Study Guide Project: So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (Summary, Chapter Summaries, Themes, Analysis)
So You Want To Talk About Race
By Ijeoma Oluo
Race has always been a defining force in Ijeoma Oluo’s life, but she has not talked much about it before now. She decided to change her food blog to a forum on race. Throughout her blog and now in this book, she answers people’s questions about race such as “How do I deal with my mother-in-law’s racist jokes?” and “What exactly is intersectionality?”
Oluo works with one definition of race: “Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race when these views are reinforced by systems of power.” She knows that there are many racists in the world, but she does not concern herself with the unapologetic racists on the fringes. She works for change in systemic racism and believes that readers are best served by tying the instance of racism they observe to the system that engendered it. For example, readers would be justified in asking for a teacher who uses a racist slur against a Hispanic student to be fired, but the reader should go much further than that and ask about how many people of color are on staff and how many Hispanic students graduate. Oluo knows the conversations on race can be difficult, but they are worth it and besides, “There is no shoving the four hundred years’ racial oppression and violence toothpaste back into the toothpaste tube.”
Many tips for having a productive discussion on race follow. Oluo counsels readers to state their intentions clearly and remember what their top priority in the conversation is. She tells readers to do their homework ahead of the conversation on race and make sure not to tone police. She also asks people to keep track of all the times they say “I” or “me.”
In opening up a discussion about checking privileges, Oluo writes that everyone has some privileges, and it is best to acknowledge these at the outset of a conversation. She even suggests writing out a complete list. She explains that where there is advantage for one, there is disadvantage for another. She uses a personal example in her discussion: Oluo has light black skin, and she says that this is an advantage for her because society sees darker-skinned people as more threatening than light skinned people. She explains that she needs to acknowledge this privilege and work against shadeism whenever and wherever possible.
Next, Oluo invites readers into a deep discussion of intersectionality. Intersectionality is “the belief that our social justice movements must consider all the intersections of identity, privilege, and oppression that people face in order to be just and effective.” Racial privilege is one important privilege, but gender, class, race, and sexuality are also crucial parts of our identity. Oluo warns that if readers do not acknowledge all of their privileges, they risk the oppression of others.
Oluo then moves into a discussion of police brutality by presenting some stark statistics: “The fact is that black drivers are 23 percent more likely to be pulled over than other drivers, between 1.5 and 5 times more likely to be searched…and more likely to be ticketed and arrested in these stops.” She asks readers to understand that the police forces evolved from Night Patrols (used to control black and Native American populations in New England) and “slave patrols” that returned fugitive slaves to their masters.
Drawing readers in with a story about her brother’s difficult time in the K-12 system, Oluo argues that Affirmative Action is a tool to be used to combat systemic racism. She notes that Affirmative Action was introduced by President Kennedy in the 1960s and continued under President Johnson. The Affirmative Action policy included “increased recruitment efforts, extra consideration given to race and gender, and diversity goals.” At no point did the policy involve quotas. Oluo sees missed opportunities in the dismantling of Affirmative Action policies over the past few decades.
The past few decades have also brought grave troubles to the surface of the American education bureaucracy. Oluo argues that the school to prison pipeline starts very early for brown and black individuals as their behavior in school is criminalized. Black students “make up only 16 percent of our school populations, and yet 31 percent of students who are suspended and 40 percent of students who are expelled are black.” Oluo urges readers to talk about these staggering statistics, and not just in activist circles.
In a difficult conversation on cultural appropriation, Oluo suggests that we listen carefully to marginalized people before adopting their cultural products. She knows that the term itself can be emotional and confusing, for it is about cultural ownership at the most basic level. She uses rap music as her example. She concedes that people can produce whatever art they wish, but “Are we sure we want to take all the enjoyment and achievement of rap without having lived the pain and history of rap as well?”
With honesty and energy, Oluo also offers a wealth of discussion about black hair and how she came to love her own hair. She used to use white hair as her model, but she makes that mistake no longer. She loves her soft and curly hair but warns people not to touch it without asking her permission. As formerly enslaved people, black people did not have dominion over their own bodies, so it is crucial to Oluo now that no one touch her without asking.
A rich section on microaggressions also teaches readers that the “small daily insults” can cause lasting damage. Oluo provides some examples such as “Wow, you’re so articulate” or “Are you an affirmative action hire?” These microaggressions can be compounded over time causing hypervigilance, anxiety, and depression. Oluo also carefully points out that not all microaggressions are spoken; some are more subtle actions such as clutching a purse tighter when a black person walks by.
Oluo does not neglect to mention the model minority myth that can be hurtful to Asian Americans. She states that the myth “fetishizes” Asian Americans and reduces them to harmful stereotypes. The myth presents Asian Americans as an “ideal” minority with innate gifts in math and science, financial success, strict parenting, and “meekness” in social and political spheres.
