Book Talk: So You Want to Talk About Race


Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want To Talk About Race (2018) Seal Press.

(Photo courtesy of Ijeoma Oluo, 2018)

Like all forms of oppression, racism is fraught with history, guilt, complexities, nuances, multiple perspectives, and it can be a contentious discussion topic. Having already recommended one must-read book for 2018, I now have another to add to the list: So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.

From the publisher’s website (Seal Press):

“In So You Want to Talk About Race, Editor at Large of The Establishment Ijeoma Oluo offers a contemporary, accessible take on the racial landscape in America, addressing head-on such issues as privilege, police brutality, intersectionality, micro-aggressions, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the “N” word. Perfectly positioned to bridge the gap between people of color and white Americans struggling with race complexities, Oluo answers the questions readers don’t dare ask, and explains the concepts that continue to elude everyday Americans.”

Race touches every system in our society. There is no escaping it. Racism is more than just operating on stereotypes or being mean to people of other ethnicities. These are components and symptoms, but racism is systemic, and it is deeply ingrained in our society at all levels, in every corner of our lives. In the United States especially, white supremacy is engrained into people’s brains, bodies, and everyday interactions, and there is no quick fix.

Conversations about race and racism in our society are crucial now more than ever. As library professionals with core values such as democracy, diversity, and social responsibility, providing access to information and serving both homogeneous and diverse communities, these conversations directly affect our work and our lives. Unfortunately, many people working in libraries and information fields today are faced with microaggressions, if not outright blatant racism and discrimination, in the workplace from colleagues and supervisors as well as patrons. The Microagressions in Librarianship Tumblr, for example, documents and sheds light on these experiences. Our participation in and encouragement of discussions on race is crucial in dismantling systems of oppression in our society.

I was lucky to attend Oluo’s book talk event at my local public library recently, where the space provided was jam-packed with people. Oluo started with a reading from her book, followed by some words on her motivation and background for the book, then questions and comments from the audience. Having written numerous articles on race in addition to the book, Oluo shared that it’s really not fun to write about race and that it was a grueling emotional process. She did not write the book for fun, but to help people have conversations about race. She said that she wrote the book for people of color, knowing that mostly white people would read it.

I am thankful to Oluo for having shared her stories, thoughts, and time with my community at the book event and the world at large through her book. Besides adding So You Want To Talk About Race to your “to read” list, here are some other poignant takeaways from Oluo’s talk:

Talking to children about race and racism:

  • Hiding from or ignoring race is not the answer.
  • When it comes to language and culture in classrooms, schools, and curriculum, how should teachers talk to their students? Children pick up on racial representation at a young age. Teachers need to be comfortable challenging and acknowledging that everything they teach their students is based around the white perspective; white is usually the default. Teachers need to get comfortable with acknowledging race and not be afraid to say “black,” “Asian,” “Latino,” “indigenous,” etc. Students need to get comfortable talking to each other about race, which benefits students of color as well as white students. Give students space and freedom to talk, and help them feel safe.
  • Discussions about slavery and genocide of indigenous people can not be skipped over. Racism exists to justify violating rules of society and human nature through dehumanization. Racism is born from the perceived necessity to legitimize violent exploitation and genocide. We need to acknowledge and recognize these truths in order to move forward.

Advice for people of color:

  • Your duty is to yourself and to get through your day. Do what you need to do; you don’t owe the system of oppression anything other than your survival. You have a right to create your boundaries, to create your space. That which you are willing to settle for is the absolute most you will get. Be your real self and other people will quickly reveal their real selves to you in return.

Advice for white people:

  • If you want to get involved, ask yourself what your motive is. Constantly investigate and verbalize your motives. Why do you want to fight racism? Do you want to fight oppression? Or is it because you feel guilty? Is it because you want to make friends? Or is it because you want to dismantle white supremacy, even within yourself? Challenge yourself and your need to be in the center.
  • Racism has negative effects on white people as well as people of color, just like patriarchy is harmful to men as well as women. White people often spend time hiding from the brutality that white supremacy inflicts on the world. White people need to constantly investigate the system of harm that they are taking part in and realize that there is work that can be done to fight oppression and racism in every facet of life.

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