In light of the recent upsurge in support for Black Lives Matter and calls for racial justice, I’ve spent the past couple of months working to strengthen my own understand of racial issues, primarily in the US. Following a reading of How to Be an Antiracist last month, the past few weeks I delved into Ijeoma Oluo‘s 2018 book, So You Want to Talk About Race. I listened to the audiobook version, perfectly narrated by Bahni Turpin.
So You Want to Talk About Race is an accessible and straight-forward overview of race relations in the US. It addresses issues that POC – and especially BIPOC – face, as well as ways we can work to dismantle these systemic inequalities and improve society for all. If you’re new to this subject, this book is a great place to start.
Ijeoma kicks things off with what the book is, who it’s for, and who it’s not for. So You Want to Talk About Race is for people who want to learn and become better. If you have an open mind and a fair dose of humility, you can get a lot of of this book.
From there, the book takes readers into several specific themes, each illustrated with a personal story from Ijeoma’s own experiences. You’ll learn why to stop touching black people’s hair. You’ll discover how devastating it is to teach a child of color that he could be killed by cops for simply playing with a toy gun – something that would never happen to a white child. From discussing race issues with co-workers to discussing them with her own (white) mother, Ijeoma offers a ton of insights into the everyday issues POC face.
By the end, So You Want to Talk About Race moves its gaze forward, giving specific examples of what we can do to change things. There are many ways white people can do better. Moreover, there are numerous actions we can all take to dismantle systemic and societal racism and replace it with a system that works for us all. We have to demand justice and equality at every level and in every institution, from schools to banks to our government.
So You Want to Talk About Race is a candid and researched book. While it’s certainly informational and educational, Ijeoma gives the book added impact with her own stories. By situating topics in lived experiences, it makes everything feel much more real and urgent. Her humor also helps readers to reexamine their own flaws with less defensiveness. It helps keep readers open to learning and growing.
Several chapters in particular stood out to me:
The chapter about appropriation of minority cultures was a highlight. Ijeoma talks about appropriation of African cultures and peoples in a basic white American restaurant at an airport. Not only is this kind of marketing inauthentic, it’s also extremely offensive. It’s blatantly racist to equate Africans with pre-historic cavemen. Ijeoma also dives into appropriation in music, especially rap. As a music lover myself, appropriation within music is a problem I see far too often.
Throughout the book, Ijeoma references locations in the greater Seattle area. I’m a Washingtonian myself, and still live not far outside of Seattle. But the tiny town I grew up in has never appeared in any book I’ve read before… until now. I was excited to hear Gold Bar come up in Chapter 11, but I’m ashamed that it was for a pretty terrible reason. It was while Ijeoma was in Gold Bar when she was about 10 years old that she was first called the N word. It’s a powerful story that brought tears to my eyes, both in horror at what the kids called her and her brother, and in anger at how the adult they were staying with mishandled the situation.
That story took place probably almost a decade before I moved to Gold Bar when I was just 9. And while I, a pale white girl, never heard any such language growing up, I also recognize that we had very few people of color in my town or the surrounding towns where I went to school. Still, I was always aware of how conservative and prejudiced people in small towns like Gold Bar can be. It’s one of the many reasons I moved away as soon as I could.
Another chapter that stood out was about the dichotomy drawn between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Like Ijeoma, my middle and high school classes generally portrayed Martin Luther King as an example of peaceful protest, the preferred way for people to request change in their communities. In contrast, Malcolm X was often portrayed negatively: he was too forceful, too violent, to inspire positive change. The message was not to be like him.
But, also like Ijeoma, as I grew older I learned just how similar Martin Luther King and Malcolm X actually were. Moreover, it became clear how this false narrative was meant to keep people in their place, to tone police, and to maintain the status quo. Malcolm X deserves as much recognition and praise as Martin Luther King, Jr.
So You Want to Talk About Race ends with action items and optimism for what we can achieve. If we all work towards bettering ourselves and our communities, we can achieve a world that is safer and more equal.
So You Want to Talk About Race is a great book that lays out the basics of racism and racial issues. It’s the kind of book I’d recommend to everyone who wants to be and do better but is new to the subject. I found it enlightening, and it will help prepare me to dive deeper into these issues and subjects.