As Oluo concludes her book, she urges readers not to be content with talking about systemic racism only. She directs readers to take action by voting for local officials, participating in school systems, and supporting businesses owned by people of color. She advises that people boycott banks that exploit people of color. She advises readers in general to bear witness to the hardships of others. Oluo firmly believes that by working together, we can achieve racial justice.
Blackness has always been a central part of Ijeoma Oluo’s life. It informs so many of her decisions every day and contributes to the oppression she feels daily when she, for instance, is followed by a clerk in a store or when she is told that her hair is “too ethnic.” But her blackness has brought her great joy too such as when she knows that Toni Morrison’s books were written for her.
Race has been one of the most defining forces in Oluo’s life, but she has not always talked openly about this before now. In the past, she dealt with being black in a white world by working harder and dressing better than her white colleagues. She bent over backwards not to appear angry. Recently, she started resisting and changed her food blog to a “me” blog and started writing down “my frustrations and heartbreak.” At first, she was writing for survival, and many of her white friends were alienated by this. Gradually, she began to hear from others across cities and countries that she was not alone in her observations.
It is a fact that these are “scary” times for many people who have to face the fact that America is not the utopian melting pot they may have been taught that it was. They are difficult times for white people who did not realize how terrified their friends of color were. They are hard times for the people of color who have been shouting and fighting for so long. Right now, there is a chasm between these two groups.
Oluo decided to write this book because she heard people ask “How do I talk to my mother in law about the racist jokes she makes?” or “I don’t know what intersectionality is, and I’m afraid to say so.” People asked these questions in person or in online forums, and Oluo decided that now was the time to have these difficult conversations.
Oluo lets readers in on some of the conversations she has. A white friend she meets for coffee keeps asking if the issue of poverty and class shouldn’t be addressed first instead of race. This is not possible, Oluo says. Waiting for change has been tried over and over in political races, and nothing has changed. Even the election of Barack Obama was mostly symbolic. The facts of racism had not changed much: “in just about every demographic of socio-political-economic well-being, black and brown people were consistently getting less.”
Addressing class differences alone is clearly not enough. Talking about race, even though it may be difficult sometimes, is essential. Here is how Oluo says we should know an issue is really about race:
- It is about race if a person of color thinks it is about race.
- It is about race if it disproportionately or differently affects people of color.
- It is about race if it fits into a broader pattern of events that disproportionately or differently affects people of color.
Furthermore, Oluo has to deal with people who are still propagating the Welfare Queen myth. She had to deal with one friend who would not recognize the racism of the person espousing the Welfare Queen myth. That friend’s denial hurt almost as much as the original insult.
Oluo states that in general, there are two definitions of the word racism: 1. Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race or 2. Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race when these views are reinforced by systems of power. For the purposes of the book, Oluo uses the second of these definitions.
Oluo acknowledges that there are so many unapologetic racists in the U.S. sharing Obama=monkey memes, but these racists are not the main concern of this book. She is most concerned about the white supremacist system that has developed over 400 years. She provides an example of that system: If she calls a white person a “cracker,” that individual will have merely a bad day whereas if someone thinks she is a “nigger,” she could be fired or even arrested in a system that has existed for centuries and has the power to act.
Oluo says that if you come to this book hoping to make everyone as individuals be kinder to each other, you will probably be disappointed, but if you come to the book hoping to battle systemic racism, this is the book for you. The systemic racism cannot be fixed on a purely emotional basis. We must acknowledge racism as part of a system and see how our actions interact with systemic racism. It is best to tie individual instances of racism to the system that engenders it. For example, you can demand that a colleague who uses a racial slur about a Hispanic student be fired, but you should also ask about the school’s graduation rate for Hispanics, how many people of color are on staff, and what policies are in place to deal with incidents of discrimination.
Even though Oluo’s mother is white, she and her mother didn’t have their first real conversation about race until she was 34 years old. Her mother had made the “obligatory speeches” that all parents of black children must have such as not challenging cops and being prepared to have clerks following you throughout a store, but the first real conversation was yet to come. Oluo’s mother thought her children were perfect and beautiful, and it took her a while to realize the entire “universe” of difficulties her children would face because they were black.
One night, Oluo’s mother left her a phone message that said she had had an awakening about race. Her mom is loving and kind, a great mother and grandmother, but still, Oluo wasn’t looking forward to this conversation because talking about race is always hard, and Oluo’s mom can be somewhat exhausting. In sum, Oluo says that she has been “rolling her eyes” at her mom for 36 years.
Finally, the conversation began. Oluo’s mother had been telling a joke with a “black” punchline at work, and a co-worker asked what she could possibly know about being black. Her mom told Oluo that she thought the co-worker didn’t know who the good white people were, so he was probably tired and angry.
