So you want to talk about race | Reflections & Notes

Ijeoma Oluo. So you want to talk about race. Seal Press, 2018. (248 pages)


I have very few reflections to share simply because this book is incredibly articulate and accessible. I do resonate with @IjeomaOluo’s comments in her Google talk [the video above],

I don’t like talking about race. I can’t stand it. I do not enjoy a minute of it. I would rather be talking about plenty of other things. I have to talk about race. And I want to make progress on issues of race. It’s funny that I titled my book “So you want to talk about race,” ’cause I don’t really know a lot of people that want to talk about race, but, I guess, saying “You have to talk about race” sounds a little odd to put on a book.

So, to anyone who wants or doesn’t want to talk about race, this is now one of my top recommendations, because we actually have to talk about race.


Introduction: So you want to talk about race

We can find our way to each other. We can find a way to our truths. I have seen it happen. My life is a testament to it. And it all starts with conversation. (6)

I hope that if parts of this book make you uncomfortable, you can sit with that discomfort for a while, to see if it has anything else to offer you. (7)

one: Is it really about race?

Why do you think black people are poor? Do you think it’s for the same reasons that white people are?

Race as we know it in the US is closely integrated with our economic system. The system of racism functioned primarily as a justification for the barbaric act of chattel slavery and the genocide of Indigenous peoples. You cannot put chains around the necks of other human beings or slaughter them wholesale, while maintaining social rules that prohibit such treatment, without first designating those people as somewhat less than human. (11)

Yes, like many say, race is a social construct–it has no bearing in science. (11) Money is also a social construct… But we cannot simply stop thinking of money and it will cease to enthrall us. It has woven its way into every part of our lives. It has shaped our past and our futures. It has become alive. (12)

Race has also become alive. Race was not only created to justify a racially exploitative economic system, it was invented to lock people of color into the bottom of it. Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior. This profit itself is the greater promise for nonracialized people–you will get more because they exist to get less. That promise is durable, and unless attacked directly, it will outlive any attempts to address class as a whole. (12)

If you are looking for a simple way to determine if something is about race, here are some basic rules. And when I say basic, I mean basic:

  1. It is about race if a person of color thinks it is about race.
  2. It is about race if it disproportionately or differently affects people of color.
  3. It is about race if it fits into a broader patter of events that disproportionately or differently affect people of color.

We are, each and every one of us, a collection of our lived experiences. Our lived experiences shape us, how we interact with the world, and how we live in the world. And our experiences are valid. Because we do not experience the world with only part of ourselves, we cannot leave our racial identity at the door. (15)

There are very few hardships out there that hit only people of color and not (17) white people, but there are a lot of hardships that hit people of color a lot more than white people. (18)

Often, being a person of color in white-dominated society is like being in an abusive relationship with the world. (19)

Race alone is not all you need to focus on, but without it, any solution you come up with just won’t work. We live in a complex world, and when looking at socioeconomic problems in our society, we simply cannot come to a viable solution without factoring in race. (21)

This is usually where the desire to dismiss claims of racial oppression come from–it just doesn’t make sense to you so it cannot be right. (22)

| But if you are white and you are feeling this way, I ask you this: is your lived experience real? Are the situations you’ve lived through real? Are your interpretations of those situations valid? Chances are, if you are using them to decide whether or not other situations and opinions are valid, you think they are. So if your lived experience and your interpretation of that lived experience are valid, why wouldn’t the lived experience of people of color be just a valid? If I don’t have the right to deem your life, what you see and hear and feel, a lie, why do you have the right to do it to me? Why do you deserve to be believed and people of color don’t? (22)

| And if you are a person of color, know this: the world will try to tell you that what you are seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling is wrong. The world will tell you that you do not know how to interpret what is happening to you and to your community. But you are not wrong, and yo have just as much right to be heard and believed as anybody else. If you think it’s about race, you are right. (22)

two: What is racism?

We couldn’t talk about the ways in which race and racism impacted my life, because he was unwilling to even acknowledge the racism that was impacting my life and he was unable to prioritize my safety over his comfort–which meant that we couldn’t talk about me. (26)

Probably one of the most telling signs that we have problems talking about race in America is the fact that we can’t even agree on what the definition of racism actually is. … The most common definitions of racism (in my own summation) are as follows: (1) Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race. Or (2) Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power. (26)

For the purpose of this book, I’m going to use the second definition of racism: a prejudice against someone based on race, when those prejudices are reinforced by systems of power. And this is a definition I recommend you use in your day-to-day life if your goal is to reduce the systemic harm done to people of color by racism in America. Let me explain why. (27)

| When we use only the first definition of racism, as any prejudice against someone based on race, we inaccurately reduce issues of race in America to a battle for the hearts and minds of individual racists–instead of seeing racists, racist behaviors, and racial oppression as part of a larger system. (27)

What is important is that the impotent hatred of the virulent racist was built and nurtured by a system that has much more insidiously woven a quieter, yet no less violent, version of those same oppressive beliefs into the fabric of our society. (27)

The truth is, you don’t even have to “be racist” to be a part of the racist system. (28)

