Ijeoma Oluo’s new book, essentially a set of guidelines and tips for discussing race across identities, is timely and urgent.
“So You Want to Talk About Race”
by Ijeoma Oluo
Seal Press, 256 pp., $27
Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison once noted that “The very serious function of racism is distraction. … It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
We — by that I mean African Americans like Morrison and me — are often compelled to explain racism for a white-dominated society that tends not to take seriously our attempts to do so. Somehow it has been left to people of color to advise white people on how to properly discuss and dismantle a system of biases and practices that they designed and benefit from, whether they think they do or not.
Maybe Morrison is onto something. Maybe putting our feelings and stories on the line to explore race, in a country that should understand bigotry and oppression already, is a waste of time.
The author of “So You Want to Talk About Race” will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25, at Benaroya Hall. The event is sold out, but standby tickets ($40) may be available at the door; (206-621-2230 or lectures.org)
All of this briefly crossed my mind before sitting down to write about Ijeoma Oluo’s valiant and remarkably graceful new book, “So You Want to Talk about Race,” a day after President Donald Trump, a white man who equivocates on neo-Nazism, disparages Muslims, bad-mouths Latinos and rose to political fame by accusing his black predecessor of being a secret Kenyan interloper, described the continent of Africa as made up of “shithole” countries.
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Oluo, a gifted, Seattle-based writer and public speaker (her profile in The Stranger of Rachel Dolezal, “The Heart of Whiteness,” went viral last year), pulls the most exasperated among us back from the brink and reminds us of what’s to be gained from continuing the discussion.
Her book, essentially a set of guidelines and tips written by an African-American queer woman for discussing race across identities, is urgently needed.
Drawing from the realities of her own life and her deep knowledge about a subject that can be as confusing as it can be frustrating, she offers a set of sensible explanations, tips and warnings for those who want to discuss race with people who aren’t like them, without resorting to shouting or coming to blows.
Oluo notes that she, too, can grow frustrated and exhausted with having to play the role of black ambassador, gamely guiding people across the troubled waters of American race relations. In her own life, she tells us, she’s had to grapple with the ways in which people even in majority-white, liberal Seattle fail to talk about whiteness, racism and the awful feelings those discussions can incite.
“Yes, they could rage over global warming and yell about Republican shenanigans, but they would not say a word about the racial oppression and brutality facing people of color in this country,” she writes.
The book covers some of the most sensitive and easily conflict-inducing aspects of racial dialogue, with chapters exploring affirmative action, cultural appropriation, microaggressions and the historically problematic relationship between some communities of color and the police.
Oluo acknowledges that we are all guided by good and bad impulses, but she addresses some of her most nuanced passages to white people, including a section that tackles the terrifying prospect of being called a racist, while suggesting ways to avoid defensiveness and constructively think and talk through that painful experience.
“This does not mean that you have to flog yourself for all eternity,” Oluo writes. “The pain you’ve caused is real, and if you have a conscience, the recognition of that will likely sting a little when you think about it.”
She then lays out a bullet-pointed list of things to keep in mind, starting with a piece of advice that seems obvious but goes underappreciated: “Listen.”
Beyond that, she advises, “try to hear the impact of what you’ve done,” and “do not make this about your pain at being called out.” Also, she warns, don’t invalidate that person’s hurt if you ultimately disagree that your actions were racist.
“So why do we talk about racism if it’s so risky and so painful?” Oluo asks.
“Because not talking about it is killing us,” she writes. “Because for far too long, the burden of racism has always been on us alone.”
This book is an invitation for everyone to join the conversation — and turn words into action.