Courtesy of Cornell University

Ijeoma Oluo speaks to Cornell Students about the importance of student activism during the MLK Commemorative Lecture on March 1.

March 3, 2021

Anti-Racist Author Ijeoma Oluo Explores Allyship, Activism in Annual MLK Lecture

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Speaking from her home in Seattle, Nigerian-American author and activist Ijeoma Oluo addressed students directly with advice on student activism, rest and coalition-building during a Monday night lecture.  

The annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Lecture, meant to honor the life and legacy of Dr. King, featured Oluo — the best-selling author of So You Want to Talk About Race, which appeared on numerous anti-racist book lists through summer 2020. 

Moderated by Prof. Edward Baptist, history, the event opened with a reference to the history of white supremacy, at the core of Oluo’s work. She first described the inspiration for and process of writing her latest book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America — borne out of her frustration with the ways institutions in America cause history to repeat itself by enabling the mediocrity of white men.

“We cater to and 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,” Oluo said. “I wanted to show that time and time again, we’ve been given opportunities to make better choices, and the question now is: will we?”

Moving toward current movements, Oluo spoke to the potential of social media activism to break down geographic barriers that have long impeded community organizing efforts. 

In the past, white supporters called attention to the efforts of Black organizers to gain momentum needed for substantial change, Oluo said. Now, social media has elevated the work of many Black organizers, making it easier — but certainly not trivial — for them to spur change, especially strengthened by the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer.

“It is speeding up that process and breaking down those barriers,” Oluo said. “Activism is getting catalyzed in different ways by the internet. The networks we see getting catalyzed in different ways by the internet are not necessarily new.”

Responding to questions from Baptist and the student audience, Oluo reflected on what this social change looks like on college campuses, especially predominantly white institutions like Cornell. To create space for advocacy, universities need to fund faculty and staff who teach and support teaching about activism and the history of marginalized communities, Oluo said.

“It is massive protests that brought us our first gender studies programs, multicultural studies programs and race theory programs, but it can’t be protesting that keeps it going day in and day out,” Oluo said. “It has to be constant funding and support to keep the programs alive, so students can learn and are constantly forced to educate themselves while advocating.” 

She also spoke to this rich history of student activism that prompted institutional change — offering advice on how to build coalitions toward shared destiny, center liberation in the work and sustain efforts through rest and community. For Oluo, this advice was central for broad work to enact change and to maintain conversations about privilege. 

According to Oluo, core to the work is understanding when to stand up for a cause and when to step aside if they are in the way of progress. It means centering reducing harm to marginalized communities and continuous learning — all parts of allyship. 

“[Allyship] means not just, I am next to you,” Oluo said, “but I see your needs and I see where they may differ from mine, and where perhaps I am in the way of your goals and need to do better.”