Racism For White People 101: a review of Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want To Talk About Race

This excellent and relentless book is, despite the word “talk” in the title, all about action – better understanding and better conversations, too, but mainly so we can get to action. Read and share. And please consider taking its advice about how to act.

So You Want To Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. 2018. 256 p. $27

Context matters, so I’ll be blunt: I’m an educated straight white man, and I grew up a predominantly white and Christian part of the country. No excuses here, but my options for participating in the project of racial equality haven’t always been obvious to me. In fact, just educating myself on the basics wasn’t even a clear task. For years, I’ve read books and articles, watched a lot of Netflix, and burdened the people around me with questions, all with the task of getting a little more woke.

If my story sounds relevant to you or someone you know, Ijeoma Oluo‘s book So You Want To Talk About Race should be at the top of the reading list. Oluo has been writing about race for a while, and she grew up and lives in Seattle. I’m from about sixty miles away from Seattle, so it isn’t surprising that it feels a bit like she’s writing for me. More than anything else, she’s writing for white people who are struggling to understand the experiences of people of color and want to be a part of change.

First of all, it’s an excellent read. Oluo’s vibrant prose, intellectual depth and breadth, and directness all make the book accessible and even enjoyable, despite the painful topics she addresses often with visceral first-hand evidence. For such a difficult topic, it’s an easy read. That’s usually a breezy comment about a flighty novel, but in this case it’s an enormous asset. Oluo has set out to reach the large audience that can benefit from this message — indeed, the audience that must hear this message if we hope for big change.

More important than the literary quality, however, is the unrelenting focus on action. Virtually every chapter comes with a bulleted list of action items. Like the best self-help literature, it combines common sense with things you know deep down but don’t necessary carry in the front of your mind. In this respect, the book feels like a reference one will want nearby. I plan to keep it close at hand.

The to-do lists in each chapter are matched by lucid and stark language throughout, always unforgiving and always in context. “This book will push and will push hard,” Oluo warns in the introduction:

For many white people, this book may bring you face-to-face with issues of race and privilege that will make you uncomfortable. For many people of color, this book may bring forward some of the trauma of experiences around race that you’ve experienced. But a centuries -old system of oppression and brutality is not an easy fix, and maybe we shouldn’t be looking for easy reads. I hope that if parts of this book make you uncomfortable, you can sit with that discomfort for a while, to see if it has anything else to offer you.

Oluo also deftly manages the challenge of focusing on race and racism while building bridges and acknowledging connections to other forms of oppression, bias, and privilege.  Gender, sexuality, and disability all surface productively and clearly, without distracting from the core topic. The result for the reader is to preserve the focus while preparing one’s thinking for inevitable and appropriate breadth and intersectionality. The other issues are acknowledged, their connections to core concepts are explained, but the focus is maintained without being dismissive of these potential tangents. If you’re concerned about gender, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, anti-Semitism, or other examples of exclusion and bias, you’ll be as grateful as I was for this balance between focus and breadth. It’s one of the books great strengths and makes it even more broadly relevant than it would otherwise be.

A quick note on the organization of the book is in order. If you’re feeling time-constrained, at least read the introduction and the first two chapters, as well as the conclusion (chapter 17, “Talking is great, but what else can I do?”) – and then other chapters a la carte as you see fit.  A few examples:

  • You’re interested in your organization’s policies (chapter 7, “How can I talk about affirmative action?”)
  • You want to inform your civic engagement (chapter 6, “Is police brutality really about race?”).
  • You’re a parent (chapter 13, “Why are our students so angry?” and chapter 14, “What is the model minority myth” and chapter 8, “What is the school-to-prison pipeline?”).
  • Or maybe you’ve just wondered what exactly people mean by white privilege (chapter 4, “Why am I always being told to ‘check my privilege’?”).

In short, reading the book cover-to-cover is great, but there are other options.

If I had to play favorites, I would insist upon chapter 12 (“What are microaggressions?”) Oluo’s discussion is a tour de force, giving a powerful view of life under regular, casual, and typically unconscious and unintentional verbal assault by one’s co-workers, friends and acquaintances, and society as a whole. Always returning to action, Oluo lays out a nice list for firmly and respectfully confronting microaggressions, as well as some guidance on being an upstander. Even more powerfully (at least to me), she provides a list for the exact opposite – tools for responding when you have been called out for a racist microaggression. If we could all carry around both lists in our heads, I suspect the world would be a better, happier, more empathetic place.

Buy this one for yourself or your friends. No single book is a panacea, but this one combines hard-to-hear realities and clear next steps in a satisfying package. Thank you, Ijeoma!

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