This is a long-delayed #WhatImReading post. I picked up So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo when my district’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee suggested it as a book club discussion book to support anti-racist initiatives. In the first chapter, Oluo addresses many of the arguments used to defend against accusations of racism, and deftly picks them apart. She points out that many of these arguments are not racist, thus indicating why anti-racism is a separate, and necessary, framework.
One of the examples Oluo gives is the defense that racism isn’t why Black people are over-represented among the poor, because many White people and people and people of other races or ethnicities are impoverished. Oluo identifies that this argument confuses the effect for the cause. She asserts, “What keeps a poor child in Appalachia poor is not what keeps a poor child in Chicago poor – even if from a distance, the outcomes look the same. And what keeps an able-bodied black woman poor is not what keeps a disabled white man poor, even if the outcomes look the same.” Although the poverty line is an abstract number which, when applied to these variant cases, labels them the same way, the inputs leading to that label are very different, as are the prospects for improvement or the means of redress. The most holistic way to address an undesired effect is to identify and address the causes, but the defenses against racism often focus solely on the effects. In doing so, they conclude that the root cause is not racism and offer solutions to treat the result in a race-blind way, rather than root out the racism at its core. Oluo points out that this may improve some situations but fails to recognize or attack the systemic problem causing unequal outcomes for Black people.
Pushing forward from this example, Oluo says, “Rarely is there only one factor or viewpoint in a serious issue. Things are never cut-and-dry.” This is a great angle to introduce the concept of intersectionality. Broadly speaking, I’ve often understood “intersectionality” to mean, more or less, “it can be two things.” Consider an example:
- There is a wage gap between men and women.
- There is a wage gap between White people and people of color.
- Black women are hit harder because of their identity among both disadvantaged populations.
This demonstrates intersectionality as it affects the earnings of Black women, who are dually disadvantaged in the economy.
Intersectionality can be confusing, however, because it isn’t always all good or all bad. Taking the example above, where does a Black man fall in the combined pecking order? Does he less for being Black than a white woman earns for being female? Intersectionally, he is advantaged by being male while being disadvantaged in the American workplace by being Black. His identities intersect in a way that conflicts in terms of social advantage. Another, semi-related example (or, arguably, a facet of the same example), has to do with anger. Sociological studies show that Black men do worse in the workplace than White women. In the web of intersectionality, it would appear that American society is less willing to benefit a Black man than a woman.
Oluo doesn’t mention intersectionality in the first chapter, but it is one frame to help me understand her rules for determining if something is “about race”:
- It is about race if a person of color thinks it is about race.
- It is about race if it disproportionately or differently affects people of color.
- It is about race if it fits into a broader pattern of events that disproportionately or differently affect people of color.
What’s key about applying these rules is that “it is about race” does not mean “it is only about race.” Due to intersectionality, we can understand that the economy disadvantages people of color, while also understanding that it disadvantages women, and people who don’t speak English fluently, and people who start out poor, and so on. But, when someone says the wage structure for hourly service workers is racist, some will shout that it can’t possibly be about race because of all the other social and economic factors that play into the equation. Turns out, it can be about all those things and race at the same time.
While I was reading this chapter, I also came across a Medium article (which heavily influenced my thinking around school reopenings at that time) in which Dr. Shayla R. Griffin looks at a public health concern from an equity perspective to propose steps forward. In laying the foundation for her arguments, Dr. Griffin spoke of the concept of both/and thinking. She says:
Both/and thinking contrasts with the dominant tendency to search for either/or solutions. For example, an either/or approach frames the achievement gap as being about race or class. “Don’t you think the problem is really poverty, not race?” educators ask when we’re looking at test score data. In contrast, both/and thinking frames the achievement gap as being about the ways race and class (and many other things) are inextricably linked in our country.
This framework has been very influential in my thinking over the past several weeks since I read both these texts. It has provided me the capacity to listen to counterarguments and be more honest in trying to understand the other person’s perspective. For example, I assert that working for social justice is not a zero-sum game: saying “Black lives matter” does not in any way diminish respect for others’ lives. But someone else could argue that, if currently-disenfranchised groups do start to gain in wealth, influence, and opportunity, that would mean less advantage for those in the hegemony: less money going into White pockets, fewer chances to ensure outcomes that advantage White people, and fewer opportunities for White people’s children to get into the best colleges, score the best internships, and walk into the best jobs. Taking a both/and perspective forces me to be more honest with myself. Maybe I wasn’t right in saying it wasn’t a zero-sum game. I can acknowledge that I feel it is both conferring fewer advantages upon White people and still intrinsically fair. Why? Because, if that advantage has not been earned by an individual, than it is not owed to that individual. In this way, I can apply both/and thinking to parse my own argument.
I also feel like my original assertion in this example is still valid to some degree because, although there may be some immediate loss of advantage, I believe a more equitable system will flourish, creating more opportunities in the long run. A greater diversity of ideas being valued will result in more creative solutions to problems, which over time will create more capital and–in this timeframe–will end up with all racial groups doing better. This is the argument I really want to be making – that a sacrifice now is the right thing to do and will lead to better standing for everyone later – and it is stronger for having been challenged, and less susceptible to attack. As Dr. Griffin wrote, “Both/and thinking recognizes that, when it comes to issues of social justice, the answers are almost always more complicated than we think.”
In the same way, I am finding that Oluo’s book, while explicitly about race and fostering anti-racist work, is influencing my thinking in so many arenas. It is helping me to keep race in the foreground as we look at a wide range of social issues. Justice, education, politics, economics, and even just being part of a community: race is a factor in all these arenas for people of color. My waking to this reality forces me to understand the ways that my racial identity has always been part of my experience as well, but only in its invisibility. Things I have not had to worry about are expressions of my White identity, and this is a privilege that I am glad to be less ignorant of, even as the work of opening my eyes continues.