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So You Want to Talk About Race
By Ijeoma Oluo
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Protests against racial injustice and white supremacy have galvanized millions around the world. The stakes for transformative conversations about race could not be higher. Still, the task ahead seems daunting, and it’s hard to know where to start. How do you tell your boss her jokes are racist? Why did your sister-in-law hang up on you when you had questions about police reform? How do you explain white privilege to your white, privileged friend?
In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo guides readers of all races through subjects ranging from police brutality and cultural appropriation to the model minority myth in an attempt to make the seemingly impossible possible: honest conversations about race, and about how racism infects every aspect of American life.
"Simply put: Ijeoma Oluo is a necessary voice and intellectual for these times, and any time, truth be told." ―Phoebe Robinson, New York Times bestselling author of You Can't Touch My Hair
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WHEN THIS BOOK FIRST CAME OUT ONE YEAR AGO, almost immediately people began asking me, “How is the book doing? Is it successful?” I knew what they were asking—was the book selling a lot of copies, was it making bestseller lists, were audiences filling book events? But every time somebody asked me how the book was doing, my answer was almost always, “I don’t know.”
I didn’t say this because authors get minimal information about book sales until about six months after publication—even though that’s true—but because I knew that the measurement I would use to gauge the success of this book would have little to do with numbers or enthusiastic book events.
When I started writing professionally, print media—even the written word—had already been declared dead. The Internet had taken over, and the public refrain was Why buy a book when you can download a hundred articles on any given subject for free? It seemed archaic to drive to a bookstore to buy a heavy piece of dead tree to lug around when you already had a phone that could provide you with all the information you needed. Sure, there were benefits. With this Internet age came increased access to audiences for many writers—queer, trans, disabled, women, writers of color—who had been kept out of traditional media. It was in this free (both creatively and monetarily, because none of us were getting paid) literary space that I was able to build my career.
But there was a downside to this abundance of free information. There was, quite frankly, too much of it. With countless websites vying for the same fractions of a penny to be earned from each click, art and journalistic integrity often took second place to the need to churn out content that could grab attention as its main priority. What many desperate publishers and editors reached for was outrage, controversy, fear, and hatred. And while these tactics worked, even as readers clicked on these links and read voraciously, they began to feel like they were being played.
I started writing out of frustration. Frustration that there could be so many words used to discuss a single topic without actually getting to the core truths of it. Frustration that those words were being used just to stir emotions that would eventually be released in a tweet or a Facebook post and then immediately discarded, replaced by the next outrage. Almost every article I wrote was born of the frustration of watching people discuss issues—real issues that were impacting real lives—without actually saying anything.
My articles were never “hot takes.” They were the basic, often unsexy fundamentals that I felt people were missing when they discussed race, gender, and privilege in our society. Quite a few of my more well-known pieces were born from a request from an editor to write a “hot take” on a subject, only to have me email a response in the form of a mini tantrum about how everyone was missing the real point and how harmful the current discussion actually was. I’m forever grateful for the editors—like the incomparable Charles Mudede at the Stranger—who had the insight and savvy to simply reply, “Oh, well then, write that.”
And so I became a writer whose claim to fame was writing commentary on social issues that could be “of use.” Many of the comments and emails I would get from readers who read my work weren’t filled with emotion but instead said things like, “I didn’t get how this issue applied to my life until you wrote about it.” Or, “I didn’t know that there was anything I could do about this until I read your article.” Or even simply, “Thank you for writing something so useful.”
I was surprised to find that with each piece my readership grew. I couldn’t write “hot takes” that instantly outraged, or witty commentary that made people laugh, but I offered up something that many readers were craving—honesty, authenticity, and utility.
I became dedicated to creating work that would be “of use.” I began to see it as a moral imperative, in a world so oversaturated with useless information, to use whatever space I had in people’s time and minds to be of value. I still believe that this is the only path to bring journalism and writing in general back from the abyss of clickbait and outrage-porn.
So You Want to Talk About Race was born from this same frustration and this same goal. After watching so many people have so many conversations about race that went nowhere—or worse, that caused real harm—I wanted to create something of use. Something that would give readers the fundamentals of how race worked, not only in a way that they would take into their graduate race theory classes but in a way that they would take to the office or to their Thanksgiving tables. I wanted people to understand race better, and how to talk about race more effectively, and with more kindness.
