Introduction: So you want to talk about race
Blackness has always been a central part of Ijeoma Oluo’s life. It informs many of her decisions every day and contributes to the consistent oppression she feels—as when, for instance, she is followed by a clerk in a store or told that her hair is “too ethnic.” But her Blackness has brought her great joy, too, such as when she considers her knowledge 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 it 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 backward not to appear angry. Recently, she started resisting, changed her food blog to a “‘me’ blog,” and began to write about her “frustrations and heartbreak.” At first, Oluo was writing for survival, and many of her white friends were alienated by this. Gradually, though, she began to hear from others across cities and countries that she was not alone in her observations.
Oluo acknowledges that these are “scary” times for those who have to face the fact that “America is not, and never has been, the melting-pot utopia that their parents and teachers told them 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 equity for so long. Right now, there is a chasm between these groups.
Oluo decided to write So You Want to Talk About Race because she heard people ask questions like “How do I talk to my mother in law about the racist jokes she makes?” and “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 has decided that now is the time to have these difficult conversations.
Chapter 1: Is it really about race?
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 isn’t possible, Oluo says. Waiting for change has been tried over and over in political races, and nothing has changed. Even the election of President Barack Obama was mostly symbolic. The facts of racism have 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 readers should know whether 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.
Despite the simplicity of these sensible guidelines, Oluo still has to deal with people denying that cultural phenomena are related to race. Not only do some people still propagate the “welfare queen” myth, Oluo even has a friend who will not recognize that the myth is racist. That friend’s denial hurts almost as much as the original insult.
Chapter 2: What is racism?
Oluo recounts a story about a coworker who posted a meme stigmatizing those who receive welfare....
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When confronted, he would not admit that his post was harmful; in fact, he escalated his stance by propagating the myth of the “Welfare Queen.” Oluo discussed this experience of racism with a friend, but her friend implied that accusing someone of racism is particularly “inflammatory,” even if they have actually done or said something racist, or something that perpetuates systemic forms of racism.
Going off of this experience, Oluo states that in general, there are two definitions of the word racism. One states that “racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race”; the other takes this further, stating that “racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race, when these views are reinforced by systems of power.” For the purposes of her book, Oluo uses the second of these definitions.
Oluo acknowledges that there are many unapologetic racists in the US who share horrifying “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 four hundred 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 in harming Black people.
If readers come to this book hoping to make everyone as individuals be kinder to each other, Oluo says, they will probably be disappointed. However, if readers come to the book hoping to battle systemic racism, this is the right book for them. Systemic racism cannot be fixed on a purely emotional basis. People must acknowledge racism as part of a system and note carefully how their actions interact with and even support systemic racism. For this reason, it is best to tie individual instances of racism to the system that engenders them. For example, a person can demand that a colleague who uses a racial slur about a Hispanic student be fired, but they 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 such incidents of discrimination.