So You Want to Talk About Race

by Ijeoma Oluo

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So You Want to Talk About Race Summary

So You Want to Talk About Race is a nonfiction book by Ijeoma Oluo that addresses aspects of race, prejudice, and equality in the United States.

  • By examining racism, privilege, intersectionality, police brutality, affirmative action, the school-to-prison pipeline, cultural appropriation, microaggressions, and more, Oluo hopes to change and open the conversation around race for everyone.
  • The book presents a comprehensive portrait of race relations in the US by combining research with personal anecdotes from Oluo’s experiences as a Black woman.
  • Oluo’s ultimate goal is to address, discuss, and change forms of systemic racism that persist despite people’s best intentions.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Race has always been a defining force in Ijeoma Oluo’s life, but she hasn’t always talked much about it. Once she did, though, she decided to change her food blog to a “‘me’ blog,” which allowed her to start writing about 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?”

In this book, Oluo works with a particular definition of race:

Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race, when these views are reinforced by systems of power.

Oluo knows that there are many racists in the world, but she does not concern herself with the unapologetic racists on the fringes. She works to change insidious forms of systemic racism instead 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 that conversations about race can be difficult and fraught, but they are worth it, and besides, as she remarks,

There is no shoving the four hundred years’ racial oppression and violence toothpaste back in the toothpaste tube.

Many tips for having a productive discussion about race follow. Oluo counsels readers to state their intentions clearly and remember their top priority in the conversation. Readers should do their homework ahead of the conversation on race and make sure not to police others’ tone when they discuss “the racial oppression they face.” She also asks white people to keep track of all the times they say “I” or “me” in conversations about race.

In opening up a discussion about examining one’s 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. Where there is advantage for one, she explains, there is disadvantage for another, and considering these imbalances closely is crucial. She uses a personal example in her discussion: Oluo is Black but has light 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—that is, discrimination based on various skin tones—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 furthering 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 (while shown to be less likely than whites to turn up contraband in these searches), and more likely to be ticketed and arrested in these stops.

She asks readers to understand and consider that American police forces evolved from Night Patrols, used to control Black and Native American populations...

(This entire section contains 1166 words.)

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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 grade school system, Oluo argues that affirmative action is an effective tool to combat systemic racism. Affirmative action policy, which was introduced by President Kennedy in the 1960s and continued under President Johnson, encompasses “increased recruitment efforts, extra consideration given to race and gender, and diversity goals.” At no point did the policy involve quotas, as some erroneously believe. 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 educational system. 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,” she reminds readers, “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. Using rap music as her example, Oluo 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 touches her without asking.

A rich section on microaggressions teaches readers that these “small daily insults” can cause lasting damage. Oluo provides some examples, such as “Wow, you’re so articulate” and “Are you an affirmative action hire?” The effect of these microaggressions compounds over time, causing hypervigilance, anxiety, and depression in those affected. Oluo 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. The myth “fetishizes” Asian Americans by presenting them as an “ideal” minority with innate gifts in math and science, financial success, strict parenting, and “meekness” in social and political spheres. In doing so, it reduces real people to flat stereotypes.

As Oluo concludes her book, she urges readers not to be content with just talking about systemic racism: readers should also take action by voting for local officials, participating in school systems, supporting businesses owned by people of color, and boycotting banks that exploit people of color. Ultimately, she advises readers to bear witness to the hardships of others. Oluo firmly believes that by working together, we can achieve racial justice.


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Author: Ijeoma Oluo (b. 1980)

Publisher: Seal Press (Berkeley, CA). 256 pp.

Type of work: Essays

Time: Present day

Locale: United States

So You Want to Talk about Race is a collection of essays that explores racism in contemporary America. It is journalist Ijeoma Oluo’s first book.

Ijeoma Oluo first started writing about the issue of race on her personal blog. She proved to have sharp insight and a dexterous way of handling what many would consider to be a thorny subject. Having grown up the African American daughter of a white single mother in predominantly Caucasian parts of the United States, Oluo had a unique and intimate understanding of the nation’s racial dynamics. Her work soon caught the attention of national publications, which eventually led her to the opportunity to interview the especially contentious public figure Rachel Dolezal. Dolezal, a white woman, was briefly a focal point in the United States’ racial conflict in 2015, when she was outed for posing as African American in her position as president of the Spokane chapter of NAACP. Oluo’s interview with Dolezal, entitled “The Heart of Whiteness,” was published in 2017. The article solidified both women’s reputations; Dolezal’s as a deeply out of touch individual and Oluo’s as a fearless journalist willing to tread the trickiest terrains—no matter how many social landmines they might contain.

Oluo’s talent for navigating complicated social issues proves highly valuable in her first book, So You Want to Talk about Race? The simplest way to describe the book is as a “how to” guide for those looking to discuss sensitive topics related to racial identity and racism in the United States. While it is easy to mistake the title as tongue-in-cheek, it is quite literal. Each chapter is an essay exploring a different common issue surrounding talking about race. Oluo uses her own personal anecdotes as the foundation for each chapter, often concluding the installment with actual tips. These tips are written in a bullet-point format, with the first line in bold to call the reader’s attention to the advice. For example, in the chapter “What If I Talk About Race Wrong?” Oluo offers six ways to handle a conversation that has gone awry. Her instructions include apologizing, not demanding credit for good intentions, and avoiding feelings of despair. Oluo acknowledges how emotionally difficult such conversations can be and encourages readers to be kind and try and find the humanity in others. Her advice is simple, actionable, and likely to give a lot of well-meaning but unsure people a way to move forward.Courtesy of Da Capo Press

