c.2018, Seal Press
$27 ($35 Canada)
It’s all there in front of you.
Plain as day. Plain as the nose on your face with nothing left to tell, it’s all in black and white — or is it? When it comes to racism, says author Ijeoma Oluo, it’s complicated, and in her new book “So You Want to Talk About Race,” there may be shades of gray.
In a world of White supremacy, Ijeoma Oluo’s “Blackness is woven” into her life, her preferences, her comfort level. When she was a child growing up in Seattle, her Blackness led to questions, because her mother is White. As a student, it affected Oluo’s education and that bothered her. Even so, she didn’t talk about it much until “something inside me began to shift.”
She began to realize that racism was the root of what was making her so uncomfortable. But is it “really about race”?
It is, Oluo says, “if a person of color thinks it is…” or if it “disproportionately or differently affects people of color.” Part of the problem here, she says, is that we can’t agree on a definition of racism. It’s something “that we have to talk about…”
And yet, she says (mostly to White people), “You’re going to screw this up” by saying the wrong thing. Even the most well-meaning person can verbally blunder and you can fix your faux pas, or you can make things worse. Complicating matters, you must be mindful of intersectionality, because no one is singular.
“And it all starts with conversation,” says Oluo.
That people of color are “disproportionately criminalized” is not “all in our heads” and Driving While Black is a real thing. Black students need affirmative action to level a long playing field. Our school systems, she says, must learn “cultural sensitivity for black and brown children.” Cultural appropriation isn’t just something that happens to African Americans. No, you can’t touch Oluo’s hair. No, you can’t say the N-word, but you can fight racism, though “it is not at all fun.”
When Oluo says that her book is going to make you uncomfortable, sit down. She’s not lying to you. “So You Want to Talk About Race” is squirmy.
Though White America is obviously who Oluo is talking to here, she ultimately speaks to people of all races as she points out the fine lines we all walk: what’s insulting to one person is not to another and hurts can run entirely along racial lines. Here, though, Oluo helps navigate the waters with keep-your-mouth-shut advice on one hand and tips on how to speak out without being unintentionally racist on the other. To do it, she uses candor, anger, exasperation and — though she says she’s not feeling funny — some humorous stories to illustrate the many analogies for which she reaches.
Overall, this book will do exactly what its author sets out to do: it’ll spark conversation and it’ll make you think. “So You Want to Talk About Race” proves that black and white isn’t always clear at all.