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So You Want to Talk About Race
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
Also from Ijeoma Oluo
From the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller So You Want to Talk About Race, an “illuminating” (New York Times Book Review) history…
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| 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?”
I’m ranting now, I’m talking fast to get it all out. Not because I’m angry, because I’m not, really. I know it’s not my friend’s fault that what he’s saying is the prevailing narrative, and that it’s seen as the compassionate narrative.
But it’s a narrative that hurts me, and so many other people of color.
My friend pauses and says, “Well, what are we supposed to do then? Nothing? Can’t we focus on this first to get everybody behind it and then address the race stuff?”
To which I sigh and say, “That’s the promise that’s been made to us for hundreds of years. Those are the words of every labor movement that managed to help white America so much more than everyone else. Those are the words that ‘move everybody forward’ but in the exact same place, with the exact same hierarchy, and the exact same oppressions. Those words are why the wealth gap between whites and blacks is just as bad as it was when Dr. King was leading marches. We’re still waiting. We’re still hoping. We’re still left behind.”
RACE AS WE KNOW IT IN THE US IS CLOSELY INTEGRATED with our economic system. The system of racism functioned primarily as a justification for the barbaric act of chattel slavery and the genocide of Indigenous Americans. You cannot put chains around the necks of other human beings or slaughter them wholesale, while maintaining social rules that prohibit such treatment, without first designating those people as somewhat less than human. And later, the function of racism was somewhat repurposed as a way of dividing lower classes, still with the ultimate goal of the economic and political supremacy of white elites.
Yes, like many say, race is a social construct—it has no bearing in science. Many believe that because race was created by our economic system—because it is a lie told to justify a crime—a unilateral improvement of conditions for lower classes would address the economic and social disparities around race. Money is also a social construct—a series of rules and agreements we all made up while pretending that these pieces of paper are worth our entire lives. But we cannot simply stop thinking of money and it will cease to enthrall us. It has woven its way into every part of our lives. It has shaped our past and our futures. It has become alive.
Race has also become alive. Race was not only created to justify a racially exploitative economic system, it was invented to lock people of color into the bottom of it. Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior. This profit itself is the greater promise for nonracialized people—you will get more because they exist to get less. That promise is durable, and unless attacked directly, it will outlive any attempts to address class as a whole.
This promise—you will get more because they exist to get less—is woven throughout our entire society. Our politics, our education system, our infrastructure—anywhere there is a finite amount of power, influence, visibility, wealth, or opportunity. Anywhere in which someone might miss out. Anywhere there might not be enough. There the lure of that promise sustains racism.
White Supremacy is this nation’s oldest pyramid scheme. Even those who have lost everything to the scheme are still hanging in there, waiting for their turn to cash out.
Even the election of our first black president did not lessen the lure of this promise to draw people to their support of racism. If anything, the election strengthened it. His election was a clear, undeniable sign that some black people could get more, and then what about everyone else’s share? Those who had always blatantly or subconsciously depended on that promise, that they would get more because others would get less, were threatened in ways that they could not put words to. But suddenly, this didn’t feel like “their country” anymore. Suddenly, they didn’t feel like “their needs” were being met.
But aside from that one, mostly symbolic, change of the race of our president, not much else had changed. The promise of racism has still held true: in just about every demographic of socio-political-economic well-being, black and brown people are consistently getting less.
We, people of color, of course are not the only people who have gotten less. Even without the invention of race, class would still exist and does exist even in racially homogenous countries. And our class system is oppressive and violent and harms a lot of people of all races. It should be addressed. It should be torn down. But the same hammer won’t tear down all of the walls. What keeps a poor child in Appalachia poor is not what keeps a poor child in Chicago poor—even if from a distance, the outcomes look the same. And what keeps an able-bodied black woman poor is not what keeps a disabled white man poor, even if the outcomes look the same.
Even in our class and labor movements, the promise that you will get more because others exist to get less, calls to people. It tells you to focus on the majority first. It tells you that the grievances of people of color, or disabled people, or transgender people, or women are divisive. The promise that keeps racism alive tells you that you will benefit most and others will eventually benefit… a little. It has you believing in trickle-down social justice.