I wanted people to have a tool they could hold in their hands and turn back to, time and time again, as different issues regarding race came up in their lives.
With that goal in mind, I can now say, as I write this Preface almost one year to the day since the publication of the hardcover edition of this book, that So You Want to Talk About Race has been and continues to be a success. I’ve heard from interracial couples who say that this book has saved their marriages, from employees of color who say that their work environment has become a much safer and more welcoming place for them since their workplace started using my book as a guide, from white parents of children of color who say that this book has helped them understand their children and their struggles more clearly, from community organizations who say that this book has helped them accomplish their mission of social justice more effectively and ethically. This is a book that entire families are reading together, that entire universities are reading together. And it is helping. It is helping people navigate conversations on race with more confidence and care, and with an eye toward real progress and solutions.
This was my first narrative book and I am extremely proud of it, but I certainly wouldn’t say that it is perfect. I wish I had reached out to more Indigenous activists and scholars, the way I did with Asian American activists and scholars for my chapter on the Model Minority Myth, and I wish I had dedicated more space to issues that our Indigenous population faces. It would probably have helped me to use more consistent and less problematic terminology around Indigenous people and issues. I appreciate those who reached out to me after publication to let me know that my terminology was not consistent and certainly not always correct, so that we could correct it in future print runs. I speak quite often about how important it is to be open to those who are generous enough to tell you that you fucked up—especially around issues of race. The ability to make changes to early print runs of this book in order to reduce harm is an example of how incredibly important and beneficial it is to be able to appreciate commentary and critique when discussing critical social issues.
Also, I did not anticipate the sneaky ways in which White Supremacy would seek to appropriate even chapters of this book. I realized a few months after publication that I didn’t give enough space to the importance of recognizing that Kimberlé Crenshaw had coined the term “intersectionality” to address the specific ways in which black and brown women were being harmed by what we now call “White Feminist” efforts to help women in social, political, and economic spaces. In chapter 5, “What Is Intersectionality and Why Do I Need It?,” I did not stress enough that while intersectionality has rightfully been expanded over the years to include other marginalized populations, it should never have been divorced from the core issues that necessitated it and should never be used against the black and brown women for which it was created. After witnessing many situations in which black and brown women were accused of a lack of intersectionality for not prioritizing the needs of white women in their feminist and even anti-racist efforts—some of which made national news, like the ongoing controversies around the leadership of the Women’s March in 2019—I realized that perhaps I’d been a little too optimistic about the ability of people’s intentions to override white supremacist impulses.
If I had to do it again, I would have added a chapter on the specific experiences of interracial people, and immigrants of color and their children. Being both an interracial black woman and the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant, these are both experiences I have lived and I honestly can’t for the life of me figure out why I didn’t think to include them. Perhaps some things are so close to home that even for someone who writes about race every day, they are easily overlooked. Or perhaps it is because, while I am seen and treated as a black woman every day, I’m given less time in the emergency that is this white supremacist world to fully examine the nuances of my own experiences as a mixed-race daughter of an immigrant. I’ve been dedicated for so long to the struggle that black people face that to look at this aspect of my identity for anything other than to check the inherent privilege that comes with it has seemed like an indulgence. But in hearing from mixed-race people and immigrants of color who have read this book and still have a lot of very particular and necessary questions, it is something I wish I had more fully addressed.
Finally, I wish I had included a discussion guide with the first edition of this book (it is now included at the back of this edition). I’ve received countless requests for a guide to talking not just about race but about this book, and more importantly, I’ve seen the look of trepidation on the faces of people of color when they are told that their organization or workplace will be reading this book together. They immediately envision the burden that will likely be placed on them; they know they will be treated as the walking racial Google of the group to explain every term or nuance that escapes their white peers, or as the unpaid therapist to help their white peers process their emotions in realizing that perhaps they aren’t the anti-racist heroes they thought they were, all while ignoring the deep strain and trauma they are inflicting on the few people of color in their midst. I am fortunate to be able to include a discussion guide in the paperback edition of this book, and I hope it will make your conversations around this book safer for people of color and more productive for everyone.
