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

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

In several chapters Oluo asks the reader what his or her goals are. In chapter two, “What is racism?” she wrote, “[W]hy are you here?” meaning what do you expect from her book? In chapter three, “What if I talk about race wrong?” she wrote, “Do you know why this matters to you?” meaning why do you want to have a particular race-related discussion?

These are excellent questions, particularly for white people. They can also be turned around and posed as, “Why are you not here?” and “Do you know why this doesn’t matter to you?” (if indeed it doesn’t, or not so much).

That’s more confrontational, perhaps good for getting people’s attention. Do I have yours?

As advised in my first thought post, hold your quick response and actually let these questions sink in. The direction I’d like your mind to go, and the direction my mind is going, is toward exploring what accounts for a white person’s degree of interest in and engagement on race, or lack thereof. As I have best access to my own mind and experience, I will apply this inquiry to myself.

Before I do, I should stop to assess whether this is tantamount to turning the deeply problematic issues around race to being about me (see my second thought, cautioning against just that). I think the answer is, “no.” This isn’t making racial issues about me. This is itself an important racial issue. It matters a lot how much white people engage in addressing racism. It’s a problem we created and perpetuate! Therefore, it is worth pondering what governs the extent we do so.

As evidenced by these posts, my interest in racism has dramatically increased recently. Why was it lower before, and why has it increased? I cannot answer definitively, but I can point to factors I think are relevant and generalizable.

First, there’s the background truth that white people are privileged to be able to avoid consciously focusing on racism. We had and have the power to set things up so we don’t have to. Contrary to claims of reverse racism, we don’t live in a society full of institutions and cultural norms that discriminate against white people. We don’t have 400 years of history of being oppressed.

Instead, the world we inhabit is, by and large, created by us and for us (and if not us, literally, by our white ancestors). We white people are the beneficiaries of that. In contrast to the experiences of people of color, racism is very rarely thrust upon us and certainly not daily.

So, one part of why I could be less focused on racism in the past is because I am white. To the extent I noticed racism, I did not have to deal with it because it did not negatively affect my daily life. It wasn’t a problem I needed to solve just to be comfortable in the world. This is obviously generalizable to other white people. I think it’s inherent in being white in America.

That is not to say I didn’t care about racism or that other white people don’t. I did and others do. But I cared in a way that didn’t matter very much, if at all, to anyone but me. My caring was merely a story about myself I told myself. It didn’t extend very far beyond myself.

Only white people can do that about racism. We get to tell ourselves our own story about what it means to us. People of color do not entirely own the story of racism. They can’t choose to enter or leave it. White people have a choice.

This may explain why I could pay less attention to racism in the past but does not explain exactly why I did so then and what changed to cause me to focus more on it now. Here I have few good answers. However, one big thing that changed was becoming more educated, which is an ongoing process. I’m not done. (In this regard, let me recommend Oluo’s book and also the Seeing White podcast series, the New York Times 1619 Project, and White Fragility, which also is in book length though I have not read the longer version.)

Getting educated is clearly generalizable. Other people can do it. But they need to choose to do it. Why did I choose? Beyond saying that it interested me, I don’t know.

And why did the education have an impact? Part of the answer is that white privilege (and the converse, discrimination of people of color) makes me uncomfortable — not discussing it, but that it exists. The more I understand injustice the less I am able to implicitly choose to accept it by choosing to ignore it, as I once, mostly did. Maybe the generalizable fact here is that many white people will only pay more attention to racism if it becomes too uncomfortable for them not to. Becoming educated is not the only route to discomfort and may not be an effective route for everyone.

I’ll wrap up with a really big question that I won’t answer here. I may, perhaps, try to do so in another post in this series if I figure out how. Oluo ends her book with a call to action. Enough with talk, do something! My question to myself is: about racism, what actions will I take?


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