So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo
I first heard about this book while it was being written. I follow Ijeoma Oluo’s Facebook Page and Twitter, and enjoy her witty analysis of current events, odd happenstance, and biting mic drops. Finding her voice was partly due to a friend I know who lives in Seattle, who had pointed ver followers in Ijeoma’s direction. If I was going to truly live up to my hope of being an ally for folks of color, then I needed to listen.
I was struggling at discussing race, especially with other white people. The topic seemed to swallow me whole, left me in tears, and I’d curl up in my office chair exhausted. How does one have a discussion about race?
Ijeoma’s book answers that question.
Each chapter focuses on a specific topic. Ijeoma starts with an anecdotal story to set the stage for the discussion, and then digs into the meat of the topic to discuss the nuances. She gives practical advice, and approaches each topic from an intersectional lens, allowing for better understanding of the finer points.
For example, the second chapter deals with the age-old question: “What is Racism?” Ijeoma begins with a story of a discussion she had with a white friend:
It seemed far more important to him that white people who were spreading and upholding racism be spared the effects of being called racist, than sparing his black friend the effects of that racism.
Thus, the topic is set up, and Ijeoma jumps straight into the two possible definitions, and why the second one is the one that should be used in these discussions. With attentive evidence and solid reasoning, she drives a very important point of why the definition of racism should be:
Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power.
That last bit “when those views are reinforced by systems of power” is absolutely necessary, because without it, the conversation becomes instead focused on the hearts and minds of individual racists and fails to place this within the larger context of how racist behaviors and racial oppression is part of a larger system. By focusing on “hearts and minds,” the conversations fails to see the larger context that perpetuates systems of racism today, and makes it harder for us to dismantle that system to create a more loving, equal, and equitable society.
Ijeoma goes into depth about this larger system that perpetrates racist ideals, policies, behaviors, practices, and interactions within our society and the impact it has upon the communities of color. Her individual chapters dig even deeper into some of the ways this larger system affects folks of color.
The first two chapters provide a convincing argument of when topics are about race and what is the correct definition to use in order to place this within a larger context. Once everyone is on this same playing field, it makes it easier to start a discussion. The next chapter then digs into what to do if we talk about race “wrong.” In that, all of us are going to screw up and say or do something in these types of conversations that may cause folks to be upset or hurt.
Ijeoma has our backs. She provides a great list of tips to help decrease conversation disasters and to increase chances of success. These communication tips not only are helpful for when we discuss race, but they can be applied in other difficult discussions outside of the topic of race as well. Ijeoma places them within the context of the topic of race, and provides examples on application.
Further chapters dig into more selected areas of the wide topic of race such as “checking one’s privilege,” intersectionality, affirmative action, school to prison pipeline, why white folks shouldn’t say n**ger, cultural appropriation, why students are angry, model minority myth, and others. In all of these more focused chapters, Ijeoma follows the same formula as the first more broad chapters: the anecdote to establish the setting, the questions that set up the topic, and the strategy and tips on how to communicate and discuss the topic in an appropriate, inclusive, and productive manner.
Overall, I found this book to be absolutely essential reading, and I’d love to see it taught in high schools and colleges. Students can use this book as a guide on how to emulate good communication habits, and to practice discussions on hard and uncomfortable topics. I think all folks, regardless of age, should read this book as well, so that all of us can improve how we discuss race and so that we can do so in a more holistic, inclusive, and productive manner.