Week Nine, Book Nine: So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
If you are a white person, you are definitely racist. Because if you are white, you have grown up with white privilege in the midst of a white supremacist society, and it is simply not possible that you have avoided absorbing stereotyped messages about what it means to be a person of colour. And even if you are super duper ‘woke’ and have only the best intentions, you can be sure that you have definitely done/said something/many things that are racist and that people have been hurt as a result. This premise is at the heart of Ijeoma Oluo’s new book. As Oluo writes, “this does not mean you have hate in your heart”, but she also points out that with regards to racism, intention is irrelevant.
This is a practical book about how to talk about race. It is also a call to do more than simply have conversations. This book may make you uncomfortable and give you guilt/shame hangovers that last for days and Oluo would probably say that this is a good thing. Making sure that people of privilege feel comfortable when talking about race is irrelevant, and sometimes stands at cross-purposes to the intention of this book.
I am very attached to seeing myself as a culturally sensitive person, but reading this book was helpful in reminding me of all the work I still have to do. For example, on the topic of microaggressions (“small daily insults and indignities perpetrated against marginalized or oppressed people because of their affiliation with that marginalized or oppressed group”-Oluo’s definition): I have always enjoyed asking people where they are from. This honestly and truly springs from a deep curiosity, as opposed to coming from the desire to label and assign stereotypes. However much my intention might not be to label and apply stereotypes, it is inevitable that upon learning of a person’s race, implicit biases and stereotypes will arise.
I spent two years living in the United States and would often marvel at the way people there answered this question. “Where are you from?” was always met with the naming of a state of city. “No, no,” I would reply “Where are you from? Like what is your parent’s background?” Or more euphemistically, “what is your ancestry?” I always probed until the person, probably very uncomfortable by this point, provided me with an explanation of their name/skin color/accent. I did this entirely without compunction. I didn’t imagine that I might be calling someone out in a world where they feel called out every time they walk down the street. I think I actually felt entitled to this information. For me, ancestry, background, whatever you want to call it, was a part of identity, and showing curiosity about someone’s identity meant you wanted to get to know them. What could be bad about that? I failed to understand that for many minorities and people of colour, there is a long history of being discriminated against due to their identity, of being harassed, incarcerated, raped, tortured, killed. In many cases, not drawing attention to the colour of one’s skin was a matter of survival. I don’t have this legacy-my legacy is that of the oppressor- and so for most of my life I have been perpetrating microagressions of this variety, sweetly oblivious and without accountability. I feel bad about this and I’m not going to do it anymore. And I’m going to do my best not to perpetrate other microagressions.
I have lots more to say on this topic, but for now, I recommend this book with a whopping 4 out of 5 curly pug tails!