I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to create something that has been a part of so many important conversations, and hopefully will be a part of many more in the future. Thank you so much for reading this book, and more importantly, for dedicating your time, energy, and care to real conversations on race. And above all else, thank you for using these conversations to motivate and guide real action, action beyond talk, to deconstruct White Supremacy and begin to heal the great harm it has brought upon us all.
| introduction |
So you want to talk about race
AS A BLACK WOMAN, RACE HAS ALWAYS BEEN A PROMINENT part of my life. 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. The realities of race have not always been welcome in my life, but they have always been there. When I was a young child it was the constant questions of why I was so dark while my mom was so white—was I adopted? Where did I come from? When I became older it was the clothes not cut for my shape and the snide comments about my hair and lips and the teen idols that would never ever find a girl like me beautiful. Then it was the clerks who would follow me around stores and the jobs that were hiring until I walked in the door and then they were not. And it was the bosses who told me that I was too “loud,” the complaints that my hair was too “ethnic” for the office, and why, even though I was a valued employee, I was making so much less money than other white employees doing the same job. It is the cops I can’t make eye contact with, the Ubers that abandon their pickup, driving on instead of stopping when they see me. When I had my sons, it was the assumptions that they were older than they were, and that their roughhousing was too violent. It was the tears they came home with when a classmate had repeated an ignorant comment of their parent’s.
But race has also been countless hours spent marveling at our history. Evenings spent dancing and cheering to jazz and rap and R&B. Cookouts with ribs and potato salad and sweet potato pie. It has been hands of women braiding my hair. It has been reading the magic of the words of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker and knowing that they are written for you. It has been parties filled with Jollof rice and fufu and Nigerian women wearing sequin-covered gowns and giant geles on their heads. It has been the nod to the black stranger walking by that says, “I see you fam.” It has been pride in Malcolm, Martin, Rosa, and Angela. It has been a room full of the most uninhibited laughter you’ve ever heard. It has been the touch of my young son as he lays his hand over mine and says “We’re the same brown.”
Race, my race, has been one of the most defining forces in my life. But it is not something I always talked about, certainly not the way that I do now.
Like many people, most of my days were spent just trying to get by. Life is busy and hard. There are work and kids and chores and friends. We spend a lot of time bouncing from one mini-crisis to the next. Yes, my days were just as full of microaggressions, of the pain and oppression of racism, as they are now—but I just had to keep going on like normal. It is very hard to survive as a woman of color in this world, and I remember saying once that if I stopped to feel, really feel, the pain of the racism I encountered, I would start screaming and I would never ever stop.
So I did what most of us do, I tried to make the best of it. I worked 50 percent harder than my white coworkers, I stayed late every day. I dressed like every day was a job interview. I was overpolite to white people I encountered in public. I bent over backwards to prove that I was not angry, that I was not a threat. I laughed off racist jokes as if I didn’t feel the sting. I told myself that it would all be worth it one day, that being a successful black woman was revolution enough.
But as I got older, as the successes I had reached for slowly became a reality, something inside me began to shift. I would try to make my voice quieter in meetings and I couldn’t. I would try to laugh off the racist jokes and I couldn’t. I would try to accept my boss’s reasons for why I could have my promotion but not my raise, and I couldn’t. And I started talking.
I started to question, I started to resist, I started to demand. I wanted to know why it was considered a bad thing that I was “opinionated,” I wanted to know what exactly it was about my hair that was “unprofessional,” I wanted to know what exactly it was about that joke that people found “funny.” And once I started talking, I couldn’t stop.
I also started writing. I shifted my food blog into a “me” blog, and started saying all the things that everybody around me had always said were “too negative,” “too abrasive,” and “too confrontational.” I started writing down my frustrations and my heartbreak. I started writing about my fears for my community and my family. I had started to see myself, and once you start to see yourself, you cannot pretend anymore.
It did not go over well. My white friends (having grown up in Seattle, the majority of my friends were white), some of whom I’d known since high school, were not happy with the real me. This was not the deal they had struck. Yes, they would rage over global warming and yell about Republican shenanigans, but they would not say a word about the racial oppression and brutality facing people of color in this country. “It is not my place,” they’d explain when in frustration I’d beg for some comment, “I don’t really feel comfortable.” And as I looked around my town and saw that my neighbors were not really my neighbors, as I saw that my friends no longer considered me “fun,” I began to yell even louder. Somebody had to hear me. Somebody had to care. I could not be alone.
