So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Pub. date: January 16, 2018
Publisher: Seal Press
Thanks so much to Netgalley and Seal Press for providing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
I have been a fan of Ijeoma Oluo’s writing for the last few years, having discovered her first via The Establishment, an online publication that supports marginalized writers and creators. They cover a wide range of topics ranging from politics to kink, and I have learned so much from so many of their writers. So naturally, when their Editor-In-Chief (whom I admire greatly) was coming out with a book on race, I jumped at the opportunity to obtain an advanced copy.
In the last couple of years I’ve been better about reading nonfiction books on social issues; reading is the best way I learn and as I’ve become more aware and involved in the understanding of systemic oppression and how they’ve led to current events. Specifically, I’ve leaned towards reading books on these topics by women of color. This education is ongoing, and I have to recommend Oluo’s book as an important resource to us non-Black people who are here and willing to engage in these conversations.
The book opens with clear intentions; talking about race isn’t easy or comfortable and you’re not going to get it right immediately or all the time, but they are necessary because they’re not going anywhere just because you don’t talk about it.
“For many white people, this book may bring you face-to-face with issues of race and privilege that will make you uncomfortable…But a centuries-old system of oppression and brutality is not an easy fix, and maybe we should not look 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.”
Divided into chapters that each handle a different topic, all related to race, and all established in the form of questions, this book is almost a 250-page FAQ on race, if you will. Topics include “Is it really about race”, “Why am I always being told to check my privilege?”, “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?”, “I just got called racist, what do I do now?”- you get the idea. Each of the chapters respond to the title question, and every single one of them is absolutely fantastic. They are coherent, easy to comprehend, and come with clear-cut actionable steps one can take.
It’s really hard for me not to go through and share every paragraph I highlighted in this book because there’s just too many, but I can share with you a story that illustrates its utility. A day before reading this book, my sister and I were having a conversation about privilege, and we kept getting stuck in the “just because someone is rich doesn’t mean they aren’t hardworking and haven’t earned the rewards” argument. Try as I might, I couldn’t articulately explain how privilege worked in this context. The next day, I happened to be reading Ijeoma’s book, and came across the chapter on privilege. I offered to read it out loud to my sister, and this is the paragraph (in addition to the detailed example provided prior to it) with which I was able to get through to her:
“We don’t want to think that we are harming others, we do not want to believe that we do not deserve everything we have, and we do not want to think of ourselves as ignorant of how our world works. The concept of privilege violates everything we’ve been told about the American Dream of hard work paying off and good things happening to good people. We want to know that if we do “a” we can expect “b”, and that those who never get “b” have never done “a”. The concept of privilege makes the world seem less safe. We want to protect our vision of a world that is fair and kind and predictable. That reaction is natural, but it doesn’t make the harmful effects of unexamined privilege less real.”
This book comes with so many such real, relatable moments, which is what makes it so accessible. Don’t be fooled by it’s tone; Ijeoma is not here to let us off the hook. She is candid about the very real, very deep pain and frustration she experiences, caused by navigating a racist society, and while is understanding of the fear and hesitation that audience members might have about talking about race, she doesn’t attempt to shield them from it, and is very clear that such discomfort is necessary in this learning process. Being an ally isn’t easy, nor is it a badge of honor one can bestow upon themselves- the work needs to be done.
it would be reductive to call this book an introductory text to race conversations; the language is simple and it won’t alienate novices, but the topics are day-to-day only in their occurence. The discussions itself are very nuanced, because dismantling systemic oppression can’t happen in one stroke, and this book lends itself to the ongoing nature of such conversations. Some of the topics are very American-centric, but the overall themes are still so relevant and applicable to non-American contexts. The book also comes with a lot of practical suggestions and tips. Like a lot of things, you can’t have these conversations perfectly from the get go- we’re going to make mistakes, and the only way to get better at them is to keep practicing having them. We have to do the work.
So You Want To Talk About Race has made it to my all-time favorite kind of social justice book- sheer accessibility with an academic bent. I meant to take it slow but found myself unable to put it down; I was drawn in from the get-go. I urge every single one of you to pick up this book. There’s so much to learn from it, not only in the understanding of systemic oppression, but tangible steps to dismantle it in our everyday lives. So timely, thought-provoking, educational, and necessary.