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So You Want to Talk About Race: Review and Takeaways

Book Reviews

There is nothing I can say to do this book justice.

Please go pick up a copy of So You Want to Talk About Race and read it.

Ijeoma Oluo has done an amazing job of bringing both emotional vulnerability and rhetorical excellence to this book. With honest insights into the black experience, and ample use of facts and studies to support her views, Oluo helped me better understand what’s going on for people of color, and what’s at stake. And, as she explains near the end of the book, that kind of honesty about these deeply painful subjects takes a lot of emotional strength. I am so grateful to her for what must have been the epic task of writing this particular book.

I am going to list some of the main points that stood out to me. However, what’s listed here is a tiny fraction of the powerful content of this book. As a case in point, I had to start marking the quotes I wanted to save with tabs midway through this book, because stopping to type them into my phone (as I usually do) was happening so often that it was affecting the experience of reading.  And I used up a lot of tabs.  ;P

Maybe 3% of the quotes I recorded made it into this post. There is no way to reframe or summarize Oluo’s work without losing the potency of it. And I could never do it justice without simply ripping off her efforts, by quoting all the huge blocks of her words I recorded — which I have struggled not to overdo in this post, despite how many of her awesome explanations I want to share.

I cannot emphasize enough how much I want everyone to read this book. What is exists below is a truncated list of some of the points that surprised me, gave me new insight, hit me the hardest, or were explained in ways that really helped me “get” it.


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Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

So You Want to Talk About Race

#1 – It’s not just about class.

Focusing on economic class moves everyone forward, but without addressing the inequalities present within each class level. It maintains the same racial hierarchies that have always existed, which leaves significant income gaps between whites and minorities.

Yes — class needs to be addressed, too. But it won’t solve the income/wealth schism that exists because of racism. That is a separate issue.

#2 — If a person of color says it’s about race, it’s about race.

Every person uses their own life’s experience to interpret what they see.  Just as each white person interprets their understanding of the world from what they’ve experienced personally, so too has each person of color interpreted their experiences, to form their own worldview. To deny them their interpretation is to say that their experiences and the worldview those experiences have created are invalid.

This, of course, extends beyond the difference between whites and people of color.  A trans black woman will likely have formed different interpretations of her experience than a gay Latino man.  Ultimately, it all comes down to respect: understand that your personal experiences have likely been vastly different from any other person who is sharing their experiences and worldview with you.  Seek to understand their perspective, not refute it.

#3 — There are racists and there is systemic racism. The latter is crucial to the discussion about race, if any headway is to be made.

If we want to see a more equitable and just experience for all people, we need not to focus on individual racists, but on the powerful system that establishes the implicit biases, unfair social systems, and other injustices that affect people of color.

“…the impotent hatred of the virulent racist was built and nurtured by a system that has much more insidiously woven a quieter, yet no less violent, version of those same oppressive beliefs into the fabric of our society.” (P27)

#4 — Believing your successes are 100% earned perpetuates the system.

No one wants to admit that privilege was at work in an achievement… a college diploma, a job offer, a promotion… but part of the problem is how insidiously privilege is woven into our society, such that (to those who have it) it is mostly imperceptible and seems natural. Our surroundings constantly reinforce what we know, and — until we take a step back and force ourselves to look at the privileges we’ve been afforded — the negative effects on others can escape our notice.

“If I were to go along thinking that my degree was 100 percent due to my efforts and all the benefits that I received were 100 percent deserved, it would then require that I think that those who did not benefit deserved not to benefit–say, an otherwise qualified coworker of mine who was exempt from the promotion I received because he did not have a degree. Because my advantage over that coworker helped me and hurt him, I would have to buy into the entire system in order to believe that it was 100 percent deserved. I would accept my promotion thinking that it was rightfully mine, and then I would promote other people, using their degree as one of the deciding factors, thinking that it rightfully indicated that they deserve the promotion–even if that degree had nothing to do with the position I was hiring for. I would then be perpetuating the same advantages and disadvantages–or system of privilege–on other people. I would be part of the reason why the deck was stacked against those who were unable, for so many reasons, to get a college degree. In a fair competition truly based on skill and experience, I may have still gotten that promotion. I may well have been the most qualified person for the job. But it wasn’t a fair competition, and in acting like it was fair, and accepting my prize without question, I helped ensure that it would stay unfair.” (P62)

#5 — Check your privilege. No, seriously.

This suggestion isn’t an insult. It’s not a statement that you’ve done something wrong. It’s just a necessary piece of handling the problem of unchecked, systemic racism, and its effects on individuals living inside the system.

Think about it. Think about all the ways you are privileged, and how those lenses — your only way of seeing the world — might affect your understanding of racism, education, and equality.

How have those lenses influenced your interpretations of other people’s reactions to their own personal experiences?

“Being privileged doesn’t mean that you are always wrong and people without privilege are always right–it means that there is a good chance you are missing a few very important pieces of the puzzle.” (P66)

#6 — Understand intersectionality, and be sensitive to it in conversations about privilege/prejudice.

