So You Want to Talk About Race

by Ijeoma Oluo

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Chapters 3–5 Summary

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Chapter 3: What if I talk about race wrong?

Oluo and her mother, who is white, didn’t have their first real conversation about race until Oluo was thirty-four years old. Her mother had made the “obligatory speeches” that all parents of Black children must, 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 saying that she had experienced an awakening about race. Her mom is loving and kind, a great mother and grandmother—but even so, 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 thirty-six years.

Before Oluo had a chance to call her mother back, her mother called her until she picked up. She explained that she had been telling a joke with a “Black” punchline at work, and a Black coworker asked what she could possibly know about being Black. She told Oluo that she thought the coworker didn’t know who the “good white people” were, so he was probably tired and angry. Further, she thought that having Black children allowed her to understand Black people’s experiences. Oluo reminded her mother of “the differences between being a white mother who has loved and lived with black people, and being an actual black person who experiences the full force of a white supremacist society firsthand.”

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 more deeply now than she did prior to the conversation. Now, instead of proving herself to Black people, Oluo’s mother tries to incite white people to do better. Her mom is now an outspoken advocate for racial equity in her union, and Oluo is very proud of this fact.

Oluo recognizes how hard conversations about race are, but we have to have them: race is everywhere, “ignoring it does not make it go away,” and—as Oluo puts it—

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

Readers are probably going to “screw up” some conversations about race, Oluo acknowledges, but they have to push on nevertheless. These are the tips she offers for having these hard conversations:

  1. State your intentions.
  2. Remember what your top priority in the conversation is, and don’t let your emotions override that.
  3. Do your research.
  4. Don’t make your anti-racism argument oppressive against other groups.
  5. When you feel defensive, stop and ask yourself why.
  6. Do not tone police.
  7. If you are white, watch how many times you say “I” and “me.”
  8. Ask yourself, Am I trying to be right, or am I trying to do better?
  9. Do not force people of color into discussions on race.

Knowing that there will be difficulties in discussions of race, Oluo includes...

(This entire section contains 1538 words.)

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pointers for when things have gone wrong:

  1. Stop trying to jump back in when a conversation is beyond saving.
  2. Apologize.
  3. Don’t write your synopsis of this conversation as “the time you got yelled at.”
  4. Don’t insist that people give you credit for your intentions.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up.
  6. Remember that it is worth the risk and commit to trying again.

Because racial oppression involves the pain of others, it will always be hard to talk about, and it is unfair to ask people of color to bear this burden all alone. White people should talk to other white people about race, just as Black people should talk to other Black people. Oluo urges readers to be brave in talking about race, because even though it is very difficult, it is absolutely worth it.

Chapter 4: Why am I always being told to “check my privilege”?

In writing about another crucial topic, the concept of privilege, Oluo refers to her own life. Growing up in Seattle, she spent much of her time feeling very lonely. She and her brothers were usually the only Black kids in the class. As an adult, she was asked to join a Facebook group for brown and Black artists and other leaders in the community, and she thought she had found a home.

But one day, at a picnic with appetizers, 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 one’s own privilege may 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,” and Oluo describes several of her own privileges as an example. She has a college degree, and while 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 people have may be part of the reason “the deck is stacked” against others is why the concept of privilege can be so troubling. When a person is asked to check their privilege, they are being asked to consider the advantages they have had in their lives—and how these advantages may contribute to their actions in the present.

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 that darker-skinned people do not have, and is crucial, she says, that she questions it. 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 people check and acknowledge their privileges, they are able to see areas in which they can effect change. Using her able-bodied privilege, for example, Oluo is able to challenge a system that is difficult for disabled people; using her cisgender identity, she can help change the system to make it fairer for those who are transgender or gender nonconforming.

Oluo asks readers to make a list of their privileges. Among the questions she asks are the following:

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?

Oluo further challenges readers to start listening well to people who do not have the same privileges they do; it is here that the learning will come.

Chapter 5: What is intersectionality and why do I need it?

To introduce readers to the idea of intersectionality, Oluo describes a time of crisis in her life: she had spoken out about a famous Black, male musician who was believed to be a sexual predator. Her Twitter account was then inundated by a flood of 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 are not valued in society.

To understand Oluo’s experience—and the experiences of many others—people 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.” After all, people are far more than their race. Racial privilege is one kind of privilege, but many other identities shape our experiences as well, such as gender, class, and sexuality. We cannot simply carve away these parts of our identity; we live them all at once.

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in 1989, particularly emphasizing the importance of understanding the dual impact of race and gender in Black women’s lives. From that point, understanding of intersectionality grew to admit considerations of class, ability, and sexuality as well. Oluo makes the point that people should also consider how intersectionality functions in education, the government, and the economy.


Introduction–Chapter 2 Summary


Chapters 6–8 Summary