A book review by BPL team member, Leann.
I read Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror and then immediately read So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, because, I guess I don’t want to feel happiness ever again.
Let’s start with the book everyone has been telling you to read since the moment it was off the printing presses in 2018: So You Want to Talk About Race. Oluo’s book is a primer for anyone and everyone who truly wants to do the work of dismantling the racist systems within which we live, work, eat, pray, and love. It reads like a textbook, which I think was the intention, with easily referenced chapter headings like “Why can’t I say the ‘N’ word?” and “Why am I always being told to ‘check my privilege?’” and “I just got called racist, what do I do now?” Oluo lays out in crystal clear language the answer to these questions. She does not mince words. The book is written both to people of color and to white people.
If you are already familiar with phrases like “school to prison pipeline” and are comfortable seeing the words “police” and “brutality” next to each other without huffing defensively, Oluo’s book is an excellent resource for you. Read it, and bone up on your answers so you can get more comfortable talking about race. Follow Oluo’s advice to talk, act, and importantly listen. If, however, you are skeptical about all the hubbub around the incarceration rates of black and brown men, or maybe you think affirmative action is why your kid didn’t get into Yale, or if you like the phrase, “Blue Lives Matter,” I wouldn’t recommend this book to you. Oluo doesn’t build an argument brick by brick, she whacks you over the head with the brick.
Oluo pulls no punches because there’s no time for that: she needs to get to the point and she needs to get there in reasonable word-count. If you’re a reader who’s been looking for that one resource to answer all your questions about why people won’t stop talking about race in America and you’re ready to hear the answers: I definitely recommend this book to you.
For Oluo’s book to work, and specifically for it to work for adults who have already learned so much Bad Information that we have to spend a bunch of time unlearning stuff, you need to have some basic foundational knowledge of systemic racism in America. You need to either be willing to take Oluo at her word when, for example, she cites the damaging and profound impacts of microagressions and/or you must have a pretty good grasp, already, on how racist America truly is. It’s a catch 22: to read this excellent diagnostic on basic American racism, you must already have some understanding of, and belief, in the damning nature of American racism. Otherwise, you’ll probably be in such shocked, mortified, embarrassed, and humiliated defensive disbelief, that you’ll put the book down and say she’s, “overreacting.”
If you’ve been having a frustrating conversation with someone about how American systems are inherently racist from the day they were created and you just want to shove something at that annoying person or link them to an article with all your proof, this book is going to feel very tempting. It does answer all those questions and demolish any arguments that American racism is over, and it does it quickly! With style! Nevertheless, as Oluo herself acknowledges, she’s not here to get into a Twitter feud over the troll-favored “proof.” If you think there’s even a chance, though, that the frustrating person might be willing to think about it further, grab Oluo’s book for yourself.
I encourage everyone to read this book, especially white people. Maybe if we all keep talking about race, more people will be ready for this book.