So You Want to Talk About Race is one of several books that shot to the tops of many bestseller book lists this summer, in the midst of uprisings across the United States in protest of the continued state sanctioned violence and police brutality against Black people. Seemingly overnight, everyone in the country, specifically non-Black people, were looking for ways to learn more about America’s racism and (I hope and assume) ways to change and eradicate it. On social media, people of color started calling out the history of America’s anti-Blackness and the myriad of ways that racism has shown up in basically every facet of life forever. For like three weeks straight, there were resource and reading lists being posted everywhere you looked. I, of course, am guilty of having posted my own. I say all this to say, I included So You Want to Talk About Race on my own list, based recommendation and review. I’m here to say that after reading it for myself and facilitating a group discussion about the content, I’m happy to have included it on the list and my recommendation still stands.
“This promise - that you will get more because they exist to get less - is woven throughout our entire society. Our politics, our education system, our infrastructure - anywhere there is a finite amount of power, influence, visibility, wealth, or opportunity. Anywhere in which someone might miss out. There the lure of that promise sustains racism. White Supremacy is this nation's oldest pyramid scheme. Even those who have lost everything to the scheme are still hanging in there, waiting for their turn to cash out.”
I’ll be frank. When I first read it, I kept thinking that this book would be amazing for white people and other non-Black people of color. But after revisiting and re-reading different portions, I realize how amazing it is for readers of all races. What makes it so great to me, is how perfectly and simply Ijeoma Oluo is able to break down some of the most complex and frustrating aspects of racism, including the definition of racism itself. I mean chapter two is literally titled “what is racism?”. If there was a “US racism and white supremacy for Dummies” or Racism 101 class, So You Want to Talk About Race would be the book that the course was guided by. And to be honest, that’s a pretty difficult and impressive thing to do in one book. But she does it. And she does it by including several anecdotes and personal stories from her life. She, a half white, half Nigerian woman who grew up poor in the US (presenting as a Black woman), would of course have several experiences to pull from beginning with her earliest childhood memories and following her own experiences raising Black sons.
“Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and by just letting it be, we are responsible for what it produces.”
The book is well paced with the content of each chapter building on the following as the reader’s understanding deepens. For example, in the earliest chapters of the book, she calls out the very important need to have a clear definition of racism. One of the main barriers to racism, quite frankly, is that most people don’t really know how to define it or won’t agree on what it means. I could personally spend a lot of time unpacking this alone, but let’s move on. She starts with the foundation that readers need to know what racism is so that when we (she) addresses more complex concepts later in the book, there isn’t any confusion. The chapter on privilege is followed by the chapter titled “what is intersectionality and why do I need it?”. This is because, as you can imagine, it would be quite difficult to understand the importance of intersectionality without first understanding all of the ways that you hold privilege in society, and how it impacts your perception and experiences. These are concepts that any and everyone will benefit from understanding. Some of the concepts covered in the other chapters include: school-to-prison pipeline, affirmative action, microaggressions, police brutality, saying the “N” word, and one of my favorites titled “why can’t I touch your hair?”. When I say this book is a crash course, I really mean it. She gets to the core and meat of each very important topic, but also just barely brushes the tip of the iceberg. If you have read or studied anti-racism texts before, you know that for each chapter of this book, there are entire collections of books and studies dedicated to that single topic alone. That means that the readers of this book are essentially receiving a core introduction to these topics, and are being invited to gain a deeper understanding by seeking out additional texts and having those conversations on their own time.
“These are very scary times for a lot of people who are just now realizing that America is not, and has never been, the melting-pot utopia that their parents and teachers told them it was. These are very scary times for those who are just now realizing how justifiably hurt, angry, and terrified so many people of color have been all along. These are very stressful times for people of color who have been fighting and yelling and trying to protect themselves from a world that doesn’t care, to suddenly be asked by those who’ve ignored them for so long, ‘What has been happening your entire life? Can you educate me?”
Although it is what I would consider an intro or 101 book, Oluo does not sugarcoat or white wash any of the topics that are presented in the book. She communicates it to readers very directly. If you’re white and you’re living and conditioned in a white supremacist society, it’s very likely that you are or have been racist for most of your life. That’s just the truth and now what will you do about it? The good news is that she also frequently provides opportunities for reader reflection by posing questions and suggesting readers complete small exercises. In almost every chapter, she even offers bulleted tips for how to address different instances of racism, how to have a conversation about race, how to check your privilege, ways to check yourself when you’re being defensive, and so on.
“Now is an opportunity to learn more about yourself, to see yourself and your actions more clearly, so you can move toward the person you truly want to be. The question is: do you want to look like a better person, or do you want to be a better person?”
And finally, the book ends with a call to action so to speak. Readers (mainly non-Black readers) are asked to reflect on ways that they can move beyond just reading out anti-racism work. White people in particular are encouraged all throughout the book to have conversations about race. They are warned that they will absolutely get it wrong the first few times and it will likely feel not very good. But as with most things, the more you do the better you get. And we all have to start somewhere. And ultimately, it’s not Black people’s burden to undo white supremacy. So You Want to Talk About Race gets a 4/5 stars for me for many reasons, but also and mainly because it starts at ground zero for many people. And unlike many other books, the language is more accessible and less academic-y. Read this book and the others on my anti-racism book list!
Additional quotes from the book that I really loved:
“What happens when the youth roll their eyes at principles we’ve spent our lives fighting for, when they’ve decided that they are not only outdate, but oppressive? And this is important to remember, for all of us. No matter what our intentions, everything we say and do in pursuit of justice will one day be outdated, ineffective, and yes, probably wrong. That is the way progress works.”
“You have to get over the fear of facing the worst in yourself. You should instead fear unexamined racism. Fear the thought that right now, you could be contributing to the oppression of others and you don't know it. But do not fear those who bring that oppression to light. Do not fear the opportunity to do better.”
“A privilege has to come with somebody else’s disadvantage – otherwise it is not a privilege.”
“We should not have a society where the value of marginalized people is determined by how well they can scale often impossible obstacles that others will never know.”
“The history of a word matters as long as the effects of that history are still felt…As long as we have had spoken word, language has been one of the first tools deployed in efforts to oppress others.”
“If you live in this system of white supremacy, you are either fighting the system of you are complicit. There is no neutrality to be had towards systems of injustice, it is not something you can just opt out of.”
“You are racist because you were born and bred in a racist, white supremacist society. White Supremacy is, as I’ve said earlier, insidious by design. The racism required to uphold White Supremacy is woven into every area of our lives. There is no way you can inherit white privilege from birth, learn racist white supremacist history in schools, consume racist and white supremacist movies and films, work in a racist and white supremacist workforce, and vote for racist and white supremacist governments and not be racist.”