A Review of Ijeoma Oluo’s Book: “So You Want to Talk About Race”
I am a white, non-disabled woman, married to a white man. I am, therefore, privileged.
I have benefitted by the system that was created to benefit people that look like me. Yet, until recently, I didn’t consider myself privileged.
Privilege is defined in the social justice context as a set of advantages that you have, that others do not have. Until I married my husband almost two years ago, I never saw myself as privileged, but this is because I was thinking about privilege solely in financial terms. I wasn’t thinking about race, religion, sexual orientation, the country I was born in – because I didn’t have to. My advantages allowed me to never have to worry about these things.
Growing up, my mother was a health claims adjuster making barely above minimum wage, my father a struggling, often-absent small business owner. We lived in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, in the suburbs of Detroit. While we always had food on the table, there were no extravagances. My family wore off-brand clothes and ate generic food. There was never extra money left over in the budget, and the often breaking-down of one of our run-down cars would be detrimental for other bills. I can recall only one vacation in the 14 years I lived in Michigan (Cedar Point), and when my mother purchased a new bathroom rug and shower curtain from K-Mart, I was shocked that she was able to spend the money.
Later, I attended college by taking out federal aid and private student loans for tuition while also working full-time waitressing and coffee house jobs to pay rent and buy books. During college I was utterly exhausted and would show up to one of my jobs in the wrong uniform almost weekly! Any success, good grades, income I had, did not feel like a privilege; it felt like I worked my ass off for it, and thus it was deserved.
Now, through better understandings of the plight of Black and Latinx people in our country, I recognize that I had an extremely privileged childhood, and have lived a privileged life ever since.
Reading Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race further helped me identify and think about my white privilege, forcing me to think about it in a new light. Each chapter of her book focuses on a lesson/topic: cultural appropriation, the school-to-prison pipeline, microaggressions, the minority myth, and so much more. She starts each chapter with a story/personal experience that helps to ground you in empathy (because you’re reading a lived experience) and then transitions into the definitions/learning.
This book gave me an eye-opening perspective on BIPOC’s, the lives they live, and the racism they face on a daily basis. It has become my manual for having the uncomfortable, difficult conversations with my friends and family that either aren’t thinking about racism in America as much as they should, or still have their eyes closed to their own privilege.
I now recognize the opportunities my family and I were provided/are still being provided, as white people. There are countless ways we are privileged because of the color of our skin, but here are the ones that stick out to me.
- We were fortunate to be given rent-free housing in my deceased aunt’s home courtesy of my Grandpa. This is privilege.
- My parents are still married. While my dad was away often during my childhood, my mother was dependable and home every day at 5:30pm. This is privilege.
- When I was pulled over by a cop for speeding in my neighborhood when I first got my license, I pulled the “white girl card” and got out of the ticket by casually flirting and promising to slow down. I never felt fear for my life when having this conversation with the cop. This is privilege.
- I am able-bodied; my body has always done what I ask it to do. I took dance lessons for eight years. I’ve spent several weeks of my life hiking and backpacking through the most beautiful sites in California, Hawaii, Arizona, and Utah. This is privilege.
- My teachers liked my siblings and so liked me with no question. I often would get “Oh, you’re Heather Hope’s sister, we can expect good things from you,” or “Hey Brian Hope’s little sister – I bet you’re an athlete like him!” (to their disappointment, I wasn’t then and I’m still not now). Teachers, principals, coaches and other people of authority paid attention to me and made me feel special. This is privilege.
- I am proudly “Auntie Em” to five nieces and one nephew. It is only recently that the youngest (aged six, seven, and nine) have been having conversations about race, caused by the news covering recent killings of Black people and protests. This is privilege.
- My nephew will be 16 in February, and I don’t hold a constant fear that someone may spot him in the street, assume he’s up to no good, and shoot him. This is privilege.
- I was given private loans to pay for my education when I needed it. This is privilege.
Acknowledging the structural and systemic injustices to BIPOC in the United States has made me realize my luxuries. I’ve decided on this action plan to hold myself accountable:
- Learn: Continue reading books that make me a bit uncomfortable and help me think introspectively about my thoughts and actions. Part of this is listening to Black people when they talk about… anything. Listening will allow me to empathetically and seek to understand where BIPOC are coming from.
- Grow: Keep educating. Keep listening.
- Thrive: Educate and tell the message to my fellow white people that are both deep in the trenches with me and those that are on their mounds of privileged dirt.
So You Want To Talk About Race gave me an eye-opening perspective on BIPOC’s, the lives they live, and the racism they face on a daily basis. It forced me to think about my privilege in a new light. It is my manual for having the uncomfortable, difficult conversations with my friends and family that either aren’t thinking about racism in America as much as they should, or still have their eyes closed to their own privilege. It’s time to be upfront with yourself and ask the question: Am I racist?
Emily Joy Johnston is a marketing professional specializing in social media, content, and community outreach for Hope Creative and Agave Social. She loves to cook, do yoga and ride bicycles with her husband and dog in Phoenix, Arizona.