Like dialysis, the old went out and in came the new. Suddenly, people I had never met were reaching out locally and from all across the country in person and online, just to let me know that they had read my blog post and in reading it, they felt heard. Then online publishers started reaching out to me, asking if they could republish my work. And locally, isolated and invisible people of color started reaching out, showing me that I did have neighbors after all.
I was talking and writing at first for my very survival, not for anybody else’s benefit. Thanks to the power and freedom of the Internet, many other people of color have been able to speak their truths as well. We’ve been able to reach out across cities, states, even countries, to share and reaffirm that yes, what we are experiencing is true. But the Internet has a very wide audience, and even though we were writing for ourselves, the power of the hurt, anger, fear, pride, and love of countless people of color could not go unnoticed by white people—especially those who were genuinely committed to fighting injustice. While some had chosen to turn away, upset that this unpleasantness had invaded their space of cat videos and baby pictures, others drew closer—realizing that they had been missing something very important all along.
These last few years, the rise of voices of color, coupled with the widespread dissemination of video proof of brutality and injustice against people of color, has brought the urgency of racism in America to the forefront of all our consciousness. Race is not something people can choose to ignore anymore. Some of us have been speaking all along, and have not been heard. Others are trying out their voices for the first time.
These are very scary times for a lot of people who are just now realizing that America is not, and has never been, the melting-pot utopia that their parents and teachers told them it was. These are very scary times for those who are just now realizing how justifiably hurt, angry, and terrified so many people of color have been all along. These are very stressful times for people of color who have been fighting and yelling and trying to protect themselves from a world that doesn’t care, to suddenly be asked by those who’ve ignored them for so long, “What has been happening your entire life? Can you educate me?” Now that we’re all in the room, how do we start this discussion?
This is not just a gap in experience and viewpoint. The Grand Canyon is a gap. This is a chasm you could drop entire solar systems into. But no matter how daunting, you are here because you want to hear and you want to be heard. You are here because you know that something is very wrong and you want a change. We can find our way to each other. We can find a way to our truths. I have seen it happen. My life is a testament to it. And it all starts with conversation.
There is a good chance that you, regardless of race, have tried to have these conversations in the past. There is also a good chance that they have not gone well. So “not well” that perhaps you have been afraid to ever have these conversations again. If that is you, you are not alone. Part of the reason I decided to write this book is because I regularly hear people of all races saying things like, “How do I talk to my mother in law about the racist jokes she makes?” or “I just got called out for being racist but I don’t understand what I did wrong” or “I don’t know what intersectionality is and I’m afraid to say so.” People find me on online messaging platforms and beg me to not make their questions public. People create whole new email accounts so they can email me anonymously. People are afraid of getting these conversations wrong, but they are still trying, and I deeply appreciate that.
These conversations will not be easy, but they will get easier over time. We have to commit to the process if we want to address race, racism, and racial oppression in our society. This book may not be easy as well. I am not known for pulling punches, but I’ve been occasionally thought of as funny. But it has been very hard to be funny in this book. There is real pain in our racially oppressive system, pain that I as a black woman feel. I was unable to set that aside while writing this book. I didn’t feel like laughing. This was a grueling, heart-wrenching book to write, and I’ve tried to lighten a little of that on the page, but I know that for some of you, this book will push and will push hard. For many white people, this book may bring you face-to-face with issues of race and privilege that will make you uncomfortable. For many people of color, this book may bring forward some of the trauma of experiences around race that you’ve experienced. But a centuries-old system of oppression and brutality is not an easy fix, and maybe we shouldn’t be looking 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.
Most of the topics you’ll find in this book address questions I’m asked most often in my day-to-day work. Some of these are topics that I wish I got more questions about. But these are all things that we need to be able to talk about. I hope that the information provided here, while nowhere near exhaustive, can help provide you with a starting point, to move forward in your discussions with less fear.
Yes, racism and racial oppression in America is horrible and terrifying. The feelings it brings up in us are justified. But it is also everywhere, in every corner of our lives. We have to let go of some of that fear. We have to be able to look racism in the eye wherever we encounter it. If we continue to treat racism like it is a giant monster that is chasing us, we will be forever running. But running won’t help when it’s in our workplace, our government, our homes, and ourselves.
