So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo

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I was recently reminded of this book, and decided to read it during Black History Month. It’s a good introduction for those that want to educate themselves on racism in America. The book shares Oluo’s perspective on intersectionality, police brutality, affirmative action, microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

I particularly liked her distinction that racism is not just “any prejudice against someone because of their race”, but when such a prejudice is “reinforced by systems of power”. Race is a component of the system, but not the only thing we need to pay attention to; as she writes, “While just about everything can be about race, almost nothing is completely about race”. Getting somebody to love people of color “won’t do anything to combat police brutality, racial income inequality, food deserts, or the prison industrial complex”.

One of the themes she returns to repeatedly is that because of those systems of power, people with different skin colors have drastically different experiences with institutions (e.g. “Our police force was not created to serve black Americans; it was created to police black Americans and serve white Americans.”). She cautions white Americans that projecting our interpretations of our lived experiences onto others and discounting the lived experiences of people of color is yet another form of privileging our perspective: “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.”

In part, this denial of other perspectives is because many white people feel that being called racist is a horrific insult. But as Oluo writes:

There is no way you can inherit white privilege from birth, learn racist white supremacist history in schools, consume racist and white supremacist movies and films, work in a racist and white supremacist workforce, and vote for racist and white supremacist governments and not be racist.

At the end, Oluo makes a plea that “While many people are afraid to talk about race, just as many use talk to hide from what they really fear: action”; people “want to feel better, but they don’t want to do better”. While the system of racial oppression may feel too big to take on, she offers many concrete options for how to start dismantling it piece by piece: vote local and push your city council for police reform, vote for diverse government representatives, get in schools, bear witness and support people of color in interactions, support POC-owned businesses, give money to organizations working to fight racial oppression and support communities of color, and support music, film, television, art and books created by people of color.

I’m doing the more passive options here such as donating and consuming, but aspire to become more actively antiracist. If you’re interested in joining me, I’m starting a monthly accountability group, as I find I generally don’t take on hard things without somebody else pushing me. If you also want to become a better ally, let’s talk and figure out what each of us can do to start dismantling these power systems that reinforce racism.

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