It’s the system, and our complacency in that system, that gives racism its power, not individual intent. …there is no even playing field right now. Over four hundred years of systemic oppression have set large groups of racial minorities at a distinct disadvantage. If I call a white person a cracker, the worst I can do is ruin their day. If a white person thinks I’m a nigger, the worst they can do is get me fired, arrested, or even killed in a system that thinks the same–and has the resources to act on it. (28)

When we look at racism simply as “any racial prejudice,” we are entered into a battle to win over the hearts and minds of everyone we encounter–fighting only the symptoms of the cancerous system, not the cancer itself. This is not only an impossible task, it’s a pretty useless one. (29)

Further, this approach puts the onus on me, the person being discriminated against, to prove my humanity and worthiness of equality to those who think I’m less than. But so much of what we think and feel about people of other races is dictated by our system, and not our hearts. (29)

Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and by just letting it be, we are responsible for what it produces. We have to actually dismantle the machine if we want to make change. (30)

So a good question to ask yourself right now is: why are you here? Did you pick up this book with the ultimate goal of getting people to be nicer to each other? Did you pick up this book with the goal of making more friends of different races? Or did you pick up this book with the goal of helping fight a system of oppression that is literally killing people of color? Because if you insist on holding to a definition of racism that reduces itself to “any time somebody is mean to somebody of a different race” then this is not the book to accomplish your goals And those are real and noble goal when we call them what they are–we really should be more kind to each other. But when I look at what is putting me and millions of other people of color at risk, a lack of niceness from white people toward me and people who look like me is very far down the list of priorities. (30)

| However, if you came with the second intention–to fight the systemic oppression that is harming the lives of millions of people of color–then you are who I have written this book for. But either way, I encourage you to keep reading, because understanding the truth about racism in America might help you make more friends of different races, too–and they have a better chance of being real friends who will feel safe with you. (30)

We live in a society where race is one of the biggest indicators of your success in life. There are sizable racial divides in wealth, health, life expectancy, infant mortality, incarceration rates, and so much more. We cannot look at a society where racial inequity is so universal and longstanding and say, “This is all the doing of a few individuals with hate in their hearts.” It just doesn’t make sense. (31)

| We cannot fix these systemic issues on a purely emotional basis. We must see the whole picture. (31)

If you want to further understanding of systemic racism even more among the people you interact with, you can try to link to the systemic effects of racism whenever you talk about racism. (34)

Tying racism to its systemic causes and effects will help others see the important difference between systemic racism, and anti-white bigotry. In addition, the more practice you have at tying individual racism to the system that gives it power, the more you will be able to see all the ways in which you can make a difference. (35)

three: What if I talk about race wrong?

…it’s our desire to ignore race that increases the necessity of its discussion. Because our desire to not talk about race also causes us to ignore race in areas where lack of racial consideration can have real detrimental effects on the lives (43) of others–say, in school boards, community programs, and local government. And while it may seem that people of color always need to “put race in everything,” it’s the neglect of the specific needs of people of color, which exist whether you acknowledge them or not, that necessitate it in the first place. (44)

The truth is, we live in a society where the color of your skin still says a lot about your prognosis for success in life. This is the reality right now, and ignoring race will not change that. We have a real problem of racial inequity and injustice in our society, and we cannot wish it away. We have to tackle this (44) problem with real action, and we will not know what needs to be done if we are not willing to talk about it. (45)

| So, let’s all get a little uncomfortable. (45)


| You’re going to screw this up royally. More than once. I’m sorry, I wish I could say that reading this book would guarantee that you’d never leave a conversation about race feeling like you’ve gotten it all wrong and made everything worse. But I can’t. It’s going to happen. (450

So now that I’ve thoroughly bummed you out, let’s work on what we can do to lessen the number of times you screw this conversation up, minimize the amount of damage you do, and maximize the benefit to all involved. Here are some basic tips that will increase your chance of conversation success, or at least decrease your chance of conversation disaster:

1) State your intentions. (45)

2) Remember what your top priority in the conversation is, and don’t let your emotions override that. If your top priority is understanding racism better, or addressing an incident involving race, or righting a wrong caused by racism, don’t let the top priority suddenly become avenging your wounded pride if the conversation has you feeling defensive. (46)

3) Do your research. (46)

4) Don’t make your anti-racism argument oppressive against other groups. (46)

5) When you start to feel defensive, stop and ask yourself why. (47)

6) Do not tone police. (47)

7) If you are white, watch how many times you say “I” and “me.” (47)

8) Ask yourself: Am I trying to be right, or am I trying to do better? (48)

9) Do not force people of color into discussions of race. (48)

Here are some tips for when your conversation on race has gone very wrong:

1) Stop trying to jump back in when a conversation is beyond saving. (49)

2) Apologize. (49)

3) Don’t write your synopsis of this conversation as “the time you got yelled at.” (49)

4) Don’t insist that people give you credit for your intentions. (50)

5) Don’t beat yourself up. (50)

6) Remember that it is worth the risk and commit to trying again. (51)

These conversations will always be emotional and loaded to various degrees–and if they are not, then you are likely to having the right conversation. (51)

| Racial oppression should always be an emotional topic to discuss. It should always be anger-inducing. As long as racism exists to ruin the lives of countless people of color, it should be something that upsets us. But it upsets us because it exists, not because we talk about it. And if you are white, and you don’t want to feel any of that pain by having these conversations, then you are asking people of color to continue to bear the entire burden of racism alone. (51)

four: Why am I always being told to “check my privilege”?

