So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Seal Press 256 pp.
By Jenny Bhatt
In Ijeoma Oluo’s now-viral interview with Rachel Dolezal (the white woman who identifies as black), Oluo described how she asked Dolezal the same question about privilege and identity several different ways before giving up in frustration. It was the most important question of the interview and one that Dolezal, in her own book, had said she hated being asked.
Then Oluo wrote about how her anger toward Dolezal melted away with a particular realization of how Dolezal was not really a radical, original phenomenon but simply another manifestation of the everyday white supremacy all around us: “Dolezal is simply a white woman who cannot help but center herself in all that she does—including her fight for racial justice. And if racial justice doesn't center her, she will redefine race itself in order to make that happen. It is a bit extreme, but it is in no way new for white people to take what they want from other cultures in the name of love and respect, while distorting or discarding the remainder of that culture for their comfort.”
No doubt, we have all felt the emotional power of similar epiphanies in our own difficult conversations and conflicts, even when we do not have the language to articulate them quite as clearly. With this book, Ijeoma Oluo gives us — both white people and people of color — that language to engage in clear, constructive, and confident dialogue with each other about how to deal with racial prejudices and biases. And this dialogue is critical. As she writes toward the end: “Words are always at the heart of all our problems, and the beginning of all our solutions.”
Let me say at the outset: this book is for everyone — white or black or any color in between. If you are white, it will make you see nuances of racism that you were probably not aware of, including within yourself, your loved ones, and coworkers. If you are a person of color, it will give you ways to respond calmly, rationally, and intelligently, even when dealing with the well-meaning “I’m not racist” white friend or coworker.
Each chapter is framed as a question which Oluo unpacks thoroughly and rationally. These are questions that typically come up in daily interactions, whether they are raised explicitly, implicitly, or only in our heads. And, since the last US election, they have also been popping up all across social media, over dinner-tables, and even in workplaces. Some of the questions seek to define loaded words/phrases and their implications: racism, intersectionality, police brutality, privilege, affirmative action, cultural appropriation, microaggressions, and so on. Some of them address the constant arguments you might come across on social media, like “why can’t I say the “N” word?” and “I just got called racist, what do I do?”
With each question, Oluo is consistent in her approach of first explaining why it matters, debunking some of the common beliefs/misunderstandings around it, describing its symptoms and impacts with facts and data, explaining why it needs to be discussed/addressed, instructing how to adjust one’s own frame of mind in approaching any related conversation, and providing practical checklists of what to say/do and remember/consider for an effective response.
Oluo’s primary underlying theme is that we are dealing with systemic racism built over centuries rather than individual acts of oppression. Throughout, she points out how this racism is built into all aspects of our culture, our institutions, our movements, and our everyday social behaviors and, more importantly, how we can know for sure when something is about race. Whether we consider ourselves “racist” or not, we are part of a racist system. In fact, it is often our advantages that keep us from seeing the disadvantages of others. And, no matter how well-intentioned we might be as individuals, our complacency with that system makes us all complicit.
She does not shy away from raising discussion points that might make some uncomfortable. There is no ambivalence or soft-pedaling. These talks are difficult, requiring introspection, empathy, and a voluntary rewiring of our brains if we are to make any progress. She reminds us how talking about race is just not something we do in “polite” company, which is why we do not have the skill or the practice to do it properly. But conversation — both with people of other races as well as with people of our own race — is the only place we can begin if we want to come together and make change happen. Also, our unexamined thoughts and behaviors are the ones that do the most harm without our even knowing it.
That said, conversation is not the only thing we can or should do. Oluo also shares how we can leverage our privilege(s) to take specific actions against systemic racism — in our neighborhoods, communities, schools, workplaces, local government, etc.
Raised by a single white mother in difficult economic circumstances and single mother to two mixed-race sons from a young age, Oluo has experienced first-hand many of the race struggles she describes here. And while she shares some of her personal stories that caused her much fear or anger or both, her voice remains even-keeled and she does not try to get us, as readers, riled up as well. This is important if we are to pay close attention and absorb the talking points she lays out so thoroughly.
Some of the early reviews and blurbs have likened Oluo’s book to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Gay raised a lot of good and important questions about race, gender, and sexuality but did not necessarily answer them. What we got there was a sense of how the author, Roxane Gay, was individually struggling with them. And that is still relevant, of course, because it resonated with many others too. Where Oluo’s book differs is that she explicitly raises questions and provides talking points and counter-arguments for both people of color and white people. Where Gay embraced and flaunted her subjectivity, Oluo opts for restraint and consideration with her objectivity. Like Gay, Oluo also gives us autobiographical experiences but, where Gay is raw and unfiltered with her examples and analogies, Oluo is relatively more measured and to the point. This becomes, possibly, the one negative with Oluo’s book for those who know her from her active online persona and viral essays/articles and might be expecting some of that spirit here.
That said, this book is much-needed and timely. It is more than a primer on racism. It is a comprehensive conversation guide. One helpful addition, perhaps, would have been a list of “Further Reading Materials” for each of the question-chapters: books (fiction, nonfiction, even poetry), articles, and essays.
Indulge me with a personal note in closing. As an immigrant woman of color and someone who has worked decades in traditionally white-male-dominated industries across Europe, the UK, and the US, I have first-hand experiences with several of the difficult behaviors/conversations Oluo lays out. I also read about race, gender, etc., more widely than the average person. Despite that, I found myself revisiting my past and seeing some things differently because of the way Oluo brings all the issues together in a cohesive, coherent, connected narrative. I recalled the stress of working that much harder for the same benefits and promotions as my white coworkers. I flinched at the memories of the many microaggressions — easily dismissed in silence when inflicted but, taken cumulatively, deadly in how they undermine one’s sense of self and confidence. And I wished someone had given me a book like this one all those years ago when I left India to go study in the UK. I do not know if having it would have helped me to assert myself or even to use words like “racism” or “sexism” with my professors, employers, and certain friends. But it would, most likely, have given me some courage to know I was not alone and to have the right language to process what I was experiencing.
For now, I simply hope this book is handed out at institutions and workplaces everywhere as required reading so that some of those difficult, volatile conversations around race (and gender, sexuality, and more) can get somewhat less painful.
Jenny Bhatt's first short story collection is due out in 2018. Her writing has appeared or is upcoming in, among others, The Atlantic, Amazon’s Day One Literary Journal, Gravel Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Hofstra’s Windmill, Eleven Eleven Journal, Hot Metal Bridge, Jet Fuel Review, Kweli Journal, Five:2:One, The Indian Quarterly, York Literary Review (UK), The Nottingham Review (UK), Litro UK, The Vignette Review, and an anthology, ‘Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World.’ Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in Atlanta. Find her at: http://indiatopia.com. Other book reviews: https://indiatopia.com/reviews/book-reviews/.