So You Want to Talk About Race

by Ijeoma Oluo

Start Free Trial

So You Want to Talk About Race Themes

The main themes in So You Want to Talk About Race are deeds over words, righteous anger, and constant criminalization.

  • Deeds over words: Though it is important to talk about the issues of racism and prejudice, Oluo emphasizes that action is even more crucial.
  • Righteous anger: Oluo shows how the anger of Black and brown Americans is completely justified and invites readers to work to alleviate racial injustice.
  • Constant criminalization: One of the important topics Oluo discusses is the school-to-prison pipeline, which is just one of the methods by which people of color are criminalized in the United States.

So You Want to Talk About Race Study Tools

Ask a question Start an essay


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Deeds Over Words

Oluo is adamant about the need for real action on the part of oppressed people—not just talking about the issues. She has seen firsthand that some people are almost addicted to saying the right things without doing the right things. To provide a personal example, Oluo explains that she had been asked to participate in a march in support of women’s issues, and she turned the hosts down. The hosts had asked her to speak without being paid, and Oluo did not want to contribute to the further economic exploitation of women of color by addressing the audience for free, especially when this particular project had a large budget.

Broadly, Oluo asks that those who bear witness to racism do two things: call out the racism and tie the incident to specific actions that will remedy the situation. The chapters of the book that focus on education dictate that readers not only speak out against white supremacist history but also suggest revisions to school curricula. If, for example, a teacher uses a racial slur, they should be called out for the incident, but this shouldn’t be the only action that takes place. In addition, the entire school system should be interrogated: How many teachers of color work at the school? How many administrators of color are in the school system? Every racist incident has a complicated history and context, and readers should not be afraid to uncover that story and do the hard work of making all of our societal systems more diverse and accessible to all.

Understanding a racial issue will never be the same as taking action to rectify a racial issue. Oluo’s call to action is clear and strong:

Talk. Please talk and talk and talk some more. But also act. Act now, because people are dying now in this unjust system. How many lives have been ground up by racial prejudice and hate? How many opportunities have we already lost?

Actions we must take include voting (both locally and nationally), working in communities and schools, bearing witness to discrimination, and speaking up in unions. Beyond that, we should support businesses owned by people of color and boycott banks that exploit and exclude people of color. The possibilities for meaningful action, Oluo shows, are boundless.

Righteous Anger

From unsolicited comments about their hair to unjust traffic stops, arrests, and police violence, Black and brown Americans have plenty to be angry about. Oluo encourages readers to acknowledge this anger and come up with constructive actions to alleviate the injustice. Furthermore, Oluo asks that readers be very aware of “tone policing” in all discussions of race and racism. Tone policing occurs when one party of a conversation, usually the privileged party, tries to move the conversation about the oppression to the “way” the oppression is being discussed. Tone policing usually privileges the comfort of the oppressor. Oluo observes that tone policing is used to shut down hard conversations about everything from unequal educational opportunities to unequal prison sentences.

Oluo’s principles of free and open discussion may be used by readers today to navigate the current landscape of vicious racism and violence toward Black and brown people. These discussions will no doubt be painful and heated; after all, the very lives of people of color are in danger. No one owes their oppressor a cheerful and upbeat discussion of police brutality, and today’s Black Lives Matter protesters do not need to put a sunny spin on the police brutality against and mass incarceration of Black people. Essentially, righteous anger brings about reform.

Constant Criminalization

Black people live...

(This entire section contains 864 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

in constant peril in our society. According to Oluo, it is up to the reader to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline that currently sustains the racist status quo in the United States. Sagan, the five-year-old who is described as “assaulting” a teacher inSo You Want to Talk About Race, is in danger of becoming locked into this pipeline, but so are many other children who happen to be Black or brown. According to Oluo’s statistics in chapter 8, children of color are suspended at higher rates than white children, and they are seen as more violent and disruptive than white students. The term “school-to-prison pipeline” is used “to describe the alarming number of children who are funneled directly and indirectly from our schools into our prison industrial complex.”

Thus, Oluo observes that racial targeting continues throughout the life of the Black child. Black and brown children are more likely to be arrested in school and turned over to law enforcement, and they are more likely to drop out of school and end up incarcerated. It is only recently in the US that the school-to-prison pipeline Oluo describes has even been widely acknowledged. The targeting of people of color—and the resulting mass incarceration—is finally being met with active resistance in American streets. The Black Lives Matter movement is the logical evolution of hundreds of years of white oppression and the constant criminalization of Black and brown people in general. Oluo endorses active resistance and calls upon Black, brown, and white people—all people—to dismantle white supremacy.


Chapter Summaries