So You Want to Talk About Race: When a book calls you out

Originally published February 2018

I’m not sure how Ijeoma Oluo’s book, “So you want to talk about race” ended up on my TBR list.

It was probably on an end-of-the-year “Best Of” list, and in my quest to add more books that matter to my queue, I tacked it on. And as much as it fascinated me, it also stung. After all, the author thinks I am a racist.

And if you are white and accept Oluo’s premise, so are you.

“You are racist because you were born and bred in a racist, white supremacist society,” she writes. “White Supremacy is, as I’ve said earlier, insidious by design. The racism required to uphold White Supremacy is woven into every area of our lives. There is no way you can inherit white privilege from birth, learn racist white supremacy history in schools, consume racist and white supremacist movies and films, work in a racist and white supremaist workforce, and vote for racist and white supremacist governments and not be racist.”

Damn, Ijeoma.

Let me step back for a moment.

Racist is never a word I would use to describe myself. At least not before reading this book. I’ve had friends of color, forever. One of my first friends in one of my first neighborhoods, Florissant, Mo., was a young black boy my age. Rodney. I was brought up by liberal, progressive parents. Both my biological and adoptive fathers worked for HUD. I went to ethnically diverse schools in Milwaukee. In fact, the switch from a high school in Milwaukee to one in Wheaton, Il., was so jarring in that I went from a school that was 50 percent minority to one where there were probably five people that qualified as a minority.

I’ve had black friends, black co-workers, black neighbors. There is no way I am racist.

Nope, says Oluo. I’m racist.

And this is why it’s so crucial that you read this book if you want to be part of the conversation about race.

It would be a disservice to try to teach you everything that I learned from this book. In reality, it’s likely something that requires reading, and then reading again. And again. One of my primary takeaways is this — that privilege is so ingrained in our being, so much a part of our subconscious, that it takes a person, long, intentional, meditative thought to untangle it from our critical thinking. In the book’s chapter, “Why am I always being told to ‘check my privilege?'” Oluo breaks down the concept of privilege in such a fashion a person could be brought to their knees to be thankful for the circumstances they find themselves in, even if it’s knee-deep in dinner dishes while the kids need help with homework and the boss is texting for his PowerPoint before you walk the dog and go to bed.

The concept in itself is simple. “Privilege, in the social justice context, is an advantage or a set of advantages that you have that others do not.” So, I thought of a few:

  • I’m white.
  • I’m able-bodied.
  • I’m not suffering from a debilitating illness or injury.
  • I am employed.
  • I have health benefits.
  • I live in a good neighborhood.
  • When I pass a police officer while out and about, I don’t need to worry about being targeted.
  • I’m married.
  • I have a college degree and got it debt-free.
  • If I am sick, I can take the day off.
  • I have at least half-a-dozen grocery stores within 3 miles of my house.
  • I have access to the Internet whenever I need it.
  • I live close to a good library.
  • I don’t need to choose between electricity or gas money for the car.
  • And even if I didn’t have a car, I live within a 10-minute-walk to the train station.

Once you get going, you can keep on going. Another great example of privilege? This:

Oluo covers a lot of territory in breaking down conversations about race, and reminds us interested enough to take the plunge that It is not supposed to be. Race is a subject that incites powerful emotions, especially when you find yourself almost immediately in defensive territory, because, well … you might be racist.

Oluo lets you know — yes, you will mess it up. But that’s OK. You can try again. To move forward, we need to get uncomfortable. This book offers concrete suggestions about how to make those conversations work. How to set boundaries. What to ask, what not to ask.

I learned so much reading this book. I have a better understanding around hot button issues like police brutality and cultural appropriation. And yes, privilege. It’s crazy how much you forget to be grateful for when you take it for granted.

READ THIS BOOK. I’m not even close to perfect, but now I know how I can do better. And mess up. And try again.

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