Interview by Lara Lillibridge
Jill Louise Busby spent years in the nonprofit sector specializing in diversity & inclusion. She spoke at academic institutions, businesses, and detention centers on the topics of Race, Power, and Privilege and delivered over more than 200 workshops to nonprofit organizations all over the California Bay Area.
In 2016, fed up with what passed as progressive in the Pacific Northwest, Busby uploaded a one-minute video about race, white institutions, and faux liberalism to Instagram. The video received millions of views across social platforms. As her pithy persona Jillisblack became an “it-voice” weighing in on all things race-based, Jill began to notice parallels between her performance of “diversity” in the white corporate world and her performance of “wokeness” for her followers. Both, she realized, were scripted.
Unfollow Me: Essays on Complicity is a memoir-in-essays about these scripts; it’s about tokenism, micro-fame, and inhabiting spaces-real and virtual, black and white-where complicity is the price of entry. Busby’s social commentary manages to be both wryly funny and achingly open-hearted as she recounts her shape-shifting moves among the subtle hierarchies of progressive communities. Unfollow Me is a sharply personal and self-questioning critique of white fragility (and other words for racism), respectability politics (and other words for shame), and all the places where fear masquerades as progress. (Goodreads)
Lara Lillibridge: To me, your book was so achingly lonely—on one level at least—and so unseen, in spite of being in the public eye. You have a quote that really resonated with me—when you were asked what this book was about, and in response you wrote:
No matter what I say it’s about, it’s actually about me being scared. Of other people, of the internet, of trying too hard. Or it’s about power. How we make ourselves feel powerful when we don’t feel empowered.
I feel most powerful when I feel like I’m being myself. But I don’t even try to be myself in public. Like, the idea of going out into the world as just Jill scares the shit out of me. So I’m always a little bit in character. And that character feels more powerful than I do.
And that, to me, was so incredibly honest, and so much the core of humanity, right? I feel like so many of us can relate to that.
I’m not an Instagram person, I have an account, but I haven’t mastered it.
Jill Louise Busby: I appreciate that about anyone.
LL: So I’m not someone who knew you on the internet. But I wanted to ask you about the difference in vulnerability. On Instagram, it’s a video, people are seeing you and you’re talking and you’re this one persona. And then, you know, on the page, it’s something entirely different. Maybe not entirely different, but certainly a different aspect of vulnerability. So that’s where I’d like to start, if that’s OK with you?
JLB: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know that everybody does it like this. I think that people attempt many different ways of being themselves on the internet. I think my version was especially curated because I wasn’t in dialogue with anybody. I was definitely saying, this is what’s happening, this is how I feel about it, believe it or not, and now I disappear. You don’t know anything about me, you don’t know anything about my relationships. You don’t know if I went out to dinner last night, because I didn’t post a picture of it.
And so what also is interesting about it is that I’m going around saying that I’m more honest than other people, or it is a part of my brand of like, ‘we should just be honest.’ And so it’s especially funny, I think, from someone who’s claiming so much honesty online, that you know nothing about her. Which is why when I would announce something very personal, people would be very shocked by it, because they were like, ‘We didn’t even know if you had a relationship, or where you live or what you do. Absolutely nothing.’
So I was really allowed to become whatever people needed me to be, whether that be a friend, a best friend, a coworker, someone who challenges them, which is really just them challenging themselves. I could be anything, because there was nobody in that that really worked for a long time, and that it did not necessarily work for me.
LL: In so many online interactions I think we often feel we know people much more than we actually do.
JLB: Of course, yeah.
LL: I read something somewhere that says that we sort of fill what we don’t know about someone online with the best version of who we want someone to be. So we assume that this person agrees with us on everything.
LL: And, you know with the Jillisblack persona—or I’m not sure what the correct word is.
JLB: That sounds about right.
LL: Like, you were pretty bold, right?
JLB: [laughs] Yes.
LL: And you would talk to trolls, and you just really put yourself out there. And I wonder with this book, like, do you feel that same confidence about reading reviews and stuff? Are you going into this like in this, like, ‘Oh, I can handle everything?’
LL: Are you as terrified as the rest of us?
