My privilege wakeup call with the author of "So You Want To Talk About Race"

It's not enough for white women to be feminists: “It's not an immunization against other bigotries"

Published March 15, 2018 6:57PM (EDT)

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (Courtesy of Author/Seal Press)
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (Courtesy of Author/Seal Press)

For many white liberals, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the implicit approval of overtly racist, xenophobic policies like the border wall and the Muslim ban was a traumatic but much-needed wake-up call. The curtains on darkened windows were thrown open, revealing just how pervasive racism remains in a country built on stealing land and stealing people.

But even after the curtains are thrown open, some people choose to hide under the blankets and go back to sleep.

"You can't just go around calling anything racist. Save that word for the big stuff. You know, for Nazis and cross burnings and lynchings. You're just going to turn people off if you use such inflammatory language."

That's what author Ijeoma Oluo's white friend told her when she dared to complain about a racist exchange online.

"It seemed far more important to him that the white people who were spreading and upholding racism be spared the effects of being called racist, than sparing his black friend the effects of that racism," Oluo recalls in her new book, "So You Want To Talk About Race."

Meanwhile, there are a bunch of us white folks who can't go back to sleep. We want to help. We want to spare our black friends from the effects of racism, but have no idea of how to go about the work of fixing a system that we have benefitted from.

Many of us feel afraid to ask questions, anxious that we'll offend or inadvertently perpetuate racist attitudes. Many of us aren't sure who we should even talk with about race, since we don't want to further burden people of color with coming up with answers while they are in the midst of their own struggles. We don't want to make our Black friends — if we have Black friends — uncomfortable.

For those of us willing to confront the reality of just how toxic our culture has been for people of color — and what we can do to change it — "So You Want To Talk About Race" is just the book to guide us through the truly uncomfortable period of adjustment between sleeping through white supremacy and being woke.

As someone who grew up Black in white working class Seattle, Ijeoma Oluo demonstrates compassion, understanding and gratitude to her readers while also offering hard truths about race in America.

"These are very scary times for a lot of people who are just now realizing that America is not, and has never been, the melting-pot utopia that their parents and teachers told them it was," Oluo remarks in her introduction.

The book defies easy classification. On the one hand, it feels like a memoir: Oluo tells us stories of the everyday racism she encountered as a Black girl growing up in white suburbia and the microaggressions she experiences as a Black woman working in corporate America. She gives us first-hand accounts of the terror of being pulled over when driving while Black. She offers us glimpses into her heartbreak when she realizes the chasm of understanding that exists between herself and her white friends.

On the other hand, "So You Want To Talk About Race" reads like a primer on how to navigate difficult but necessary conversations on confronting the most insidious system built into our society: white supremacy. Just the term "white supremacy" can throw up red flags. It brings to mind burning crosses, lynchings and angry young men in polo shirts with tiki torches.

But as Oluo points out, these are symbols that reflect the militant extremes in a culture where the experience of whiteness is assumed to be the default. Angry white men with tiki torches pose much less of an existential threat to people of color than the more subtle and pervasive patterns of racism that end in the school-to-prison pipeline.

The thing about inequality is that the oppressor doesn't see themselves as an oppressor. They see their behavior as "helping." An abusive father doesn't think he's hurting his child, he thinks he's disciplining her. An emotionally abusive spouse doesn't think he's manipulating his partner, he thinks he's getting her to listen to him so they'll get along better. And a police officer doesn't see himself as brutalizing a black teenager, he sees himself as protecting his neighborhood from a "thug."

But the uncomfortable truth is, we're trapped in an abusive relationship in our society. And if you're white and you aren't doing anything to stop the abuse, you're enabling it.

"Often, being a person of color in white-dominated society is like being in an abusive relationship with the world," Oluo writes. "Every day is a new little hurt, a new little dehumanization. We walk around flinching, still in pain from the last hurt and dreading the next. But when we say 'this is hurting us,' a spotlight is shown on the freshest hurt, the bruise just forming: 'Look at how small it is, and I'm sure there is a good reason for it. Why are you making such a big deal about it? Everyone gets hurt from time to time'—while the world ignores that the rest of our bodies are covered in scars."

So what does all this have to do with women rising up, the topic I cover on my podcast "Inflection Point?" After all, aren't all feminists on the same team? Well . . . Oluoo has another hard truth to offer:

"If you call yourself a feminist, it's important to remember that it's not an immunization against other bigotries and other biases. You still have to do just as much work there, and that can seem exhausting, but it's the only way to make sure that your movement doesn't become an oppressor in its own right. "

So: let's do the work together. Listen to my conversation with Oluo on "Inflection Point." And when you're done, come on over to The Inflection Point Society, our Facebook group of everyday activists who seek to make extraordinary change through small, daily actions.

Together, we can make this work a little less exhausting — because we all know we can't go back to sleep.

Hear more stories of how women rise up on "Inflection Point" on Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic, Stitcher and NPROne.

By Lauren Schiller

Lauren Schiller is the creator and host of Inflection Point, a podcast and public radio show from KALW and PRX featuring stories of how women rise up. For more rising up stories, follow Lauren on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to the podcast on Android or Apple.

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Black Lives Matter Equality Feminism Injustice Podcast Podcasts Racism Systemic Racism Women's Rights