A friend of mine asked if I had read So you want to talk about race, the 2018 book by Ijeoma Oluo. I said it was on my list. The truth is that it was in the house, but in a flurry of tidying up, it got misplaced.
Now it’s found. And I read the 240-page paperback in three or four hours over two days. The story was compelling because she put a lot of herself, a “black, queer woman” with a white single mom, on the pages.
“It’s about race if a person of color thinks about race.” I related to that. At the same time, she notes that “almost nothing is completely about race.” And that explaining systemic racism is not always easy.
In the chapter about talking about race incorrectly, the primary subject was her own mom. “Why can’t I be talking about… anything but this.” Conversely, Ms. Oluo tells about her OWN failure to check her privilege. She explains intersectionality better than most people I’ve read.
Her chapter on affirmative action was not academic but personal, with her family finding the need to sneak into a vacant apartment in order to take showers. A school game tagged her brother as “homeless,” when in fact the family had literally experienced this.
Lock ’em up
The school-to-prison pipeline the author talked about is quite insidious. I recently saw a story on the news about an eight-year-old mixed-race kid with special needs. He was arrested for felony assault for hitting his teacher in December 2018. He couldn’t be handcuffed because the boy’s wrists were too skinny. The child is STILL traumatized by this experience.
The particular pain of the author, at age 11, and her brother being subjected to the N-word in what they perceived to a safe setting was particularly awful. She explains an almost comical example of cultural appropriation at a dining establishment. I’ve never understood why any white person would ask a black person if they could touch their hair. Yet it’s a common phenomenon.
I’ve never liked the word “microaggression.” It seems to trivialize the pain of being, for instance, the fat black kid afraid of eating pizza, even though she hadn’t eaten all day. I myself hear the one about my proper use of English. Also, generally, “you aren’t like other black people,” as though that was supposed to be a compliment; n.b., it is not.
Ijeoma Oluo’s then eight-year-old son didn’t want to sing the national anthem or say the pledge of allegiance at school. He wanted to duck a school assembly to avoid it; it did get worked out. I’ve had my own issues with those symbols, albeit slightly later in life. He also realized he ought not to play with toy guns like his white friends did because he didn’t want to end up dead like the 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
Importantly, in “But what if I hate Al Sharpton,” he addressed a lot of myths. About Martin Luther King and what he really stood for. About Malcolm X. (The late folk singer Phil Ochs also addressed this in Love Me, I’m a Liberal.)
The book ends with a call for action, including Vote local, Bear witness to bigotry, Boycott bigoted businesses, and Supporting businesses owned by people of color.
Yes, Ijeoma Oluo may tell you a few things you already knew if you’ve read other books on racism. But because she puts herself in the story, So you want to talk about race got me to turn the pages. And watch this video. Listening to her speak explains why people who listen to her audiobook enjoy it so much.