The book my daughter gave me for my birthday was wonderful not only because it shows I raised her right (what better gift than a book?), but also because Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race ranks among the best books I’ve read this year. Or this decade.
Oluo’s direct and accessible style presents tough concepts and tougher realities in a way that anyone can understand. She explains:
“I write about concepts that I think people are not understanding. I write about pieces of the puzzle that I think people aren’t seeing. I write from perspectives that I think many people don’t get to hear. I do not do this just to increase general knowledge. I do not do this just to make people feel better. I do this in the hopes that what I write and say, and what others write and say, will inform and inspire action.” Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race (p. 227). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
Oluo pulls no punches in addressing racism in the United States, right now, today, everywhere. For example, she addresses the definitional problem clearly, distinguishing between “Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race” and “Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power.” [emphasis added] She goes on to explain why the second definition is crucial:
“It’s the system, and our complacency in that system, that gives racism its power, not individual intent. Without that white supremacist system, we’d just have a bunch of assholes yelling at each other on a pretty even playing field—and may the best yeller win. But there is no even playing field right now. Over four hundred years of systemic oppression have set large groups of racial minorities at a distinct power disadvantage….
“Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and by just letting it be, we are responsible for what it produces. We have to actually dismantle the machine if we want to make change.” Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race (pp. 28-30). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
With chapters focusing on privilege, intersectionality, police brutality, affirmative action, cultural appropriation, and much more, Oluo tackles difficult questions with clarity and passion. Her stories and examples both ring true and point a way forward to more productive conversations about racism.
Those conversations will never be easy, but they are vitally important. We must act now and decisively and over and over and over again. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s made huge strides forward in changing laws that enshrined segregation across the nation. These changes did not end systemic racism. If you think, “I wish I could have been there and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.,” good for you—but your task is right now in the present day. Oluo exhorts:
“Talk. Please talk and talk and talk some more. But also act. Act now, because people are dying now in this unjust system. How many lives have been ground up by racial prejudice and hate? How many opportunities have we already lost? Act and talk and learn and fuck up and learn some more and act again and do better. We have to do this all at once. We have to learn and fight at the same time. Because people have been waiting far too long for their chance to live as equals in this society.” Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race (pp. 230). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.