As protests against police brutality and racial injustice swept the country this summer, Ijeoma Oluo’s debut book, So You Want to Talk About Race was one of a handful of books that were frequently featured on antiracist reading lists. Soon enough, it was back on the New York Times bestseller list.
Her new book may prove just as popular. In Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, Oluo examines the cultural and political underpinnings of what she calls the “mediocre-white-man-industrial complex.” Oluo explores the origins of white masculinity in America, as well as the male feminists of the early 20th century who championed women’s liberation as a means to their ends. She also digs into how, at different points in history, this country has failed women—a particularly salient reminder amid a pandemic that has driven hundreds of thousands of women out of the workforce.
Fast Company talked to Oluo about what catalyzed her book, how this summer’s protests have impacted politics and business, and what might follow the pandemic and the election. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Fast Company: What has it been like to write and publish this book during this moment of upheaval, amid a pandemic and reckoning with racial injustice?
Ijeoma Oluo: It’s been tough, honestly. When you’re a Black woman doing this work, you’re exhausted. I was living 2020 and finishing up this book, and it was a lot. But especially as I was finishing up and going through pieces, I became even more aware of how relevant the work is.
FC: Can you talk about this idea of white male mediocrity and how you define it—and why that was the lens through which you wanted to write this book?
IO: I think that if you are a woman of color, especially, who’s worked in any kind of majority-white spaces—or even when voting for people for office—you’re keenly aware of white male mediocrity. You’re aware of what it’s like to know you’ll always have to work twice as hard and still not be seen for what you bring to the table, while mediocre white men seem to rise fast and also [seem] to be picked up anytime they stumble.
There’s a violence to that, even in the everyday occurrence—knowing that you can go to work and never be appreciated for what you do, or that you’re going to have to keep picking up the messes of white men who are never held accountable. Something that can seem harmless on the surface has really perpetuated so much pain for people of all races and ethnicities and genders.
FC: Your book is coming out after a summer of protests against police brutality and racial injustice. It’s now been more than six months since the killing of George Floyd. What do you think has or hasn’t changed during that time? It seemed like there was such an appetite for racial equity work in the months that followed. Where do you think we are now?
IO: I think that where we have seen some progress is it felt like this was maybe the first time in a while [that] we didn’t have to explain that racism exists. I wasn’t being asked to be interviewed about ‘Is this really a race thing?’ I think that part we are further along on—which is sad. Still, what people wanted was to focus on what was extreme, to treat things as one-off.
Even if they’re willing to say, maybe we have a problem with policing, then maybe it’s only policing; it’s nothing else. And there were a lot of people who were demanding more from corporations and their workplaces, who were saying, “Okay, so you say Black lives matter. What does that mean?” People have for so long been able to just say they care—to have their mission statement say, “We’re an equal opportunity place,” and not actually do anything. That’s the hard part.
Where we’ve been able to get change that really matters—to get corporations, cities, and schools to sign onto some fundamental changes to the way they do things—is vital. But where that promise wasn’t made and that progress wasn’t made, I am seeing a quick push to get back to the status quo, which is: “We’re going to just stick with our talking points, and then the next time someone’s murdered, we’ll say that again.” And that’s frustrating. I think we also saw it in the election. Months after so many people saying Black lives matter, we have barely eked out a democratic victory over probably the most hate-filled, divisive president we’ve had as a nation—and that’s saying something. It goes to show how many people really wanted things to just get back to normal. They wanted to post their Facebook status, put the Black Lives Matter sign in their window, and feel like they did something—and then go back to not examining the choices that they’re making.
FC: You’ve worked in tech and still live in Seattle. Tech is an industry that has grappled with issues of racism and sexism in the workplace for years now, with only halting progress to show for it. How does the concept of white male mediocrity figure into tech’s struggle with equity and inclusion?
IO: There’s a chapter in Mediocre talking a little bit about the creation of the myth of the trod-upon white male. We find that repeated over and over again, and another version of that is in the creation of tech: the idea that these were the outcasts and nerds that built this new thing where they were going to be free. They get to center themselves in the story of oppression that exempts them from responsibility to people who have far less privilege than them. [Tech] likes to think that it’s far different from the spaces it thinks it broke free from, but it’s not. It’s a similar mythology that never existed. These were maybe men who are socially challenged on some level, but the group still had privilege. A lot of our founders behind these tech spaces had immense privilege and then created a space in their image.
