What I’m Reading: “So You Want To Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo
Within my school district, the George Floyd protests prompted a push for anti-racist education, which several faculty, staff, and administrators are trying to ensure doesn’t end up as the latest “thoughts & prayers” and leads to action and, with work, results. To build a common baseline-—and hopefully a coalition of allies—the District is pursuing more cohesive “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” committees and has kicked off a book club for professional growth. The first book we’ll be reading is, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, about which I know nothing. I am hoping to record my reflections as I read, to lock in some thoughts while also tracking the change in my perspective as I do this work.
Today, I received the book at work and immediately began reading. I’ve only read the introduction, but it did its job admirably: I’m excited to get into the chapters! Oluo’s writerly voice is very readable and her tone in the work appears to be aiming for a similar degree of approachability. She shares her experience growing up and starting adulthood, swallowing critique pain, and she describes her awakening to the urge to challenge and speak out. She shares that the beginning of this work was isolating as she became “uncomfortable” for many friends, mostly white, but that she soon developed a new crowd as she persisted in the work. This is so reminiscent of what our middle schoolers go through (and all through high school and adulthood) as you go from being friends with people because of geographic happenstance—We grew up in the same town, and we’re besties!—to developing relationships with people based on shared interests. I’m hoping this process will be what the educators in our district go through as we work through these reflections, and develop the sort of mutual trust that will reinforce the work and support one another.
Oluo summarized some of her white friends’ reluctance to speak out in support of her more activist stance with the summary-quote, “I don’t feel it’s my place.” I think this is the push we’re all getting in this moment: no one wants to speak up and say the wrong thing or hurt someone by accident, but what we’re hearing right now is that it’s worse not to take that risk. If you say the wrong thing, you might hurt somebody; if you don’t say anything, you’re guaranteed to hurt somebody with your silence. This is the essence of white privilege: white folks have the option not to join in the conversation. People of color are going to experience racism no matter what. They can choose how to react and how to respond to it, but they cannot choose to avoid it. White people who choose not to speak up or speak out may be afraid of the repercussions that might fall on them (understandably), but they have the privilege of deciding for themselves whether or not to take that risk. To be true allies, we have to decide to take it on, and we also need to acknowledge that it’s a choice for us, not to pat ourselves on the back or march around like the hero, but to recognize the unfairness of that power differential.
As the cultural moment has moved from its initial reaction of national unity—in which we were collectively horrified by what was done to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery before them—into the recamping and politicization of human tragedies, I feel the urge for something to change slipping away from so many. Oluo’s introduction calls for us to engage, to forge those new relationships and strengthen the old one, because “you want to hear and you want to be heard.” We don’t need to take on the project of Changing Our Civilization, but we all need to take that first decision, and just decide to speak up, to listen, and to hear.
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