Thanks to its format, So You Want to Talk about Race? could easily be designated as a work of self-help. However, its content is more engaging than one might expect from this genre. This can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, Oluo’s willingness to share her own experiences is likely to draw readers in. Her vulnerability and honesty are highly compelling qualities. Secondly, there is the matter of the book’s timely publication. Released in 2018, So You Want to Talk about Race? arrived in an era in which the issue of race has become a contentious national conversation. Although America has a long, storied history of racial oppression, the development of technology has brought the effects of this problem to the forefront. Camera phones regularly capture incidents of racism, making it impossible to ignore. Social media has allowed both antiracist activists and white supremacists to organize and make their voices heard. Meanwhile, the 2016 election of Donald Trump has driven a further wedge between white Americans and Americans of color. With hate crimes steadily on the rise, Oluo’s straightforward guide to feels essential and urgent.

At times, the tone of So You Want to Talk about Race? can be difficult to describe. It does not feel fair to describe it as impassive, as Oluo often explores painful memories from her past to illustrate some of the phenomena that she is trying to explain. However, it is matter-of-fact, not emotional, in the way it depicts these events. And where other authors might try and bring some levity or humor to these issues to make readers more comfortable, Oluo stays earnest. Her goal is to force readers to wade out into uncomfortable social territory without making them feel too overwhelmed or upset to keep reading. She succeeds in this effort by keeping the tone as straightforward as possible. Courtesy of Da Capo Press

It would be easy for Oluo to use her book as a platform to air long-held grievances toward white people. Instead, however, she tries to be inclusive and address both black and white audiences. That said, some chapters seem to focus on one audience more than the other. For example, “Why Can’t I Touch Your Hair?” and “I Just Got Called Racist, What Do I Do Now?” are aimed at white readers. As simple as the premise of these chapters may seem to some, they are vitally important. In “Why Can’t I Say the ‘N’ Word?” Oluo, with great patience, talks about the historical significance of the racial slur. She contextualizes its significance in modern America, where power dynamics are still dangerously askew, and concludes that as such it is still not acceptable for white Americans to use the word. To illustrate her point further, Oluo shares a story of when she and her brother were little and were called this derogatory term by a group of white schoolchildren, discussing the long-term effects of this. It is one of the shortest chapters in the book, at just under eight pages, but it is also one of the most successful. More than anything, the chapter demonstrates Oluo’s talent for explaining complex issues in a clear and compelling way.

Oluo is not taking a new approach to tackling race, but rather providing a straightforward guide. As a result, the book might feel out-of-date to some and stale to some readers, especially those who regularly engage in conversations about race through social media or read Oluo’s online work. It is important to note, however, that although the book is not introducing any new or radical ideas, it is the kind of book that fills knowledge gaps, deepens understanding, and provides tools for a more harmonious, productive future.

Reviews of So You Want to Talk about Race? were largely positive. Mahnaz Dar wrote for the School Library Journal, “Precise, poignant, and edifying, this primer gives readers much-needed tools, explaining academic concepts such as privilege and intersectionality, debunking harmful myths, and offering concrete ways to confront racism.” Here, Dar presents one of the book’s most divisive qualities as an attribute—its academic style. While it may not be accessible to everyone, Oluo writes in a formal rather than personal way. As such, the book is likely to appeal to university students or anyone who enjoys learning by way of text books. Similarly, Publishers Weekly lauds Oluo’s writing as “insightful and trenchant but not preachy, and her advice is valid. For some it may be eye-opening. It’s a topical book in a time when racial tensions are on the rise.”

Oluo is part of a literary movement by women of color who are changing the way that America talks about race. It is easy to compare her to other members of this movement, writers such as Morgan Jerkins, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and Roxane Gay. Some critics have considered Oluo’s book in the context of Gay’s work, as she has become one of the most famous and celebrated voices on racial and gender issues in the country. Jenny Bhatt commented on this phenomenon in a piece for the National Book Review in which she compares So You Want to Talk about Race? to Gay’s Bad Feminist (2014). Bhatt writes, “Oluo opts for restraint and consideration with her objectivity. . . . Where Gay is raw and unfiltered with her examples and analogies, Oluo is relatively more measured and to the point. This becomes, possibly, the one negative with Oluo’s book for those who know her from her active online persona and viral essays/articles and might be expecting some of that spirit here.” While Gay’s extremely personal essays are vulnerable and powerful, it does not seem fair to compare them to Oluo’s. So You Want to Talk about Race? is written primarily to inform readers rather than reach them on an emotional level. This is a large part of the book’s brilliance. By talking about race in a matter-of-fact way, Oluo is able to reach a diverse audience.

Review Sources

  • Bhatt, Jenny. “An Inclusive Look at Race and How We Should Be Talking about It.” Review of So You Want to Talk about Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. The National Book Review, 2 Feb. 2018, Accessed 17 Nov. 2018.
  • Dar, Mahnaz. Review of So You Want to Talk about Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. School Library Journal, 5 May 2018, Accessed 17 Nov. 2018.
  • Review of So You Want to Talk about Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. Kirkus, 9 Oct. 2017, Accessed 17 Nov. 2018.
  • Review of So You Want to Talk about Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. Publishers Weekly, 13 Nov. 2017, Accessed 17 Nov. 2018.

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