Wednesday, April 22, 2009

white interview : damali ayo

damali ayo's award-winning art has been shown at galleries across the world. She has spoken to colleges, high schools, non-profits and communities in 20 U.S. states and Canada about race, diversity, art and eco-living. damali ayo and her work have been featured in over 100 publications world-wide including Harpers, the Village Voice,, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune, as well as CSPAN2's "Book TV" and Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor."

damali's name means "beautiful vision of joy," which is also the name of her
blog. She's the author of the books How to Rent a Negro and the upcoming Obamistan! Land Without Racism: Your Guide to the New America.

macon: So what are you doing these days? You've done so much to shed light on matters of race, and whiteness. Are those still topics you're still working on?

damali: Yeah. So, yeah. I'm still working on race. I tried to get away from it for a while and opened an eco-friendly clothing company but the recession ate that and honestly, what I needed was a vacation, not a small business.

I came back right before the Obama election, just after someone called me "nigger" on the street. It was quite the moment. Anyway, I found this world where people think that now that Obama is in office, racism has ended, so that made it even more clear that my work isn't nearly finished. To that end I am writing a new book called OBAMISTAN! LAND WITHOUT RACISM, hopefully to explode the notion that racism is over.

I am also trying to find ways to do this work while finding a sense of joy and levity in it, so the more I work on it the more I turn into a stand-up comedian. My lectures have totally turned into a stand-up routine, which I love. I'm working up a full-fledged routine to launch this fall. I'm thinking of calling it "I Love White People." So yes, I'm still working on race. :)

Well I'm glad you are, and thank you for so many educational and inspiring projects. It sounds like you still have a lot to say on the topic of race, and I think your work so far says a great deal about it--and about whiteness more specifically--that most white people don't know about. And yeah, I think you're often funny too.

Your new book sounds like satire, which is how I read
How to Rent a Negro. Satire is risky, of course--some people just won't get it. Did you have that problem with Rent a Negro? I noticed, for instance, that some people went to the web site and actually tried to "rent a negro"!

Yeah. I mean as if I didn't already feel marginalized as a woman, and as a black person, and any other number of oppressed groups that I belong to, I decided to be a satirist. Joy.

But when the world is so absurd, it seems like the only recourse. And sadly, yes, people take it seriously. Sometimes I wonder if there's any hope for progress as long as people are so darn literal.

So given that you're often a satirist, I take it from your new book's title that you see America with Obama--or "Obamistan! Land without Racism"--as a land that is NOT without racism. Is its racism any different from before Obama? Has it decreased significantly, or is it pretty much the same old batch of problems?

Today on the radio I heard Mara Liasson (a fellow Brown alum) say "Obama has 10 people who would fall into the category of 'women or minority' in his cabinet and the fact that we haven't made any comment on that shows us how far we've come." My out-loud response was "AWESOME! TEN people counting women AND minorities, that really makes a revolution in our representative government. Thank goodness! We have come a long way baby."

It's ridiculous. People are breaking their arms patting themselves on the back about this election. There is still so much to be accomplished, I can't even start to say. People think the change is subtle and a famous Desi DJ tweeted the other day that she couldn't get served at a restaurant, and a month before the election someone called me a nigger on my street in my own neighborhood.

So, no. We've still got racism, and with the extra layer of post-Obama denial, it's going to be even harder to get people to fess up and grow. People are lazy, really lazy. The hardest thing about fighting racism is that it requires people to actually do personal growth and analysis--beyond race, just about themselves. This is something most people spend their lives running from, so by the time i come along and ask them to grow, evolve personally with regards to race, they are already pissed off, defensive, and tired.

How did
Rent a Negro come about? Was it around the same time that you did your "Reparations" performance art? Did those two projects go together at all?

No. Those two projects didn't go together. During that time I was creating art constantly--it was a great time. I was also learning web design and had just learned how to make forms. It was so long ago--before blogs! Can you imagine? 2003. Anyway, I was excited about making forms and also really burnt out about racial crap and feeling like a black person for hire--the two things entered into my brain and out popped

Similarly with panhandling for reparations--I was creating a work about panhandling as work and it wasn't turning out as i wanted. At the same time there was a lot of coverage of reparations on Capitol Hill. The two went into my head and--whammo--within a few months I was panhandling for reparations.

