So You Want to Talk About Race

by

Ijeoma Oluo

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Ijeoma Oluo Character Analysis

Oluo is the author and central voice of So You Want to Talk about Race. Oluo is a black woman who begins writing a blog about race to cope with her frustration at experiencing racism in life. The blog evolves into So You Want to Talk about Race, in which she offers advice for white people and people of color in U.S. society to help them have more productive conversations about race. Oluo begins each chapter with a personal anecdote about her life—usually centering on a conversation about race that went wrong. She uses these anecdotes to expose deep, systemic problems with racial oppression in U.S. society, and then she offers advice for how to have better conversations about those topics. Oluo highlights the deep emotional trauma of experiencing racism, which is emotionally taxing for people of color, so a lot of her advice centers on how to be more sensitive to oppressed people’s pain when talking about race. Oluo also puts the onus on privileged people to make active efforts to reduce inequalities marginalized people, and she gives tangible advice for how to do so. Throughout the book, she emphasizes throughout that the fight for social justice has to be intersectional: it has to consider to the multiple and varied sources of oppression in U.S. society and make active efforts to dismantle them all.

Ijeoma Oluo Quotes in So You Want to Talk About Race

The So You Want to Talk About Race quotes below are all either spoken by Ijeoma Oluo or refer to Ijeoma Oluo. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism, Privilege, and White Supremacy Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Seal Press edition of So You Want to Talk About Race published in 2019.
Introduction Quotes

As a black woman, race has always been a prominent part of my life. I have never been able to escape the fact that I am a black woman in a white supremacist country.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker)
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

I remember saying once that if I stopped to feel, really feel, the pain of racism I encountered, I would start screaming and never stop.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 1 Quotes

I'm ranting now, I'm talking fast to get it all out. Not because I’m angry, because I’m not, really. I know it's not my friend’s fault that what he’s saying is the prevailing narrative, and that it's seen as the compassionate narrative. But it’s a narrative that hurts me, and so many other people of color.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker), Well-meaning friend
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

This promise—you will get more because they exist to get less—is woven throughout our entire society.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker), Well-meaning friend
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

What keeps a poor child in Appalachia poor is not what keeps a poor child in Chicago poor-even if from a distance, the outcomes look the same. And what keeps an able-bodied black woman poor is not what keeps a disabled white man poor, even if the outcomes look the same.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker), Well-meaning friend
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

It is about race if a person of color thinks it’s about race.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker), Well-meaning friend
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Friend (speaker), Coworker , Ijeoma Oluo
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

If we have cancer and it makes us vomit, we can commit to battling nausea and say we’re fighting for our lives, even though the tumor will likely still kill us.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker), Friend , Coworker
Related Symbols: Cancer
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and just by letting it be, we are responsible for what it produces.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker)
Related Symbols: Machine
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

I’m just going to go to him tomorrow and explain that I have three black kids and I understand where he’s corning from.

Related Characters: Oluo’s mother (speaker), Ijeoma Oluo
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

So please, check your privilege. Check it often.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker)
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

How do our social justice efforts so often fail to help the most vulnerable in our populations? This is primarily the result of unexamined privilege.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker), Kimberlé Crenshaw
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

When you are supposed to be fighting the evils of “the man” you don't want to realize that you've become “the man” within your own movement.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker), Kimberlé Crenshaw
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

We like to believe that if there are racist cops, they are individual bad eggs acting on their own.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker), Aham , Sandra Bland , Tamir Rice
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

[W]hen I look at the school-to-prison pipeline, the biggest tragedy to me is the loss of childhood joy.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker), Natasha , Sagan
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

We couldn’t say, in front of Nick and Amy, “The kids all called us niggers and your children laughed.” So we just sat silently and I tried not to cry.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker), Aham , Nick , Amy , Liz
Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:

A lot of people want to skip ahead to the finish line of racial harmony. Past all this unpleasantness to a place where all wounds are healed and the past is laid to rest.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker)
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

But instead what I was standing in front of in that airport was a caricature of my culture. A caricature of the vibrant decorations and festive music. Everything I'd loved about African food had been skinned and draped around the shoulders of a glorified McDonalds.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker)
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

