So You Want to Talk About Race

by Ijeoma Oluo

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Last Updated on August 5, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 824

So You Want to Talk About Race is a thoroughly readable treatise on race relations that intends to make anti-racist education accessible to all. 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, which examines police brutality against Black and Native American people. Readers learn several key facts about the issue:

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.” This research—which is both accessible and irrefutable—leads to conclusions regarding systemic racism that help to undergird and illuminate the chapters to follow.

Oluo ushers readers into many chapters with compelling autobiographical stories: the chapter about police brutality and profiling begins with her own traffic stop in July 2015, and the chapter on the school-to-prison pipeline begins with the story of her own brother, who got lost in the system. The chapter on microaggressions, in turn, begins with a heartbreaking story about a junior high school classmate who actually said that Oluo couldn’t wear red lipstick because, with her big lips, she’d “look like a clown.” Oluo is unafraid 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.

In So You Want to Talk About Race, Oluo tells stories that otherwise might not be told, and she does so for both white people and people of color. She addresses white people in her chapter about microaggressions by appealing to their sense of empathy and 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 for those who may not have had to deal with them in their daily lives.

Next, she addresses people of color. She reaches out with compassion about lives lived among 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...

(This entire section contains 824 words.)

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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.

Through moments like these, Oluo shows people of color that they are heard and that they are not alone.

In writing across race lines, Oluo’s writing takes on a moral purpose. She changed her food blog to a blog about race because she could find no other platform that moved conversations on race forward. She shares,

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, Oluo wants robust conversations and peer-reviewed research that includes readers from all sides of the racial spectrum. Only in this way, she implies, is any sustainable change toward racial equity possible.