So You Want to Talk About Race

by Ijeoma Oluo

Clock Icon 9 minute read

Introduction

So you want to talk about race

AS A BLACK WOMAN, RACE HAS ALWAYS BEEN A PROMINENT part of my life. I have never been able to escape the fact that I am a black woman in a white supremacist country. My blackness is woven into how I dress each morning, what bars I feel comfortable going to, what music I enjoy, what neighborhoods I hang out in. The realities of race have not always been welcome in my life, but they have always been there. When I was a young child it was the constant questions of why I was so dark while my mom was so white—was I adopted? Where did I come from? When I became older it was the clothes not cut for my shape and the snide comments about my hair and lips and the teen idols that would never ever find a girl like me beautiful. Then it was the clerks who would follow me around stores and the jobs that were hiring until I walked in the door and then they were not. And it was the bosses who told me that I was too “loud,” the complaints that my hair was too “ethnic” for the office, and why, even though I was a valued employee, I was making so much less money than other white employees doing the same job. It is the cops I can’t make eye contact with, the Ubers that abandon their pickup, driving on instead of stopping when they see me. When I had my sons, it was the assumptions that they were older than they were, and that their roughhousing was too violent. It was the tears they came home with when a classmate had repeated an ignorant comment of their parent’s.

But race has also been countless hours spent marveling at our history. Evenings spent dancing and cheering to jazz and rap and R&B. Cookouts with ribs and potato salad and sweet potato pie. It has been hands of women braiding my hair. It has been reading the magic of the words of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker and knowing that they are written for you. It has been parties filled with Jollof rice and fufu and Nigerian women wearing sequin-covered gowns and giant geles on their heads. It has been the nod to the black stranger walking by that says, “I see you fam.” It has been pride in Malcolm, Martin, Rosa, and Angela. It has been a room full of the most uninhibited laughter you’ve ever heard. It has been the touch of my young son as he lays his hand over mine and says “We’re the same brown.”

Race, my race, has been one of the most defining forces in my life. But it is not something I always talked about, certainly not the way that I do now.

Like many people, most of my days were spent just trying to get by. Life is busy and hard. There are work and kids and chores and friends. We spend a lot of time bouncing from one mini-crisis to the next. Yes, my days were just as full of microaggressions, of the pain and oppression of racism, as they are now—but I just had to keep going on like normal. It is very hard to survive as a woman of color in this world, and I remember saying once that if I stopped to feel, really feel, the pain of the racism I encountered, I would start screaming and I would never ever stop.

So I did what most of us do, I tried to make the best of it. I worked 50 percent harder than my white coworkers, I stayed late every day. I dressed like every day was a job interview. I was overpolite to white people I encountered in public. I bent over backwards to prove that I was not angry, that I was not a threat. I laughed off racist jokes as if I didn’t feel the sting. I told myself that it would all be worth it one day, that being a successful black woman was revolution enough.

But as I got older, as the successes I had reached for slowly became a reality, something inside me began to shift. I would try to make my voice quieter in meetings and I couldn’t. I would try to laugh off the racist jokes and I couldn’t. I would try to accept my boss’s reasons for why I could have my promotion but not my raise, and I couldn’t. And I started talking.

I started to question, I started to resist, I started to demand. I wanted to know why it was considered a bad thing that I was “opinionated,” I wanted to know what exactly it was about my hair that was “unprofessional,” I wanted to know what exactly it was about that joke that people found “funny.” And once I started talking, I couldn’t stop.

I also started writing. I shifted my food blog into a “me” blog, and started saying all the things that everybody around me had always said were “too negative,” “too abrasive,” and “too confrontational.” I started writing down my frustrations and my heartbreak. I started writing about my fears for my community and my family. I had started to see myself, and once you start to see yourself, you cannot pretend anymore.

It did not go over well. My white friends (having grown up in Seattle, the majority of my friends were white), some of whom I’d known since high school, were not happy with the real me. This was not the deal they had struck. Yes, they would rage over global warming and yell about Republican shenanigans, but they would not say a word about the racial oppression and brutality facing people of color in this country. “It is not my place,” they’d explain when in frustration I’d beg for some comment, “I don’t really feel comfortable.” And as I looked around my town and saw that my neighbors were not really my neighbors, as I saw that my friends no longer considered me “fun,” I began to yell even louder. Somebody had to hear me. Somebody had to care. I could not be alone.