Oluo thinks this was a necessary conversation to have with her mother. They were able to talk about how it is not fair to put all the burden of talking about race on people of color, and they discussed when not to discuss race. They are now able to have better conversations, and Oluo thinks that her mother understands her work even more deeply now than she did prior to this conversation. Now, instead of proving herself to black people, Oluo’s mother tries to get white people to do better. Her mom is now an outspoken advocate for racial equality in her union, and her daughter is very proud of this fact.
Oluo recognizes how hard conversations on race are, but she says that we have to have them because race is everywhere and “There is no shoving the four hundred years’ racial oppression and violence toothpaste back into the toothpaste tube.” Often, it is the lack of concern about race that is the most hurtful. Oluo uses examples here of the military banning the hairstyles of some of their black soldiers.
Oluo wants to let readers know that they are probably going to “screw up” some conversations, but they have to push on nevertheless. These are the tips Oluo offers for having these hard conversations:
- State your intentions.
- Remember what your top priority in the conversation is, and don’t let your emotions override that.
- Do your research.
- Don’t make your anti-racism argument oppressive against other groups.
- When you feel defensive, stop and ask yourself why.
- Do not tone police.
- If you are white, watch how many times you say “I” and “me.”
- Ask yourself, Am I trying to be right, or am I trying to do better?
- Do not force people of color into discussions on race.
Knowing that there will be difficulties in discussions of race, these are tips from Oluo for when things have gone wrong:
- Stop trying to jump back in when a conversation is beyond saving.
- Don’t write your synopsis of this conversation as “the time you got yelled at.”
- Don’t insist that people give you credit for your intentions.
- Don’t beat yourself up.
- Remember that it is worth the risk and commit to trying again.
Racial oppression will always be hard to talk about because it involves the pain of others. Don’t ask people of color to bear this burden all alone. White people should talk to other white people about race too. So should black people talk to black people. Be brave in talking about race because even though it is very difficult, it is absolutely worth it.
In writing about another crucial topic, the concept of privilege, Oluo talks about her own life. She spent a good bit of time feeling very lonely as she grew up in Seattle. She and her brothers were usually the only black kids in the class. After she grew into an adult, she was asked to join a Facebook group for brown and black artists and other leaders in the community. She thought she had found a home.
But one day at a picnic with appetizers and wine and conversation about art, a few black men walked over and asked if they could join the picnic, and awkward silence followed. Oluo realized that the Facebook group did not have these black men in mind when they made their plans. The club members had neglected to check their own privilege.
Oluo reveals that “Check your privilege” is a much “maligned” phrase. Understanding the privilege you have may make you feel bad, but the understanding is worth it. The best definition of privilege is “an advantage or set of advantages you have that others do not.” Oluo describes some of her own privileges as an example. She notes that she has a college degree. While she says that she worked very hard for this accomplishment, she acknowledges that she had many advantages as well such as a mother who valued a college education. She also had a free public school education. The realization that the privileges we have may be part of the reason “the deck is stacked” against others is why the concept of privilege might be so troubling. When somebody asks you to check your privilege, he or she is asking you to consider the advantages you have had up to now and how these advantages may be contributing to your actions now.
Another important reality about privilege is that where there is advantage for one, there is disadvantage for the other. Oluo says that her light skin makes others in society view her as less threatening than dark-skinned people. This is a privilege she has which other darker-skinned people do not have. If people do not question their own privileges, they may perpetuate the unfair privileges. Oluo explains that if she wants shadeism to cease to exist, she has to do her best to confront it wherever she sees it.
When we check privilege, Oluo notes, we see areas in which we can effect change. In her able-bodied privilege, for example, she is able to challenge a system that is difficult for disabled people. Oluo is able to use her privilege as cisgender to help those who are transgender. There are many more examples.
Oluo asks us to make a list of our privileges. Among the questions she asks are “Have you always had good mental health? Did you grow up middle class? Are you white? Are you male? Are you nondisabled? Are you neuro-typical? Are you documented citizen of the country you live in?” Oluo further challenges us to start listening well to people who do not have the same privileges we do; it is here that the learning will come.
As a way to introduce her readers to the idea of intersectionality, Oluo describes a time she was in crisis: she had spoken out about a famous black male musician who was believed to be a sexual predator. She was then inundated by people trying to flood her Twitter account with messages saying that she hated all black men. This, of course, is inaccurate. Those who insisted that she hated all black men did not consider that she might have a different experience being black and a woman. She was able to salvage her Twitter account, but she became overwhelmed by sadness that black women were not valued.
To understand Oluo’s experience and the experiences of many others, we must understand intersectionality. Intersectionality is “the belief that our social justice movements must consider all of the intersections of identity, privilege, and oppression that people face in order to be just and effective.” We are far more than our race. Racial privilege is one kind of privilege, but we have many other identities that shape us as well. Gender, class, race, and sexuality are also part of our identities. We cannot simply carve away these parts of our identity; we live them all at once.
Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989. She emphasized the importance of understanding the impact of race and gender in black women’s lives. From this point, the movement grew to allow considerations of class, ability, and sexuality as well. Oluo makes the point that we should consider intersectionality in our government, education, and economic situations too.
Oluo moves into a discussion about police brutality by relating an incident of being pulled over for “driving while black.” These incidents of being pulled over for no reason or for a minor reason happen too often: “The fact is that black drivers are 23 percent more likely to be pulled over than other drivers, between 1.5 and 5 times more likely to be searched…and more likely to be ticketed and arrested in these stops.” People of color are in general targeted and “criminalized.”
Oluo experienced many incidents of being pulled over for minor infractions or no infraction at all. Americans would like to believe that systemic racism doesn’t exist, but it just isn’t so. Oluo states emphatically that she needs readers to understand and believe her when she tells her story, and she needs readers likewise to understand that today’s police forces evolved from “Night Patrols” that were used to control black and Native American populations in New England and “slave patrols” that aimed to capture black fugitive slaves and return them to their masters.
To further understand the anti-black bias in policing, we need to understand both history and the popular culture narratives of the black “brute” and super-predator. These narratives continue to exist as implicit biases against people of color. Oluo states that it is true that there are higher crime rates in cities with larger minority populations, but the problem lies within the communities that have “higher poverty, fewer jobs, and less infrastructure.”
Oluo begins a chapter on affirmative action by telling readers about the poverty she experienced as a child. Her mother believed that education was the only way out of their poverty. Oluo flourished in school, but her brother Aham was not as lucky. In fact, Aham’s teacher had a uniquely punitive classroom management system whereby students could get “play money” for good behavior but could also lose money for poor behavior. The catch was that students had to pay rent for their desks as well, and Aham never had enough money. Thus, his classmates dubbed him “homeless,” not realizing that Aham and his sister Ijeoma had actually been homeless before. Aham eventually dropped out of high school.
Oluo’s educational path was easier, but she still had to work while she went to college and take care of a child at the same time. With her college degree, she was able to get a job with a telecom company. She worked exceptionally hard but actually missed out on an early promotion because a white woman at work said she did not deserve it (and threatened to sue). Oluo suffered other indignities and sexual harassment while working at the telecom firm. She left this job when she realized it was not a place she could trust.
Oluo began writing as a way to escape loneliness. She wondered if she would ever be able to write full time. She was pleased and surprised when she was offered a part-time staff writing position at a new publisher. Soon, she quit her day job and began freelancing to pay her mortgage and health insurance. Today, she works for various editors to provide the “black” take on any news story that the editors wish to take on. Far from being purely happy about these accomplishments, she feels sadness because she is still the only black voice in the room. She thinks about how exceptional she has had to be to survive, and she is “heartbroken.”
Furthermore, Oluo posits that most people do not understand affirmative action and the need for affirmative action. Affirmative action was introduced by President Kennedy in the 1960s and continued under President Johnson. There were no “quotas”—those were struck down by the Supreme Court. In federal employment, there was “increased recruitment efforts, extra consideration given to race and gender, and diversity goals.” Colleges and universities had similar practices and goals. In general, affirmative action programs have been rolled back in the past thirty years, and Oluo notes that this curtailment is especially disappointing because affirmative action is one of the tools that can push back against systemic racism.
Oluo articulates some of the major arguments against affirmative action by providing information about current wage gaps. She counters “Argument 1: We don’t need Affirmative Action because society isn’t as racist and sexist as it used to be” by showing that white women make “only 82 cents for every white man’s dollar” and that black women earn “only 65 cents for every white man’s dollar.” She also counters “Argument 2: If an employer is racist or sexist, you can just sue them” by saying that employers can fire employees for just about any reason, especially in “no-fault” states. The burden of proof is on the employee, and the employee must prove malice. She counters “Argument 3: Affirmative Action teaches people of color that they do not have to work as hard as white men” by asking if it could possibly be the case that competition with white men is the only reason for minorities to work hard. Next, she counters “Argument 4: Affirmative Action is unfair to white men because it causes them to lose opportunities to less qualified women and people of color” by saying that women and people of color deserve to have a representational number of jobs and college admissions. Lastly, she counters “Argument 5: Affirmative Action doesn’t work” by saying that the practice is not a cure-all, but it does help to counter the systemic racism still fully entrenched today.
Oluo next opens up the conversation about the school to prison pipeline by focusing on a young child named Sagan who had had a bad day at school. An e-mail sent to his mother stated that Sagan had assaulted two staff members and had generally been threatening and out of control. Sagan would be suspended from school, and a board member said that charges should be filed against him. Oluo learns that the little boy under discussion is five years old.
