striving for awareness| 2019.02.17

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo | Review

Oluo, Ijeoma_So You Want to Talk About Race

Publication: New York, NY : Seal Press, Hachette Book Group, [2018]

Genre: Intercultural Communication, Racism

Pages: 248

Formats: eBook, Audiobook, Paperback

Source: MCL

Based on her title, Oluo’s purpose in writing this book seems clear enough. Her text reads somewhat like a guidebook for people who may not have had many firsthand interactions with racial issues (or who haven’t been previously aware of the racial issues they have already been a part of), and who want to realize the title’s pretty direct implication. To help her readers with this goal, Oluo tells the story of race within this book by using her personal experiences growing up and living as a black woman of biracial parents in the United States.

The real-life examples she gives are powerful, even as some of the stories may wander into the territory of being a bit uncomfortable for the white reader. On the one hand, I found the stories of Oluo trying to answer her white mother’s questions and “revelations” (emphasis mine) about race endearing, in a way, as the effort of trying to get something right when we’re talking about sensitive topics like race can be embarrassing at first, and hopefully the effort leads to productive results. On the other hand, I think a large part of why Oluo wrote this book was to challenge her readers to look at issues of race and racism even when they may be uncomfortable topics to face head-on.

In reading this book, I felt that discomfort. I am a white (and therefore inherently privileged) cisgender (another privileged position, which society is currently set up to advantage) woman. And I am privileged in so many ways because of my whiteness and because of my gender identity, even with all the non-privileged aspects that that third definition of my being (the sex I was assigned at birth) brings to the table. Oluo calls this type of awareness (or striving for awareness) “checking your privilege.” It can be weirdly cathartic to carry the victim-label (thinking of the many mantras of self-reported “suppression experiences” from white supremacy groups as an example). But Oluo seems to be asking her readers to look at all aspects of what it means to live in our current society. Through this type of open awareness, she challenges her readers to be honest about the complexity that is individual human existence while recognizing how the color of a person’s skin plays into all that they have or don’t have because of the prejudiced way our society is currently set up to function.

So after I took stock of my inherent privileges and dealt with my uneasiness at realizing that a good portion of my advantages in life are not advantages I’ve actually worked to earn, what else did Oluo’s story bring to the forefront? Her story reminded me that anyone not immediately seen by others as categorically white have disadvantages I will never know because of society’s continued prejudiced practices, and that my whiteness will remain a part of this systemic problem as long as society (with myself included in that society) refuses to recognize the manifestations, however subtle, and the root causes of racial prejudices.

In short, Oluo’s book reminded me that we as a species have a very ugly tendency toward deep-seated prejudice against anyone and everyone outside our “tribe,” and that we need to step up onto the stage of admittance before we can even begin to think about taking steps toward change. I learned I have a LOT to learn about intersectionality, and how this concept can bring better understanding to the individual, their race, and the multiplicity of other identities a person can (and has the right to) claim. I learned that being uncomfortable about the structure of our currently inherently prejudiced society (even if you or I may not feel personally responsible) is a needed first step toward driving change forward.

Lastly, and probably most poignantly, this book reinforced for me that the categorical boxes—-the stereotypes, really—-that we wrap around ourselves and others are really just illusions of a neat and tidy perspective on what is in truth very complex and messy aspects of an interracial-transgendered-cisgendered-gay-and-lesbian-black-white-brown-religious-atheist-and-it’s-really-none-of-your-business world. People are certainly much much more than the color of their skin, more than any of the categories we might be tempted to assign to them (especially without their permission). With all this in mind, I’m hoping to be able to focus more on the individual, seeing people through whatever intersectional lenses they want to claim as their very individual and personal identities.

Please note, the last chapter in Oluo’s book may be especially discomforting for some readers who are trying to reject the “categorically-boxed society” model. Again, I think this discomfort may be Oluo’s point in this book so that we can work on extricating the societal-driven prejudices in our midst. I’ll let you read it, however, and decide on your own.