Book: So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Publisher: Seal Press, Hachette Book Group
Publication date: 2018
Source: Physical copy from the library
Yes, racism and racial oppression in America is horrible and terrifying. The feelings it brings up in us are justified. But it is also everywhere, in every corner of our lives. We have to let go of some of that fear. We have to be able to look racism in the eye wherever we encounter it. If we continue to treat racism like it is a giant monster that is chasing us, we will be forever running. But running won’t help when it’s in our workplace, our government, our homes, and ourselves.
I am so glad you are here. I am so glad that you are willing to talk about race. I’m honored to be a part of this conversation with you. (p. 7)
Thoughts: Juneteenth, the day that we celebrate the emancipation of the enslaved in the United States, seems like a good day to talk about Ijeo Oluo’s book, So You Want to Talk About Race.
So You Want to Talk About Race was a selection for the Community for Understand and Hope Book Group for 2022. It was my turn to facilitate the meeting. I lucked out — this book is tailor-made for discussion. The format is a book club format. Each chapter asks a question and provides an answer for a reader to learn and consider.
Of particular interest, today, might be Chapter 10 “What is cultural appropriation?” Today, my particular question is along the lines of “Now that Juneteenth is a federal holiday, how do I, as a white person, a descendant of people who owned people, observe this day?”
Oluo heartens with assurance that cultural appropriation is a hard concept — it’s complicated to understand, it’s difficult to distinguish between appreciation and appropriation, and it hurts to feel unwelcome to participate in something that I appreciate.
Fortunately, there’s also Chapter 3 “What if I talk about race wrong?” I found this encouraging, somehow:
You’re going to screw this up.
You’re going to screw this up royally. More than once.
I’m sorry, I wish I could say that reading this book would guarantee that you’d never leave a conversation about race feeling like you’ve gotten it all wrong and made everything worse. But I can’t. It’s going to happen.
It’s going to happen, and you should have these conversations anyway. (p. 45)
That’s followed by nine tips and, of course, the whole rest of the book, to help us at least avoid the most obvious ways of screwing up. In my experience, approaching these conversations with humility, vulnerability, and good will produces good results. This feels like the right moment to express gratitude to the generous black women and men who wanted to discuss race with me (while also remembering tip 9, “Do not force people of color into discussions of race.”).
So, I can get this wrong. Here’s a piece of cultural appropriation that I’m just starting to wrap my head around so I can get it right, a new concept that I learned from So You Want to Talk About Race:
Cultural appropriation is the product of a society that prefers its culture cloaked in whiteness. Cultural appropriation is the product of a society that only respects culture cloaked in whiteness. (p. 150)
Today, I want to remember that Juneteenth meant something to people before I heard about it and before it was made into a federal holiday. Cloaking Juneteenth in whiteness would be disrespectful to people who already developed cultural practices for this day.
Challenges: This is my third book for the Diversity Reading Challenge.