So You Want to Talk About Race

by Ijeoma Oluo

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Chapters 9–11 Summary

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Last Updated on August 5, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 774

Chapter 9: Why can’t I say the “N” word?

Oluo describes the pain of being called the N-word for the first time, as a child. 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. Free speech allows people to say whatever they like, but why would people 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.

Chapter 10: What is cultural appropriation?

Oluo pivots to a discussion of cultural appropriation and explains how this subject might be one of the “trickiest” to discuss. For her purposes, cultural appropriation is defined as “the adoption or exploitation of another culture by a more dominant culture.” Oluo uses the “tired” example of rap to illustrate her point. First, she acknowledges that people can do whatever they wish to do, but she urges us to consider our motives. About rap specifically, if a person loves rap, they “love the strength it has provided Black people.” Furthermore, a white person who loves rap must understand something important:

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 again, Oluo asks that people look carefully at their motivations. Are they sure they want to take all the enjoyment and achievement of rap without having lived the pain and history of rap as well? Oluo suggests that we as a society listen carefully to the histories and lived experiences of marginalized people before we proceed to take on their cultural products.

Chapter 11: Why can’t I touch your hair?

Oluo 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 coworkers 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.

Oluo acknowledges that she loves her hair 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. Oluo’s first rule is that, no matter a person’s race, “touching anybody anywhere without their permission or a damn good reason is just not okay.” That rule is...

(This entire section contains 774 words.)

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strict, and she provides other rules, namely that “it’s weird” and “hands are dirty.” Additionally, she took a good bit of time to make her hair the way it is: as she puts it, “Curls are precious.” Most importantly, though, touching any Black person without their 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 should investigate the mystery of how Black hair is represented in society. They could ask for more Black representation in print and online media and 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 their hair with permission, but in general, they must proceed with caution and sensitivity.

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