was so helpful in making sure that I didn’t also feel guilty about the house falling apart and my kids feeling neglected. Having that sort of support in your life at home helps. I’m so grateful to get that, and especially from a Black man, who understands deeply why I would be traumatized, why I would be tired, and not have to explain it.
Q: Who do you hope reads "Mediocre"?
A: I’ve written this book for anyone who recognizes there’s a problem. I think there is healing and work that has to be done on two different levels: In communities of color, we have to be able to separate ourselves from harmful messaging. I think this book can help us see and push back against the collective gaslighting of populations of color that is in the fictionalized story of America.
And for White people, this is Whiteness as you’ve made it, and I want people to take some ownership. Everyone who carries forth White manhood — and that includes White women — are part of the reason why it looks the way it does. What is White America going to do to claim and to rework White manhood into something less harmful? I do hope White men read the book; I hope they do the work.
Q: How do you feel about "So You Want to Talk About Race" being one of the books that so many people, particularly White people, seized upon this year to learn more about racism?
A: At first, I was really angry, honestly. This was a book I imagined you would use to make your workplace better, to help you get through these issues in your schools. In the beginning I found it quite insulting. I didn’t want to hear about the book. It was really traumatizing because I had spent years trying to get people to have these everyday conversations, and to realize that they could have been having them but waited until we were at this point to start was hurtful. I don’t think I was alone in that. I don’t think any Black person doing this work wants their book to be a bestseller because a Black person was murdered. I just had to recognize that this is where we are as a society, and so you have to keep doing the work.
Q: What's bringing you joy right now?
A: We have a very musical household; my kids are always playing music. My partner is a hip-hop musician as well, so that puts a lot of life into the house. If you’re a person of color, if we recognize that white supremacy will outlive us, our definition of success has to be how we live. It has to be the joy that we build, the community we build, how we find a way to thrive. That’s the real work.
Nneka McGguire is a multiplatform editor at The Lily.
The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America
Seal Press. 336 pp. $28