I suppose satire can lose its punch when you explain it, but if you're willing, could you explain what you were basically getting at with the
Rent a Negro project?

Satire does lose its punch when it is explained, which is why the site doesn't have an explanation. One of my grad school profs once told me that i needed to pass out flyers explaining my panhandling performance and i felt like he had lost all touch with the fact that it was a work of art. Sad.

But anyway.

It's like this. My friend is a mechanic. If she's at a party and people ask her questions about cars, she tells them to come back to her office during office hours and she charges them. Fair, right? But if you are a person of color in our culture, people feel like they can bombard you racially not only with questions but with ignorance, need for absolution, touching, feeling, singing, rhyming, rapping, and mimicking what they perceive to be your language and culture. This is not only deemed acceptable behavior in our culture, but when people of color speak out against it we are treated as if *we* are the ones stepping out of line.

I decided to explore that experience, and what i see as extremely rude and poor-citizen behavior, by positing this as a commercial interaction--that like the mechanic, have people treat me like a professional person of color.

And in this country, this world, once you put a price on things--people suddenly perceive it to have a value. I wanted people to see that they were 1) treating people of color like servants 2) expecting us to work for free and 3) show how much that service should really be valued at-- which is a way to get at the cost of ignorance. In addition, I wanted to modernize the language of "ownership" of black people into a legal modern-day post-slavery form. I discovered that "renting" summed it up in that white people think they can borrow that racial experience and then return or reject it when it no longer suits their tastes, needs, whims, or folly.

Finally, i was excited to carry the work of Dick Gregory and Godfrey Cambridge, who originally coined the term "rent a negro," into the 21st wired century.

At one point, the book advises those who are planning to rent about how to start a conversation with the black person that they're renting. It suggests that they begin by approaching them as an expert about blackness, with questions like, "I bet you have an interesting opinion on this, being black and all," and "I have a situation I bet you could help with . . . there is this woman at my job, and well, she's black . . ." Your point there seems clear--"White folks, don't expect expertise about blackness from black folks."

I'm wondering, though, about something that's sort of the opposite. That is, I think black people often know some things about white people that white people themselves don't know. If that's true, then they often are sort of like experts on race, but not necessarily the kind of experts that whites expect them to be. Should white people start listening more to non-white people about themselves, and about racism? If so, how could that listening be encouraged or facilitated?

Nice observation. I often feel like I am an expert on white people. The thing that people do not understand is that when you are treated as a second-class citizen in any society--you are required both legally, institutionally and for your own survival to be well versed in the ways of the first-class citizens of that society. Thus people of color spend a lifetime learning about white people, observing white people and learning how to interact with white people on a variety of levels--from how to get ahead, to how to not get killed.

White people must start listening to the observation and experiences of people of color with regards to whiteness. We'd all move along so much faster then. In my "" project, the second step for white people is "LISTEN." It's just that simple. You don't know it all--in fact you know very little because you are only required by our society to know about yourself. For a change of pace, stop thinking about yourself, your reactions, your 401K, your right or wrong, your defensiveness and all the white people you are afraid you'll be compared to and just hear people of color. Just listen.

Yes. Along those lines, I've been interested in the word "ignorance" lately, especially how it's related to the word "ignore." I think a lot of white ignorance or naivete about racism comes from ignoring it. It's often not that they don't know about it; it's more that they don't want to know about it, or they pretend they don't. Is that anything like what you were getting at in your book with SIS, the "Selective Ignorance Syndrome"?

HAH! i forgot about that. yes. i also call it willful ignorance or for short, laziness.

In this world of resources-at-our-fingertips there is simply no excuse for ignorance about anything. My biggest pet peeve lately is that white people always want a new and fresh explanation, as if the ones that people of color have been writing and saying for centuries just aren't good enough. It goes to that spoiled thing that happens when you are the center of your society--you get lazy and want everything brought to you on a platter.

People are going to be pissed that i said that.

I think some white readers who basically get what you're saying with this satiric handbook could still sort of fall back on themselves with it, instead of becoming more genuinely anti-racist. By that i mean, they might just see its many insights into black/white relations as recommendations for merely learning how to seem less racist themselves. Do you see that as a potential problem with How to Rent a Negro?

Not so far. It doesn't allow that. I am proud of that book. It holds the reader accountable and that's good. The feedback I've gotten is that there's no where to squirm.

