Tag: Ijeoma Oluo

So You Want to Talk About Race

Cover image for So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluoby Ijeoma Oluo

ISBN 978-1-58005-882-7

“These conversations will never become easy, but they will become easier. They will never be painless, but they can lessen future pain. They will never be risk free, but they will always be worth it.”

With grace, patience, and occasional humour, Seattle writer and activist Ijeoma Oluo tackles many of the questions you might be too embarrassed to ask about race, for fear of putting your foot in your mouth. Oluo covers such fundamentals as “What is racism?” and “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?” to get readers on the same page, working from the same definitions, before tackling more specific queries, such as “What is the school-to-prison pipeline?” and “Is police brutality really about race?” The chapters do not need to be read strictly in order, but it is helpful to begin with the first five, which are about concepts and definitions, before digging into the twelve chapters that address specific issues.

I first read this book back in March 2018, shortly after it was published. I ended up naming it one of my top non-fiction reads of 2018. At that time, I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the excellent Bahni Turpin. However, I don’t usually write reviews of audiobooks, since I’m not making the kind of notes that I usually take when reading a print book, which form the basis for my reviews. Last fall, I picked up a copy of the new paperback edition, but didn’t actually dig into at that time.  Recently however, I’ve been talking to folks about this book a lot, and been wishing I had written a more substantial review, so the time seemed ripe for a reread.

 So You Want to Talk About Race is a stunning work of emotional labour that takes the time to work privileged readers through hard subjects in a way that may actually have a chance of getting those readers to see it as a question of systemic injustice rather than as a matter of individual failing about which they need to be defensive or angry. This is the fundamental grounding in understanding systemic racism that our education systems currently fail to provide anywhere but the college level, and often not even there. I never took an Indigenous Studies or Women’s Studies class during my post-secondary education, and I’m not even sure my university offered a critical race theory course. This essential knowledge is treated like an optional elective.

In the first chapter, Oluo writes that “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 their parents and teachers told them it was.” And while that was undoubtedly true when she wrote it, it strikes the same note with a deeper resonance in 2020, when many people are opening themselves up to talking and thinking about ideas they might never have entertained before. While this book has a chapter on police brutality, for example, it doesn’t have one about abolishing the police. Even just two years ago, that wasn’t a topic that fit into a 101 conversation about race and racism, but now entire cities are having it about the future of their police departments.

Oluo weaves in personal stories, often at the beginning of the chapter as an illustration of the concept she is about to unpack. Sometimes, such as the chapter on police brutality, it is an example of oppression from her own life as a self-identified fat, queer black woman. But other times, she uses her privilege as an illustration as well, such as the story of the picnic on Capitol Hill, or her college education, which qualified her for jobs that had nothing to do with her political science degree, and earned her higher pay in those jobs, while Black and Latinx colleagues with more experience but no degree were ineligible for promotion. By openly exploring and acknowledging her own privileges without defensiveness, she invites readers to do the same.

This is a book that is less for your unabashedly racist uncle, and more a book for talking with the aunt, cousin, or friend who thinks that they aren’t racist. What Oluo unpacks over the course of seventeen chapters is that racism is less about the beliefs of individual racists, and more about the systems of power that undergird and reinforce those beliefs, causing them to persist generation to generation even as explicit adherence to concepts like eugenics or Manifest Destiny fades. We are racist not because we as individuals are bad people, but because we operate in a system that is larger than any one individual’s beliefs or actions. Individualism blinds us to the larger patterns playing out in society. Again and again, I found myself writing the words “intent vs. harm” into the margins of this book. We desperately want to believe that we cannot be racist if we do not intend to be, but intent does not mitigate harm. If we fear being called racist more than we fear our unexamined racism, the conversation can never progress. If we are too afraid to speak, how will we ever take action?

The paperback edition includes a new preface by the author, as well as a discussion guide. In the preface, the author takes responsibility for some of the short-comings of the first edition, such as the inconsistent terminology she used around Indigenous people. She also moves to more explicitly acknowledge the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, the scholar who coined the term intersectionality to highlight the need for feminism to explicitly consider the experiences of women of colour. Notably, the discussion guide includes not just discussion questions, but also principles for having a safe and productive discussion, such as “do not allow white group members to treat their discomfort as harm done to them,” and “don’t allow people of color to be turned into priests, therapists, or dictionaries for white group members.” These are valuable additions to the book, and I would recommend the newer edition if you’re planning to pick this one up.

You might also like The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward

Top 5 Non-Fiction 2018

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2018. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!