Yes, it is about class—and about gender and sexuality and ability. And it’s also, almost always, about race.
Talk about race is inevitable in today’s society, but it often doesn’t seem to get much farther than an argument about whether or not something is about race. Talk about race can feel like a horribly depressing rendition of “who’s on first?” While some argue that these issues of racism must be addressed, others argue that these issues are not race issues, and after much frustration trying to determine whether or not the yet-to-be-had conversation is indeed about race, somebody gives up and walks away, leaving the original issue untouched.
In the day-to-day, determining whether or not an issue is about race can be difficult—not only for white people, but for people of color as well. Rarely is there only one factor or viewpoint in a serious issue. Things are never cut-and-dry. And because we have come up in a society where talking about race is just not something you “do” in polite company, we don’t have a lot of practice in putting words to racial issues. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to talk about race when we can’t even agree that something is about race. And we have to start somewhere. If you are looking for a simple way to determine if something is about race, here are some basic rules. And when I say basic, I mean basic.
1. It is about race if a person of color thinks it is about race.
2. It is about race if it disproportionately or differently affects people of color.
3. It is about race if it fits into a broader pattern of events that disproportionately or differently affect people of color.
Now, looking at this short list, it’s easy to think—hey, that is far too broad, almost anything can fall under those categories! And it’s true, almost anything can fall under these categories. Why? Because race impacts almost every aspect of our lives. Let’s look a little deeper.
It is about race if a person of color thinks it’s about race. This may sound at first like I’m asking you to just take every person of color’s word for it, as if they are infallible and incapable of lying or misinterpreting a situation. But the truth is, whether or not someone is fallible is beside the point. We are, each and every one of us, a collection of our lived experiences. Our lived experiences shape us, how we interact with the world, and how we live in the world. And our experiences are valid. Because we do not experience the world with only part of ourselves, we cannot leave our racial identity at the door. And so, if a person of color says that something is about race, it is—because regardless of the details, regardless of whether or not you can connect the dots from the outside, their racial identity is a part of them and it is interacting with the situation. Note, if you are a white person in this situation, do not think that just because you may not be aware of your racial identity at the time that you did not bring race to your experience of the situation as well. We are all products of a racialized society, and it affects everything we bring to our interactions.
Something can be about race, and that doesn’t mean that it is only about race. When I talk about being followed in a store by a white clerk, it is about race, because regardless of the clerk’s intention I’m bringing with me my entire history of a black woman who is routinely followed around by staff or security when I shop in stores. This clerk herself may not be thinking of my race at all when she’s following me, she may just be an overeager trainee, or maybe she suspects everybody of stealing and follows all customers regardless of race. But she, for her possibly innocent intentions, is also bringing her white identity into the interaction, as someone who is not regularly followed by store personnel and therefore would be unaware of the impact it would have on me to, once again, be followed around a store by a white clerk. She too is making it about race whether she knows it or not. But while this issue is about race and the racial aspects should be addressed, it’s also about training—as aggressively following customers of any race is bad business. It can be about all of these things, and it is.
It is about race if it disproportionately or differently affects people of color. Often, when talking about issues of race I will receive messages from white people stating that what I’m talking about is not about race because they, a white person, too suffer from said issue. Poverty cannot be about race if there are poor white people. Incarceration cannot be about race if there are incarcerated white people, and so on. Many white people who themselves often suffer from the same hardships that many people of color suffer from feel erased by discussions of racial oppression.
In contrast, I’ll also often hear from white people (often the very same white people) about successful black people that obviously debunk the theory that hardships are race-based. How can poverty be about race if Oprah exists? How can there be lack of representation in the entertainment industry when Beyoncé wins all the awards? Setting aside the fact that the racial exceptionalism of people of color does not detract from, but instead adds to, arguments of racial inequality (because honestly, we don’t have to name a few successful white people to argue that they are doing comparatively well in society—there are enough that they don’t even stand out), these arguments are a pretty extreme oversimplification of how racial oppression works.