Privilege, in the social justice context, is an advantage or a set of advantages that you have that others do not. (59)

These privileges are not due 100 percent to your efforts (although your hard work may indeed have helped), and the benefits of these privileges are disproportionately large or at least partially undeserved when compared to what the privilege is for. These advantages can often be ascribed to certain social groups: privilege based on race, physical ability, gender, class, etc. But these privileges can also lie in areas that you may have not considered, like sexuality, body type, and neurological differences. It is in these advantages and their coupled disadvantages that the health and well-being of large amounts of people are often determined. If we are truly dedicated to addressing systemic oppression and inequality, we just understand the full impact of these advantages and disadvantages in order to move toward real change in our society and ourselves. (60)

This right here, the realization that we may be a part of the reason why the deck is stacked against others, that we may have been contributing to it for years without our knowledge, is why the concept of privilege is so threatening to so many. … The concept of privilege violates everything we’ve been told about fairness and everything we’ve been told about the American Dream of hard work paying off and good things happening to good people. … The concept of privilege makes the world seem less safe. We want to protect our vision of a world that is fair and kind and predictable. That reaction is natural, but it doesn’t make the harmful effects of unexamined privilege less real. (63)

| When somebody asks you to “check your privilege” they are asking you to pause and consider how the advantages you’ve had in life are contributing to your opinions and actions, and how the lack of disadvantages in certain areas is keeping you from fully understanding the struggles others are facing and may in fact be contributing to those struggles. It is a big ask, to check your privilege. It is hard and often painful, but it’s not nearly as painful as living with the pain caused by the unexamined privilege of others. (63)

When we are willing to check our privilege, we are not only identifying areas where we are perpetuating oppression (64) in order to stop personally perpetuating that oppression, but we are also identifying areas where we have the power and access to change the system as a whole. … When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change. (65)

It is natural to feel like focusing on your advantages invalidates your disadvantages and your struggles in life, but that is not what will happen. You can be both privileged in some areas of life, and underprivileged in others. (65)

Once you’ve written down a nice long list of privilege, start thinking about how this privilege might have influenced not only your status in society, but your experience with and understanding of the world at large. … Then start seeking out work on these subjects by people who don’t have your same privilege, and listen when those people are speaking. Being privileged doesn’t mean that you are alway wrong and people without privilege are always right–it means that there is a good chance you are missing a few very important pieces of the puzzle. (66)

five: What is intersectionality and why do I need it?

Intersectionality, the belief that our social justice movements must consider all of the intersections of identity, privilege, and oppression that people face in order to be just and effective, is the number one requirement of all the work that I do. (74)

While this book is about race, I’m sure you know that we as people are far more than just our race. But even further, our experience of race is shaped by far more than just our skin color and hair texture. (75)

These privileges and oppressions do not exist in a vacuum, however, and can combine with each other, compound each other, mitigate each other, and contradict each other. (75)

Coined by the brilliant race theorist and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989k the term “intersectionality” was born from Crenshaw’s work to shed light on the ways in which experiences in both race and gender intertwine to uniquely impact the lives of black women and women of color. (77)

Intersectionality as a theory and practice was quickly adopted by prominent black feminists to describe the need they saw for a more holistic view of race and gender. (77)

I believe there are many reasons that may be why social justice movements have been slow to adopt intersectional practices:

  • Intersectionality slows things down. The simple truth is, when you are only considering the needs of a select few, it’s a lot easier to make what looks like progressive’s than when you have to consider the needs of a diverse group of people. (78)
  • Intersectionality brings people face-to-face with their privilege.
  • Intersectionality decentralizes people who are used to being the primary focus of the movements they are a part of.
  • Intersectionality forces people to interact with, listen to, and consider people they don’t usually interact with, listen to, or consider.

But if you don’t embrace intersectionality, even if you make progress for some, you will look around one day and find that you’ve become the oppressor of others. (79)

So how do you increase the intersectionality in your discussion of race? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • How might race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, or sex impact this subject?
  • Could the identity differences between me and the person I’m talking with about race be contributing to our differences of opinion or perspective?
  • Are the people in my racial justice conversations and the opinions being considered truly representing the diversity of identities that interact with the subject matter being addressed?
  • Does my scholarship of racial justice reflect the diversity of identities impacted by racial oppression?
  • Am I listening to people whose identities and experiences differ from mine?
  • Am I looking for what I don’t know?
  • Am I shifting some focus and power away from the most privileged in the conversation?
  • Am I providing a safe space for marginalized people to speak out?

If you want to call attention to the need for greater focus on intersectionality in your discussions of race and racial justice efforts, here are some things to remember:

  • Most people don’t know what intersectionality is, and unknown words can put people on the defensive.
  • It’s often best to start first with real-life examples of how this conversation or project could be more intersectional.
  • The concept of intersectionality is more easily understood when viewed as an opportunity to do better and do more, instead of just an examination of the ways in which these efforts are failing.
  • Intersectionality is absolutely always important to all discussions of race and social justice; do not let other people bully you out of prioritizing it.

six: Is police brutality really about race?

