In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo breaks down a whole lot of complicated issues surrounding race in America into accessible pieces. I found it to be a quick read, mostly because of how beautifully clear and direct it was. With chapter titles like “What is the school-to-prison pipeline?”, “What are microaggressions?” and “Why Can’t I Touch Your Hair?”, she delves into topics such as cultural appropriation, intersectionality, police brutality, white fragility, and the actual mechanics of how to have productive conversations about race.
Each chapter is a combination of personal stories, history and analysis, and suggestions (for both white people and people of color) for combating systemic racism in a diverse array of situations and contexts–at work, in conversations with friends and family, politically, on the train, in your own thinking, etc.
The strength of the book lies in its directness. Oluo doesn’t waste time on hand-holding. She hasn’t set out to make anyone comfortable. But she fully acknowledges that these topics can be hard to talk about, and that even people who have been talking about and working for racial justice for decades still make mistakes. “You’re going to mess up,” she writes, and then she offers a whole lot of useful suggestions for what to do when you do. The tone was sometimes kind and patient, sometimes outraged and angry. To me, this felt like a kind of permission: it’s okay to mess up, and if you say or do something racist, it doesn’t make you an evil person. But it’s also true that intentions don’t matter. If you inflict hurt upon someone through racist actions, it’s not important whether you intended to or not; the pain is the same. I thought Oluo did a fantastic job of holding these two truths simultaneously, and her clear prose and direct, conversational style will help readers understand everything that’s at play underneath their actions.
Whether she’s talking about microaggressions or police brutality, Oluo never strays far from the root of the problem: systemic racism in a country founded on white supremacy. She reasserts this over and over again, always returning to the problem of systemic racism, whether it’s in the context of racist housing policy, media representation of people of color, or a conversation you’re having with your partner. There are lots of books about race and racism out there, but what I think makes this one so useful is that it offers very concrete suggestions for ways to fight white supremacy in daily life, but it also acknowledges that the problem is structural and systemic. Tackling systemic racism can feel overwhelming and impossible. Oluo addresses the enormity of it while also offering some smaller, bite-sized ideas for creating change.
As a whole, I would not say this is the most compelling or earth-shattering book about systemic racism I’ve ever read. I was most engaged when Oluo delved into the personal, relating stories and experiences from her own life. This, for me, was by far the most powerful part of the book, and though I found the rest of it useful, informative, and important, it didn’t feel as vivid. It is not Baldwin, and it is not Between the World and Me. That’s okay. White supremacy is deeply embedded into the fabric of America, and that has got to end. So we need all the books, and we all need to be reading them, and talking about them, and listening to each other, and then translating all of that talking and thinking and listening into action.
If you’re already talking and thinking a lot about systemic racism and racial justice, this book will not shock you. Oluo tackles a lot of topics, rather than delving deeply into any one topic, so book falls somewhere on the Systemic Racism 101 end of the spectrum. But I guarantee you’ll still find something useful in it–something you might not have considered before, an important reminder of something you’d forgotten, or a new suggestion for how to be more actively anti-racist in your daily life. And if you’re looking for a place to start in terms of American racism and racial justice, this book is a fantastic stepping-off point.