Oluo defines intersectionality as:

“… the belief that our social justice movements must consider all of the intersections of identity, privilege, and oppression that people face in order to be just and effective…” (P74)

To oversimplify: a queer female may face more and/or different discrimination than a heterosexual female — and a queer, black female even more so.

We need to consider the intersections of multiple biases, and how that exponentially affects individuals with greater intersectionality. Although this concept can make conversations and solutions more difficult, it isn’t something we can glaze over, because:

“…if you don’t embrace intersectionality, even if you make progress for some, you will look around one day and find that you’ve become the oppressor of others.” (P79)

#7 — Acknowledge that there is racial discrimination at work in police brutality.

I already believed that implicit bias (unintentional, and absorbed from the larger culture of systematic racism) was largely at work in police brutality, but now I am sickeningly sure of it. The numbers simply do not bear out a just system:

“The fact is that black drivers are 23 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, between 1.5 and 5 times more likely to be searched (while shown to be less likely than whites to turn up contraband in these searches), and more likely to be ticketed and arrested in those stops. This increase in stops, searches, and arrests also leads to a 3.5-4 times higher probability that black people will be killed by cops (this increase is the same for Native Americans interacting with police, a shamefully underreported statistic). Even when we aren’t arrested or killed, we are still more likely to be abused and dehumanized in our stops. A 2016 review of a thirteen-month period showed that Oakland police handcuffed 1,466 black people in nonarrest traffic stops, and only 72 white people, and in a 2016 study by the Center for Policing Equity found that blacks were almost 4 times more likely to be subjected to force from police — including force by hand (such as hitting and choking), pepper spray, tazer, and gun– than white people.” (P86, emphasis mine)

This chapter made me equal parts brokenhearted and furious at the system that perpetuates this cruelty (not at the people who have absorbed the unintentional bias). And while I feel so powerless to make this any better, I recognize that I have to take action of some kind.

“People of color are not asking white people to believe their experiences so that they will fear the police as much as people of color do. They are asking because they want white people to join them in demanding their right to be able to trust the police like white people do.” (P98)

#8 — Affirmative Action can make a measurable impact, but we have miles left to go before approaching equality.

I have a friend who speaks against racial quotas; his position is that in a perfect world, selection should be based solely on the most qualified person for the job, and race shouldn’t enter into it at all. While I agree with him in theory… it is not an accurate representation of what can happen in our current system, with our society’s existing implicit biases. Until such a time when this systemic privilege for some and oppression for others has been expunged, I believe we need to take whatever steps we can to bridge the huge gaps that currently keep minorities from career and financial success (or adequate representation in films, books, etc)… even if those steps aren’t “ideal.”

When Affirmative Action measures are withdrawn, minority success in those areas often drop alongside those cuts. We should be seeking proper representation, and Affirmative Action moves us in that direction.

“When you say that a representational number of women or people of color cuts out more deserving white men, you are saying that women and people of color deserve to be less represented in our schools and or companies and that white men are deserving of an over-representational majority of these spots. We see the disparities in jobs and education among race and gender lines. Either you believe these disparities exist because you believe that people of color and women are less intelligent, less hard working, and less talented than white men, or you believe that there are systemic issues keeping women and people of color from being hired into jobs, promoted, paid a fair wage, and accepted into college. (P118, emphasis mine)

I was surprised by some numbers cited in this chapter (P115). According to a study on wage gaps from 2016, for every one dollar a white man makes:

  • White women make 82 cents,
  • Black women make 65 cents,
  • Hispanic women make only 58 cents,
  • Black men make 73 cents,
  • and Hispanic men make 69 cents.

There is obviously a severe wage gap which needs to be rectified.  (Also, we can see here an example of how intersectionality affects women of color, as their wages are lower than the men of their same race.)

While Affirmative Action may not be the ideal or perfect solution, it is effective in beginning to “mitigate some of the effects of systemic racism and misogyny in our society.” (P114)

#9 — Black and brown children are punished more severely in schools, and it’s affecting the rest of their lives.

“Studies have indicated that race is really a deciding factor of how and whether students are disciplined. The punitive level of school discipline–how harshly children are punished–is positively correlated with how many black children are in a school, not with, what many would expect, the level of drug or delinquency problems at a school. (P126, emphasis mine)

I’m sorry… let’s reread that quote and let it sink in.

How many times have you heard the “Well, black children come from bad neighborhoods/broken families/etc, and therefore must be more troublesome, and that’s why they are suspended/expelled/arrested more often” defense? Because, sadly, I’ve heard it a lot.

Kids of color are being punished for an implicit bias that has been unconsciously programmed into all of our brains. That bias is shaping their futures, and they’ve done exactly nothing to earn it.

While we may never actually act out against a person of color intentionally, the programming is so ubiquitous that it can come out even through the most well meaning of people (police, school teachers… all of us). And because we so desperately do not *want* to hurt people of color or to be racist, our egos try to hide from us those times where it sneaks out of our subconscious and into our lives.

#10 — If you’re white, you should not say the “N” word. And no, it’s not unfair.

