So You Want to Talk About Race
Reviewed by Lori Patterson
September 1, 2019
By Ijeoma Oluo. Seal Press, 2018. 256 pages. $27/hardcover; $16.99/paperback; $10.99/eBook.Buy from QuakerBooks
When I attend my monthly meeting, I am one of only a few black or brown faces in a room full of mostly white ones. If there is something going on in the news that has to do with race (police shooting yet another unarmed Black man, for example), I get asked lots of questions. Usually they sound like this: “I know racism is wrong, but I don’t know what to do about it. What should I do?” For every time I am asked this question, I want to hand them this book.
It is not a book for everyone, such as those people, including people of color, who don’t think racism is a problem or who just don’t want to do the work to dismantle our racist systems—this is not a book for them. It is for people who have been thinking about dismantling racism, want to do better, and have no idea where to start.
Oluo uses language that is very accessible, and she doesn’t shy away from being very open, upfront, and honest—something I myself have a hard time doing. Confrontation is a problem for most Friends I know. We don’t want to make waves; we don’t want to make a fuss. Friends do not like feeling uncomfortable. “You’re going to screw this up,” Oluo says, so just dive in and make a mess. She advises readers to sit with their discomfort when it arises, “to see if it has anything else to offer you.” Friends are good with waiting for something to arise, so we should be good with that, right?
This book asks readers not to wait for something to happen. Oluo wants you to do something and do it now—another hard thing for Friends who are used to “seasoning” and “waiting for guidance.” People of color have been waiting for centuries and need help now. Our very lives depend on action from White folks, and this book shows what that action looks like. She breaks down the process of opening your mind, thinking about these concepts, and then making a plan for action.
In each chapter Oluo usually starts with an anecdote that helps illustrate a particular theme before setting out to explore a specific question. These questions also serve as the chapter titles; examples include “What if I talk about race wrong?” “What are microaggressions?” “Is police brutality really about race?” and “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?” She gives concrete answers, supported by lists, statistics, and empirical evidence of racial injustice. Her confrontational style is a wake-up call with great meaning. You won’t want to argue against her points since she is touching your heart with the truth of it all.
There are other great books out there about starting and unpacking conversations about race; two such books are Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving (reviewed in FJ Apr. 2015) or Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections from an Angry White Male by Tim Wise. These books, written by White folks, are really good and yet do not hit as hard on this point: White people need to feel uncomfortable; White people need to be talking to other White people and not looking to people of color to answer the hard questions; White people need to change, and if that’s uncomfortable then White people need to learn to sit with that discomfort because people of color have been not only uncomfortable, we are dying.
The last two chapters are the most important. Chapter 16 addresses the need for people of color to talk about racism “[b]ecause not talking about it is killing us.” Alternatively, if White people say something wrong when they talk about race, the only consequence is being called racist and maybe feeling uncomfortable. This book will help readers better handle the discomfort that comes along with confronting racism. Because change is really up to White people. The people who most benefit from racist systems are also the ones who have the power to change them.
Oluo lays out concrete steps for doing just that in the last chapter, “Talking is great, but what else can I do?” The individuals who keep these harmful systems in place are not the Klan members or outright racists, they are the well-meaning progressive liberals, like many Friends, who stand aside and do nothing. If Friends want to uphold the testimony of equality, if we believe in that of good in everyone, if we believe in a direct experience, then let this book be your guide to become better Friends.
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