Last Updated September 5, 2023.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo is a serious look at contemporary racism in the United States. Oluo says,
These conversations will not be easy, but they will get easier over time. We have to commit to the process if we want to address race, racism, and racial oppression in our society. This book may not be easy as well. I am not known for pulling punches, but I’ve been occasionally thought of as funny. But it has been very hard to be funny in this book. There is real pain in our racially oppressive system, pain that I as a black woman feel. I was unable to set that aside while writing this book. I didn’t feel like laughing. This was a grueling, heart-wrenching book to write, and I’ve tried to lighten a little of that on the page, but I know that for some of you, this book will push and will push hard.
Race and privilege are difficult topics for anyone to discuss, as everyone has a very different experience. In an attempt to start the conversation and give some context for her point of view, Oluo talks about her experiences as a Black woman and what led her to have a more active voice in discussions of race.
One thing that Oluo does is break down how different racially biased systems negatively impact Black people and other people of color. The school-to-prison pipeline is one such system. Oluo writes,
When I look at our school-to-prison pipeline, the biggest tragedy to me is the loss of childhood joy. When our kids spend eight hours a day in a system that is looking for reasons to punish them, remove them, criminalize them—our kids do not get to be kids. Our kids do not get to be rambunctious, they do not get to be exuberant, they do not get to be rebellious, they do not get to be defiant. Our kids do not get to fuck up the way other kids get to; our kids will not get to look back fondly on their teenage hijinks—because these get them expelled or locked away. Do not wait until black and brown kids are grown into hurt and hardened adults to ask “What happened? What can we do?” We cannot give back childhoods lost. Help us save our children now.
Oluo then breaks down many of the problems that lead to the school-to-prison pipeline. For example, the inclusion of school resource officers leads to many more arrests at schools. Another issue is that Black students are more likely to be misdiagnosed with a learning disability in underfunded schools, which removes them from the main classrooms and puts them in special education classrooms where their needs may not be met. Finally, cultural differences between students and teachers can lead to students of color being suspended for subjective issues, like how they address a teacher, instead of concrete issues, like violence.
Near the end of the book, Oluo addresses ways in which people can tackle issues of race and problematic institutions. She writes,
I know that the issue of racism and racial oppression seems huge—and it is huge. But it is not insurmountable. When we look at it in its entirety, it seems like too much, but understand that the system is invested in you seeing it that way. The truth is, we all pull levers of this white supremacist system, every day. The way we vote, where we spend our money, what we do and do not call out—these are all pieces of the system. We cannot talk...
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our way out of a racially oppressive system. We can talk our way into understanding, and we can then use that understanding to act.
Some of the things she lists that people can do to help change the system are to vote, support minimum wage increases, and boycott businesses that exploit people of color. She also suggests supporting artists of color, patronizing businesses run by people of color, and stopping to watch when you see someone being exploited. Obviously, a person should speak up and step in, too, when they can, but sometimes a white person just watching an injustice can help de-escalate what’s happening.