Oluo uses Sagan as an example of the school-to-prison pipeline starting very early. In many ways, black and brown students are seen as “violent, disruptive, unpredictable future criminals.” Black students “make up only 16 percent of our school populations, and yet 31 percent of students who are suspended and 40 percent of students who are expelled are black.” The truth is that these children are being criminalized at an early age and set on a path to prison. The harsh treatment early on in a child’s school career can cause the students to lose trust in teachers and administrators and can damage the students’ self-esteem. Oluo cites a number of factors that contribute to the school to prison pipeline including the racial bias of teachers and administrators. She also highlights a lack of cultural sensitivity and the “pathologizing” of black children. She also sees zero-tolerance policies and increased police presence in schools as part of the problem.
Oluo urges readers to talk more about the school to prison pipeline—and not just in activist circles. She urges readers to “recognize the achievements of black and brown students” and to “normalize black and brown childhood.” Lastly, she urges readers to avoid black and brown stereotypes in language and to honor black and brown youth while challenging the “legitimacy” of white-centered education.
Oluo again draws on her own experience in describing the pain of being called the “N” word. She reminds readers that words have power: “Nigger is a very powerful word with a very painful history.” It is a word that has been used to dehumanize and belittle. She notes that free speech allows us to say whatever we like, but why would we choose to use a word that bears so much pain for black people? Some white people think that being called a “cracker” is much the same as being called the “N” word, but Oluo points to the fact that “cracker” does not bear the same weight of history.
Oluo then pivots to a discussion of cultural appropriation and explains how this subject might be one of the “trickiest” to discuss. For her purposes, Oluo broadly defines cultural appropriation as “the adoption or exploitation of another culture by a more dominant culture.” She uses the “tired” example of rap. First, she acknowledges that people can do whatever they wish to do, but she urges us to look more deeply at our motives. About rap specifically, if you love rap, “you love the strength it has provided black people.” Furthermore, as a white person, you understand that “the pain and adversity that helped shape rap is not something you’ve had to face. When you look at the history of rap, the heritage of rap, the struggle of rap, the triumph of rap, it may inspire you to rap yourself.” But Oluo asks us to look carefully at our motivations. Are we sure we want to take all the enjoyment and achievement of rap without having lived the pain and history of rap as well? Oluo suggests we listen carefully to marginalized people before we proceed to take on their cultural products.
Oluo takes up a somewhat controversial subject in her “Why can’t I touch your hair?” chapter. She relates a remarkable story that happened to her in a professional setting. She had just received a promotion and was meeting her new team for the first time over dinner and drinks. She was just starting to have a good time with her new co-workers when out of nowhere, her boss’s boss asked her “Is that your real hair?” She was shocked when her boss continued with his running commentary on her hair. He actually said, “I’m glad it’s not one of those weaves…Those are so expensive and so bad for your hair.” Next came another question that she was dreading, “Have you seen that Chris Rock movie about hair?” Oluo said she had no need of seeing that movie since she had her own head of black hair.
She acknowledges that she loves her hair so very much now, but that was not always the case because she used to use white female hairstyles as a measuring stick. After a long history of trying to have “white” hairstyles, Oluo embraced her black hair, but she sends a clear warning now: please do not touch her hair without her permission. As former slaves, black people were not allowed dominion over their own bodies for centuries, and it is very important to Oluo now that she not be touched in any way unless she specifically grants her permission. There are many reasons that hair-touching continues to be an important issue. Her first rule is “Touching anybody anywhere without their permission or a damn good reason is just not okay.” That rule is strict, and she provides other rules, namely “It’s weird” and “Hands are dirty.” Additionally, she took a good bit of time to make her hair the way it is, so “Curls are precious,” and touching without her permission is “a continuation of the lack of respect for the basic humanity and bodily autonomy of black Americans that is endemic throughout White Supremacy.”
Oluo says that there are many ways readers could investigate the mystery of black hair. They could ask for more representation in print and online media, and they could ask for more black hair tutorials. They could ask why black hair is not called beautiful and why there is such a small aisle of hair care products available. She says that if readers really have a close relationship with a black person, they may be able to ask to touch her hair, but in general, they must proceed with caution.
Oluo begins a chapter about microaggressions by telling about her own life experiences with people saying that her lips were too big for red lipstick and later, that she probably didn’t have to work as hard as a white student to get into college. Both were of course untrue, but these slights provide a window into the world lived with microaggressions. Microaggressions are “small daily insults and indignities perpetrated against marginalized or oppressed people because of their affiliation with that marginalized or oppressed group.” Microaggressions are small, so at first it might seem possible to brush them off, but they are “cumulative” as well, and the object of the microaggressions may begin to suffer from hypervigilance and even depression and anxiety. Many different people perpetuate microaggressions and do not even realize exactly how much they are hurting the person to whom they are talking. Oluo provides some stark examples:
“Are you an affirmative action hire?”
