Book Review: So You Want to Talk About Race

Title: So You Want to Talk About Race
Author: Ijeoma Oluo
Genre: Nonfiction/Social Justice/Race
Version: Paperback
Page Count: 256
Publisher: Seal Press
Add To-Read on: GoodReadsStoryGraph
Notable Notables: Accessible language combined with honesty of the lived experience for Black people and non-Black POC
Recommended Readers: For white people who need a primer on race relations in America and for POC who need knowledge of how to navigate these discussions and white reactions
Rating: ★★★★★

My Review

I’m not sure what can be said about Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race that hasn’t already been said by those more knowledgeable and eloquent than I, including Oluo herself. So instead, I will endeavor to be honest.

This book has timely messages written in a clear, accessible language that have been needed long before its initial publication in 2018. They are timely now in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders at the hands of police brutality and White Supremacy. And I suspect they will be needed regardless of what the outcome of the U.S. 2020 election is for years to come.

And the reason for that is because we have a racism problem in America that my fellow white people need to address but many refuse to, especially those who claim that because they haven’t experienced systemic racism, then it must not exist for anyone else.

Luckily, there is now this book, which does an excellent job discussing issues stemmed from racism, such as microaggressions against Black people and non-Black POCs as well as the school-to-prison pipeline. I’ve become aware of many of the discussion points brought up in the book just from paying attention to current events over the last decade or so, but Oluo does a masterful job of breaking these things down so a beginner can understand. Especially if you are a defensive, in-denial beginner who is also white.

Because she has been writing about race and racism for a long time, Oluo knows all about the defensiveness of white people. Sometimes, the biggest insult a white person can experience is when someone calls them racist. I have felt this defensiveness myself, even if I haven’t been called racist. I have witnessed the Facebook arguments and the outraged Twitter threads from white people I know and those I don’t. Oluo is spot on and knows exactly what she’s talking about.

However, instead of leaning into our defensiveness and anger, Oluo asks us to do something else: set our own hurt feelings aside and consider why the other person is saying that we are racist. Consider the harm we are doing to them. Consider the harm that person experiences from microaggressions and systemic racism every day. Act to heal the wounds that systemic racism and White Supremacy have wrought by challenging where they have taken root and making the system fairer for all—and realize that our intentions don’t matter. We can still harm others while we’re trying to help, and when someone says something is about race, we should not dismiss them; we should listen to them, apologize, and learn how we can do better next time.

Because talking about race is hard, and it will continue to be hard for a long time. Reading this book isn’t going to make you a wizard at talking about it, and it certainly isn’t going to make anyone a White Savior, which absolutely no one is asking for. What it serves to do best is educate you, such as with its chapters about privilege and intersectionality, about Affirmative Action (something I knew little truth about since it’s so disparaged in white circles), about tone policing and addressing the myth of reverse racism. Even though this book is clearly U.S.-centric, I also believe it can be a handy resource for anyone who wishes to address systemic racism in one’s own country.

So You Want to Talk About Race isn’t just for white readers, not at all. It’s necessary for white readers to read because we are the ones who are best positioned to dismantle White Supremacy and level the playing field for our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and strangers we will never meet who are also people of color. However, Oluo also addresses people of color frequently, particularly to validate their own experiences and guide them about having conversations about race with white people, that no one should be anyone’s educator or expose themselves to harm if they’re not in a good place to do so.

That’s a key point here, who should serve as educator and how we can educate ourselves. I see conversations online of white people, even the most well-meaning ones, asking people of color to suddenly educate them on the nuances of racism that they weren’t aware of until just now, until this conversation. Well, this book has been written for us, so please read it. Please put in the work. And please also acknowledge that while this book has been written for us, it has also been written for people of color, and it is about how we can dismantle White Supremacy and systemic racism for good.

To do that, we have to be able to face our own internalized racism and talk about race first, not just to people of color, but to our openly racist parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, coworkers, and whoever else, and it’s going to hurt. But not as much as the constant, unmitigated sting of racism itself that people of color experience, which affects everything from the quality of education they can obtain to the type of housing they can apply for to the jobs they can achieve. We should do this, not to help ourselves, but to help others. If we’re not actively fighting to make things better, then we are complicit in how things continue to be. As Oluo herself states, “There is no neutrality to be had towards systems of injustice—it is not something you can just opt out of.”

Therefore, if you’re still looking at all those social justice reading lists from the summer, and you’re wondering where you should start, look no further. So You Want to Talk About Race is as foundational as it gets with plenty of opportunity for self-evaluation and reflection as well as actionable takeaways you can start doing right now. Also, writing about race and social justice is Oluo’s career, so you can also continue to follow her work for greater insight and information.

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