“How do you know it’s about race?” (85)

And the truth is, I didn’t know it was about race, and I still don’t. There’s a very good chance that I just won that horrible lottery and my car, with three black individuals, was the one car to be pulled over out of pure luck. Maybe we’re all just really unlucky, as a race. (85)

Our police force was not created to serve black Americans; it was created to police black Americans and serve white Americans. (91)

If someone is going to be harmed or killed in a police encounter, the numbers show that it is most likely going to be the civilian, not the police. When that harm is the result of an unjustified use of force against a civilian of color, most people of color know that the police officer involved will likely face very few consequences, if any. Police officers know this, too. This is known in every encounter with police–every traffic stop, every domestic violence call, every welfare call. (95)

When talking about police brutality, it is important to remember that the police force can be trustworthy public servants to one community, and oppressors to another community–just as we can live in a country that promotes prosperity for some (96) and poverty for others. (97)

If you do trust and value your police force, and you also believe in justice and equality for people of color, you will not see the lack of trust on behalf of communities of color as simply a difference of opinion. You will instead expect your police force to earn the respect (97) and trust of communities of color by providing them with the same level of service that you enjoy. People of color are not asking white people to believe their experiences so that they will fear the police as much as people of color do. They are asking because they want white people to join them in demanding their right to be able to trust the police like white people do. (98)

seven: How can I talk about affirmative action?

First introduced by President Kennedy and expanded by President Johnson in the ’60s, affirmative action sought to help reverse extreme racial gaps in federal employment and higher education. The intention was to get federal employers to proactively fight racial discrimination in their hiring practices and to increase the African American undergraduate population above its then dismal 5 percent. Shortly after its introduction, affirmative action was expanded to all women. (113)

Affirmative action is a crucial tool if we want to mitigate some of the effects of systemic racism and misogyny in our society. It should not be rolled back; in fact, I argue that it should be ex-(114)banded to other groups that suffer from systemic oppression as well. Why? Because it works. No, it doesn’t work wonders, but affirmative action can do some good for those who need it, and it can do some good for a society that wants to value equality and diversity. (115)

Let’s take a look at some of the arguments against affirmative action, and some of the ways in which we can use those arguments to further understanding of why affirmative action is still very necessary. (115)

Argument 1: We don’t need affirmative action because society isn’t as racist or sexist as it used to be. While racism and sexism can be hard to quantify and compare (we can’t exactly call people up and say “how racist are you today”), we can easily see the effects of systemic racism and sexism and oppression in our society today–particularly in our employment and education sectors. … The wage gap between white and black men has not budged since Reagan’s cuts to affirmative action began in the ’80s, with black men making 73 cents for every white man’s dollar, and the wage gap between white and Hispanic men has actually (115) grown since 1980, going from 71 cents down to 69 cents for every dollar made by a white man. (116)

Argument 2: If an employer is racist or sexist, you can just sue them. Here’s the thing, an employer can make up just about any excuse for why they did not hire someone, did not promote someone, or fired someone. Unless you can prove malice, unless there is a paper trail of racism or sexism, it is incredibly hard to get a judge to find in your favor. In “no fault” states, an employer can fire an employee for just about any reason and it is the responsibility of the employee to prove discrimination. (117)

Argument 3: Affirmative action teaches people of color and women that they don’t have to work as hard as white men. Sigh. Here’s the basic truth: the vast majority of affirmative action goals aim for a representative number of people of color and women. … The goal is simply equal opportunity for female applicants and applicants of color. Why would a representational number of people of color be so much less competitive than a representational (117) number of white people? It is really only direct competition with white men that motivates women and people of color to work hard? (118)

Argument 4: Affirmative action is unfair to white men because it causes them to lose opportunities to less qualified women and people of color. … When you say that a representational number of women or people of color cuts out more deserving white men, you are saying that women and people of color deserve to be less represented in our schools and our companies and that white men are deserving of an over-representational majority of these spots. We see the disparities in jobs and education among race and gender lines. Either you believe these disparities exist because you believe that people of color and women are less intelligent, less hard working, and less talented than white men, or you believe that there are systemic issues keeping women and people of color from being hired into jobs, promoted, paid a fair wage, and accepted into college. (118)

Argument 5: Affirmative action doesn’t work. This is not true. (118)

If there is some critique of affirmative action that I’m inclined to agree with it is those posed by academics like Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. The argument against affirmative action that holds the most water for me is that when affirmative action is viewed as “enough” it can be detrimental to the fight for racial justice. We must never forget that without systemic change and without efforts to battle the myriad of ways in which systemic racism impacts people of color of all classes, backgrounds, and abilities, our efforts at ending systemic racial oppression will fail. We must refuse to be placated by measures that only serve a select few–and affirmative action does only serve a select few. (119)

eight: What is the school-to-prison pipeline?

