Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.


Black People’s Bodies 

Since Black people were first brought to America’s shores in 1619, white people have exerted ownership over Black bodies. Although slavery has been abolished, the sense of ownership persists, and it manifests at every level of American society. During routine traffic stops, police officers do not hesitate to ask personal questions about a Black person’s illicit drug or alcohol use, even if the person was pulled over for a minor traffic violation (or solely for their race). And police officers are far more likely to engage physically with Black and brown suspects than they are with white ones. Black children are often perceived as being overly large, loud, aggressive, and athletic when they are simply playing as children do. These perceptions are driven by the white American desire to control Black bodies and Black behaviors. It’s the same impulse that leaves white people thinking that it’s okay to talk in public around Black people about their hair, bodies, and clothing. Even though most Americans recognize that these comments are inappropriate, when they are made about Black people, white people explain it away as curiosity. Touching and talking about Black bodies is a coded way of saying, “You’re different, and I want people to notice that.” All of these behaviors are well exemplified in touching a person’s hair, which Oluo considers to be a tremendous insult. As she explains, touching a person, especially without their permission, is a display of authority over their body, and it’s a way of communicating that Black people have no autonomy or agency. In this context, touching a person’s hair is connected to the physical violence and racist crimes committed against Black people.   

The "Angry Black Person" 

Oluo repeatedly describes how she and others who are intelligent or ambitious are described as loud or belligerent, and how that depiction hinders the fight for racial equality. Black people in America have been enslaved, and their bodies and souls have been abused for more than 400 years. They have been systemically oppressed, over-incarcerated, and under-served. They are subject to poverty, crime, and police brutality at far higher rates than the white majority. They are promised equality under the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the American democratic way of life, but every segment of society tells them that they are unequal. Despite all of this, Black people who fight for social justice are not permitted to be angry. The angry Black person, someone like Malcolm X, Al Sharpton, or Jesse Jackson, is perceived by white America as someone who does not deserve equality. Oluo believes that the white majority pretends that it is willing to compromise and listen, but she believes that this level of respect applies only to minorities that cower before them, accept their superiority, or ask nicely for their basic human dignity.  


Grunge music came out of Seattle in the 1990s, as did coffee shops and massive digital innovations. Seattle is located in the Pacific Northwest, one of America’s most liberal regions. Much of America considers Seattle an innovative, hip city with many opportunities for career advancement and social engagement. Seattle is certainly not Birmingham, Alabama or Jackson, Mississippi, with their brutal histories of racial oppression. However, Oluo finds a Seattle community that, once she begins talking about race, ostracizes her. Friends she has known for years suddenly leave her social circle and she has to rebuild a community of peers, redefined as almost exclusively minority peers. Her depiction of Seattle reinforces her central premise that America is a white supremacy and that nowhere in America are minorities treated equal. 

Rap Music 

To illustrate cultural appropriation, Oluo uses the example of rap music. In the 1970s and 1980s, rap music was vilified by white America as an example of everything that was wrong with the Black community. Rap music was blamed for glorifying violence, drugs, and gun culture. It was held responsible for victimizing women while glorifying toxic masculinity. Explicit lyrics were banned, and white society believed taht white children should be protected from such dangerous music. By the 1990s, young white men, lured by the genre’s illicit nature, began producing rap albums. Once rap became a white phenomenon, white American culture embraced it, not only as an art form but as an entire lifestyle. White people enthusiastically adopted the clothing, the hairstyles, the dance moves, and the lyrical expressions associated with Black rappers. And white artists, their producers, and their record labels accumulated massive sums from which the Black community never profited. Many of rap’s traditional elements, drawn from various aspects of African, griot, and Haitian cultures were either omitted or distorted to unrecognizable shapes. An art form that evolved as a beacon of hope in a dark, desolate world and a cry of protest against oppressors became just another plaything for white people to use and discard. Rap music serves Oluo as a prime example of how a culture’s symbols can be appropriated and the damage that such appropriation does.