JLB: Absolutely. Maybe more so because I have to undo one to do the other. It’s not like I can keep Jillisblack alive while also telling the story of her. So I think even writing that into the book, down to the very final second of sort of this battling between myself and Jillisblack. I can’t take her with me, because she’s no one. And so yeah, I’m just like everybody else. I am not at the stage where I’m not reading my reviews. But that’s coming soon. I think I have like two and a half more weeks, you know, where I’m still like, Oh, good. And then, you know, like, the giveaway will happen, and then I get everybody’s opinion.
But no, I’m definitely just as scared. I’m just not sure who I’m scared of yet. The people who know me already or the people who don’t?
JLB: So we’ll see.
LL: Yeah. When my first book came out, I was totally fine with strangers reading it. I used to picture someone far away on the west coast reading my book, and if she didn’t like it, that was okay. But I did not want my next door neighbor to read it.
JLB: Right, yes.
LL: I just did not want that level of being seen. And I was terrified for my parents to read it.
JLB: Yes, yes.
LL: And your mother—it sounds like you have an unusually close relationship with her. Was she involved in reading drafts?
LL: Okay, so this is not going to be a surprise to her.
JLB: [Laughs] No, this will definitely not be a surprise. You know, it’s not just my family. My grandparents are her parents. My aunts and uncles are her siblings. So I think it felt really important, because we are so close, that we kind of almost do part of it together. So I was reading a lot to her and asking real questions about what felt true. And how she felt about things, how she would feel about things as the book came together. We had to do a lot of checking in because again, I don’t do this in a vacuum. So that’s all very important.
LL: To me, that sounds wonderful—to have this book coming out knowing that you’ve already vetted it with the people that most matter to you.
JLB: Yes, yes, definitely.
LL: Let me switch tracks. In the acknowledgments at the end of your book, you thanked the Rhode Island Writers Colony. Is that the same place that you wrote about in the book?
JLB: A different place.
LL: Okay. And what was your publishing journey like? In the book, you wrote about talking about writing a book, and obviously it became a book. Did you query with the proposal? Did you have it fully written? I feel like new writers are always interested in the logistics of how the book comes into the world.
JLB: Definitely. I was. I’m already sharing throughout the whole thing my desire to write the book, but I don’t know what it would be about. And I didn’t know who would actually get to write it. And I show up—actually I get a phone call from someone who had done another year of the Writers Colony in Rhode Island.
And they’re like, ‘you know, I’ve been following you for a while and I’m just going to try to talk you into going to this retreat. It’s for people of color, run by people of color. And, you know, we’re kind of like an invite-only situation, so we know what we’re working with here. And I just I really want you to do this.’
And I was like, ‘oh, next year, I’ll do it next year.’ She was like, ‘okay, but I really think it should be this year.’ Of course, next year will be 2020. And it will not happen. So I was like, ‘Alright, fine.’ And I apply and I get in. And from there, you know, it was really Jason Reynolds, who is the artistic director of the colony. And also he had followed me.
So he takes me outside, and he says, ‘I really didn’t want you here at all, when I heard that you were coming.’ I was like, ‘why?’ And he’s says, ‘I’ve been following you for a long time. This book should have been written a long time ago. So I expect you to use these resources. Because this place is for someone who’s just getting started, or really needs the push. And I just don’t feel like that’s you.’
And I’m like, ‘No, this is definitely me. You know, there’s one thing in doing an online persona, and then there is also my own fear as a writer and as a real person.’ And from there, he was like, ‘Alright, well, then my suggestion to you is going to be: find out a writer that you like, and find out who their agent is.’
And one of the people he mentioned was Darnell Moore. We had had some misconnections, so we had each other’s phone number, and I called him and I’m like, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do.’ He’s like, ‘Alright, here’s my agent,’ and then it moved really fast from there. But I would have to say it started when Jason Reynolds asked me, ‘Why are you here?’
LL: It lit a fire under you.
JLB: So after that, you know, it’s an accountability at this point of like, ‘you’re right, it’s time.’ And I wanted to make good on people who invested in me. So it was kind of the push that I needed, because other than that I’m not particularly ambitious. So, you know, it’s like, all right, I guess it’s time and it was.