“It is completely fair that a word used to help create and maintain the oppression of others for your benefit would not be able to be used by you without invoking that oppression, while people of color who had never had the power to oppress with those words would be able to use them without invoking that same oppression.” (P141)

#11 — Cultural appropriation is a tricky topic.

This isn’t exactly news.

But Oluo brought more clarity with her explanation than I have received from others:

“The problem of cultural appropriation is not in the desire to participate in aspects of a different culture that you admire. The problem of cultural appropriation is primarily linked to the power imbalance between the culture doing the appropriating and the culture being appropriated. That power imbalance allows the culture being appropriated to be distorted and redefined by the dominant culture and siphons any material or financial benefit of that piece of culture away to the dominant culture, while marginalized cultured are still persecuted for living in that culture. Without cultural power imbalance, cultural appropriation becomes much less harmful.” (P147)

#12 — Don’t ever touch a person of color’s hair without their consent.  (And maybe don’t ask at all.)

Obviously, this comes down to basic courtesy and respect for another human being, but sadly, this is apparently something that needs saying??

Oluo explains so well (as she always does, I’m finding) why this is extra harmful for women of color:

“It is a continuation of the lack of respect for the basic humanity and bodily autonomy of black Americans that is endemic throughout White Supremacy.” (P159)

Beyond the basic courtesy of asking first, this chapter really communicated to me that we just really shouldn’t go there at all. As a society, we don’t acknowledge black hair in our mainstream beauty magazines, products, art, or television shows/films. We persecute it in schools, workplaces, and the military. And yet, when we’re one-on-one with a black person, we want to touch it because it fascinates us — likely because we keep it so marginalized/exoticized.

When it comes to black hair, it’s just too soon.

#13 — People of color have dealt with thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of microaggressions over the course of their lives. Most* white people simply have no frame of reference for understanding how damaging, frustrating, and exhausting that would be.

* I included the word “most” here, because of intersectionality. A white LGBT person, for example, may not have experienced racial microaggressions, but they surely have been on the receiving end of microaggressions regarding their LGBT-ness, and therefore would have a frame of reference for understanding what people of color experience.

Oluo explains that microaggressions are easy for white people to dismiss or explain away, because they seem so insignificant or accidental, one at a time. But it is the cumulative effect of these microaggressions that makes them so unbearable. Oluo uses the example of bee stings: one or two in your lifetime may not be so bad, but getting stung all the time is going to change your relationship with bees pretty quickly.

“You know the hypercritical parent in the movies? The mom or dad who finds a way to cut you to the quick right when you are feeling happy or proud or comfortable? “Nice to see you’re finally trying,” or “That’s a lovely dress. I can’t even see how much weight you gained.” The remark that seems harmless on the surface? The small sting that comes out of nowhere and is repeated over and over, for your entire life? That is what racial microaggressions are like, except instead of a passive-aggressive parent, it’s the entire world, in all aspects of your life, and very rarely is it said with any misguided love.” (P168)

And the difficult part is, it is so easy for white people to dismiss the reality of what people of color deal with, because we haven’t experienced it personally, and our worldview is informed by our own, personal experiences.

But we have to pause.

We have to check our natural inclination to use our lenses to interpret the experiences of others.

We have to really listen.

“Remember that you do not have all of the pieces. You are not living as a person of color. You will never fully understand the impact that sustained, systemic racism has on people of color. You will never be able to fully empathize with the pain your actions may have caused. Nothing will get you there. Do not discount someone’s complaint because their emotions seem foreign to you.” (P221)

#14 — Tone Policing is criticizing the way a discussion about inequality/injustice is handled, and it prioritizes your comfort, in the conversation about an offense, over the offense itself.

“To refuse to listen to someone’s cries for justice and equality until the request comes in a language you feel comfortable with is a way of asserting your dominance over them in the situation. The oppressed person reaching out to you is already disadvantaged by the oppression they are trying to address. By tone policing, you are increasing that disadvantage by insisting that you get to determine if their grievances are valid and will only decide they are so if, on top of everything they are already enduring, they make the effort to prioritize your comfort.” (P207)

#15 — Regardless of your race, if you grew up in a system of White Supremacy, you have some implicit (i.e. subconscious/unintentional) bias, and have probably committed unintentional racial microaggressions against people of color.

This does NOT mean you have hate in your heart for them.

This does NOT mean you’re an awful person.

But it should give you pause, and make you think about the insidiously stealthy nature of systemic racism, how it affects a white person’s treatment of people of color, and how much people of color are up against, trying to exist, live, and thrive within such a system.

Vernā Myers explains how we are all biased, even in the ways we think ourselves least likely to be, and how we can work towards moving past these biases:


The above are some important points that I took personally from Oluo’s book, but it’s a crime to try to distill it into any kind of summary. You really need to read every word and every page that Oluo wrote to get the full effect, and her stories and insight will bring different realizations to each reader.

So please, make some time to read So You Want to Talk About Race.


Non Fiction Bingo 2018 Progress

This is definitely my favorite #nonficbingo2018 book thus far!  Looking forward to what comes next…

nonfiction bingo 2018 so you want to talk about race

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