“Why do black people give their kids such funny names?”
“Wow, you’re so articulate.”
“Do your kids all have the same dad?”
“You don’t sound black.”
“Are you the maid?”
Oluo notes that not all microaggressions are spoken; some are communicated by actions like clutching a purse more tightly or locking the car doors when a black person walks by.
Microaggressions normalize racism, so it is important to call them out when possible. Oluo provides some strategies for this. She writes that before anything else, “State what actually happened” and then “Ask some uncomfortable questions.” If the microaggression is still troubling, “Ask some more uncomfortable questions.” Oluo also challenges readers to understand that good intentions are not the point; the microaggression still hurts.
Oluo challenges readers to take a number of specific steps if they have been called out for microaggressions:
Ask yourself: “Do I really know why I said/did that?”
Ask yourself: “Would I have said this to somebody of my race? Is it something I say to people of my race?”
Ask yourself if you were feeling threatened or uncomfortable in the
situation, and then ask yourself why.
Don’t force people to acknowledge your good intentions.
Remember: it’s not just this one incident.
Research further on your own time.
Oluo acknowledges how difficult this work can be, but she urges readers to keep going.
In a chapter entitled “Why are our students so angry,” Oluo begins her explanation by telling readers why her eight-year-old son is so angry. He knows his own mind and has decided that he doesn’t want to pledge allegiance to the flag or sing the national anthem because he is an atheist and because he doesn’t think that the country necessarily provides liberty and justice for all.
Oluo tells readers that she was born in 1980 and was raised with great aspirations but the promises of her era “did not prevent the crack epidemic or the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which helped militarize our police force, introduced mandatory minimum sentences for crimes more likely to be committed by brown and black offenders, and rapidly expanded prison sizes to accommodate the massive increase of black and brown bodies brought in by a criminal justice system now incentivized to see black and brown people as criminals.” Oluo explains that students see that the country has not delivered on its promises, and the world is still a dangerous place for them. Oluo’s son has had to learn that at a young age because his father had to tell him that he could not play with a toy gun outside his home while his white stepbrother could. The world was still ultimately unfair for black and brown bodies.
Another reason that today’s youth are angry is that they are reaching for far more than the generation behind them reached for. They are not willing to let any “little things” slide: “They often ask for things that we were brainwashed into believing was ‘too much to ask for.’ Trigger warnings? Non-ableist language? Inclusive events? As the newer generation casts us aside it is very easy to find yourself feeling old and…wrong.” It is important to see the rise of the next generation of activists as inevitable and hopeful.
Oluo does not neglect to mention that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are likewise subject to active racism in the form of the model minority myth. This myth “fetishizes” Asian Americans and assumes that all Asian Americans are high achieving in math and the sciences and docile in manner. “Model minority” was a term coined by William Peterson in the 1960s when he studied the “model” and “problem” minorities. It is true that “Asian Americans do have some of the highest rates of college graduation, highest salaries, and lowest incarceration rates of minority groups in America,” but the model minority myth is still harmful because it stereotypes a broad swath of people. The myth also leaves out Pacific Islanders, and it downplays the extreme economic and educational disparity of Asian Americans. Most insidiously, hate crimes against Asian Americans are often ignored, and Asian American women are abused at a high rate: “Between 41 and 61 percent of Asian American women will be physically or sexually abused by their partners in their lifetime—twice the national average for all women.”
Oluo notes a distinct dichotomy in her education about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. When she was a kid, she sided with Martin Luther King and thought that Malcolm X’s behavior was unnecessary and polarizing. As an adult, she realizes that both men reached for the same goal: freedom from oppression. Both men were public enemy number one for those upholding the White Supremacist society.
Oluo acknowledges that those seeking justice will sometimes be subject to tone policing. Tone policing is when “someone (usually the privileged person) in a conversation or situation about oppression shifts the focus of the conversation from the oppression being discussed to the way it is being discussed.” Tone policing “prioritizes the comfort of the privileged person in the conversation over the oppression of the disadvantaged person.” Allies of justice for all must realize the pitfalls of tone policing. Oluo provides a set of guidelines for those who are engaged in discussions about dismantling systemic racism:
Be aware of the limits of your empathy.
Don’t distract or deflect.
Remember your goal.
Drop the prerequisites.
Walk away if you must, but don’t give up.
Build a tolerance for discomfort.
You are not doing any favors, you are doing what is right.
She also reassures those that are being criticized for their tone that every individual comes to a discussion of justice and equality with certain rights:
You have a right to your anger, sadness, and fear.
You were born deserving equality and justice.
Nobody has authority over your fight for racial justice.
You deserve to be able to speak your truth, and you deserve to be heard.