LL: And yet, you know, you have this quote,
“I was going to finally reach my full potential and stop relying on the tall tales of its existence.”
LL: And I just loved that. Because when I was younger, I knew I had this great potential, and someday I was going to do something, but it was just year after year after year of not ever doing anything.
JLB: Oh, definitely. And if you’re a creative person, it’s like, I did a little bit of art, I did some acting, I did a little of this. But nothing was happening.
LL: So you got the agent? And at that point, did you have a full manuscript, or did you go on proposal?
JLB: Oh, sorry. Yes. I had a couple of chapters that I started. And she’s like, ‘yeah, I can see that there’s something here. Let’s pull together this book proposal.’ So I took a few months and worked on the book proposal and refined the two chapters that I had done. And then we went out with those.
LL: So one question I had about the form of the essays—you do a lot with second person. And on Instagram, you posted open letters, like, ‘Dear white people.’ I just wondered if the second person is particularly resonant for you—if that was an intentional choice, or if that’s just how words flow naturally for you
JLB: Yeah. This is more about like being in conversation with Jillisblack, or Jillisblack being in conversation with me. So I think whether I’m telling myself the story of these last four years, or I’m telling her the story, going back and forth seems to make sense. And I think I’m always, at this point, talking to a social media audience, because it’s just the reality for me.
So that was definitely part of it. And those letters were a late decision. The book process was like, I think people need some perspective on what I was doing here. Because without them, I was getting a bit lost in it. So yeah, it’s always going to be addressing this make believe person who watches everything that I do and really wants me to be my best self. So maybe I’m also talking to them.
LL: I think that that is so interesting. I really love when someone approaches a book from a different perspective. I don’t know if you know Reema Zaman. But in her book, I’m Yours, she included letters to herself. But it’s a little different, because in your book, sometimes it’s almost adversarial, right?
JLB: [laughs] Yes.
LL: Like, kind of a fight for which voice was going to emerge?
LL: Did your agent get that right away?
JLB: Yeah, I think because I started with the essays “A Consequence of Us,” And “Still, Until.” I think that my agent was like, ‘Yes, “Still Until”—I love it. So that’s kind of where she found herself seeing the potential. And then my editor was like, oh, “A Consequence of Us,” that’s the one that I like.
So I think, you know, the opportunity to write these essays also means —and no one has to agree with me—but I think hopefully, there’s something for someone. I may not even agree with me by next month, we’ll see.
But I think they got what was happening, but for different reasons. And I think I also had a different reason. So I’m not upset about a world where people are actually getting something very different out of it, depending on who’s reading, and which essay feels the most like theirs.
But yeah, I mean, I think they got it. But the book changed a lot, because you know, I get more and more current. I promised one thing, and it ended up being a similar thing. But you know, I was writing in real time for some of it as well, and I didn’t know what was going to happen.
LL: You really wrote into the present moment. Compared to you know—I read a lot of books where the story was 10 years old or something. So at what point did you know you were done?
Was it just time?
JLB: No, no, I had six months. And I actually was the one who made the suggestion, I was like, ‘I think I need six months to write it.’ Because I was worried that if I had anything longer—that’s just not my personality. So six months, great, because it felt impossible. And I was starting from the beginning. So when something feels impossible, I can get more inspired.
But I had similar essays. And the summaries were like, ‘I’m going to say this thing, and I don’t tell you how I’m going to get there yet.’ And I think I said the same things, but I found out how I was going to get there in real time. I had this big thing happen a few weeks after I got the book deal. And it seems silly to like, not say ‘What’s up?’ Because this is the point—that my life is going on behind the scenes. And also I mean, it was 2020. So it was also hard to ignore.
But yes, I tried to write it as current as I could, because as a reader I thought that would be interesting. Especially for this person who’s almost like chasing themselves into writing the book, to do that, in real time felt like it would be very effective. So hopefully it is.
LL: I found it so.
JLB: Okay, then.
