So You Want to Talk About Race


Ijeoma Oluo

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So You Want to Talk About Race Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ijeoma Oluo's So You Want to Talk About Race. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ijeoma Oluo

Ijeoma Oluo—who identifies as a black, queer woman—was born to a black father from Nigeria and a white mother. Oluo’s book, So You Want to Talk about Race, addresses many aspects of her childhood and upbringing. Oluo describes growing up poor in the United States, often living without access to electricity or water and suffering from food insecurity. Many of her childhood memories center on her experiences with poverty and racism. Oluo put herself through university as a divorced single mother, graduating with a degree in political science from Western Washington University at the age of 27. She subsequently worked in technology and digital marketing while running a food blog on the side from Seattle, Washington. After the death of Tamir Rice—a 12-year-old black boy (the same age as Oluo’s own son) who was shot and killed by police in 2014 while playing with a toy gun—Oluo began writing about racism on her blog. She garnered notoriety on both Twitter and Facebook for her unapologetic views on racial injustice in the United States. Oluo’s rising social media profile caught the attention of several mainstream media outlets, and she began writing articles for publications including The Guardian, The Stranger, Jezebel, and Medium. She is an outspoken critic of racism and sexism in mainstream publishing, particularly when it comes to the erasure of the black female voice. Oluo was initially reluctant to take on the emotional labor of a large-scale project about painful topics like racial slurs and police brutality when publishers offered her a book contract, but she agreed to do so after support for the project poured in from people of color on social media. So You Want to Talk about Race was published in 2018. The book garnered significant acclaim—notably from The New York Times, Bustle, and Harper’s Bazaar—for its no-holds-barred approach to racism. A hallmark of Oluo’s writing is use of personal anecdotes—typically about racially charged situations in her day-to-day life—which she leverages to expose deeper, systemic problems with racism in U.S. society.
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Historical Context of So You Want to Talk About Race

One of Oluo’s central concerns is systemic racism, which is racism that’s embedded into the way a society runs. She’s particularly concerned with systemic racism in the U.S. As such, she pivots around several political moments in U.S. history, notably the 1960s civil rights movement and the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. Oluo references President Kennedy’s 1964 establishment of affirmative action (programs designed to reduce systemic inequality in education and federal employment), and President Reagan’s 1983 legislation to defund affirmative action. Oluo also discusses police brutality in U.S. society at length, mentioning in particular the deaths of Tamir Rice (a young boy who was shot and killed by police officers while playing with a toy gun) in 2014 and Sandra Bland (a 28-year-old woman who died in police custody after being stopped for a traffic violation) in 2015. Oluo is a harsh critic of U.S. society’s reluctance to prosecute officers involved in the deaths of unarmed black Americans. Oluo also briefly touches on civil rights figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, who were both assassinated in the 1960s.

Other Books Related to So You Want to Talk About Race

Oluo addresses several race theorists in So You Want to Talk About Race, notably Kimberlé Crenshaw. Crenshaw’s research on intersectionality—the idea that many aspects of social identity, including race, gender, sexuality, and class affect a person’s ability to succeed in society—is a central influence on Oluo’s arguments. Crenshaw’s 1995 book Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement includes her seminal essay on intersectionality, and it also includes several other essays on the topic. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), which discusses contemporary racism in the U.S. is also a central reference point for Oluo in her arguments. Oluo’s writing on racism was first popularized through her social media activity, much like Layla F. Saad, who published Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognize your Privilege, Combat Racism, and Save the World in 2018. Like Oluo, Saad focuses on helping people confront and challenge their own racism. Other nonfiction books about contemporary racism written by women of color include Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), Scaachi Koul’s One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter (2017),  Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair (2016), and Dianne Guerrero’s In the Country We Love: My Family Divided (2016).
Key Facts about So You Want to Talk About Race
  • Full Title: So You Want to Talk About Race
  • When Written: 2018
  • Where Written: Seattle, Washington
  • When Published: 2018
  • Literary Period:  Contemporary
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Setting: Contemporary United States 
  • Climax: Oluo concludes that small actions can make a big change, and she encourages Americans to work together to combat racial inequality.
  • Antagonist: White supremacy
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for So You Want to Talk About Race

Twitter Maven. Oluo gained notoriety for her frequent use of Twitter. She uses Twitter as a means to call out racism as she encounters it in her day-to-day life. In So You Want to Talk about Race, she often refers to her Tweets, and she uses them as a jumping off point to explore racial injustice.

Facebook Controversy. In 2017, Oluo was suspended on Facebook for her posts about racism in U.S. society. Her censorship triggered a huge controversy because it implicated Facebook as a company that censors people who post about social justice.