by Danielle Nielsen
In So You Want to Talk About Race (Seal Press, 2018), writer Ijeoma Oluo approaches the difficult discussions about race that Americans, especially, are engaging in right now. Styled as a self-help book, Oluo aims to her white audience and others who might be hesitant to address race become better equipped to participate in these discussions.
In the first five chapters of So You Want to Talk, Oluo defines the terms necessary to both engage in ,and understand, discussions of race and racism in America. Oluo explains concepts like racism and intersectionality and provides techniques for how to approach conversations about race. For instance, Oluo explains that if her white readers want to participate in discussions about race, they should make sure their intention is clear, perform their own research, and refuse to tone-police people of color. These introductory chapters set the stage for the remainder of the book, which cover more specific topics such as police brutality, affirmative action, model minorities, and microaggressions. Oluo organizes most chapters, especially in the second part of the book, around the same structure: an anecdote, historical context, assumptions about the topic, and ways to combat those assumptions. For instance, if readers want to know about the school-to-prison pipeline, it is their obligation to research that topic on their own before engaging with the subject in conversation. The topics are wide-ranging and appropriate for a book entitled So You Want to Talk About Race, and they cover many of the most prominent talking points of race in contemporary America.
While reading the book, two things consistently gnawed at me: the dependence on anecdotes and the lack of intersectionality. Nearly all of the chapters start with anecdotes. Many of these anecdotes are from Oluo’s own experiences or the experience of people that she knows. For instance, at the beginning of a chapter on the school-to-prison pipeline, Oluo opens with the story of a five-year-old boy who was accused of assaulting his kindergarten teacher and the repercussions of that accusation. For this reader, more statistics would be helpful, and I know they’re available. The research on the school-to-prison pipeline, the use of suspension and expulsion as a tool used disproportionately against children of color, and research on implicit bias in teachers is all out there and convincing. If the book is intended to help her reader stalk about race, it is helpful to have a combination of anecdotes – to encourage empathy and deploy pathos – and statistics – to get at the heart of one’s more logical or logos-driven brain. At times, Oluo does use statistics to support these anecdotes, and these statistics are particularly helpful in the chapter about police brutality and in the discussion of affirmative action, where she discusses wage disparities on both gendered and racial levels. I do acknowledge, though, that Oluo may also be asking us as readers – as she explicitly does in the opening chapters – to go and do our own research. She does not, however, provide examples of research beyond the few sources in her bibliographic notes. And I must acknowledge that it is not her job to do it for me.
My second concern is the lack of intersectional analysis in the text. The affirmative action chapter, understandably, is one of the places where Oluo most clearly discusses intersectionality and the importance of ensuring people from all marginalized groups, women, LGBT people, and people with disabilities, in addition to racial minorities, are acknowledged. I recognize that, in a book called Let’s Talk about Race, the focus of the text will be race. Oluo’s reliance on, often personal, anecdotes also moves the text towards a discussion of being black in America. Race in America is a complex and certainly intersectional concern, and all of Oluo’s recommendations can further the discussions for all groups mentioned above. Beyond research, Oluo recommends political action – such as protests and visiting city council meetings – and action on social media to educate others about race. These same actions can also take into account the concerns of other marginalized groups.
All in all, Oluo’s Let’s Talk about Race encourages readers to think about how to engage conversations about race in the current political atmosphere with poise and dignity. It acknowledges that these discussions will never be easy, but that they should happen. The biggest strengths of Oluo’s work are the diversity of topics that she covers, the assumptions that she debunks, and the insistence that participants in these discussions take ownership of their own education about racial issues. This book is set to help anyone who wants to be a well-informed ally.
Danielle Nielsen is Associate Professor of English at Murray State University where she teaches courses in composition and rhetoric, professional and technical writing, and British literature.