…we have a serious problem with how our schools are educating and disciplining black and brown children. And that problem is called the school-to-prison pipeline. (125)

| The “school-to-prison pipeline” is the term commonly used to describe the alarming number of black and brown children who are funneled directly and indirectly from our schools into our prison industrial complex, contributing to devastating levels of mass incarceration that  lead to one in three black men and one in six Latino men going to prison in their lifetimes, in addition to increased levels of incarceration for women of color. (125)

Psychologists attest that overly harsh discipline destroys children’s trust in teachers and schools, along with damaging their self-esteem. (125)

So what factors do contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline? Here are some main contributors:

  • Racial bias of school administrators.
  • Racial bias of teachers.
  • Lack of cultural sensitivity for black and brown children.
  • The pathologizing of black children. Many (likely underfunded and understaffed) schools who find themselves ill-equipped to work with black students who are having interpersonal issues in class are quicker to give students a blanket diagnosis of learning disability than they would with struggling white students. (227)
  • Zero-tolerance policies.
  • Increased police presence in schools. … Data shows that, when controlling for poverty, schools with SROs have nearly five times the amount of in-school arrests as schools without SROs. (129)

So how do we address and confront the school-to-prison pipeline in conversation? Here are some tips:

  • Include the school-to-prison pipeline in your broader discussions of racial inequality and oppression.
  • Talk to your schools and school boards.
  • Recognize the achievements of black and brown children.
  • Normalize black and brown childhood.
  • Challenge language that stereotypes black and brown kids. … Our children are criminalized in casual conversation every day. … This is not just how random strangers see our children, it’s how our teachers see our children, our police officers see our children, our juries see our children, and our politicians see our children. Challenge the stereotyping of black and brown youth, and the criminalization of black and brown youth culture. A swagger is not intent, baggy jeans are not intent, a bandana is not intent. This is culture, and any suggestion otherwise is racist. (131)
  • Discuss deeper causes of defiant and antisocial behavior in black and brown youth. … Resist attempts to treat the behavior of black and brown children as both the cause and symptom of the problems they may be facing in schools.
  • Don’t erase disabled black and brown youth.
  • Challenge the legitimacy of white-centered education.

We often focus on the outcomes of the school-to-prison pipeline as the ultimate tragedy…but when I look at our school-to-prison pipeline, the biggest tragedy to me is the loss of childhood joy. (133)

nine: Why can’t I say the “N” word?

Words have power. Words are more than their dictionary definition. The history of a word matters as long as the effects of that history are still felt. (137)

This is how black people–human beings–become niggers. All oppression is race, class, gender, ability, religion–it all began with words. (138)

Does this mean that a well-meaning white person who is not trying to oppress people of color, absolutely cannot use these words–just because others may have had ill intent? No, you are free to say just about anything you want in a country with free speech. And even if people of color wanted to force someone to stop, we have very little power to do so. But the important question is, why would a well-meaning white person want to say these words in the first place? Why would you want to invoke that pain on people of color? Why would you want to ru in the fact that you are privileged enough to not be negatively impacted by the legacy of racial oppression that these words helped create? (140)

A lot of people want to skip ahead to the finish line of racial harmony. Past all this unpleasantness to a place where all wounds are healed and the past is laid to rest. I believe that this is where some of the desire (excluding openly racist assholes who just want to make people of color feel unsafe) to use racially taboo language comes from. But words only lose (140) their power when first the impact of those words are no longer felt, not the other way around. We live in a world where the impacts of systemic racism are still threatening the lives of countless people of color today. (141)

So yes, the fact that people of color can say words that white people can’t is an example of injustice–but it’s not injustice against white people. (141)

ten: What is cultural appropriation?

At its core, cultural appropriation is about ownership of one’s culture, and since culture is defined both collectively and individually, the definition and sentiment about cultural appropriation changes with one’s identification and sentiment about aspects of their culture. (145)

We can broadly define the concept of cultural appropriation as the adoption or exploitation of another culture by a more dominant culture. (146)

Appreciation should benefit all cultures involved, and true appreciation does. But appropriation, more often than not, disproportionately benefits the dominant culture that is borrowing from marginalized cultures and can even harm marginalized cultures. (146)

The problem of cultural appropriation is not in the desire to participate in aspects of a different culture that you admire. The problem of cultural appropriation is primarily linked to the power imbalance between the culture doing the appropriating and the culture being appropriated. That power imbalance allows the culture being appropriated to be distorted and redefined by the dominant culture and siphons any material or financial benefit of that piece of culture away to the dominant culture, while marginalized cultures are still persecuted for living in that culture. (147)

Cultural appropriation is the product of a society that prefers its culture cloaked in whiteness. (150)

Until we do live in a society that equally respects all cultures, any attempts of the dominant culture to “borrow” from marginalized cultures will run the risk of being exploitative and insulting. (151)

| That doesn’t seem fair on the surface, that we’d have to wait for a better world before we can start borrowing and adapting from other cultures with abandon. And it does not seem fair to those who feel that other cultures can take from white culture without the same risk of being labeled appropriative. But what actually is not fair, is the expectation that a dominant culture can just take and enjoy and profit from the beauty and art and creation of an oppressed culture, without taking on any of the pain and oppression people of that culture had to survive while creating it. (151)

| But who defines what is sacred to a culture? Who defines what was born of struggle? Who defines what is off limits? This is where things get complicated. (151)

eleven: Why can’t I touch your hair?