The kind of racism that the book addresses seems mostly to occur on an individual, interpersonal level. Has the book been criticized at all for not addressing systemic or institutional racism? Do you think it actually does address racism's broader contexts and effects?

The book hasn't been criticized for that but I have. However, it's part of the racist system that we expect the people of color who speak up to be experts and active on every single corner of the universe while white people are still contemplating why they can't use the "n word."

Okay, now all your readers had a moment to contemplate that and we can get back to the convo.

See how easily distracted white people are?

Anyhoo . . . I don't do institutional oppression. I know it, I've studied it, if pressed I could write a darn thorough paper on it, but the place in which I have chosen to situate myself is between and among people and our interactions. I think there is a way that the learning that happens (if it is true good, effective learning) between people can "trickle up" to the powers that be.

And, in my understanding--for example, when I work with young white men, I feel that they are very likely the future "powers that be," so my work with individuals eventually finds its way into those power structures via the people who build them. I feel proud that one of my "kids" has been a legal clerk, a military lawyer and will probably run for office one day. Every time he's in a room, I'm in the room. I know that for sure. I think it's actually quite subversive, the way I approach things.

That makes sense to me. So, you said that your lectures are becoming like a stand-up routine. Is that a tactic for addressing what I'm guessing are largely white audiences more effectively? Or is it a result of your personality, or maybe both?

My whole life I've said "if i had any balls, I'd be a stand up comedian." I guess I'm finally growing a pair.

Can you share a bit of your current humor with us? Or if that won't translate here--are there particular topics or behaviors that you joke about?

OMG. Well. hm. i am working some with race and some with just my societal observations--it's a cool doorway into things. One joke i am working up goes something like "so, if you think that your dog is racist--don't you think you should do something to address this?" I mean I have really met people and their dogs--who bark at me and then the person says, "my dog is so racist" like it's funny. This makes me equally mystified and angry, and i think this kind of behavior is emblematic of our larger problem.

Any idea when your new book will come out? And do you have other projects in the works that you can say anything about yet?

2010 for the book. As far as other projects...not at the moment. I am really loving doing my "I Can Fix Racism" lectures though, and they are very funny. All of your readers should go to my web page right now and invite me to come to their school or community. It's a night you will not forget.

Thank you so much for your time, damali, and I'm really looking forward to your next book. And, I hope, to seeing your anti-racism stand-up routine some time.

Macon--let me thank you. It is so refreshing to see someone take on the role of holding up a mirror to white people that I think is so important. and white people can do it and not get as tired, angry, or downright bored as I have gotten at times. I really hope you and others like you send me quickly to a happy retirement.

We'll try to do our best. One other thing--you got around some when How to Rent a Negro came out--what was it like to be on Bill O'Reilly's show? And is he as much of a mega-jerk as he seems to be?

Bill is a giant white man with a shit-ton of make up on. He was oddly nice to me. No, really. The producer and my publicist, who was there, were all freaked out. The pre-interview the producer did with me was ten times harsher than ol' Bill. My mom liked it. She told me to send him a card. I did, I sent him one of my "we don't talk about racism" race greeting cards.

damali ayo's bout with Bill O'Reilly is on YouTube here, as is some documentation of her piece "Living Flag: Panhandling for Reparations." She explains the latter here, and her own extensive site is here.


  1. Wow, what an amazing and talented lady.
    Of course I had to go the Rent-a-Negro website - there's even a "Rental Form" O_o - omg, the photo of the lady offering watermelon to the other lady... omg... hair touching! and the website background is navy (seeing that I'm already stating the obvious)
    I am definitely going to be following her work from now on, thanks for introducing her to me.

  2. if you are a person of color in our culture, people feel like they can bombard you racially not only with questions but with ignorance, need for absolution, touching, feeling, singing, rhyming, rapping, and mimicking what they perceive to be your language and culture. This is not only deemed acceptable behavior in our culture, but when people of color speak out against it we are treated as if *we* are the ones stepping out of line.THIS! And in my personal experience, the person saying this to me is a male 99% of the time so their is that added dimension of male privilege in that they wouldn't try to get away with this with a black male but because I'm a woman I'm safe/easily taken advantage of and the perfect person to unload all of their racist BS on.
    In the past few weeks I've experienced this both from a White male as well as an Asian male international student. Unfortunately the US exports their racist media so non Americans believe all of the stereotypes about black people.