Oluo begins a chapter entitled “I just got called racist, what do I do now?” by telling the story of a white Canadian who told her on social media that Canadians were not racist. Oluo had evidence that this statement was not true and said so. In a flash, the white Canadian turned on her with ugly language and continued a campaign of harassment against her for many months to come. This retaliation, Oluo says, is common: “One friend knows of at least two websites dedicated to smearing her because she called a white woman’s language racist. One friend was fired from a job after a Facebook argument in which she said an associate was acting racist. One friend was subject to a months-long campaign to turn her community against her after stating that someone’s actions were insensitive to people of color.” The examples are boundless.
If you are white, Oluo says, you have been racist at some point: “You are racist because you were born and bred in a racist, white supremacist society. White Supremacy is, as I’ve said earlier, insidious by design.” If readers have possibly been racist and want to work to mitigate that pain, they must take the following steps:
Set your intentions aside.
Try to hear the impact of what you have done.
Remember that you do not have all of the pieces.
Nobody owes you a debate.
Nobody owes you a relationship.
Remember that you are not the only one hurt.
If you can see where you have been racist, or if you can see where your actions caused harm, apologize and mean it.
If, after a lot of careful thought, you still do not see your actions as racist and feel strongly that this is simply a misunderstanding, do not then invalidate that person’s hurt.
As Oluo draws her book to a close, she emphasizes that sometimes, talking about racial justice is not enough. Readers need to be prepared to take action as well. In case readers are looking for specific actions to take, she provides a list:
Get in schools.
Speak up in your unions.
Support POC-owned businesses.
Boycott banks that prey on people of color.
Give money to organizations working to fight racial oppression and support communities of color.
Boycott businesses that exploit people of color.
Support music, film, television, art, and books created by people of color.
Support increases in the minimum wage.
Push your mayor and city council for police reform.
Demand college diversity.
Vote for diverse government representatives.
Oluo concludes that if individual citizens take these actions, racial oppression will end. She firmly believes that working together will bring about racial justice.
The Pain of Cultural Appropriation
From the ridiculous to the deadly serious, Oluo discusses the pain of cultural appropriation in So You Want To Talk About Race. She first describes the absurdity of the Africa Lounge in her airport—a restaurant that had nothing authentic from Africa to eat. It did however, have zebra-striped chairs and a caveman mural on the wall. This sorry excuse for a restaurant did not serve Nigerian or Ethiopian food; instead, it selectively grabbed a few stereotypes of Africa and served nachos on the side.
Oluo’s next example of cultural appropriation is more serious. This time, Oluo discusses rap music and how it was born of the rhythmic storytelling tradition in West Africa: “Brought to the West by slaves, these rhythmic words wove their way through blues, jazz, call-and-response and eventually birthed rap.” This music belonged to black Americans even though when they performed it, they had to come in and leave by back doors. This music has a distinct history of pain and endurance. Oluo says that of course people can make whatever art they wish, but why would they try to take ownership of something for which they have little claim? What she says does not seem quite fair is that “a dominant culture can just take and enjoy and profit from the beauty and art and creation of an oppressed culture, without taking on any of the pain and oppression people of that culture had to survive while creating it.”
The Importance of Checking Your Privilege
So You Want To Talk About Race urges readers to make a list of their privileges even when they do not feel particularly privileged. Oluo knows it will pay off in their future interactions. She provides a wealth of examples: “Have you always had good mental health? Did you grow up middle class? Are you white? Are you male? Are you nondisabled? Are you neuro-typical? Are you a documented citizen of the country you live in?” As readers identify the privileges they have, they will learn where they may have the most power to aid oppressed people. Those who have always had good mental health can powerfully help those who have not had this blessing, and those who are documented citizens can work on behalf of those who are not. Present always is some form of privilege that can serve others.
The Model Minority Myth
The Model Minority Myth is insidious. Though it seems like a label anyone would be honored to have, this myth ends up being a narrow stereotype for Asian Americans. William Peterson coined the term “Model Minority” while he was researching “problem minority” groups. Included in his stereotypes are “presumptions of academic and financial success, social and political meekness, a strong work ethic, dominance in math and the sciences, and strict parenting.” In the end, these stereotypes are constraining and racist. Oluo also makes the point that Asian Americans exist all around the globe—from Pacific Islanders to Laotian and Hmong Americans.
The School-to-Prison Pipeline
One of the most ominous themes of the book is the ubiquitous school-to-prison pipeline. This pipeline begins by criminalizing the behavior of black and brown children, often when they are very young. Harsh treatment and expulsions in school often leads to students dropping out and being swept up in the for-profit prison system. The school-to-prison pipeline is the term “commonly used to describe the alarming number of black and brown children who are funneled directly and indirectly from our schools into our prison industrial complex, contributing to devastating levels of mass incarceration that lead to one in three black men and one in six Latino men going to prison in their lifetimes.” There are many reasons for the phenomenal growth of the pipeline, namely the racial bias of administrators and teachers and increased police presence in schools.