LL: I haven’t read a lot that addresses the present moment, and so I’m hungry for that. I feel like since the beginning of the pandemic, everyone starts every conversation with a new person asking ‘what’s the pandemic been like for you?’ So it’s got an aspect of that.
So this is a shift of the topic. I’m a queer person, and my mom is a lesbian, so I grew up in a lesbian family. And to me, the parts about your marriage—you got married, and then just went home to your grandmother’s, and no one knew—that was so freaking heartbreaking.
The idea that saying that you were married would destroy, or at least wound, or put at risk this whole online persona that you had built up, you know? It slayed me.
JLB: Yes—because of my audience. I mean, I was very queer before Jillisblack—all of my posts are about that, and they’re still there. I was using words like ‘oh, it’s obvious,’ but you know, overtime it was dealing with ‘no, you’re ignoring it because you have this faction of your audience that doesn’t believe this is a real thing.’
And you agree with them on these points, and because you supposedly have this shared viewpoint, you have to—just like they do—pretend that this thing isn’t happening, that they don’t say you don’t exist, and that we’re both pretending that something’s not there. And no matter how many posts I still had before it, there were people that were definitely just seeing me as that character and getting to choose what they needed to see in order to agree with me.
And it was an interesting time. So I mean, the announcement of the marriage, of course, I lose many followers, but also it brings me into a new identity group as well, so then, here comes another kind of social identity pressure, but you know, you can’t get out of those. It is what it is.
LL: It’s funny, because for myself, I am much more visibly queer on Twitter than I am in real life. Like, even though it’s public, and scary, it’s also safer in a way then at my son’s school, where there’s real consequences.
JLB: Absolutely. I mean, there’s that audience, and then there’s my grandmother, and those are very different things.
LL: Yeah. But you know, I’m terrible at dealing with online negativity—I’m really a big baby about posting things. And at first I read my reviews, and then I just stopped because if there was a paragraph that was good and one sentence that was bad, I just focused on that one sentence.
LL: But I think it’s really interesting, just the whole concept of versions of ourselves. And, you know, in some ways, very few people see us as whole people, you know, even the book is an aspect of you that is not 100% representative, right?
LL: Because nothing ever really is 100.
LL: Right, and then we’re different people with different friends even.
LL: I found for me writing my book changed me—the act of actually putting down that many words, and finishing it and revising it and doing the actual work to get it published and not just existing on my computer. I felt like that changed me as a person. Yeah. Did you have any sort of experience like that?
JLB: I did, in the sense that another identity I’d taken on is that of a slacker. And I was kind of a proud slacker. You know, it was just like, ‘yeah, you know, nothing really works’.
So I think it showed me that when I want something done, and I really mean it, I can get it done, and be proud of it. So it felt like a big accomplishment in terms of just like getting the words on the paper, turning it and going to copy edits, all of that. But the other? No, cuz it’s ongoing. So then you move on to the next lesson. I feel like the book was like that thing that I was always going to be able to say I wanted to do and had no plans to do. And now it’s not, and so I have to find something else that I tell myself a lie about to replace it. So you know, wish me luck. You know, I’m happy to be on to the next thing. I’ll say that I’m ready for the next challenge.
LL: Do you see yourself writing more books? Or are you just open to see what creative venture comes up?
JLB: Yeah, I am open to writing more books, but they would probably be similar. I like, as my own reader, I like the idea of following this reluctant person through many different steps of the journey. So I can I can see these essays going on and probably it will continue to be something like this. But there are other things that I want to be doing.
I have a web series with my mother that I have a little more fun with. And you know, I’m a serious person. Some I’m like, Jill, maybe you go where you have more fun for a while and see what that’s like. So we’ll try on many things. But yeah, I do want at least one more book.
LL: Is your web series up now?
JLB: Yes, we completed the fourth and final season in the last year or so—at the end of 2019.
LL: So, I guess another question is, is there sadness in walking away? Or I guess first of all, are you walking away from Jillisblack? Or is Jillisblack going to live on in another ideation? Is that still unknown, or, you know, is it an evolution?
JLB: Again, to name her is to kill her. And the second I say Jillisblack is something other than myself, she doesn’t exist anymore other than in the past. So it feels inevitable, but also in terms of my choice making, yeah, it’s over. I just can’t stand social media at all now.