Here are some reasons.

  • Touching anybody anywhere without their permission or a damn good reason is just not okay.
  • It’s weird.
  • Hands are dirty.
  • Curls are precious.
  • It is a continuation of the lack of respect for the basic humanity and bodily autonomy of black Americans that is endemic throughout White Supremacy.

Since the first black Americans were brought over as slaves, our bodies have not been our own. We were objects–property. Our bodies were curiosities and tools to be inspected and (159) exploited. Our bodies were sources of judgment and shame. But they were never beautiful, and they were never our own. (160)

| Whatever respect we could get in White America came from how closely we could get our bodies to resemble those of white people. … We still live in a country where our hair determines how professional we seem, how respectable we seem–even how intelligent we seem. Our hair is used to help determine our place in a white supremacist society. (160)

If you have a loving, trusting relationship with a black person and you are sure they won’t mind if you asked to touch their hair, you can consider it. But really consider what you are asking. Even though it is just hair–dead piles of keratin–as long as our hair and our bodies are judged and controlled and violated by White Supremacy, it will always be so much more. (161)

twelve: What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are small daily insults and indignities perpetrated against marginalized or oppressed people because of their affiliation with that marginalized or oppressed group, and here we are going to talk about racial microaggressions–insults and indignities perpetrated against people of color. But microaggressions are more than just annoyances. The cumulative effect of these constant reminders that you are “less than” does real psychological damage. Regular exposure to microaggressions causes a person of color to feel isolated and invalidated. The inability to predict where and when a micro aggression may occur leads to hyper vigilance, which can then lead to anxiety disorders and depression. Studies have shown that people subjected to higher levels of microaggressions are more likely to exhibit the mental and physical symptoms of depression. (169)

| As harmful as microaggressions can be, they are very hard to address in real life. Why? Because they are very hard to see.

  • Microaggressions are small (hence, the “micro”) and can be easily explained away.
  • Microaggressions are cumulative.
  • Microaggressions are perpetuated by many different people.
  • Many people do not consciously know that they are perpetrating a micro aggression against someone.

Microaggressions are constant reminders that you don’t belong, that you are less than, that you are not worthy of the same respect that white people are afforded. They keep you off balance, keep you distracted, and keep you defensive. They keep you from enjoying an outing on the town or a day at the office. (172)

| Microaggressions are a serious problem beyond the emotional and physical effects they have on the person they are perpetrated against. They have much broader social implications. They normalize racism. They make racist assumptions a part of everyday life. (172)

When somebody has perpetrated a micro aggression against you, it can be hard to address. …but here are a few strategies that work at least part of the time. (173)

  • State what actually happened.
  • Ask some uncomfortable questions. … Two of my favorites are “Why did you say that?” and “I don’t get it. Please clarify.” (173)
  • Ask some more uncomfortable questions. … “Is this something you would have said to a white person?” or “How exactly was I supposed to take what you just said?” (173)
  • reinforce that good intentions are not the point.
  • Remember, you are not crazy and you have every right to bring this up.

If you have been called out for a racist micro aggression, and you want to understand and you do not want to hurt people of color, here are some tips: (175)

  • Pause.
  • Ask yourself: “Do I really k now why I said/did that?”
  • Ask yourself: “Would I have said this to somebody of my race? Is it something I said to people of my race?”
  • Ask yourself if you were feeling threatened or uncomfortable in the situation, and then ask yourself why.
  • Don’t force people to acknowledge your good intentions. What matters is that somebody was hurt. That should be the primary focus. … Do (176) not make this about your ego. (177)
  • Remember: it’s not just this one incident.
  • research further on your own time.
  • Apologize.

When it comes to racial oppression, it really is the little things that count. (178)

thirteen: Why are our students so angry?

My goal as a writer and an activist is not to shape future generations. I hope to give a platform, a foundation for our young people to build upon and then smash to bits when it is no longer needed. That is what our kids are doing right now, with all of the work we have done, all that we have dedicated to them–they are building upon it so that they can smash it all down. And it’s a beautiful thing to see. (188)

fourteen: What is the model minority myth?

Originally coined in 1966 by sociologist William Peterson to profile the socioeconomic success of Japanese Americans, the myth of the “model minority” has become a collection of stereotypes about Asian Americans, presenting them as an “ideal minority group” in the eyes of White Supremacy. Included in these stereotypes are presumptions of academic and financial success, social and political meekness, a strong work ethic, dominance in math and the sciences, and strict parenting. Peterson’s use of “model minority” was to study the success of Asian Americans, constructing them with what he termed “problem minorities.” (193)

cf. Education and the Socialization of Asian Americans: A Revisionist Analysis of the ‘Model Minority’ Thesis, by Bob Suzuki

cf. The Myth of Asian American Success and Its Educational Ramifications, by Ki-Taek Chun

So who and what do we not see when we see the “model minority?” Quite a lot:

  • Pacific Islanders.
  • Extreme economic disparity. … cf. Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror:: A History of Multicultural America
  • Extreme educational disparity.
  • Limits on professional success.
  • Hate crimes against Asian Americans.
  • Health and safety of Asian American women.
  • Lack of political power.
  • Everyday discrimination and microaggressions against Asian Americans.
  • Common struggle with other people of color. “Why can’t you be like the Asians? They come here with nothing and work hard and make themselves into a great success. You aren’t oppressed, you’re just lazy.” (199)

The model minority myth is not a myth designed to benefit Asian Americans, it was designed to benefit White Supremacy through the exploitation of Asian American labor, the neglect of poor and disenfranchised Asian Americans, the extrication of Asian American (199) culture, the exclusion of Asian Americans from systems of power, the sexual exploitation of Asian American women, and the comparison of the model minority status of Asian Americans to other racial minorities in order to delegitimize the claims of oppression and the struggles of black and Hispanic Americans. (200)

| If you want to fight racism in America, you have to fight the model minority myth. (200)

fifteen: But what if I hate Al Sharpton?

This same Martin/Malcolm dichotomy is applied to all people of color, and especially black people, who fight for racial justice. (202)

Nad while the image of Malcom X has been swapped out for the image of Al Sharpton, or Jesse Jackson, the impact of being labeled as such is the same–you are not worthy of support, your cause is corrupt, you are why people will not fight for you. (202)

But here’s the thing: Martin Luther King was not the “MLK” of his time, not the “MLK” of legend. Martin Luther King was public enemy number one. Seen as an even greater threat by our government, and a large portion of society, than Malcolm X was. Because what Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X fought for was the same: freedom from oppression. … For all of the pedestals MLK is now put on, far above the reach of ordinary black Americans, Martin was in his life viewed as the most dangerous man in America. Martin was the black man who asked for too much, too loudly. Martin was why white American couldn’t support equality. Because no mater what we ask for, if it threatens the system of White Supremacy, it will always be seen as too much. (203)

So when people say that they don’t like my tone, or when they say they can’t support the “militancy” of Black Lives Matter, or when they say that it would be easier if we just didn’t talk about race all the time–I ask one question:

| Do you believe in justice and equality? (204)

| Because if you believe in justice and equality you believe in it all of the time, for all people. …you believe in justice and equality for people you like and people you don’t. You believe in it for people who don’t say please. (204)

Yes, I am a Malcolm. And Martin, and Angela, Marcus, Rosa, Biko, Baldwin, Assata, Harriet, and Nina. I’m fighting for liberation. I’m filled with righteous anger and love. I’m shouting, as all before me have in their way. And I’m a human being who was born deserving justice and equality, and that is all you should need to know in order to stand by my side. (204)

Let’s talk about tone policing. (205)

So what is tone policing? Tone policing is when someone (usually the privileged person) in a conversation or situation about oppression shifts the focus of the conversation from the oppression being discussed to the way it is being discussed. Tone policing prioritizes the comfort of the privileged person (205) in the situation over the oppression of the disadvantaged person. (206)

Most damagingly, tone policing places prerequisites on being heard and being helped. (206)

First, let me be clear that accusations of tone policing don’t apply to actual abuse–threats and violence are not okay. Neither is bringing more oppression into the conversation as a weapon against oppressors (say, using ableist slurs in response to racism). But hurt feelings and rudeness are not oppression, and will always come second to the oppression being discussed. (206)

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. The oppressed person reaching out to you is already disadvantaged by the oppression they are trying to address. By tone policing, you are increasing that disadvantage by insisting that you get to determine if their grievances are valid and will only decide they are so if, on top of everything they are already enduring, they make the effort to prioritize your comfort. (207)

When you instead shift your focus to getting people of color to fight oppression in a way in which you approve, racial justice is no longer your main goal–your approval is. (208)

If you are a white person concerned with fighting racial oppression, and you want to avoid this sort of tone policing behavior and stay focused on being a true ally in the battle against racism, here are some things to remember:

  • Be aware of the limits of your empathy.
  • Don’t distract or deflect.
  • Remember your goal.
  • Drop the prerequisites.
  • Walk away if you must, but don’t give up.
  • built a tolerance for discomfort.
  • You are not doing any favors, you are doing what is right.

If you are a person of color who is being shamed or criticized by privileged people for your tone, please remember this:

  • You have a right to your anger, sadness and fear.
  • You were born deserving equality and justice.
  • You matter.
  • Nobody has authority over your fight for racial justice.
  • You deserve to be able to speak your truth, and you deserve to be heard.

Our humanity is worth a little discomfort, it’s actually worth a lot of discomfort. … If you believe in justice and equality, we are in this together, whether you like me or not. (211)

sixteen: I just got called racist, what do I do now?