So a lot of the idea around tech—and I would say the whole city of Seattle—is we’ve created a space that’s exempt from all of that. It’s not a problem here. We don’t have to talk about it here. And then the offense becomes bringing this discussion in, but it’s not very different from what Trump’s trying to do, which is to build a story of the white man being the victim. Therefore you have to create a space where it’s wrong to bring in discussions on systemic issues. I can think of few [industries] that are more hostile if you’re a woman of color than tech. Tech doesn’t want to see that because it then threatens the idea that centers white men and has this mythology around white men.
FC: You write in the book about the contradictions baked into higher education—how it was built for white men and continues to uphold a white patriarchy, while also conferring economic benefits on people of color and creating a space where you can study the works of people who aren’t white and male. How do you think higher education could be improved, and how it might be a blueprint for a more just society and workplace?
IO: It’s kind of sad that right now, our higher education system is the best chance we have. When you look at spaces where you’re more likely to learn how to respect voices of people of color, it’s going to be college. But it’s also important to recognize that it’s all been fought for so much. The people who brought these texts in had to fight to have these texts, and the people who wrote those texts had to fight to write them. And often the professors who teach them are going to be denied tenure because of the amount of time they’ve spent trying to create a space where people can learn about these things.
So I think first and foremost, where colleges and universities can be better is to support and respect—truly respect in a tangible way—the work of academics of color. That means changing your tenure system. It means providing resources and pay for equity work that’s being done and providing formal recognition for the way equity work is being done. Take equity work off of the shoulders of teachers of color. I’ve been to so many universities where they have one person whose job is to oversee equity for a 20,000-student campus. But also, I think it’s really important to give autonomy to academics of color. Because I can say, to the end of the day, support academics of color, but I’m also aware of what many academics of color have to go through and the way many have to change their voice to be heard, which can divorce even the work of academics of color from populations of color.
One thing I find colleges and universities often fail to recognize is how important the general freedom of discovery is for young people on campus, and how much that’s denied to students of color and women. You’re supposed to experiment in a world where you have the freedom and safety to do so. Students of color, women, and trans or nonbinary students—they don’t have any of that. It’s really a slim margin who gets to live that reality of experimentation. White men in college experiment all the time. They’re constantly challenging systems in various ways, and universities bend over backwards to not only support that, but to value it and grow it. But it’s consistently seen as a threat when anyone else does it.
FC: You also write about how working women were vilified during the Great Depression, but then recruited during World War II—and then cast aside when men returned after the war. To me, that feels similar to the moment we’re in right now: We were at record high employment for women prior to the pandemic, and we’ve already seen a precipitous drop. At the same time, so many working women—and especially women of color—have been truly essential during the pandemic. What do you make of this parallel, and how do you think we’ll respond to this moment, given our record?
IO: It’s sad to see us falling into similar patterns. We are seeing women being just shoved out of the workspace. And this is where we see not only workplace bias, but interpersonal bias within relationships and the expectations placed on women. Sometimes it’s not even the job—it’s the fact that everyone’s working from home, but the only person who’s supposed to be taking care of children is a woman. And yet the conversation we have is, “Look at this thing that’s happening to women,” not “Look at what we’re doing to women.”
What’s sad about it is we’re in a time of amazing loss. So many people are being devastated by this. But we’re also at a time of unparalleled, unprecedented creativity, where businesses are trying to find new ways. But no one’s asking, “What does it mean to support women?” While we’re at it, while we’re deciding how we can work remotely, why don’t we just make a space where women don’t have to keep making these choices over and over again and don’t have to be forced out over and over again? No one’s building that in, because once again, just like every other phase in history, women are an afterthought.
And that’s sad because we’re passing up an opportunity that could actually make it easier for women to work. Every one of these times, we’ve had an opportunity to actually improve the lives of women in the workplace. During World War II, we could have taken those improvements that were made to get labor out of women and kept them, and kept women working in better conditions with better pay. But every time, we pass that up, and women are left trying to scramble and rebuild, and it’s really sad.
