Oluo Discusses Her Book, So You Want to Talk About Race?
By JACKIE ORCHARD
Ijeoma Oluo visited UAlbany last week to talk about systemic racism, white supremacy, and growing up in a world where there are no words for what it feels like to be black.
Oluo’s book, So You Want to Talk About Race, is bringing to the table all the uncomfortable racial conversations that people like to avoid.
Oluo says she wrote the book with people of color in mind, first and foremost, and she hopes it helps them to articulate the racism they see in their lives.
“People of color are often really disempowered,” Oluo says. “Because they will say something happened and that something’s racist, and then they [the other person] will be like, ‘Well what do you mean explain exactly how [it’s racist]’ and then you don’t have an explanation that satisfies and you’re dismissed.”
Oluo says she hears from a lot of people of color that they are deeply ashamed that they can’t form an effective way to describe what’s happening to them - they don’t have the words to explain the racism they see.
She says the book is not what people expect it to be.
“The white people read the book to reaffirm what they already knew - that they were not racist,” says Oluo. “And they’re realizing maybe they didn’t know as much as they thought they did… And often the black people read the book to read what the white people were learning.”
She says the book is acting as a sort of bridge, that black people pick it up, knowing white people are absorbing that information, and think, “Maybe if I picked up what you’re reading, we could find a way to meet in the middle.”
“So many white people will email me saying, ‘I thought I had it all figured out,’ and then I realized I didn’t,” Oluo says.
The chapters in the book are broken down by questions.
“And they’re questions either that I’ve been asked over and over again,” Oluo says. “Or questions I wish people would ask because they get to the core of the matter.”
Questions like: “What is intersectionality?”
“I wish people would just ask,” Oluo says. “‘Hey what’s this word I keep using to try to end Facebook arguments?’”
Oluo says that the core of the problem between all races is that people are embarrassed to admit that they don’t know what they’re talking about.
“This is such a huge problem,” Oluo says to the UAlbany crowd. “And yet we don’t have the language to really discuss it. So instead they’re going to copy the words they keep hearing.”
Oluo says that what’s worse is that when people don’t know how to talk about race, it hurts those who are targeted by it.
“People who are negatively impacted by systems of race,” Oluo says, “Their emotional trauma is dredged up over and over again, and that was something I wanted to try to stop.”
She says that first, we all need to stop pretending that everyone’s experience in America is the same.
“For black people in America, you’re treated so differently,” Oluo says. “And yet the overriding myth is that we’re all the same.”
Oluo says this expectation places a burden on people of color to not speak out.
“We [supposedly] all want the same things, our experience is the same, we’re all American and that means the same thing. And it doesn’t,” she says.
Oluo explains that even as children, black people are denied the words for their reality. Her book seeks to change that.
“Putting words to it,” Oluo says. “That was really my goal when I started writing.”
What’s more, Oluo’s book is helping people of color to feel less alone.
“I thought I was the only black person in Seattle for a while,” a fan said to Oluo.
Oluo’s book seeks to create language that names the oppression.
“I think that’s very important to have words to say who you actually are, and who your oppressor is, and what they’re doing.”
Oluo says that fiery debates erupt between whites and blacks in which a white person might say, “It’s just words, what’s the big deal?” to which Oluo replies, “If it’s not a big deal - then just learn the [right] word… You get over it.”
When Oluo visits schools, she asks the students, “How many of you were given words to describe systemic racism?”
“No one raises their hand,” Oluo says. “And that’s our lives. And we have to be able to say what’s happening in our lives.”
Oluo says that too often people of color are reading books that erase them from discussions on race - but her book, So You Want to Talk About Race, seeks to do the opposite.
“People of color come to the book because they absolutely know that there are things they don’t know - Because it’s hurting them. And they want to be able to fix it.”
If you want to learn more about Ijeoma Oluo’s new book, So You Want to Talk About Race, or similar events coming to UAlbany from The NYS Writers Institute, you can visit: https://www.nyswritersinstitute.org/ijeoma-oluo