Nikkita Oliver is a law scholar. What does it mean for a member and ally of an oppressed group to be thoroughly versed in the mechanisms used to proliferate oppression? During a time when elders are hesitant to endorse the next iteration of the civil rights movement (Black Lives Matter), citing lack of leadership and/or vision, how beneficial is combining activism with legal acumen? I spoke with Nikkita over the phone at length about her work in the Seattle community with organizations such as Creative Justice, the benefits and challenges of pursuing the law as a career, and her contribution to Macklemore’s latest and much talked about song, “White Privilege II.” I found her to be forthcoming and honest, even when responding to questions for which she felt she didn’t have the full answer. Check out our conversation below.
Blavity: In your poem, “Black Lives Matter,” you have a line that says “They say ‘Give it time, in time things will change’ But I cannot control this control this riot in my skin, when waiting burns like pepper spray, like blunt object, like police baton shoved in my face…” Can you talk about how you got involved in BLM, and the urgency of that movement?
Nikkita Oliver: I started law school in 2012 and I’ve always been organizing in the city around primarily education and youth policy. In my second year of law school when I was working with a number of black organizers to build a center, and it became an intense situation where the district was trying to kick us out of the school, and we were trying to hold that space. I started working on legal teams to just observe…
Nov. 24th when the non-indictment came down for Darren Wilson, I had been on my phone and laptop all day just waiting for the verdict. As a law student, I had spent the last two to three years being told how fair the law system is, which I knew was bull, but wanted to be true. When the verdict came down, I just went into the street with everyone just to mourn. The next Friday was Black Friday, and we marched towards the mall and the police not only wouldn’t let us through, they started macing women and children. It became bigger than my day-to-day experience with white supremacy. I’ve been out for environmental marches, and all kinds of protests, but it never escalated the way it did against Black Lives Matter marches. We have a new youth jail being built in Seattle and I’ve been a part of the #nonewyouthjail campaign, that started in 2012.
I don’t necessarily consider myself as a BLM chapter member, but I think of this work as the next iteration of the black liberation movement and struggle, and I’ve already been doing that work. Black folks are 7 percent of the city, but make up over 50 percent of the juvenile population. A lot of people have become woke as a result of Black Lives Matter
B: How does your work as a lawyer intersect and help your work with BLM?
NO: That’s something that I’m constantly trying to figure out. I think that lawyers are in this restricted class to preserve white supremacy and patriarchy. I do a lot of work to help people know there rights, but not so much representation. How do I help an everyday person challenge and dismantle the parts of the law which are oppressive? Trying to make sure that organizers have access to those who know how to interpret the law. I walk a very fine line of making sure that I don’t become a gatekeeper, so I make sure I take people to meetings with me, to balance the privilege that comes with having a law degree. There’s the movement part of being a lawyer, but what I get excited about is what we’re building for ourselves. We can tear down the system all we want, but what are we building in its place?
B: You worked with Macklemore on his latest song, “White Privilege II,” and in your collaborator’s statement you say that it pains you to admit that “most white people will not listen to me when I speak about my experience and white supremacy.” Do you think that there is any validity to the thought that Macklemore makes the conversation around white supremacy more easily digested by other whites, and if so, does that dilute black voice in the conversation?
NO: Yes, absolutely, I definitely believe that.
The struggle is that I walk into spaces as a lawyer, but I’m a black queer woman. I can walk into the room and say something 100 times, but as soon as a white man says it, it’s valid. I don’t know if it dilutes our voices everytime — I think that in reality it can. I chose to work on the song because Ben needed to do something. As I’ve said, the song is flawed. It’s emblematic of the problem. It shows you that a white person can make a song about white privilege and people will still buy his album, but if I go to work and talk to my coworkers about white supremacy, I could lose my job. A student of color told me that they’re afraid to speak up about white privilege because they’ll get kicked out of school, and they don’t want to ruin being the first person in their family to go to college. Ben doesn’t have to worry about that. While on the one hand, I think it’s important for him to do work that has a practice of dismantling white supremacy, his whiteness does dilute those voices. Now do I prefer that he say nothing? No, but I expect that at some point that he passes the mic.
B: How do you think we find the balance of accepting and educating white allies without a situation where they commander the movement and create the same level of erasure that we’re trying to combat?
NO: I don’t have that whole answer. Part of this work with Ben and Ryan was just that — trying to figure out what accountability looks like there. I do think that white allies who want to be a part of the movement cannot be afraid of being held accountable and cannot be afraid of being told the difference between their impact and intent. It’s going to be a messy process because we all have feelings, especially for those who are direct targets of oppression. White folks gotta get used to being uncomfortable. Black and brown folks are uncomfortable all the time. There’s not a night that I don’t go to bed thinking about this stuff. I wake up often heavy. White folks also need to get with each other, and work through their stuff. I totally want to see the humanity in all people and think a lot about what this world was like before this system was put in place. I think white supremacy is dehumanizing to everybody. It dehumanizes white people and teaches them to be oppressors. I think I do this work in partnership with white people because I care about humanity, but I can’t undo internalized white supremacy. They have to do that work for themselves. They have to check in and be responsive when they’re being called on on harmful behavior.
B: The black community faces a myriad of issues from sanctioned genocide via police brutality to economic disenfranchisement to the internalization of European standards of being. What do you think is the most vital first step to healing the African Diaspora?
Just speaking from my experience as a youth worker, I think self-knowledge. The work that Africa Town (the Africatown Center for Innovation & Education — Seattle
) is doing in Seattle is creating a space where black people can go and be black. So much of our history begins for us with slavery, and that’s dehumanizing. There’s a lot more history upon which we stand. A lot of the work that I do with youth is learning about who we are and doing that together. There’s such a small population here in Seattle that anything we do ricochets. As the African Diaspora, we have to spend time with each other. White supremacy has taught us to look at each other and see something wrong with each other. We have to learn our history, but do that with each other. We have to build and hold that space. That’s what gentrification and genocide is about — destroying space. We have to eat together and learn together and learn who we are —which is a diverse people and by no means monolithic. There’s a lot that we stand on and we have to start discovering that. This answer is by no means complete. This is an incredibly challenging question to actualize.
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