Like dialysis, the old went out and in came the new. Suddenly, people I had never met were reaching out locally and from all across the country in person and online, just to let me know that they had read my blog post and in reading it, they felt heard. Then online publishers started reaching out to me, asking if they could republish my work. And locally, isolated and invisible people of color started reaching out, showing me that I did have neighbors after all.

I was talking and writing at first for my very survival, not for anybody else’s benefit. Thanks to the power and freedom of the Internet, many other people of color have been able to speak their truths as well. We’ve been able to reach out across cities, states, even countries, to share and reaffirm that yes, what we are experiencing is true. But the Internet has a very wide audience, and even though we were writing for ourselves, the power of the hurt, anger, fear, pride, and love of countless people of color could not go unnoticed by white people—especially those who were genuinely committed to fighting injustice. While some had chosen to turn away, upset that this unpleasantness had invaded their space of cat videos and baby pictures, others drew closer—realizing that they had been missing something very important all along.

These last few years, the rise of voices of color, coupled with the widespread dissemination of video proof of brutality and injustice against people of color, has brought the urgency of racism in America to the forefront of all our consciousness. Race is not something people can choose to ignore anymore. Some of us have been speaking all along, and have not been heard. Others are trying out their voices for the first time.

These are very scary times for a lot of people who are just now realizing that America is not, and has never been, the melting-pot utopia that their parents and teachers told them it was. These are very scary times for those who are just now realizing how justifiably hurt, angry, and terrified so many people of color have been all along. These are very stressful times for people of color who have been fighting and yelling and trying to protect themselves from a world that doesn’t care, to suddenly be asked by those who’ve ignored them for so long, “What has been happening your entire life? Can you educate me?” Now that we’re all in the room, how do we start this discussion?

This is not just a gap in experience and viewpoint. The Grand Canyon is a gap. This is a chasm you could drop entire solar systems into. But no matter how daunting, you are here because you want to hear and you want to be heard. You are here because you know that something is very wrong and you want a change. We can find our way to each other. We can find a way to our truths. I have seen it happen. My life is a testament to it. And it all starts with conversation.

There is a good chance that you, regardless of race, have tried to have these conversations in the past. There is also a good chance that they have not gone well. So “not well” that perhaps you have been afraid to ever have these conversations again. If that is you, you are not alone. Part of the reason I decided to write this book is because I regularly hear people of all races saying things like, “How do I talk to my mother in law about the racist jokes she makes?” or “I just got called out for being racist but I don’t understand what I did wrong” or “I don’t know what intersectionality is and I’m afraid to say so.” People find me on online messaging platforms and beg me to not make their questions public. People create whole new email accounts so they can email me anonymously. People are afraid of getting these conversations wrong, but they are still trying, and I deeply appreciate that.

These conversations will not be easy, but they will get easier over time. We have to commit to the process if we want to address race, racism, and racial oppression in our society. This book may not be easy as well. I am not known for pulling punches, but I’ve been occasionally thought of as funny. But it has been very hard to be funny in this book. There is real pain in our racially oppressive system, pain that I as a black woman feel. I was unable to set that aside while writing this book. I didn’t feel like laughing. This was a grueling, heart-wrenching book to write, and I’ve tried to lighten a little of that on the page, but I know that for some of you, this book will push and will push hard. For many white people, this book may bring you face-to-face with issues of race and privilege that will make you uncomfortable. For many people of color, this book may bring forward some of the trauma of experiences around race that you’ve experienced. But a centuries-old system of oppression and brutality is not an easy fix, and maybe we shouldn’t be looking for easy reads. I hope that if parts of this book make you uncomfortable, you can sit with that discomfort for a while, to see if it has anything else to offer you.

Most of the topics you’ll find in this book address questions I’m asked most often in my day-to-day work. Some of these are topics that I wish I got more questions about. But these are all things that we need to be able to talk about. I hope that the information provided here, while nowhere near exhaustive, can help provide you with a starting point, to move forward in your discussions with less fear.

Yes, racism and racial oppression in America is horrible and terrifying. The feelings it brings up in us are justified. But it is also everywhere, in every corner of our lives. We have to let go of some of that fear. We have to be able to look racism in the eye wherever we encounter it. If we continue to treat racism like it is a giant monster that is chasing us, we will be forever running. But running won’t help when it’s in our workplace, our government, our homes, and ourselves.

I am so glad you are here. I am so glad that you are willing to talk about race. I’m honored to be a part of this conversation with you.

Related Reads