Be a Revolution, by Ijeoma Oluo

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This book, a follow-up from the author of So You Want To Talk About Race, is exactly what the subtitle describes: “How Everyday People Are Fighting Oppression and Changing the World – and How You Can, Too”. While the book was well-written and easy to read, Oluo challenged me with stories that showed how my privilege has protected me from everyday bias in society.

What made this book particularly powerful for me is that each chapter contains multiple interviews with movement workers who share their stories of what they faced that inspired or compelled them to become activists. Their stories are inspiring and eye opening. They either experienced something themselves that convinced them to devote their lives to fight for change, or they saw some injustice so alarming they couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

While those stories may make such activism seem unattainable, Oluo also ends each chapter with the call to “Be a Revolution”, offering ways in which the reader can contribute to the cause of justice in small but meaningful ways. This felt like a continuation of her earlier book, So You Want To Talk About Race, where she told people to stop talking, and start taking concrete actions to dismantle the structures of power that reinforce racism, patriarchy and other forms of discrimination.

This book also stretched my understanding of justice in new ways. I had been one of those people that didn’t think that “Defund the police” meant “Defund the police”. But Oluo lays out in the first chapter the case for prison abolitionism, describing how the existing system does anything but keep us safe, and instead destroys lives and communities. In her words:

Abolitionism today is the fight for freedom. It is the fight against slavery and exploitation in all its forms – including imprisonment and medical incarceration. … Systems built on punishment will prioritize compliance and control over safety and healing. Patriarchal systems of punishment will most harshly punish those it deems “less than” – as any noncompliance is seen as a threat to those systems of power. … Put simply: if your goal is a safer, more whole society, punishment can’t be a part of your vision. … You can’t punish people into thinking that others are worthy of care or respect.

The vision of abolitionism is much more positive:

Every time we decide to invest in our healing and our humanity, we are building up the foundation of our collective liberation.

One observation she makes is that what abolitionists hope for is the experience that white people already have with the police and the government, which they see as existing to help them, as opposed to the experience of Black and brown people, who feel that the police are there to imprison them or kill them. If we let go of our fear of what will happen when “those people” are no longer controlled through structures of punishment (a fear based in the false belief that “they” aren’t reasonable and “civilized” like “us” and will only respond to coercion), we can create the possibility of a supportive structure that invests in our shared humanity by offering safety and healing for all those in need.

The other major insight I took from the book is how all of this justice work is inter-related, especially disability justice work (my emphasis added):

Systemic racism and ableism serve the same core purpose in society: to justify the oppression, exclusion, and exploitation of people based on a manufactured hierarchy of value – one involving people’s bodies and mind. Historically, Black, Indigenous, and other bodies of color were deemed expandable, were seen as either tools or obstacles. Our bodies were reduced to our productivity or to a threat, nothing more. Where we couldn’t produce a profit for white supremacy, we were disposed of. To justify the violence enacted upon our bodies, our minds were deemed less valuable, less capable of feeling, comprehension, and self-control. It was argued that we were, literally, built for exploitation and our value disappeared when we couldn’t continue to, or refused to, work in exploitative conditions.

If we allow anybody to be treated as “less than”, as not being worthy of being treated equally to others, then we have opened the door for an artificial separation to be created between “us” and “them”. As Peter Gabriel once sang, “How can we be in if there is no outside?” This is the hidden weapon of white supremacy; by getting everybody to fight over who counts as white and who doesn’t (remember that Polish and Italian immigrants weren’t considered “white” until well into the 20th century) (and despite passing as white, I still struggle to belong), they distract from the real question of why some people get to be “more than”.

Oluo’s answer to that question:

It all began with labor. The need to work this large piece of stolen land, the need to expand across a continent, the need to maintain social and political control, the need to preserve as much profit as possible from what was so violently taken, the need to justify that theft. It all created a story of race and a social, economic, and political need for racism. … Today, large portions of our industries still rely on exploited, abused, and even forced labor of populations of color, and that abuse and exploitation can take many different forms.

But what if there were a different possibility, one where we aren’t optimizing for “productivity” and instead choose humanity? Oluo shares an interview with disability activist Alice Wong, who says:

Imagine a world where all kinds of people can just be their full selves without having to scrape by. Without having to prove their worthiness. Without having to produce. Where they just have inherent value. And that they’re cared for, and that they care for others. I mean, that’s what I think liberation is. That’s what freedom is.

That’s the revolution that Oluo and these other activists are working towards, one where we start from a fundamental assumption of human dignity and equality. Everything else follows from there.

Oluo closes the book with these inspiring words:

No matter where you are in life, if you love people and care about injustice in the world, there will always be a place for you in this work. … I hope this book will help you find your place in this work, or get you on the path to finding it.

I’m on the path to finding my place in this work by continuing to learn and share these ideas, and finding the others who are doing this work. I’m not having much impact yet but each day that I treat others with dignity and respect, that I support a minority-owned business, that I am thoughtful about where my money and resources go, I am acting in accordance with these values. Each interaction where I start from shared humanity (rather than evaluating people from a frame of productivity or power) is a revolutionary act in a patriarchal colonialist capitalist culture, and I appreciate Oluo’s invitation to join her and the activists she profiles in this work in embodying that revolution.

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