The idea of a “post-racial” America in the wake of Barack Obama’s 2008 US Presidential win was popular for a while. Now, ten years and seemingly countless racial issues and transgressions later, this notion that we had risen above the transgressions of our country’s bloody past was quaint, innocent, comforting. In order to move forward and feel good about where we might be going, we convinced ourselves that the blood of enslaved people taken from Africa to plow the fields and build the fabric of what would become the United States of America was completely absorbed and blended into the land. We were all one: Europeans, Africans, Asians, Indigenous people marginalized by the colonizers, and so many others who felt the promise of a new nation. We were born of a dream that the land was free, the people were brave, and nothing would obstruct our pursuit of happiness.
How do we come to terms with where we are now? Had we all willingly fallen into a narcotic haze of complacency? Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race is as good a place as any to start a discussion that might be uncomfortable for many people still covering our eyes from the blinding glare of this post-Obama America. The notion of “identity politics” has been troubling for those of us who have never had to clarify who we are in order to get somewhere in this society. If we’ve never had to explain how we got admission to a certain school, why we’ve received a promotion, or that we in fact do have the money to buy products in your store so there’s no need for security to follow us while we browse, then it’s likely we don’t want to initiate a discussion on race. After all, opening that can of worms might risk infecting the entire world with a truth we aren’t willing to admit. Race in America is a beast of a problem that we’d rather keep contained in a tightly controlled environment.
Each chapter of So You Want to Talk About Race features what might be best termed uncomfortable questions for difficult times. “Why do you think black people are poor? Do you think it’s for the same reasons that white people are?” Race is in fact a social construct, she notes, and later adds another uncomfortable truth: “…you will get more because they exist to get less.” For Oluo, “they” are people of color, and the supremacy of white people that has been at the essence of American culture “…is this nation’s oldest pyramid scheme.” The factors that create poverty for a white child in Appalachia are different from those that suppress a black child in the inner city. Oluo puts her mission statement very clearly:
“Instead of trying to isolate or ignore race, we need to look at race as a part of the machine… Race alone is not all you need to focus on, but without it, any solution you come up with just won’t work.”
Oluo effectively concludes that issues of race are not going to be solved by battling for the hearts and minds of individual racists. Those people and their sentiments are only part of a bigger, more insidious system of many layers of hate and fear. Oluo clearly addresses her reader: “…why are you here?” It can be a bit jarring to the unaccustomed. Those of us who prefer to hide in the corner of a lecture hall as a speaker elucidates ideas that might prove uncomfortable can get uncomfortable when we’re called out. Oluo wants to address single parts of the system (cultures of patriarchy, white supremacism, and any other sort of “ism” that’s intended to keep down the “other”) and send her readers off to the job of dismantling it.
There’s some necessary uncomfortable truth revealed in the next chapter, “What if I talk about race wrong?” and the reader starts to understand Oluo’s mission. She was raised by her mother, a white woman, in Denton, Texas. In a phone conversation, her mother tells a story of a race joke gone wrong. It “…had a black punchline-not like, a punchline about black people, but a punchline for black people.” Her mom’s co-worker is offended, and her mom counters: “He doesn’t know what I went through, he doesn’t know that I have two black kids.” It’s about uncomfortable truths and a learning process. Oluo closes most of her chapters with numbered suggestions. Among them is the very clear “If you are white, watch how many times you say ‘I’ and ‘me.’ ” Among the other suggestions worth keeping are “Stop trying to jump back in when a conversation is beyond saving.”
“Racial oppression should always be an emotional topic to discuss… always be anger-inducing… it upsets because it exists, not because we talk about it.”
So You Want to Talk About Race is about understanding terms, phrases, and a new language for uncomfortable ideas. If we have ever been told to “check your privilege”, we understand that it’s not always about race. In social justice context, it’s a series of advantages that many have — and many others don’t. It’s about sexuality, body type, and intellectual differences. “Being privileged doesn’t mean you are always wrong,” she writes. “…[I]t means that there is a good chance you are missing…important pieces of the puzzle.” In her discussion of intersectionality, a term coined by civil rights activist Kimberle Crenshaw used to describe how race and gender intermingle to impact the lives of women of color, Oluo suggests it be a required educational element for all people working in social justice movements.
How do we deal with police brutality? Is it really about race? Oluo argues that after the “…Fugitive Slave Act was passed, catching and reenslaving black people became the job of Night Patrols as well, and that job was continued after the Night Patrols were turned into the country’s first police forces.” She’s very clear that our police forces were created to control people of color, and that when talking about this one should “…stand secure in your experience.”
What works best in So You Want to Talk About Race are the personal experiences Oluo recounts. She tells a depressing story in the beginning of her chapter on Affirmative Action about an experience her brother had in school that seemed to set his course for life. She takes us to workplace experiences, when she was labeled overly aggressive, when she had to face sexual harassment. She tells the history of the term, “sexual harassment”, and how it came about in the ’60s as a way to at least start the discussion toward balancing inequities in life, providing a sense of fair play. She concludes, as Michelle Alexander did in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010) that perceptions that allowances Affirmative Action have provided are sufficient have been “…detrimental to the fight for social justice. We must never forget that without systematic change… our efforts at ending systematic racial oppression will fail.”
There are other questions to consider here, and Oluo effectively presents them. She argues that the school-to-prison pipeline perception held by many Social Justice Warriors is the result of the pathologizing of black children, the bias of school administrators, and the fact that so much curriculum has marginalized or erased black and brown children. In “Why Can’t I Say the ‘N’ Word?” Oluo emphasizes the “inherited pain” of black people when on the receiving line of the word that was first used as a derogatory shorthand for slaves. In her chapter of cultural appropriation, Oluo is best because she’s clear and decisive:
“You can rap, you can belly dance, you can do anything allowed by law. But whether you ‘can’ or ‘should’ do something is a different matter — that it may be racially insensitive or harmful is beside the point. You can.”
Certainly, the ability is there, but the appropriateness of one race absorbing and re-contextualizing the intrinsic cultural essence of another has rarely resulted in something positive.
If there’s a deficiency to this book (and there aren’t many) the poorly prepared or inexperienced reader might feel overwhelmed by all these ideas floating in Oluo’s atmosphere, though she manages them very well. She discusses the personal implications of “black hair”, and the fact that microaggressions (implicit and passive aggressive hate) have only served to normalize racism. She discusses Colin Kaepernick, “Black Lives Matter”, and her activist son. She enters the fray of the “model minority myth” and notes how it has often fetishized Asian-Americans. In her discussion of “tone policing”, Oluo notes how it’s often a tactic in race conversations where the speaker in power usually changes the topic from what is being discussed to how it’s being discussed. “Build a tolerance for discomfort,” Oluo argues. “You have a right to your anger, sadness, and fear.”
Some might argue that So You Want to Talk About Race proceeds in a user-friendly manner that balances being provocative with being calm and measured. Critics might also argue that such a topic should not be user-friendly, that Oluo should have taken a deep academic dive into the weeds to create an incendiary text useful only in the pulpits of our best academic ivory towers. It’s hard to find a good balance, but So You Want to Talk About Race leaves the reader satisfied. It’s a dangerous, friendly, real book that may very well help to propel a nation of young activists ready to dismantle America’s racist infrastructure, piece-by-piece.