Antiracist Reading: Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race

As promised, the first post of the month will focus on a contemporary work of anti-racist reading. Today, we’ll take a closer look at Ijeoma Oluo’s seminal book, So You Want to Talk About Race.

Before we get into this book, here’s a quick bio. Based in Seattle, Oluo describes herself as “a writer, speaker, and Internet yeller.” She writes about the intersections between race, feminism, social justice, mental health, and other issues. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, NBC News, Elle, TIME, The Stranger, The Guardian, and other places. She has a degree in political science from Western Washington University. 

As the title suggests, So You Want to Talk About Race aims to facilitate open and honest conversations about systemic racism. It is written for both Black and white audiences, with Oluo explicitly pointing out when she’s talking to specific readers (note: she discusses other people of color as well, such as Indigenous peoples, Latinx people, and Asian people, but she states that her primary focus is on Black experiences, so I will follow her lead). When she’s talking to white audiences, for example, she stresses the importance of resisting white fragility and being willing to listen. When talking to Black readers, she acknowledges the legitimacy of their experiences and emotions as people who experience systemic racism.

Oluo takes a very pragmatic approach to race by highlighting common examples of systemic racism that occur in daily life rather than broader theoretical ideas. Each chapter is framed around a common issue or question surrounding race,  including cultural appropriation, microaggression, and white fragility. Chapter 9, for example, is called “Why Can’t I Say the N-word?”, while chapter  11 is called “Why Can’t I Touch Your Hair ?” From there, she describes a personal experience demonstrating how she has experienced these issues, and then widens her scope to discuss their broader social implications. So an uncomfortable personal experience about white people wanting to touch her hair, when examined in a broader social framework, becomes indicative of systemic issues surrounding about the agency we try to deny black bodies, reflecting the ongoing legacy of chattel slavery (And seriously, white people, stop doing this. Everyone from my college German professor to my cohorts at William & Mary have had to endure this, which is ridiculous).

Whereas Robin D’Angelo’s book White Fragility is primarily diagnostic in nature, So You Want to Talk About Race aims to move beyond description and encourage difficult conversations about race. Oluo acknowledges that the material is difficult to discuss, and that it would take multiple conversations, but it is important to be having them, and ultimately, to take action. In a lot of the chapters, she includes bullet points intended to frame and guide race-based conversations, and the latest reprintings of the book feature a discussion guide at the end. Her final chapter also includes action items, such as voting, participating in City Council meetings, supporting black-owned businesses, and other ways of challenging systemic racism through tangible acts.

Oluo does not hold back when describing how systemic racism has affected her mentally and emotionally, and as a white reader, I felt this was an important part of the book. It’s difficult for white people to understand how racial microaggressions hurt other people because our privilege shields us from those kinds of experiences. At the same time, we cannot expect to rely on our Black colleagues to describe their experiences for us, because repeatedly reliving them is painful and draining. Oluo, however, openly divulges how microaggressions have hurt her, and white readers should take her recollections seriously. From the disappointment of seeing cultural appropriation in an airport lounge modeled on a superficial understanding of African aesthetics and culture (and seriously white people, you do know that “Africa” isn’t a monolithic place, right? Dozens of countries exist in that massive continent, all with different cultures, languages, traditions, etc.), to comments about her being considered too loud or unprofessional, to the pain of being called the n-word by laughing schoolchildren, she lets you know how much white supremacy hurts when you’re not its intended beneficiary. 

Intersectionality is another key facet of Oluo’s book. Throughout her text, she reminds readers that she is sharing her experiences as a black, queer, single mother, and emphasizes that her recollections and encounters will differ from those of other Black people. As a light-skinned black person, for example, she acknowledges her privilege from more closely resembling the whiteness touted as the normative beauty in our society. She also points out how her affluence as a college-educated woman has also benefitted her. Nevertheless, the stories she shares about being told that she shouldn’t wear red lipstick because she would look like a clown, or the conversations she’s had with her sons about minimizing police aggression, make it quite clear that systemic racism affects her life deeply and persistently.

 If you have read D’Angelo’s book and you want to take on something that is more action-oriented and written from a Black rather than a white perspective, I highly recommend this book. I’ll admit, confrontation is one of my least favorite things to do, but it is vital to talk about race, especially with the other white people in our lives, and I know this book will help. I appreciated the suggestions and advice that she includes, and she admits that even with these guidelines, chances are good that the conversations will not always go well. Nevertheless, we need to do the work, and this book will help you take those first steps.  

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