“How the world works is something that has always interested me. As a black woman, I've always been concerned with issues around race and equity in America,” says Ijeoma Oluo. “But the work I’m known for today started around the time Trayvon Martin was killed. That, for me, as a black woman, as a mom, and sister, was really traumatizing to me. Not only because of seeing that this baby was murdered and knowing there wasn't going to be justice for his family, but also recognizing how unwilling many white people that I had grown up around were to talk about the issue and talk about racism in the area.” The moment led Oluo to write her best-selling book, So You Want to Talk About Race, which was published in 2018.
Writing was Oluo’s “greatest love” as a child, yet she didn’t realize at the time that it could also be her career. “Growing up in poverty, my career aspirations had to do with what was going to put food on the table, and there was no messaging at the time that black people, especially black women, could have a viable career that could take care of a family in the arts in general.” Her writing continued to evolve as she embraced writing for “the people who said they loved me and cared about me and people who had professed values that should have required that they be speaking out and doing something, and yet they weren't.” In 2015, Oluo left the technology and digital marketing worlds to become a full time writer-activist, inspired in part by Toni Morrison, who began writing books later in life. After So You Want to Talk About Race, she published Mediocre, a book that imagines the white male identity free of racism and sexism. She’s also written countless articles for the likes of Elle magazine, The Guardian.
Over the course of her career as an author and activist, Oluo has been conscious to balance output with self-care. Her favorite form is the creative practice of applying makeup, specifically a set of go-to favorites: the Pat McGrath palettes and lipsticks, the Fenty Bronzers, Danessa Myricks products, and Juvia’s Place eyeshadow palettes. “I’m obsessed with pigment. And black-owned beauty brands always create the best pigments to compliment skin tone,” Oluo says. “I have a shelf above my makeup swivel. [I see them as] gorgeous art pieces, and I absolutely adore them.”
Even while in quarantine, with nowhere to go, Oluo has seen her face as a canvas, and its adornment as a form of release. “My work is very difficult emotionally, and it takes me a lot of time, a lot of effort. I'm spending a lot of time in trauma,” Oluo explains. Applying makeup is a kind of meditation. The focus and concentration required for it means she can’t think of anything else.
“It gives you that space, and that affirmation that your peace and your calmness and your happiness matters,” she says. “I think it's important to say that to yourself on a regular basis.”
Alongside her interviews and calls to action, Oluo started sharing photos of her final looks on social media. But she was at times met with contempt. “People were offended that I would be able to switch from talking about issues of sexism and racism in our society to sharing a picture of makeup, as if I can't exist in multiple spaces,” she remembers. But even if some people couldn’t grasp her duality, there were many more who felt liberated in seeing these posts among her other work-focused ones. “I've had Black people walk up to me at events crying, just talking about what it meant for them to know they could still be taken seriously while expressing themselves, and to know that they, no matter what they looked like, no matter what they did, no matter what their job was, they could still insist on time for themselves if they chose to.”
Oluo acknowledges that as Black women and Black femmes, “we are conditioned to think that our role is only one of sacrifice in society,” but it’s a vital act of empowerment to engage in self-care. “It goes against everything I say and believe as an activist for black liberation, as a writer for black liberation, to not care for my black self,” Oluo says. No matter the mode, whether makeup or meditation or movement, it’s all about engaging in what brings you joy. “We are striving and struggling in a hostile world because we love black people, because we love black women. What that means is that none of us are disposable. If this is rooted in our love for one another, then it would be harmful to our work to let ourselves be harmed,” she adds. “It would be harmful to our work to not replenish ourselves and care for ourselves.”
FENTY BEAUTY BY RIHANNA Sun Stalk'r Instant Warmth Bronzer
Pat McGrath Labs Mothership VII Eyeshadow Palette
Pat McGrath Labs MatteTrance Lipstick
Juvia's Place The Warrior Eyeshadow Palette Bundle
Danessa Myricks Love & Light Beauty Oil
So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo