Last week, I wrote that I’d started reading So You Want to Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo, and how eager I was to continue reading. The intervening week may not have boded well for that project, but in fact I had quickly moved onto chapter 1. There was so much that I wanted to think about that I have been trying ever since to sit down and write a post, and keep walking away overwhelmed! Time to buckle down and process the reading, but take this as the warning that I may be resorting to multiple posts on a chapter if Oluo continues at this pace!
Chapter 1 is entitled “Is it really about race?” and opens with Oluo recounting her conversation with a well-intentioned, white friend who was advocating for policies that addressed poverty as a way to support people of color. The most incisive remark is made early on, “Why do you think black people are poor? Do you think it’s for the same reasons that white people are poor?” This cuts through all the “all sides”-style perspectives, if the respondent takes a moment to consider the answer. Later in the chapter, Oluo says, “Rarely is there only one factor or viewpoint about a serious issue. Things are never cut-and-dry.” This applies to so much of the “debate” currently underway—more accurately described as parallel arguments, never much affected by others going past: there is never one single answer, just as there is never one single cause, one single profile. Nothing matches the model 100%. So, from the perspective of a white male, I respond to a situation, and—even if I make an effort to consider other perspectives—I’m going to miss something. This is why I think it’s so important to ask questions. Rather than making statements in the manner of staking out a position, I think it’s important to immediately communicate the vulnerability of that position: What am I missing? I know I’m off the mark, but not sure where; can you help me?
Of course, this process requires a lot of trust. Folks need to trust that I’m asking sincerely, and that needs to be earned—in part by my taking the responses seriously, being willing to adapt, and making an effort not to repeat the same mistakes. (This last piece is key!) There is a risk also in asking questions of tokenization. It’s important to choose the forum carefully and to communicate effectively, which will likely mean more often than “in the moment”, and in different settings. I don’t want to always turn to the person of color on my team and deputize them to “represent the race” or place the burden on them of bringing me or others up-to-speed. It’s essential to acknowledge that whatever tutoring I need is just the lesson; the homework is still my responsibility.
The system… Is it really ‘systemic’?
In her conversation with her friend, Oluo starts listing the many forms that systemic racism takes in cutting different paths to the racial wealth gap: access to jobs, access to property equity, vulnerability to predatory loans, overrepresentation in prisons, overrepresentation in school discipline & increased likelihood of dropping out. Most importantly, she refers to the stigma and self-doubt that comes with all these vulnerabilites, disinvestments, and the overall aggression & dehumanization that are rallied to prop up these systems. If Black kids’ misbehavior is more often criminalized, then it implies that they are more likely to be criminal—a disturbingly self-fulfilling prophecy—than White kids whose misconduct in more likely to get “smoothed over.” If the Black people in your neighborhood are more likely to be evicted or out of work, and the hegemony reinforces that it’s the natural course of things, then you’re more likely to assume it is connected to your race or culture.
Uluo goes on to investigate these assumptions, pointing out that race is a social construct, and that it’s edifice was erected to prioritize some groups over others. This section was the most influential for me, as it “flips the script” on how we often approach these issues. When the topic of systemic racism comes up, we ask ourselves if we believe that systems were actually put in place to harm someone or to keep them down. It makes sense when you’re considering the enslavement of Africans, but it’s harder to attribute, for example, the property values in outer Detroit to a purposeful attempt to repress social attainment. It doesn’t make sense from a political or social science perspective to force folks to be more dependent on social aids, etc. However, from Oluo’s perspective, we see how it can make sense. It’s not about undervaluing Blacks’ properties; it’s about keeping “them” away from “us” and pooling White folks’ resources in a way that their equity builds upon itself while Blacks’ limited pool stagnates. It’s about accepting the cultural image of violent, criminally-minded Blacks, and then putting hurdles in place to keep them out of White neighborhoods, with the excuse of safety, and the added—and compounding—bonus of increasing property values; the repeating-cycle of access to proactive, prosocial community policing; and so on.
The social construct
Oluo touches upon the argument that there really isn’t racial oppression because race is a social construct. This is a maddening appropriation of the argument: race is a social construct, but it has been integrated into the systems of our social system in ways that make it invisible as a function. Oluo highlights this with another inside-out argument when she talks about the often-reported phenomenon of Black customers being followed around shops by employees or security. I have often thought to myself that I may have been followed around stores too, but never felt threatened by it so I didn’t register it. It seems like a solid example of white privilege: the privilege to not feel singled out, suspected, or looked down upon while browsing in stores; versus a Black customer’s susceptibility to being made to feel uncomfortable by this behavior. Worse, it’s hard to tell a shop-keeper that they shouldn’t be able to follow anyone around, so how do we address this phenomenon? Oluo imagines a female employee following her and observes, “she, for her possibly innocent intentions, is also bringing her white identity into the interaction, as someone who is not regularly followed by store personnel and therefore would be unaware of the impact it would have on me to, once again, be followed around a store by a white clerk.” This is the real white privilege: to be allowed to assume that “a racial issue” is a Black issue, and not that you are bringing your own White identity to the table as well. This is true of the hegemony in any society—their identity into the group disappears, so everything “other” gets named & blamed—and in this way serves to illuminate the ways in which race has become part of our hegemonic identity-forming, and how racism does in fact operate to enforce “belonging” or not.
So, what now…
It is the responsibility of White allies to raise the awareness of race and how it enters so many aspects of life and interactions across contexts. It is important to think through ways that our White identity is not conceived of as a threat, and not just to see how BIPOC identities are. This is daily work, to unpack the hegemony and identify ways it operates in our lives.
We also need to take immediate action. For example, as a school administrator, it’s not just a matter of looking through my historical discipline records to ensure that the punishments meted out to students of color were “fair” or followed the Code of Conduct. It’s important to hear that Black kids are more likely to face stiff penalties for their misconduct than White kids doing similar things, and to review my records with that perspective. Not, can I justify this suspension? but How else have I handled other situations like this? What factors influence the disciplinary action? What other influences could have impacted the way this conduct was expressed? That is work that needs to happen and to continue in an ongoing way in every case.