Review of So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
So You Want to Talk About Race
by Ijeoma Oluo
Do you ever accidentally inhale a book? Like, you meant to read it with your eyes, but, whoops, suddenly there it is, lodged in your esophagus and now you have to go to the hospital and explain, in various gestures, how you breathed in an entire book? This happens to me more often than I would like to admit. So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo, is just the latest instance. Thankfully, this was an eARC from NetGalley (thanks Perseus Books) and not a physical volume—though I’m certainly going to need to buy one, or maybe two, when it comes out.
This book is the first in what will hopefully be an avalanche of books to plug an embarrassing hole in my ongoing education. I’m trying to ride the intersectionality train, but if I’m doing an honest accounting of things, I have not been doing a great job of reading books by Black women when it comes to issues like feminism and race. It has literally been a whole year since I read Roxane Gay’s amazing short story collection Difficult Women. More recently I did read Between the World and Me, and Coates obviously touches on some of the same issues that Oluo does here. But the two books are very different, both in terms of audience and purpose.
So You Want to Talk About Race is clear and upfront about what it is and what it is trying to do. Oluo is uncompromising (emphasis mine):
So a good question to ask yourself right now is: why are you here? Did you pick up this book with the ultimate goal of getting people to be nicer to each other? Did you pick up this book with the goal of making more friends of different races? Or did you pick up this book with the goal of helping fight a system of oppression that is literally killing people of color? Because if you insist on holding to a definition of racism that reduces itself to “any time somebody is mean to somebody of a different race” then this is not the book to accomplish your goals.
Each chapter title is a question, the chapter being Oluo’s answer: “What if I talk about race wrong?”, “Why am I always being told to check my privilege”, “What is cultural appropriation?”, “What are microaggressions?”, “I just got called racist, what do I do now?”—there seventeen, so I won’t list them all here, but they are, every single one, fantastic. I could go on, chapter-by-chapter, for quite some length about all the wonderful parts of this book. Instead, I’ll highlight some of her explanation of cultural appropriation:
Cultural appropriation is the product of a society that prefers its culture cloaked in whiteness. Cultural appropriation is the product of a society that only respects culture cloaked in whiteness. Without that—if all culture (even the culture that appropriators claim to love and appreciate) were equally desired and respected, then imitations of other cultures would look like just that—imitations. If all cultures were equally respected, then wearing a feathered headdress to Coachella would just seem like the distasteful decision to get trashed in sacred artifacts….
… because we do not live in a society that equally respects all cultures, the people of marginalized cultures are still routinely discriminated against for the same cultural practices that white cultures are adopting and adapting for the benefit of white people.
I’ve had the cultural appropriation conversation with fellow white people before, and I’ve struggled to explain it sufficiently (the best I can do is link to this explainer from Everyday Feminism). Oluo’s chapter has helped me to realize that, often, I make the mistake of letting the conversation fall back into the unproductive territory of discussing specific examples (“well what about X, is X cultural appropriation?”) when (a) I can’t answer that because I’m not a member of that culture and (b) that’s not actually what cultural appropriation is about. Cultural appropriation, as Oluo explains here, is about the wider trends and power imbalances within our society. It’s why, to certain parts of white society, Macklemore is an artist while Tupac was a thug. But my conversations would often divert away from these crucial parts of the discussion, straying towards the more defensive territories (see Chapter 16: “I just got called racist, what do I do now?”).
This book is full of so many useful ideas, tips, and strategies—particularly for white people who want to be allies to racialized people. The aforementioned chapter 16 and chapter 4, which deals with privilege and “checking” it, are both essential reminders, even for someone like myself who has already been engaging with social justice for a while now. I’ve carefully avoided using the word “primer” to describe this book. It’s accurate, but I don’t want to pigeonhole it as some kind of introductory text. Certainly, if you are a newcomer to these issues, this book is accessible. But there is so much here for readers of every level of familiarity with the issues. If you are truly open to learning more about social justice and how to dismantle institutionalized racism, you are going to find useful ideas here, in plain language you’ll understand, and in a tone that helps you hear her frustration but also her intense empathy for humanity, and her hope for a better future (because you don’t write a book like this if you think dismantling racism is a lost cause). Oluo’s writing style never wavers from being confrontational and candid—she is not trying to appease anyone—but it’s also witty and incisive.
A few parts of this book get a little bit into specifics of American anti-Black racism, but by and large, almost all of the topics for discussion are relevant to a wider audience. As Oluo herself points out, Canada has its share of problems with racism. (A lot of it is directed much more vociferously towards Indigenous people—if you want momre information on that, check out Chelsea Vowel’s Indigenous Writes, or Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers, about the intersection of racism and violence in my own city of Thunder Bay. For writing on anti-Black racism in Canada, particularly state-sponsored racism like carding and brutality, I’ll point you towards Desmond Cole.) Moreover, Canada absorbs (whether we like it or not) much of its cultural fare from our neighbours down south, so even if policies like affirmative action or United States Supreme Court decisions don’t quite affect us in the same way, the attitudes seen in media and the language being used still does. I never felt like Oluo was losing me by spending too much time talking about American-specific concerns.
So I can make a few guarantees, here. First, if you read this, you’re going to learn something—hopefully lots of things. Oluo will crystallize notions that might already be forming in your head or introduce you to ideas and show you a new way entirely of looking at things. Second, if you read this, you will come away with a praxis for actually doing the work—it isn’t enough to read books like this and then pat yourself on the back for being “woke”. That’s what the final chapter is all about, and boy, are there ever some practical tips. That’s why I’m going to be buying a copy of this book since I received a review copy for free—because we need to pay Black women when they do the work of educating us.
So You Want to Talk About Race is everything I’d look for in a book on social justice issues. It’s informative, educational, and thought-provoking. It is topical in the post-Trump sense of the word. It hits that sweet spot of being academic and smart but also accessible—this is by far one of my favourite non-fiction books I’ve read all year, and probably the best I’ve received on NetGalley (Beyond Trans and The Radium Girls are close runners-up).
If you are at all interested in social justice, in dismantling racism, in making our world a better place, this is a must-read. Show up. Do the work.