  3. "... it's part of the racist system that we expect the people of color who speak up to be experts and active on every single corner of the universe while white people are still contemplating why they can't use the 'n word.'"

    Very smart observation. I have seen this. You make a really strong point there.

    I have also seen in my own anti-racist endeavors. If I've challenged something that's wrong, something I think it's important we identify immediately, I can get jumped on for not doing it better, or not challenging more important things. I hate this. "Don't you think by sweating the 'small stuff' you are perpetuating racism / making things worse?". "Martin Luther King would not have cared about the Old Navy commercial." etc. This drives me nuts and I have not yet developed your very short and smart reply to these kinds of accusations / minimizations.

    Great interview - both of you! Thank you.

  4. Kelly, as one of those who's views you "hate", I wish to clarify what it was I said. I did not ever say to address Old Navy directly, complain, or should you feel it strongly enough, boycott them or their sponsors products, was wrong, or not enough. Nor did I say that sweating the small stuff "perpetuates racism".

    I did say that yes, MLK would not have felt a one-time ad, done in poor taste, would warrant nationwide marches. If the company was guilty of systemic, ongoing racism, and there were people being hurt by it, then yes, that would rise to the level of mass movement.

    At this time, that is not the case, since I've not seen anyone raise the issue about Old Navy, beyond that one commercial. So, either they realized their error in judgment &/or got so much flak, they changed up, and have moved on, or.....those who were so fired up, have succumbed to that "white liberal laziness" Damali spoke of in her interview, and just lost interest.

    Working to change racist attitudes is not about coming up with "short & smart replies" whenever you feel defensive about what others may say. It's about being in it for the long haul, raising the issue when we are amongst our white friends, knowing at the same time, we may often be met with resistance, or even flat-out attacks.

    We shouldn't worry much about what others say, listen of course, but if it's not productive, just move on. There's not much a friend can say to us that compares in even the slightest, to what the white freedom riders had to be fearful of, in their stand for justice, back in the day....

  5. Thank you so much for interviewing Damali Ayo. I love her. That was a great post.

  6. I am definitely in this for the long-haul.

  7. Wonderful post. Thank you for bringing damali to your site readers! She is a force to be reckoned with... and funny as all hell :)

  8. Good interview. Don't have anything new to say about it except...

    The part of the conversation where Macon asks to hear some of her current comedy, and she tells the racist dog story, and explains that she finds those kinds of things offensive. Made me think of a friend whose parents adopted a dog from a rescue in North Idaho, but shortly thereafter ended up in a majority-black area in a different state. The dog growled, snarled etc at African Americans and anyone with curly or dark hair. They've had the dog for years now, tried to retrain it, etc, but as recently as this summer they were still putting him in a crate when the density of people with dark/curly hair visiting the house hit a certain level.

  9. In this world of resources-at-our-fingertips there is simply no excuse for ignorance about anything. My biggest pet peeve lately is that white people always want a new and fresh explanation, as if the ones that people of color have been writing and saying for centuries just aren't good enough.omg!! good point, but i think cultural/socioeconomic context should be taken into account to qualify this statement:

    i used to date a white woman who would condemn "rednecks," on one hand, for not seeking out cultural information that was "readily available," she not realizing that the cultural contexts of and access to information for people of any color in lower-class environments is often extremely limited.

    On the other hand, she'd ask me to explain afresh anytime I pointed out that she'd done or said anything racist, though we'd had those conversations several, several times.

    That's why damali's or any social critic's focus on racism within the context of interpersonal interactions is so very important. If one's focus on racism is too broad (making sweeping condemnations of the ignorance of "rednecks" or poor people in general--people with whom most of these broad-sweeping critics will never interact, btw), it allows them to overlook and be completely ignorant of their own daily racist tendencies.

  10. Excellent post and great interview. I loved it.

    Thanks, Macon d.

  11. Thanks for a great interview. I am a longtime Damali fan, so I like having a chance to catch up on her latest work.

    I do have one critical comment to make, to Damali: please think twice before you use the phrase "having balls" or "growing a pair" to refer to being brave/powerful/strong. I was pretty shocked to see you doing this in the interview, frankly. It's got to be confusing to all the people who look to you as an expert on racial stereotypes, to hear you casually reinforce such offensive sex stereotypes.


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