For over a year now we’ve been hearing a lot about the infamous Trump voter, who was most likely white and male and angry that he had to endure eight years with a black man at the helm of government. White anger flared last summer in Charlottesville, when emboldened white supremacists staged a torch-lit rally, their racist chants echoing well beyond the University of Virginia campus. In this newly ignited context of anger and intimidation, many of us have resorted to hand-wringing or sheet-caking, unsure of how to have productive conversations about race.
Enter Ijeoma Oluo, the Seattle-based writer, speaker, and emerging social media icon whose breakout book, So You Want to Talk About Race, offers a fresh, compassionate, often witty approach to helping us navigate these turbulent times. Drawing from a well of personal experience as a black woman with deep and intimate ties to the white world, Oluo distinguishes herself as a relatable yet nuanced commentator on a subject that so many others have tried less successfully to take on. It’s evident that she knows her theory, but she doesn’t get mired in the academic debates, instead offering vivid anecdotes from life on the front lines as well as practical advice that both longtime students of race in America as well as newcomers to the field will find useful.
But Oluo wasn’t always comfortable talking about race. For much of her life, she just wanted to get by—in college and the workforce, as a mother of two sons. “I tried to make the best of it,” she says in the book. “I told myself that it would all be worth it one day, that being a successful black woman was revolution enough.”
This was back when she was one among a handful of people of color in her corporate job, before her days as an Internet truth-teller. In the book she describes an incident when her white boss started a team meeting by calling out to her from across the table. “Is that your real hair?” he asked.
After years of suffering slights like these, Oluo could no longer remain silent. But speaking up was risky. She lost the majority of her white friends because they stopped thinking of her as “fun,” an experience many people of color can relate to. When we refuse to assimilate, when we reject the confining roles created for us—as tokens, as entertainers, as the help—and we insist on our full and complicated humanity, it doesn’t always go over well with the white people in our lives.
In Oluo’s case, it wasn’t just her white friends she had to worry about. There was also her white mother, who raised Oluo and her siblings as a single parent. “Our mom never thought that our blackness would hold us back in life,” Oluo writes. “[S]he thought we could rule the world. But that optimism and starry-eyed love was, in fact, born from her whiteness.”
Oluo, too, was born from her mother’s whiteness, and perhaps it’s this proximity that endows her work with an uncanny sensitivity to whiteness’s invisible machinery. Her mother is the first person Oluo thanks in the book’s acknowledgments, and it’s clear they have a close relationship. Yet Oluo doesn’t presume white innocence—not even with her mother. When her mother called her one evening in 2015 and gushed that she’d had an epiphany about race after she found herself in a muddle with a black coworker, Oluo didn’t congratulate her. She was glad her mother was beginning to understand how racism takes effect through systems of power and how fighting it means putting pressure on institutions and individuals upholding whiteness as a privilege (as opposed to a phenotype). But she wasn’t going to give her mother credit as the good white person who’s “down” with black people.
It’s precisely this yearning for credit and goodness that Oluo’s book challenges indirectly. White people’s need to be comforted and acknowledged by people of color is just another symptom of white supremacy, an insidious way that attention and resources get diverted from those who need it most.
Take the case of Rachel Dolezal, who Oluo wrote about last year. Dolezal’s desire to be recognized as black extended beyond her appearance. It pushed her to lie about her racial identity in order to acquire a leadership position in the NAACP, an organization that advocates for African Americans. While whites played a prominent role during the NAACP’s founding, their visibility receded as the organization grew during the Civil Rights era. Until Dolezal came along. Of all the spaces available to her in our white-dominated society, she chose one devoted to centering black people. She seized a platform built by black leaders—W.E.B. DuBois, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Ella Baker, and many others who battled racism and economic exploitation to secure an institution for voices like theirs to rise. The problem with Dolezal isn’t her perm or her tan, but how she concealed her whiteness to appropriate a platform that black people established through centuries of struggle. The absurdity of it is painful: a white woman who loves blackness to the point that she felt compelled to assume the role of a powerful black woman rather than allowing a genuinely powerful black woman to step up and lead the way.
When Oluo talks about race, she’s talking about the pain and absurdity that have resulted from centuries of white supremacy but are too frequently elided in our discussions of hot-button issues like cultural appropriation, police brutality, and immigration. Oluo’s book is one of the few guiding lights to emerge in our post-election landscape, a primer whose goal isn’t to call out the “bad” white people and console the “good” ones, but to raise the bar for all of us committed to equality and justice.
Especially on the Internet.
In an era when the public sphere can so quickly explode into anger, even violence, the way we talk matters. People’s life chances hang in the balance of our political discourse, and Oluo’s book shows us how we might swing that balance toward justice—one conversation at a time.