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A Book I Read This Year: So You Want To Talk About Race

So eleventy billion years ago I mentioned that I read So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and I wanted to write a more thorough blog posting about it than the short paragraphs I’d written about the other books I’d written up to that point in theyear. And then I got swamped with working on eleventy billion courses and didn’t write that posting – or read very many more books, to be honest. But now it’s that time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve where, sure I could be working on those eleventy billion courses, but I’m more inspired to write a bunch of blog postings and try to complete some of my 2019 goals, because I’m a completist. Incidentally, completism is a form of perfectionism and perfectionism a characteristic of white supremacy culture.

But let me back up. As I mentioned previously, you should read this book for yourself because there is no way I can do it justice. Nor would I want to suggest that as a white person who read one book, I really understand issues of race. I’ve lived my whole life as a privileged white person who was completely unaware of my privilege. I’m now trying to learn as much as I can and this book has taught me a lot.

One of the things that I’m learning is that people of colour are constantly being expected to educate white people about what racism is and how it affects them, which is a completely ridiculous expectation. As white people, we benefit from living in a racist society that harms people of colour and then we expect them to spend their time and energy – and re-live harmful experiences – to educate us on how we are harming them. As Oluo says, “White people – talk about race with other white people […] Bring it into your life so that you can dismantle racism in the whites spaces of your life that people of color can’t even reach.” So I’m trying to learn more so that I can do this more.

There’s a chapter on checking your privilege. Privilege, simply put, is having an advantage that other people don’t have. It’s easy to not notice privileges that we have, because they make life easier for us and that’s super easy to dismiss. It’s much easier to notice things that we feel are disadvantaging us. For example, when I went to university, I noticed how many people there came from rich families, whose parents were paying all their expenses and who didn’t have to have jobs while they went to university and who understood how to navigate a post-secondary institution because their family members had all been to them. And I built up this idea of myself as someone who had to work harder to be there and to get through it. What I didn’t see was all the people there who were facing way more obstacles than I was – people of colour who faced discrimination, both at the individual and the systemic level, for example – or the people who face insurmountable obstacles and didn’t get a chance to be there at all. It’s been really eye-opening for me to learn about all the ways that people of colour are oppressed and I’ve had to start to unpack my own identity, with its “I worked so hard for everything” underpinning, and acknowledge the many ways in which my privilege has made things easier for me.

And because I have so many privileges, I should be using them to dismantle privilege. I can get into places that many other people cannot. Again, quoting Oluo, “Does your privilege mean that you are more likely to sit in a manger’s meeting white others are not? Ask why there are no disabled people in the room. Does your privilege mean that politicians are begging for your political support? Ask what they are going to do for people of color next time they knock on your door to hand you a flier.”

Another thing that stood out to me is that white people often act as if their feelings being hurt is a great tragedy – like, if a white person does a racist thing and then gets called a racist, they act like being called a racist is the biggest deal and the whole situation becomes about how hurt they are at being called a racist or them explaining that they feel they shouldn’t have been called a racist – and the harm they caused by doing a racist thing gets ignored. Along a similar line, white people often expect accolades for doing something antiracist, as if this is all about them. As Oluo puts it, “Your efforts to dismantle White Supremacy are expected of decent people who believe in justice. You are not owed gratitude or friendship from people of color for your efforts. We are not thanked for cleaning our own houses.”

Along a similar line was discussion about how if you cause harm, even unintentionally, even without being aware of it, you are still responsible and the person or people you hurt don’t owe you absolution. White people do have a tendency to make things all about themselves. No one owes your forgiveness, so if you cause harm, you might just have to deal with the fact that the person you harmed does not need to forgive you.

Something that Oluo talks about that I hadn’t heard of before is the “model minority myth”. She talks about the “popular stereotype of [Asian Americans as] hard-working, financially successful, quiet, serious people of predominately East Asian (Chinese, Korean, or Japanese) descent” and how this erases so many others: people from other parts of Asia, like “Guam, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and India”. She says, “The model minority myth fetishizes Asian Americans – reducing a broad swath of the world’s population to a simple stereotype.” It is harmful because it erases so many people, and it also separates people of Asian descent from other people of colour who are facing the same racist system and prevent them from “recognizing and organizing around shared experiences of labor exploitation, lack of government representation, cultural appropriation, and much more.”

Oluo also talks about how it’s so important to do more than just talk. Talking won’t change the system. We need to take action. Even if we don’t know everything yet. Even if we might fuck up. We need to learn, but we can’t wait until we’ve learned everything before we act, because then no action will ever happen. Some ways that Oluo suggests we can act include:

  • vote local – “demand that anybody asking for your vote (from school board to city council to state senator) make racial justice a top issue and vote for diverse government respresentatives
  • let schools boards, principals, and teachers know that you expect education to be inclusive of all students
  • bear witness when you see a person of colour being harassed – “sometimes just the watchful presence of another white person will make others stop and consider their actions more carefully”
  • support businesses owned by people of colour and entertainment created by people of colour
  • donate to organizations that support communities of colour and fight racial oppression

Like I said before, this blog posting really doesn’t do justice to the book – I’ve only scratched the surface of a few things that I read – you really should read it for yourself.

One Response to A Book I Read This Year: So You Want To Talk About Race

  1. Sandra S says:

    Thanks for this helpful blog entry, Beth. In a related vein, if you have not already read You Can’t Touch My Hair [(And other things I still have to explain) by Phoebe Robinson. New York, NY: Plume/Penguin/Random House, 2018], I encourage you to add it to your 2020 reading list.

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