LL: Oh, yeah? Completely?
JLB: I would love to say it’s just like all of my pretty ideals, but at this point, it changed so much for me, and I was only allowed to do one kind of thing, and once that thing got boring—it’s not like I’m posting a whole bunch of fun selfies from like Cabo or anything, that would have been fun. But I just did that same thing. I guess it worked out, because now I don’t know what to do on there. And I feel a lot happier when I’m not there.
So the irony, of course, is now that this book is coming, I’m back doing some of that, but now, I think this is it, and I think at the end of my social media life, it was also over. And I think people were maybe a little bit hopeful that I would come back and do the other thing, and that they didn’t like what I was doing, which is more similar to the book, but I think everybody was kind of hoping I was going to come back with a Dear White People that was going to make them feel better about things we can’t control. So I don’t know how people let that go. I think she gets to live on with them, because I never reacted to current events. And if you really want a Jillisblack video, they’re all still relevant because they’re not reactive. So she lives on, but not with me.
LL: Gotcha. I feel like a lot of writers feel pressure to be on social media, like you have to do this, you have to do that. But I mean, the truth is, nobody knows, really, what moves the sales needle, nobody knows what’s going to go viral. And you wrote about that, too—the things that would take off versus the things that wouldn’t. As much as everyone would like to come up with a formula for that, I don’t think there is one.
LL: But was your publisher and your publicist cool with you saying like, ‘No, I’m not going to do that?’ Did they want you back on social media to promote the book now? Or is that too personal of a question?
JLB: I would love to answer that question. I just wonder if that’s a question I should be answering [laughs]. I think they were very understanding of why I wasn’t on there until it was about book stuff. I think I showed up saying, ‘hey, when I have something about this book to say, that’s what I will do. But I cannot make another one of these videos to keep this alive in the meantime.’ And everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, that makes sense to us.’
As we get closer, I think it starts to make some sense to be like, ‘Hey, Jill, you want to tell these people about the book?’ And the book is about social media, so it makes sense that this is kind of my last hurrah to be like, ‘Hey, I’m coming on here to basically let you know that I have more to say about this.’ And that feels a bit better.
But if it was in that same style, we would have had to strike that deal. And then of course, as I also talked about in the book, it’s always that fine line between was it social media that did it or can I write? And that’s a whole another feeling of like, is it numbers or quality? And I think that’s fair for people to have to ask themselves, because I like quality myself. So ask yourself like, is this about what they can use me for? Or is it about what I can do? And that is something that I’m working on as this book comes out is, you know, reminding myself that I was doing this before she was, and that it is my dream, not hers. But of course, which one are we leading with these days? Because social media is ruling everything.
LL: Right. Uncontainable I think is the word that you said. And I think personally, one thing that I like about books is that you have to sit with them a little bit longer—you have to sit with uncomfortable material longer, you have really see the person from different angles.
I found your writing to be really lyrical and beautiful. I don’t know if you were into poetry at all. I’m always curious when someone can write a beautiful sentence (because that’s not my writing style) what influences them.
JLB: You know, I really grew up in the fanfiction community—no one knows that. But I think about that all the time. Now, as I get into this world, I’m like, you know, you really trained yourself on fanfiction. When I was young, I was just writing all the time. And it was before social media really hit, so people were a little more honest online. And I felt like I got to workshop so many different things that way, and I really developed a style that way.
But you know, I think it’s also I do a lot of spoken stuff. So getting to do those videos was also practicing a cadence that really made its way to my writing after Jillisblack started, because I don’t think that that was there before I had to start writing these videos. They developed this rhythm, and now I can’t lose that rhythm. So we’ll see. I ask myself, how would you say this? And I’m constantly reading it out loud to myself and my own ears.
LL: I had a mentor that told me that I should read every draft out loud. And I was like, really? I didn’t even want to do it when there was nobody home. But I think it helped my writing more than just about anything else, just to hear how the words sounded.
LL: And I’ve also read that fan fiction is one of the best ways to develop as a writer because you have these extent characters, and you have to make them consistent. And you are restrained by this time period—you’re constrained by all of these things, this framework
LL: And yet, you still want to be creative and expressive within that framework.