I am so glad you are here. I am so glad that you are willing to talk about race. I’m honored to be a part of this conversation with you.
| one |
Is it really about race?
“I MEAN, I JUST FEEL LIKE WE WOULD HAVE GOTTEN further if we’d focused more on class than race.”
I’m sitting across from a friend at a coffee shop near my house. He’s a good friend—a smart, thoughtful, and well-meaning person. I always enjoy his company and a chance to talk with someone who is also interested in world events. But I’m tired. I’m tired because this is the conversation I’ve been having since the 2016 election ended and liberals and progressives have been scrambling to figure out what went wrong. What was missing from the left’s message that left so many people unenthusiastic about supporting a Democatic candidate, especially against Donald Trump? So far, a large group of people (mostly white men paid to pontificate on politics and current events) seem to have landed on this: we, the broad and varied group of Democrats, Socialists, and Independents known as “the left,” focused on “identity politics” too much. We focused on the needs of black people, trans people, women, Latinx people. All this specialized focus divided people and left out working-class white men. That is the argument, anyways.
It’s what I and many others have heard throughout the very long presidential campaign; it’s what I heard last campaign and the one before that. It’s what every other white dude in my political science classes in college had to say.
And although I’m tired, because I have just had this conversation with multiple people for multiple hours the evening before, here I am having it again, hearing what I’ve always heard: the problem in American society is not race, it’s class.
“Surely, if you improve things for the lower classes, you improve things for minorities,” he adds, seeing the disappointment and weariness on my face. But I’m going to go ahead and engage in this conversation, because if I can just make some progress with one well-meaning white dude about why class will never be interchangeable with race, I’ll feel a little better about our social justice movements.
“If you could do that—if you could improve things for the lower classes—it would,” I say, “But how?”
When he then recites the standard recommendations of strengthening unions and raising minimum wages I decide to jump to the point: “Why do you think black people are poor? Do you think it’s for the same reasons that white people are?”
This is where the conversation pauses. This is where I see my friend first look at me puzzled and then try to come up with ways to push back. I continue on, since I’ve already gone this far.
“I live in a world where if I have a ‘black sounding’ name, I’m less likely to even be called for a job interview. Will I equally benefit from raising minimum wages when I can’t even get a job?”
My friend recalls that study, acknowledging that the discrimination I’m referencing is indeed a real thing that happens.
“If I do get a good job and do what society says I should do and save up and buy a house—will I benefit equally when the fact that I live in a ‘black neighborhood’ means that my house will be worth far less? Will I benefit equally when I’m much more likely to get higher mortgage rates from my bank, or predatory loans that will skyrocket in cost after a few years causing me to foreclose and lose my home and equity and credit, because of the color of my skin?”
I’m on a coffee-and-frustration–fueled roll now.
“If I am able to get what is considered a decent wage for the ‘average’ American, but my son is locked up in jail like one in three black men are predicted to be, so I’m raising my grandkids on my meager salary, will stronger unions really raise me out of poverty?
“If I’m more likely to be suspended and expelled from school, because even since preschool my teachers are more likely to see my childhood antics as violence and aggression, will a reduction in student loan costs help me when I was pushed out of education before completing high school?”
- "Simply put: Ijeoma Oluo is a necessary voice and intellectual for these times, and any time, truth be told."—Phoebe Robinson, New York Times-bestselling author of You Can't Touch My Hair
- “Oluo is out to help put words to action, which at this day and age, might be exactly what we need."—Forbes
"Impassioned and unflinching"
- "Fascinating, real, and necessary."—The Root
- "Read it, then recommend it to everyone you know."—Harper's Bazaar (Named a Top 10 Book of the Year)
- "I don't think I've ever seen a writer have such an instant, visceral, electric impact on readers. Ijeoma Oluo's intellectual clarity and moral sure-footedness make her the kind of unstoppable force that obliterates the very concept of immovable objects."—Lindy West, New York Times-bestselling author of Shrill
- "A guidebook for those who want to confront racism and white supremacy in their everyday lives, but are unsure where to start."—Bitch
- "Oluo offers us a reset, a starting point, a clear way forward."—dream hampton, writer, activist, filmmaker, and executive producer of Surviving R. Kelly
- "A must-read primer on the politics of American racism."—Bustle
- On Sale
- Sep 24, 2019
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Seal Press