Second thought on “So you want to talk about race,” by Ijeoma Oluo

This post includes my second thought about selected passages of “So you want to talk about race,” by Ijeoma Oluo. All posts in this series are here.

Helpfully, Oluo included bulleted lists of things to consider or do (or not to do) in addressing different aspects or consequences of racism. In her list of things to remember when fighting racial oppression as a white person, she wrote:

Build a tolerance for discomfort. You must get used to being uncomfortable and get used to this not being about your feelings […].

There are two ideas here: (1) It’s not about you and (2) get accustomed to psychological/cognitive/emotional discomfort. Both are helpful. Both come up throughout the book.

Acknowledging that point (1) is not to dwell on your own discomfort — because it obviously is not what is important in fighting the oppression of others — I want to think more about the potential sources of discomfort in general (not my discomfort). In particular, I want to think about why engaging in conversations and actions to explore and combat racism is or could be uncomfortable. Really, what I wonder is, does it need to be uncomfortable? Should it be?

In one sense, it 100% should be. That is, an empathetic and moral being should be uncomfortable with unjust treatment of others. This is motivating discomfort. And, obviously, racism is uncomfortable for those on the receiving end of it. I want to make that clear, but remind readers that I’m following Oluo’s lead here and principally talking about the discomfort of white people, so those not on the receiving end.

But I don’t think these are the kinds of discomfort Oluo is getting at, or not the only ones. I think she’s (also) talking about the discomfort one feels when engaging in what we might call a “charged topic,” one associated with lots of arguments, misunderstandings, and resulting hurt feelings and bruised egos. Isms (of which racism is just one) also involve power, dominance, and attendant economic and social privileges, and lack thereof. That’s pretty charged stuff, particularly when people (rightfully) assert they should “get more” and others feel that will mean they will “get less.” (Note: I’m not asserting it is zero sum. I’m suggesting some may worry that it is.)

So, it seems self-evident that racism would be an uncomfortable domain for many. But there is a difference between racism and the challenges and consequences of addressing it and thinking or talking about it/those. Oluo argues for action, not merely words — and I am absolutely not disagreeing with that — but words come first. You (I mean, literally, you) have to talk and think about race and racism before you will act. “Talk” is literally in the title of the book.

And I believe Oluo is also acknowledging that those thoughts and conversations will or could be uncomfortable for you. Is that necessary or valuable? I’m not so sure.

One source of this kind of discomfort could be a cognitive dissonance. You don’t see yourself as racist, yet you must confront your complicity in and influence by structural racism. Oluo wrote,

You have to get over the fear of facing the worst in yourself. You should instead fear unexamined racism. […] Do not fear the opportunity to do better.

She’s acknowledging fear (discomfort) and urging us to get over it. I agree. It’s not really hurting you. You (the white person) are not being harmed here. Dealing with this cognitive dissonance is virtually nothing in the context of 400 years of racism. Get over yourself.

Another source of discomfort could be that you worry that you’ll make mistakes as you engage in the topic of racism. Maybe you’ll accidentally say or write the wrong thing and be called out for it. This is actually a variant of cognitive dissonance. What you think of yourself may not be how you are viewed once you open your mouth. To make matters worse for you, you only have yourself to blame for opening your damned mouth!

I think that source of fear and discomfort (while still minor) needs to be acknowledged to make progress. The vast majority of people do not speak out or write publicly about racism or any particular charged topic precisely because of this fear. It’s why we don’t bring up politics or religion at “polite” gatherings. We’re scared to death of stumbling into an argument and being made a fool.

My view is we should put that out there. We should say, “Yes, this is scary. I might make a mistake.” And then we should say, “But this is too important to let that fear stop me. I will do my best.” Because, let’s be clear, the consequences of that fear turning into a reality for a white person are not very large. If you make a mistake and someone calls you out on it, only your ego will be harmed, if you let it. (Again, virtually nothing relative to racism.) Meanwhile, if you’re doing it right, you will have learned and grown. You’ll be that much better at participating in addressing racism. Isn’t that the point?

I do think (hope) with practice, you can overcome this source of discomfort. I don’t think you need to hold onto it. I am not convinced it is necessary or helpful, even if it is real.

[T]o do better we must be willing to hold our darkness to the light, we must be willing to shatter our own veneer of “goodness.”

I think much of discomfort around white engagement in racism stems from fear of what the light will show. If we’re still uncomfortable, have we really shattered the veneer? If I am nervous about hitting “publish” on this piece, do I still have some work to do. I think so.


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