Summary: “A lot of people want to skip ahead to the finish line of racial harmony. Past all this unpleasantness to a place where all wounds are healed and the past is laid to rest.” (Page 140)
Race can be difficult to talk about clearly. Many Whites are reluctant to talk about race because they do not want to accidentally say something offensive. Many minorities are reluctant to talk about race because they are tired of the conversations that do not seem to actually get anywhere. In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo steps into the gap with a primer on race discussions.
With each new book I read, I have a tendency to say, ’this is the best so far’. This is in part a bias toward newness. But I think it is also my tendency to see where each new book I read brings something slightly different and unique to the discussion.
So You Want to Talk About Race is very straight forward. The first chapter defines race. The second chapter talks about what racism is. The third chapter talks about why we should talk about race and the fear of doing it wrong (short version, if you want a real relationship, you have to talk about real issues.) Each of the chapters cover a fairly narrow topic and build on the previous topic. Privilege, intersectionality, police brutality, affirmative action, school to prison pipeline, the ’N’ word, cultural appropriation, hair, microaggressions, anger, the myth of the model minority, I got called a racist, etc round out the book.
There are a lot of books on race. And very few of them would not be helpful to at least someone. One of the benefits of a wide variety of books from a wide variety of authors is that they can target particular audiences and bring different perspectives to show that there is not a single perspective on race and racism.
So You Want to Talk About Race has one of the better treatments on intersectionality. There is a lot of misunderstanding about what intersectionality is. A recent blog post I read suggested that intersectionality is a competition to see who is most oppressed, the winner gets to tell everyone else that their opinions do not matter. That, of course, is a ridiculous misunderstanding of the concept.
In an overly short form, intersectionality is the concept that different types of discrimination impact people differently and they cannot be all handled the same. For instance, a woman that experiences sexism is discriminated differently from someone that is in a wheel chair. It would do no good to tell the woman that is discriminated against because of her gender that the way to solve her problem is to have more accessible workspace with more ramps and bathrooms and a good health plan. But in addition to recognizing that there are different types of discrimination, one person may be discriminated against in multiple different ways at the same time.
It is not really possible to talk about intersectionality well without talking about privilege and that is also handled very well here. Because no matter who you are, everyone has some privilege that has come about because they have something that benefits them without the person directly working for it. It may be generational wealth or education or living in the 21st century or being born in the US, etc. The point of the concept of privilege is not to tell White Males that they cannot have an opinion, but to recognize that our privilege impacts how we perceive and interact in the world. Privilege is not a form of oppression, but a form of humility to remind us that while we may have worked hard to get where we are, there are factors benefited us (and harmed us) that were beyond our control. Oluo spends some time unpacking what she views as her privilege as a Black Queer woman that grew up in a single parent household in poverty. She has privilege in some areas and so does everyone else.
So You Want to Talk about Race is conversational and more frequently than I would have thought, funny. There are lots of questions in the book. It is a book that would make for a good discussion because she spends so much time asking the reader to process the material. There are also a large number of helpful illustrations. One of the best analogies I think was in a discussion of microaggressions early in the book.
Another analogy: imagine if you were walking down the street and every few minutes someone would punch you in the arm. You don’t know who will be punching you, and you don’t know why. You are hurt and wary and weary. You are trying to protect yourself, but you can’t get off this street. Then imagine somebody walks by, maybe gesticulating wildly in interesting conversation, and they punch you in the arm on accident. Now imagine that this is the last straw, that this is where you scream. That person may not have meant to punch you in the arm, but the issue for you is still the fact that people keep punching you in the arm. Regardless of why that last person punched you, there’s a pattern that needs to be addressed, and your sore arm is testimony to that. But what often happens instead is that people demand that you prove that each person who punched you in the arm in the past meant to punch you in the arm before they’ll acknowledge that too many people are punching you in the arm. The real tragedy is that you get punched in the arm constantly, not that one or two people who accidentally punched you in the arm might be accused of doing it on purpose. They still contributed to the pain that you have endured—a pain bigger than that one punch—and they are responsible for being a part of that, whether they meant to or not. And if you just punched somebody in the arm that would not be the time to talk about how important it is to protect your right to gesticulate wildly, even if sometimes you accidentally punch people. Once you know that your wild gesticulation is harming people (even if you’ve been raised to believe that it’s your god-given right to gesticulate as wildly as your heart desires without any thought of consequences), you can no longer claim it’s an accident when somebody gets hit. (page 19)
Much of the book is educational toward White people in approach. So You Want to Talk About Race wants to encourage people, if they are at least willing to pick up a book on race, that simply trying is a really important part. But it is also helpful to start with the assumption that not every conversation is going to go well and to persevere over time (maybe not in a particular conversation, but the longer term) and to learn from mistakes.
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? Because those who just want to look like a better person will have great difficulty with the introspection necessary to actually be a better person. In order to do better we must be willing to hold our darkness to the light, we must be willing to shatter our own veneer of “goodness” So if you’ve been confronted with the possibility of your own racism, and you want to do the work, here are some tips: Listen….Set your intentions aside…Try to hear the impact of what you have done. (page 220-221)
The message of So You Want to Talk About Race is that it is better to struggle through and be imperfect in our understanding and discussions around race than to have a perfect facade and not be willing to have the tough conversations. We as a society cannot ‘move on’ until we actually understand what is going on. And we cannot really understand what is going on in society without talking about it.