Ijeoma Oluo recognizes that readers of So You Want to Talk About Race are taking a risk.
“We live in a country that tells you you can ignore this subject,” says Oluo, a Seattle-based writer, speaker, and editor at large of The Establishment, an intersectional media site funded and run by women.“If it gets painful, you can just stop.”
“If a reader was going to sit down and take the risk of delving through these tough emotions,” she says, “I was going to have to delve through these tough emotions and identify [my missteps] so they could see that it’s just as painful for me to go through this process.”
Oluo is well-known for powerful, personal writing on race, feminism, and social justice: from essays in New York magazine, Jezebel, and xoJane to a searing interview with Rachel Dolezal (at The Stranger)and tweets received by more than 105,000 Twitter followers.
“As a black woman, race has always been a prominent part of my life,” Oluo writes in So You Want to Talk About Race. “I have never been able to escape the fact that I am a black woman in a white supremacist country. My blackness is woven into how I dress each morning, what bars I feel comfortable going to, what music I enjoy, what neighborhoods I hang out in.”
Based on its author’s personal and professional experience, So You Want to Talk About Race is a primer for constructive conversations on race in today’s America. Chapters lead with questions—“What is racism?”; “What is cultural appropriation?”; and “Why can’t I touch your hair?”—that incisively define terms and phrases, including “school-to-prison pipeline,” “intersectionality,” and “check your privilege.”
“When somebody asks you to ‘check your privilege,’ ” she writes, “they are asking you to pause and consider how the advantages you’ve had in life are contributing to your opinions and actions, and how the lack of disadvantages in certain areas is keeping you from fully understanding the struggles others are facing and may in fact be contributing to those struggles.”
So You Want to Talk About Race often addresses black and people-of-color readers, then white readers, in turn—a necessary distinction, Oluo says.
“We’d like to act as if everyone comes into these discussions based on an even playing field,” she says, “but that’s not true. The system doesn’t treat everyone the same way, so when we’re trying to come to a solution, why would we think that we all have the same role, or even the same amount of power?”
In one chapter, Oluo suggests clear steps for POC to confront perpetrators of microagressions: “State what actually happened. Ask some uncomfortable questions....Remember, you are not crazy and you have every right to bring this up.” Then, she suggests steps for the white people who may be guilty of them: “Pause. Ask yourself: ‘Do I really know why I said/did that?’ Ask yourself: ‘Would I have said this to somebody of my race? Is it something I say to people of my race?’ ”
Ultimately, Oluo says, the measure of So You Want to Talk About Race’s success will be whether readers of all races can use it as a tool for conversations that effect action to undermine systemic racism and racial oppression.
“Words are important because of how they shape what we do,” she says. “It’s easy for people to read books on race and feel like they’ve done their part—Oh, I totally get race! So now I’ve done my part to end racism—but it means nothing in the day-to-day world if you’re not putting that into action.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.