American Kingpin

Cover image for American Kingpin by Nick BiltonYou can buy anything on the Internet if you know where to look, and the man who made much of it possible is the subject of Nick Bilton’s account of the Silk Road, the dark web site selling everything from drugs to weapons. The man behind the tech was Ross Ulbricht, a young programmer from Texas with strong libertarian leanings who believed that a free market was the solution to all of America’s drug woes. But for many years, he was known to investigators only as The Dread Pirate Roberts, the anonymous entity—possibly more than one person—behind the huge influx of mail-order illegal narcotics to the United States. American Kingpin follows the gripping story of how multiple agencies pursued an increasingly paranoid Ulbricht, and the missteps that finally brought him to justice.

Categories: True Crime

Bad Blood

Cover image for Bad Blood by John CarreyrouIf you want to be fascinated and horrified, look no further than John Carreyrou’s portrait of the rise and fall of Theranos, and its wunderkind CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. Holmes consciously modeled herself on Apple icon Steve Jobs, but the technology on which she built her empire was flawed at best, and outright fraudulent at worst. Theranos claimed to be able to conduct multiple blood tests with only a single drop of blood as a sample, but Bad Blood investigates the extent to which that claim was untrue, and exposes a stunning series of lies and fabrications that misled venture capitalists and ordinary patients alike. Holmes was selling a vision, a dream, and her own image as a tech genius, but her product was fundamentally flawed. In exhaustive detail, Carreyrou chronicles how Holmes fooled employees and investors for so long, in one of Silicon Valley’s most sordid scandals.

Categories: True Crime

Educated

Cover image for Educated by Tara WestoverTara Westover’s memoir has topped many 2018 best of lists with good reason. In it she has rendered a gripping account of her unusual upbringing, and how her hunger for knowledge ultimately became the catalyst that helped her break free of her abusive family. Educated recounts her childhood in rural Idaho, with two parents who blended religion and survivalism in extreme ways, which were exacerbated by her father’s mental illness and her mother’s brain damage. Westover didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was seventeen, ostensibly having been homeschooled to that point. In a story that reveals the true power of knowledge, Westover’s formal education—first at Brigham Young University, and then at Harvard and Cambridge—is a poignant illustration of how learning to think for yourself can both unravel your family and save your life.

Categories: Memoir

Rage Becomes Her

Cover image for Rage Becomes Her by Soraya ChemalyWomen are frequently characterized as the more emotional gender, but there is one emotion that is stereotyped more male than female, and which is taboo for women—anger. Anger is considered ugly, selfish, and unfeminine, and from an early age, women are discouraged from expressing it, or even talking about it. Angry women are characterized as hysterical, or downright insane. Writer and activist Soraya Chemaly argues that this denial of women’s anger is one more way in which women are kept under control by a patriarchal society. Anger can be destructive, but never more so than when it is turned inward and subsumed. Turned outward in constructive ways, it can be a response to injustice that lights a fire for change, and it is this acceptance and expression of women’s anger that Chemaly is arguing for. Rage Becomes Her is a book that affirms that women have a lot to be angry about, and offers validation and comradery to those who have been feeling that rage in a society that repeatedly denies its existence. And finally, it offers encouragement to not just accept that anger, but to turn it towards building a community that will use it as fuel for working to make the world a better place. Women have managed their anger for long enough; now it is time to wield it.

Categories: Social Justice

So You Want to Talk About Race

Cover image for So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma OluoRace is an undeniably sensitive subject, particularly in America today (but Canadian friends, you need to read this, too). With grace and patience, and occasional humour, Ijeoma Oluo tackles many of the questions you might be too embarrassed to ask about race, for fear of putting your foot in your mouth. Oluo covers such fundamentals as “What is racism?” and “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?” to get readers on the same page, working from the same definitions, before tackling more specific queries, such as “What is the school-to-prison pipeline” and “Is police brutality really about race?” So You Want to Talk About Race is a stunning work of emotional labour that takes the time to work privileged readers through hard subjects in a way that may actually have a chance of getting readers to see it as a question of systemic injustice rather than as a matter of individual failing about which they need to be defensive. This is the fundamental grounding in understanding systemic racism that our education systems currently fail to provide anywhere below the college level, and often not even there.

Categories: Social Justice

With the exception of Rage Becomes Her, I’ve check out the audio for all these titles and can highly recommend them in either format. And that’s it for 2018 top picks! Here’s to a New Year of reading ahead.

What were your top non-fiction reads in 2018?