Deeds Over Words
Oluo is most adamant about the need for real action on the part of oppressed people—not just talking. She has seen first-hand that some people are almost addicted to saying the right things without doing the right things. She provides a personal example and explains that she had been asked to participate in an upcoming march in support of women’s issues, and she turned the hosts down. She explained that she did not want to contribute to the further economic exploitation of women of color by addressing this audience for free, especially when this particular project had a large budget.
Oluo underscores the fact that understanding a racial issue will never be the same as taking action on a racial issue. Her call to action is clear and strong: “Talk. Please talk and talk and talk some more. But also act. Act now, because people are dying now in this unjust system. How many lives have been ground up by racial prejudice and hate? How many opportunities have we already lost?” Amongst the actions that we must take are voting locally and nationally, working in community schools, bearing witness to discrimination, and speaking up in unions. Beyond that, readers should support businesses owned by people of color and boycott banks that exploit people of color. The possibilities for meaningful action are boundless.
So You Want To Talk About Race is a thoroughly readable treatise on race relations. Oluo’s style is conversational and energetic; she is very willing to explain important terms such as intersectionality and microaggressions, and she draws readers in with brief stories from her own life. Additionally, Oluo is scrupulously honest. If she is exasperated by a microaggression, she lets that frustration be known. Her deeply honest storytelling creates a framework for the wealth of research on race in each chapter.
The pinnacle of Oluo’s research is Chapter 6 on police brutality. Readers learn that “The fact is that black drivers are 23 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, between 1.5 and 5 times more likely to be searched…and more likely to be ticketed and arrested in those stops. This increase in stops, searches, and arrests also leads to a 3.5-4 times higher probability that black people will be killed by cops (this increase is the same for Native Americans interacting with the police, a shamefully unreported statistic).” The research presented throughout the chapter is from Washington Post articles and The Sentencing Project’s “Report of The Sentencing Project Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System.” The research is both accessible and irrefutable. The conclusions in this remarkable chapter help to illuminate the chapters to follow.
In addition, Oluo ushers readers into these chapters with a compelling story arc: her chapter about police brutality and profiling begins with her own traffic stop in July 2015, and her chapter on the school to prison pipeline begins with the story of her own brother who got lost in the system. Her chapter on microaggressions begins with a heartbreaking story about a junior high classmate who actually said that Oluo couldn’t wear red lipstick because with her big lips, she’d look like a clown. Oluo is not scared of sharing the hurt that she absorbed: “I’d be having a good day, lost in my imagination, and bam—I’d be hit with a comment that would remind me that I was not allowed to get comfortable. I couldn’t walk comfortably, I couldn’t talk comfortably, I couldn’t sit without patting my hair, I couldn’t smile without worrying how large my lips looked.”
Oluo tells stories that otherwise might not be told. For whom is she telling these stories? Time and again in her volume, Oluo states that she tells her stories for white people and for people of color. She addresses white people in her “What Are Microaggressions?” chapter by appealing to their sense of empathy and to their intellect. She reminds white readers that with microaggressions, people of color have had a lifetime of these hurts and indignities: “Remember: it’s not just this one incident. This incident is the continuation of a long history of microaggressions for people of color. Racial trauma is cumulative, and you cannot expect a person of color to react to each situation the way that you would have encountered it for the first time.” Reaching out of the narrative with the second person “you” is effective in giving the subject of microaggressions the immediacy it deserves.
Next, she addresses people of color. She reaches out with compassion about lives lived amongst constant microaggressions: “As a person of color, you don’t have to call out every microaggression against you, but you have the right to call out each and every one you choose to. Do not let people convince you that you are being oversensitive, that you are being disruptive or divisive. What is harmful and divisive are these acts of aggression against people of color that are allowed to happen constantly, without consequence. What is harmful and divisive is the expectation that people of color would just accept abuse.” Her book allows people of color to be heard and to feel less alone.
Furthermore, Oluo’s purpose in writing across race lines has become a moral purpose. She changed her food blog to a blog about race because there was no other platform that moved conversations on race forward. She writes, “After watching so many people have so many conversations about race that went nowhere—or worse, that caused real harm—I wanted to create something of use. Something that would give readers the fundamentals of how race worked, not only in a way that they would take into their graduate race theory classes but in a way that they would take to the office or to their Thanksgiving table.” In a world of clickbait and “outrage-porn,” she wanted robust conversations and peer-reviewed research.
Oluo more than achieves the goals she set for herself. The result is a volume that could easily find its way onto a university syllabus or a corporate retreat agenda. Oluo distinguishes herself as a leader on race relations in the United States.