JLB: Oh, yeah, fanfiction has some of the most talented writers I’ve ever seen. And you know, whether they stay there and that works for them, or they decide to write books, I think I got to see a lot of talent that way. And it’s also a lot of reality that there a lot of excellent writers out there. And some of them want to write books, and some just want to write. And I had to figure out which one was me, and here we are. But if a good show comes on, I can’t say that I won’t throw my hat in the ring for one more fanfiction story. Who knows?
LL: Well, why not? Right? Why contain ourselves to one thing or another?
JLB: Right. That’s true.
LL: I also apologize for questions that sound like, what are you going to do now? I think that’s such an absolutely ridiculous question that I cannot answer for myself.
JLB: That’s why we ask other people those questions. Like, do you have an idea? Right?
LL: Can you give me a hint?
So do you have advice for new writers that are out there trying to find their voice or believe in the importance of their voice?
JLB: Yeah. The hardest part of my book for me is I feel, and this might not be true, but like I’m going up against the trend. You know, a certain way that we talk about things right now. And sometimes that can be frustrating—so diversity means, does it mean different? And you know, there was a second guessing, of pushing up against something that inspired me to write this book in the first place.
I don’t necessarily think we need another book about race unless we’re going to say something new. So I had to ask myself, what was my book—that is mostly about race—going to be about? Why did we need it?
And I’m not scared of asking if my book is needed, because I have a lot of fiction ideas and other stuff that feels very different. But because this is a matter of importance to me, I had to really spend a lot of time thinking about the books that inspired me. I read Invisible Man last year, and it was like right on time. And I thought to myself, like, Jill, this is so worthy right now, you really needed it. It’s really helping. And I’m not comparing myself to Ralph Ellison, but if there’s one person who’s got a question that you have the answer for, don’t you want to give that answer? You know, because I want it. I want people to keep making things that make me feel not just seen, because we say that a lot now, but you know, like a little less bananas in a chaotic society. Yeah, I think it’s worth it.
And there’s somebody who needs it [your voice]. It might be me. So I would like you to do it. Just in case it’s me that needs it. And I just hope that there’s someone that needs it. And then we continue pushing for real diversity. Real diversity of thought, of type, of opinion. We can’t control what that looks like. I think that that is a worthy fight, and diversity of thought exists in every genre, every politic everywhere. So I would say that your story is worth it to people. But you got to ask.
LL: What do you mean, ‘you have to ask?’
JLB: You have to ask if it’s needed. If it’s just for me, do I really want to spend my time on what I’m writing about? Not necessarily everything. But you know, we’re making a lot of money right now. So I don’t want it to just be for trend.
LL: Right, yeah. Your book did make me think about some things differently. And it did make me sit in places of being uncomfortable. And in terms of other books out there, I do think you are a new and different voice in the conversation, and not just in terms of race, and not just in terms of queerness but also just in terms of, yourself as a writer and the style and the risks that you took in terms of form and the way that you put this book together.
JLB: I appreciate that.
LL: And I personally, I just really think we need more voices always you know, we need to be challenged, we need to read people who are not like us, and we need to read people who are also like us, right? Like we need to see ourselves in a book, but in a good book someone with a totally different experience can still find connection.
Jill Louise Busby (more affectionately known as jillisblack) is a writer and filmmaker critiquing, imploding, and barrel-laughing at our personal and communal hierarchies; the myth of white fragility (and other words for racism); the endlessly-pending and highly-exclusive revolution, identity, and reaction-based illusions of societal progress; and the boundaries that all place on our lives.
Believing a shift away from anti-difference begins with an outpouring of radical, multi-generational, inclusive, and validating honesty, Jill’s work charms audiences just past their limits of comfort, inviting them to seek a new and more genuine freedom in the discomfort of truth.
Her debut book, Unfollow Me: Essays on Complicity, an intimate, impertinent, and incisive collection about race, progress, and hypocrisy, released September 7, 2021 from Bloomsbury Publishing. Find Jill online at JillLouiseBusby.com.