Book Summary - So You Want to Talk About Race by Iljeoma Oluo
So You Want to Talk about Race author Ijeoma Oluo explores systemic racism and white supremacy through a unique worldview: the well-meaning white person who is not fully aware of the ways their privilege creates life advantages. Oluo argues that white supremacy is so integrated into our society that we are unable to view it objectively and it has become our default state. Applying strong and detailed prose, Oluo takes readers on a critical journey through self-awareness, ultimately voicing a community call to action that is long overdue.
If you ask the average white person in Middle America whether or not they are racist, you are likely to receive a confident ‘no’. However, So You Want to Talk About Race asks us to go beyond this simple answer. We are invited to bypass the stereotype that the ‘racism’ label only applies to people who make extremely noticeable prejudiced comments.
Instead, we must re-examine our personal perspective. While it is easy to claim that you are anti-discrimination, you may still--unintentionally--play a role in a society that has been built on privilege.
If you are born white or even if you pass as white (which happens when you have to light enough skin that you look like you could be white even if you are really not), you join the world with several automatic advantages.
For instance, when you learn about history in school, you are learning about white history by default. When you go to a store, the products are specifically designed with people like you (white people) in mind. When you get hurt, you do not have to worry that you will be denied medical or legal support based on who you are.
These are just a few of the many privileges white individuals are granted that people of color (BIPOC) simply do not receive.
While we like to think that nobody is born racist or starts out that way early in life, evidence suggests that children actually develop skin color preferences early on. In 2010, a CNN study found that when given the choice between a black doll and a white one, the majority of children will choose the white doll. This finding speaks to the fact that while you may not be directly telling your children to make choices based on race, they are already being impacted by the white influences around them.
For instance, your child is likely seeing white characters on TV (the majority of the time) and walking down toy aisles filled with advertisements featuring white people. Whiteness can be seen everywhere.
We often hear people make well-meaning comments like “I have Black friends” when they are trying to show acceptance--and perhaps even an embrace--of the Black community.
In making this sort of remark, you are essentially saying this:
“How can I be racist if I occasionally hang out with a Black person. If I was racist, I would never hang out with a black person.”
While it is true that a racist person would be less inclined to hang out with a Black person, this attitude towards the subject makes people feel as though they do not need to actively combat racism.
They are doing enough by allowing a Black individual to spend time in their presence.
With this, you are exhibiting ‘white exceptionalism’ or the idea that you are the exception to the problem, so you are not personally responsible for addressing it, on an individual or societal level.
The challenge is this: white people often feel they are doing such a good job of not being racist that they end up getting very defensive about the topic.
The white people even start painting themselves as the real victims.
You might hear a comment like this:
“Well, I know that Black people have it hard and all, but I mean, I have issues, too. Why are their struggles getting all of the attention when mine are not?”
In reality, if you are white, you have no idea what it is like to be subject to police brutality--or so many other injustices--based entirely on the color of your skin. For this reason alone, you have a responsibility to your community to act out against discrimination.
No one is saying that your problems are not important. In another context, they might be, but when having a discussion about race and related issues as a white person, it is not appropriate to re-frame the conversation around yourself and your personal experiences.
Conversely, remaining silent while you let others do the work in fighting racism is ineffective. There is no place for inaction in the fight for justice and it is critical that we all participate generously if we want to see change on a large level.
So, how did we end up in such a challenging spot? The answer is in stereotypes. For decades, people of color have faced dangerous attitudes and assumptions.
For instance, tennis superstar Serena Williams was publicly scolded in 2018 when she called an umpire a thief. While Serena’s comment may not have been appropriate, why is that she was so forcefully called out when tennis player John McEnroe said many things that were much worse...and never had any consequence?
This is an example of tone policing. BIPOC are often called out for sounding angry. On the other hand, when a BIPOC speaks softly and gently, white people are sometimes surprised, because this does not match their expectation. Basically, white people commonly stereotype the Black community as being loud and causing trouble.
While this stereotype is a dangerous one, there are also several others, including the idea that BIPOCs are uneducated, drug dealers, exotic, and/or more likely to steal.
Even if you personally do not rely on any of these stereotypes, you can only fight racism by first recognizing that these false perspectives exist and are problematic.
Let’s introduce a concept called cultural appropriation. This term refers to an uneven balance in which a powerful culture takes from a less powerful one. For instance, white people (the dominant group) have adopted rap and BIPOC fashion ideas and made them part of mainstream culture, when they are originally from the Black community (the less dominant group).
Why is this so bad?
Well, by drawing from another community’s culture without permission and incorporating it into our own, we are showing disrespect to those who came up with the idea in the first place. We should never be taken without the original community’s consent.
The Need for Affirmative Action
As a society, we have a tough task ahead of us: clear obstacles that are a daily reality for some and completely unimaginable for others.
So, how do we achieve this end?
We implement strategies to address the race issues we see. One way to do this is through affirmative action. This process of favoring groups that have faced discrimination (such as the Black community) helps colleges and universities increase their recruitment of African American men and women.