To many white people, it appears, there is absolutely nothing worse than being called a racist, or someone insinuating you might be racist, or someone saying that something you did was racist, or somebody calling somebody you identify with racist. (213)

This chapter is for white people. … I am aiming this chapter at you, the white person who is afraid of being called racist. (216)

Who are you? (216)

| You are, at times, kind and mean, generous and selfish, witty and dull. Sometimes you are all of these things at once. (216)

| And if you are in a white supremacist society, you are racist. If you are male in a patriarchy, you are sexist. If you are (216) able-bodied, you are ableist. If you are anything above poverty in a capitalist society, you are classist. You can sometimes be all of these things at once. (217)

| You do, as Walt Whitman said, contain multitudes. (217)

You are racist because you were born and bred in a racist, white supremacist society. White Supremacy, is, as I’ve said earlier, insidious by design. The racism required to uphold White Supremacy is woven into every area of our lives. There is no way you can inherit white privilege from birth, learn racist white supremacist history in schools, consume racist and whites supremacist movies and films, work in a racist and white supremacist workforce, and vote for racist and white supremacist governments and not be racist. (218)

| This does not mean that you have hate in your heart. You may intend to treat everyone equally. But it does mean that you have absorbed some fucked-up shit regarding race, and it will show itself in some fucked-up ways. (218)

Now is an opportunity to learn more about yourself, to see yourself and your actions more clearly, so you can move toward the person you truly want to be. The question is: do you want to look like a better person, or do you want to be a better person? (22)

…do the work, here are some tips:

  • Listen.
  • Set your intentions aside.
  • Try to hear the impact of what you have done.
  • Remember that you do not have all of the pieces.
  • Nobody owes you a debate.
  • Nobody owes you a relationship. … In a hostile world, people of color have the right to cut off contact with people who have harmed them. They do not have to stick around to see all the progress you’ve made. (222)
  • Remember that you are not the only one hurt.
  • If you can see where you have been racist, or if you can see where your actions have caused harm, apologize and mean it.
  • If, after a lot of careful thought, you still do not see your actions as racist and feel strongly that this is simply a misunderstanding, do not then invalidate that person’s hurt.Your goal is to find out if you are being a racist, not to prove that you aren’t, and to resolve a painful situation if possible. (223)

You have to get over the fear of facing the worst in yourself. You should instead fear unexamined racism. Fear the thought that right now, you could be contributing to the oppression of others and you don’t know it. But do not fear those who bring that oppression to light. Do not fear the opportunity to do better. (224)

seventeen: Talking is great, but what else can I do?

While many people are afraid to talk about race, just as many use talk to hide from what they really fear: action. The more that I write about race, the more I’ve been surrounded by this talk disguised as action. (227)

Talk. Please talk and talk and talk some more. But also act. Act now, because people are dying now in this unjust system. How many lives have been ground up by racial prejudice and hate? How many opportunities have we already lost? … We have to learn and fight at the same time. Because people have been waiting far too long for their chance to live as equals in this society. (230)

How on earth can we be expected to dismantle a complex system that has been functioning for over four hundred years? My answer is: piece by piece. (230)

…here are some ideas:

  • Vote local.
  • Get in schools.
  • Bear witness.
  • Speak up in your unions.
  • Support POC-owned business.
  • Boycott banks that prey on people of color.
  • Give money to organizations working to fight racial oppression and support communities of color.
  • Boycott businesses that exploit workers of color.
  • Support music, film, television, art, and books created by people of color.
  • Support increases in the minimum wage.
  • Push your mayor and city council for police reform.
  • Demand college diversity.
  • Vote for diverse government representatives.

The truth is, we all pull levers of this white supremacist system, every day. The way we vote, where we spend our money, what we do and do not call out–these are all pieces of the system. We cannot talk our way out of a racially oppressive system. We (234) can talk our way into understanding, and we can then use that understanding to act. (235)

All around the country people are effecting real change with small actions. Change that improves the lives of people of color in their towns and cities and weakens an oppressive system. Racial oppression starts in our homes, our offices, our cities, and our states, and it can end there as well. So start talking, not just problems, but solutions. We can do this, together. (238)

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  1. Pingback: The Color of Compromise | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

  2. Read The Bell Curve. Black dysfunction has nothing to do with whites. The truth hurts. That’s why you are more likely to hear it from a well meaning scholar than a black politician or an affirmative
    action benefit ciary.

  3. Colleen Campbell

    This is to Augustine25 above. Are you kidding me? Have YOU read this book that Ijeoma Oluo? Obviously not. You don’t have a right to make a comment here if you haven’t read her book. To say that the inequalities of our world are explained by intelligence… is so obviously wrong. First of all, research has shown that intelligence is not necessarily correlated to success. Secondly, there are so many other factors that affect our success including socioeconomics and resources available to us. Finally, sounds like you need to read this book.
    This is a great book. We used it for a productive book club discussion at our diversity committee meeting at our elementary school. We want to learn how to honor all the members of our community and speak to our children in useful ways about race so that all our kids can break the white supremacy cycle in our society and community. Thank you Ijeoma Oluo.

  4. Laila Zouaki

    I’m shocked to read your comment, @augustine25, I’m so glad Colleen addressed it but I want to double down on (1) sounds like you have not read Ijeoma Oluo’s book and you should (2) you can also watch the episode of Explained about the racial wealth gap if you need more convincing that everything about the existing American society has been created based on racial oppression of Black people by White people. Ijeoma Oluo’s book is eye-opening, and an amazing resource to learn how to be an ally as a non-Black person.

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