When I heard Ijeoma Oluo had written another book, there was no question in my mind that I would run, not walk, to NetGalley to request it. Publisher Seal Press made it happen! Medicore: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America is a formidable follow-up to So You Want to Talk About Race. In her first book, Oluo outlines all the ways that white people can move past ignorance and fragility to have authentic dialogue about race and racism. In this book, Oluo explains how white supremacy (particularly in the United States) creates a culture of mediocrity in which white men receive the message that they deserve greatness, even if they haven’t actually done all that much. I’m sure many people will dismiss this book as an attack on white people. But if you go into it with an open mind, the history that Oluo outlines demonstrates incontrovertibly the hostility that the United States has shown and continues to show Black people and people of colour.
At first, I wasn’t sure what Oluo was doing. But soon the picture emerged: each chapter began with the white supremacy of the past, from which Oluo draws a line into th white supremacy of the present. This is a history lesson, one that establishes how today’s racism exists atop a foundation of racism from centuries prior. In this way, Oluo demolishes the myth so often sold by white men to each other—the idea that it is possible to make American great again. America has not been great, especially for Black people and people of colour. The United States has always privileged the feelings of white people over the lives of non-white people.
Now, I am Canadian, so I am slightly outside the target audience for this book. Canada has its own dangerous legacy of colonialism and racism and is also a white supremacist state. I’ll have to seek out pertinent books about anti-Black racism here. Nevertheless, I think non-Americans would benefit greatly from reading this book. First, it will help us understand what the hell is going on in America. A little history lesson goes a long way. Second, although the details are different here, the story arc is the same: white people show up, steal the land, import cheap labour by people of colour, and then marginalize and oppress them when they’ve gone from useful to inconvenient. Oluo’s chapters are illuminating regardless of where you live.
Take her chapter on education, for example. I like how she explains the paradox of post-secondary education for people of colour. Right-wing pundits sometimes insist that post-secondary institutions are bastions of socialism and political correctness gone wrong. In fact, post-secondary institutions are still racist, sexist, classist, etc. Oluo points out, therefore, that attending college or university is simultaneously the best path people of colour have for attaining middle-class stability and one of the worst places to be, in terms of facing discrimination. This paradox is but one of many in American society—and I’m sure it is much the same here in Canada too.
For my fellow white people, this book asks us to examine how we are complicit in white supremacy and patriarchy. And those of us who aren’t men are still complicit. Oluo’s entire thesis is that we cannot allow the conversation to be distilled down to “some white guys are terrible.” Her whole point is that this is not about individuals; this is about systems. So you do not have to be a white man to participate in upholding a system that privileges white men. Additionally, Oluo points out that the system really wants to help rich white men—the system by design punishes poor white men too. This, in turn, motivates them to uphold white supremacy by encouraging them to feel superior to people of colour.
I’ve said this before, and I will say it again: if you want to consider yourself anti-racist, you need to do that work. And that means you need to do more than read books. But Mediocre is a great starting point in your quest for information. What matters going forward is what you do with the information, how you throw around your metaphorical weight to help dismantle the system Oluo exposes here.
I would like to quote at length from this book, but if I did that, this review would contain almost the entire book. Oluo’s writing is just that dense with meaning. This is a book that can be savoured as you explore each chapter, and it is rich with connections and ideas. Mediocre invites you, as I said, to truly consider white supremacy as a four-dimensional system—and when you can see the shape of a thing, through time as well as space, you have a better chance of understanding how to manipulate—or in this case, dismantle it.