Still, with startling realities among us (like the fact that Black women only receive 65 cents for every dollar a white man earns), affirmative action is our best hope at aiming for equality in a complex society that places less value on those who have darker skin.
Additionally, Black children are much more likely to attend underfunded schools than their white peers, which means that by the time they are even preparing for college (if they are considering this path at all), they are already at a significant disadvantage, because they have not had the access to all of the helpful pre-college tools.
For instance, in many wealthy white communities, it is not uncommon for parents to hire private tutors for their children and to enroll them in several--often expensive--extracurricular activities, so that they appear more well-rounded and successful on college applications.
If ten percent of the local community is Black, the same ratio should be reflected in the workforce and in the areas’ schools. However, we know that this has never been the case.
While our communities are certainly guilty of failing our black adults, white people deserve further blame for not stepping up on behalf of our black children. From the time that BIPOC children begin school, they are often already beginning to encounter racism in the classroom.
Educators need to be mindful that BIPOC students might not have the same economic or cultural background as their white peers. For instance, the author recalls a scenario in her brother’s elementary school education where students were asked to “pay rent” on their desks as part of a classroom behavior reward system.
What the teacher did not know is that Oluo’s brother, Aham, had experienced the trauma of homelessness firsthand, but was still regularly told that he could not afford to have bursts of energy. This comparison could have been highly triggering for Aham.
And these sorts of situations in schools are not uncommon. Studies show that discrimination by school administrators is a leading cause of the school-to-prison pipeline.
The school-to-prison pipeline is the idea that young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to end up in prison because of the race-related issues they encounter while in school.
Challenge education that only examines history from a white perspective. Talk to your school board about how Black students are less likely to graduate and more likely to receive lower grades and test scores. Ask about the expulsion rates of Black and Latinx students as compared to others. We deserve to know the facts. Because it is only by arming ourselves with the knowledge that we can work to foster change.
The Model Minority and Tone Policing
In educating our youth about racial injustice, we teach both the Martin Luther King Jr. approach and the Malcolm X method.
We instruct our children that the Martin Luther King Jr. approach (non-violent protest) is by far the more favorable option because it is peaceful and we are quick to dismiss Malcolm X’s more active approach (by any means necessary) to combating racism.
In drawing this line, we are writing off Malcolm X as mean and cruel rather than recognizing the potential value in what he was doing for the Black community.
Fighting racism is about more than dividing people into two opposing groups. It is far more complicated than that.
Judging a person for the way that they express what they are doing rather than focusing on their actual goal is referred to as tone policing. In the case of Malcolm X, we are saying that we do not value the opinions of ‘people who sound angry.’ That is tone policing--important voices are silenced.
In order to avoid tone policing in your conversations about race, be sure that when you discuss these important topics, you are considering that a BIPOC is engaging from a different, more vulnerable position than you are as a white person.
For a Black person, many of these struggles (police brutality, discrimination, etc.) that we are talking about in a theoretical sense might have actually happened and we need to remember that.
A common example of tone-policing is referred to as the “model minority” myth. Essentially, this is a stereotype of Asian Americans that presumes they are top-notch academically, soft-spoken, and financially successful. This is a dangerous stereotype as it ignores the diversity within the Asian American community (there are plenty of Asian Americans who hate math, for instance) and can have a negative impact on Asian Americans who feel that they must live up to this unrealistic expectation.
The Main Take-away
When white individuals engage in race-related conversations with people of color, they are not simply doing a favor for their discussion partners; they are fulfilling a moral obligation to fight against the persistence of discrimination.
When having these conversations, white people must put their own identities aside and consider the experiences of the Black community from the Black perspective. Only a person who has lived life as a Black man or woman can understand what it is like to be a Black person in America today.
While there are many paths that a person can take in combating injustice, Oluo recommends focusing on the ways in which white people can reconsider their own experiences and develop a deeper understanding of Blackness.
And she does not gloss over the uncomfortable parts of the process.
Oluo asserts that white people need to do better. We need to do better in our homes and in our schools and even in the products we advertise and sell. Until the Black community is fully represented in the workforce, in education, and in the media, the gap between what is possible for white Americans versus Black America will continue to widen.
About the Author
Ijeoma Oluo, the author of So You Want to Talk About Race, was born in 1980 in Denton, Texas. After graduating from Western Washington University with a B.A. in political science, Oluo began her career with a stint in digital marketing.
However, after being profoundly impacted by the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012--who was the same age as her son--Oluo pivoted her career and started a blog intended to activate her Seattle community, which was largely white.
From there, Oluo went on to be published in Jezebel, Medium, The Establishment, and The Guardian as well as several other magazines and newspapers. She focused her pieces on intersectionality, feminism, misogyny, and social justice.
In 2015, she released her first book, The Badass Feminist Coloring Book.
So You want to Talk About Race, published in 2018, is her second.
Oluo currently resides in Seattle, Washington.