It’s not like there’s no opportunity. There’s so much opportunity—as far as racial equity too. When we have people working remotely, that’s something that can easily counter the impacts of white flight out of Black neighborhoods. If you say you care about equity, you could be recruiting in Black and brown neighborhoods right now.
FC: We’ve also seen many female founders step down recently following allegations of racial discrimination and toxic work culture, which I think has prompted a broader conversation around white feminism. What do you make of that?
IO: I think that’s vital, and I think it’s a good start. But we also have to make sure that we’re talking about why, because I think we flatten the conversation around white women as well. We flatten the conversation to: “White women are just as power-hungry and just as racist as white men,” end of story, instead of talking about what it means to anyone who can have proximity to white male power. I think that is a part of the conversation that’s often missing—to recognize the why. And I don’t think that’s necessarily something people of color have to do. We don’t owe white women an explanation as to why they do what they do. But I do think that we need to be open to the idea that there are light-skinned people of color doing the same thing; when we look at gender, there are Black men and Hispanic men sometimes doing the same thing.
We tend to say things are one thing or the other. Either white women are our oppressors, or they’re our allies, and they can’t be both. That’s not how it works. But it does require a thorough accounting, which I think we had avoided for a long time. Honestly, not only are white women responsible for the harms that they perpetrate, in order to maintain their proximity to white male power—[but] they’re also responsible for part of the ways in which they’ve been raising white men. If white women are interested in their own liberation, that is a responsibility they’re going to have to face.
FC: In response to some of those founder departures, we’ve seen companies bring women of color into positions of power. This is something we’ve seen happen both in recent months and over the years, since the #MeToo movement took hold. You touch on the glass cliff phenomenon in the book, which posits that women are often set up to fail when they’re appointed to powerful positions. Do you think we’re seeing real change when companies hire women or women of color into those roles? Are workplaces ready to fully support those women?
IO: I think it’s always a positive thing. But there’s a risk, and what we don’t talk about—what often isn’t planned for—is that it absolutely is never going to be an overnight shift, no matter how talented the woman they bring in is. It won’t be simply because the culture hasn’t been created. Corporations have to be willing to recognize where they are in that process and say, “We’re bringing a woman in here to a space that’s going to be inherently hostile. We’re going to bring her into a space where she’s going to be undermined. So what do we do to keep her in there, to keep her going, to keep her supported, until this is something people acclimate to?”
Studies have shown people do acclimate. But often we don’t get that far because we send women in going, “They’ll fix it, or they won’t.” And if they don’t, then women don’t belong here; if they do, great. We don’t recognize we’ve set it up so that it’s going to be incredibly hard, and maybe this woman won’t be the one that gets us [there] because we have too far to go.
So often, corporations want to say that there’s no problem until they have to admit there’s a problem. And then, it’s that one person who’s a problem; it’s never a cultural problem. Until they can recognize it’s a cultural problem and never the responsibility of one person, and until they build a plan to actually fully change culture and support people through the rough patches and adjustments, it’s not going to happen.
FC: Your book is coming out after a long, contentious election. What does the end of the Trump presidency mean for doing racial equity work? Do you worry that people will get complacent?
IO: I know a lot of people are fearful of the complacency. But I think the people who are going to go away were literally only interested in progress for their own issues. They didn’t like Trump because Trump offended [them] personally. For many white women, it was, “I want Trump gone.” They had no issues outside of that, and they were fine with the way things were before Trump and will be fine after. Those were never people that were going to do the work, so the complacency was always there.
If Trump was here 100 years, they were still only in it to get rid of Trump. They were never going to be asking about concrete police reforms; they were never going to be doing this other work. And I think it’s vital that we recognize that and call that what it is. But also, I think we should not underestimate what it means to do the work in a place that’s not actively, openly antagonistic and hateful toward your goals. Having Trump as president didn’t make my work in Seattle harder, but for my friends who were doing this work in Oklahoma [and other] red states, it absolutely made the work harder.
I am looking forward to bringing talk back to the systems. We will lose a lot of people who are done, but they were never really in it. The systems will be the same come January 20. It’s about the systems and not the individuals, and we have to do the work. But I absolutely am not going to pretend like whatever falloff we had of half-assed support from white liberals is more important than what it means to know that our highest office in the nation isn’t spouting open hatred for vulnerable populations. I look forward to protesting a Democratic president.