So You Want to Talk About Race

I was first introduced to the term "white privilege" several years from a friend/colleague via text, in a conversation that started out with him criticizing the dress I had on, saying it was "WASPy." I liked my dress and didn't really see it as "WASPy" and told him so- this led to a conversation where he decided to talk extensively about my privilege. I was a bit befuddled and was admittedly defensive, since I felt that all of my struggles growing up without much money, a father who killed himself, moments of emotional struggle, and the burden of college costs on my own shoulders were being completely invalidated. He kept repeating that my whiteness was my great fortune and that everything I had was because of it. It was awkward, unexpected, and, frankly I felt hurt since all I had done was wear a dress I liked (for reasons of privacy I will say that he is not African American, nor is he white). 

Here's the thing: he was right on lots of levels. I didn't understand that at the time, since the term "white privilege" and the slogan "Black Lives Matter" hadn't come to forefront yet and I wasn't exactly familiar with looking at race in this way. Sure, I knew racism definitely still existed and I was morally and socially opposed to (and horrified by) it's presence in the twenty-first century. But I hadn't done much to learn more, so I was definitely not ready to listen to him in the way that I am now. I think about this interaction often, and my feelings about it have evolved since. I've moved from hurt to basic agreement (although I still think the conversation didn't need to originate from how I dressed and would have better been done in person). I'm not really sure what motivated the person to start this sort of interaction, but at the end of the day he was correct: while there have been many obstacles in my life I am still white and have benefitted from our country's inherent racism. It's like people who are born tall: they can reach the things on the top shelf while others cannot. It's not my fault, necessarily, but there are things I can do to make a difference, just like tall person needs to help the shorter people get things out of the cabinet. 

Here's where So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo comes in, a text I had heard about a few months ago and just finished today. Oluo has basically written a primer for white people who want to learn to be better. For people who want to learn how to converse about race, make a difference in a society that is set up to benefit white people, and reduce their chances of committing microagressions, instances of cultural appropriation, and even more harm. She is honest, firm, and isn't afraid of making her white readers uncomfortable. I read the entire book with pen in hand and underlined passage after passage- here are a few that really hit home:

"Disadvantaged white people are not erased by discussions of disadvantages facing people of color, just as brain cancer is not erased by talking about breast cancer. They are two different issues with two different treatments, and they require two different conversations" (18). (This is what me from a few years ago who was just learning about white privilege needed to hear). 

"Often, being a person of color in a white-dominated society is like being in an abusive relationship with the world" (19). 

"It's the system, and our complacency in that system, that gives racism its power, not individual intent" (28). (This is something I need to work on).

"And if you are white, and you don't want to feel any of that pain by having these conversations, then you are asking people of color to continue to bear the entire burden of racism alone" (51). 

"When we are willing to check our privilege, we are not only identifying areas where we are perpetuating oppression in order to stop personally perpetuating that oppression, but we are also identifying areas where we have the power and access to change the system as a whole" (65). 

"Being privileged doesn't mean that you are always wrong and people without privilege are always right- it means that there is a good chance you are missing a few very important pieces of that puzzle" (66). 

"Our police force was not created to serve black Americans; it was created to police black Americans and serve white Americans" (91).

"Affirmative action is a crucial tool if we want to mitigate some of the effect of systematic racism and misogyny in our society" (114).

"When our kids spend eight hours a day in a system that is looking for reasons to punish them, remove them, criminalize them- our kids do not get to be kids" (133).

"The problem with appropriation is primarily linked to the power imbalance between the culture doing the appropriation and the culture being appropriated. The power imbalance allows the culture being appropriated to be distorted and redefined by the dominant culture and siphons any material or financial benefit of that piece of culture away to the dominant culture, while marginalized cultures are still persecuted for living in that culture" (147).

"Microagressions are small daily insults and indignities perpetrated against marginalized or oppressed people... that cumulative effect of these constant reminders that you are "less than" does real psychological damage..." (169).

"You are not doing any favors, you are doing what is right... Your efforts to dismantle White Supremacy are expected of decent people who believe in justice. You are not owed gratitude or friendship from people of color for your efforts. We are not thanked for cleaning our own houses" (210)

Oluo offers suggestions at the end of her book, that encourage acting, not just thinking and talking, since action is what will really make a difference. Some things that I plan on doing:

- continue to donate money to groups like the ACLU, SPLC, and Planned Parenthood
- vote diversely and purposefully (not just being satisfied with party lines, but seeing who is running within the party) 
- get involved in schools (clearly I am already involved, but I need to do better there- I am in a position to let students talk and grow)
- speak up when safe (for me this means when my students are "just joking," when I reads comments of those I know on social media that are offensive, or even if I see something at, say, the store)
- not be afraid to ask friends questions and accept their answers (I am fortunate enough to have many amazing friends from a variety of backgrounds)

This book was a good reminder, refresher, and eye-opener in many ways. Oluo provided plenty of personal anecdotes that illustrated her points well and reminded me that I will never truly get it. I can be open to conversation, I can do what I can as a white woman to bring about change and fairness, I can try to imagine what it's like using my personal experiences as a woman, but I will never understand what it means to be black in America. And while she didn't explicitly address this topic, this also reinforced the idea that I need to be mindful of how I raise my son when it comes to race and social differences. 

I will conclude this by saying that I am actually really thankful for my friend who took issue with my dress. It was sort of a turning point that started an important self-reflection process. I am not perfect, and I am sure I've done things or said things or thought things that I haven't even realized are wrong, but I want to be better. Books like this help me to be more mindful of who I want to be and what I want this country to be like. Oluo also reminded me that it's okay to screw up when trying to discuss race- it's when you quit talking and listening that the problem really begins. 

This book is important. Read it.  

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