We can broadly define the concept of cultural appropriation as the adoption or exploitation of another culture by a more dominant culture. This is not usually the wholesale adoption of an entire culture, but usually just attractive bits and pieces that are taken and used by the dominant culture.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker)
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Some modern and fairly well known examples of cultural appropriation by the dominant white culture in the West are things like the use of American Indian headdresses as casual fashion, the use of the bindi as an accessory, the adoption of belly-dancing into fitness routines, and basically every single “ethnic” Halloween costume.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker)
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Think of artists like Elvis Presley who have been canonized in the annals of music history for work that was lifted almost wholesale from the backs of black musicians whose names most Americans will never know.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker), Elvis Presley
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

That “legitimacy” bestowed by whiteness actually changes the definition of rap for the American culture.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker), Elvis Presley
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

Cultural appropriation is the product of a society that prefers its culture cloaked in whiteness.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker)
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

“I’m glad it's not one of those weaves […] Those are so expensive and really bad for your hair.”

Related Characters: Oluo’s boss’s boss (speaker), Ijeoma Oluo, Chris Rock
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

Don't force people to acknowledge your good intentions.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker)
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 17 Quotes

The director looked at me pleadingly. He didn't need training. He knew a lot of black people. He grew up with black people. He was practically black himself. He just needed to talk. With me. He repeatedly insisted that if I could just sit with him in a bar and talk this out with him, whatever had caused him to drunkenly repeat “nigger” at a dinner table surrounded by people of color would never happen again. But I did not want to talk with this man, especially not over drinks […] I wanted this man to take some action for change.

Related Characters: Ijeoma Oluo (speaker), Theater director
Page Number: 226
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire So You Want to Talk About Race LitChart as a printable PDF.
So You Want to Talk About Race PDF

Ijeoma Oluo Character Timeline in So You Want to Talk About Race

The timeline below shows where the character Ijeoma Oluo appears in So You Want to Talk About Race. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Introduction: So you want to talk about race
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Oluo begins by saying that being a black woman in a white supremacist country has deeply... (full context)
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As a young black woman, Oluo’s initial strategy for success was to work harder, dress more formally, be more polite, hide... (full context)
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The gap in people’s knowledge is as vast as the solar system, but Oluo is here to help start the conversation. Many people are intimidated by how to talk... (full context)
Chapter 1: Is it really about race?
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Oluo’s in a coffee shop talking with a smart, well-meaning friend who thinks that more progress... (full context)
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Even if the government raises the minimum wage, Oluo argues, her “black-sounding name” still limits her chances of getting a job interview. The lower... (full context)
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Many people say that race is a social construct, but Oluo thinks this is effectively a lie that justifies crime: people treat certain races as less... (full context)
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Oluo thinks that the narrative of white supremacy is so entrenched in society that in every... (full context)
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It bothers Oluo that in many conversations about social issues, the discussion rarely goes beyond questioning if the... (full context)
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Addressing the first guideline, Oluo says that when a person of color thinks it’s about race, that doesn’t mean a... (full context)
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Addressing the second guideline, Oluo says that when she blogs about race issues (like incarceration), white people often respond saying... (full context)
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Oluo explains the third guideline with an analogy: if a person is in an abusive relationship,... (full context)
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To Oluo, the experience of blackness isn’t only about oppression—her blackness also invokes a rich history of... (full context)
Chapter 2: What is racism?
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Oluo discusses an online argument she once had with a coworker. In the argument, Oluo’s coworker... (full context)
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The next day, Oluo discusses the argument with a friend. She feels hurt that her coworker adopts views that... (full context)
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Oluo thinks that people can’t agree on what racism is, which makes it harder to talk... (full context)
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Oluo thinks that complacency gives the system power. 400 years of systemic oppression has put people... (full context)
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Oluo thinks that so many of people’s tastes and opinions are shaped by media, education, economics,... (full context)
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Oluo asks the reader to think about why they’re here. If the reader’s goal is to... (full context)
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Oluo thinks it’s important to remember that racism is a tool that helps those at the... (full context)
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...bring up “racism against whites” and assume the impact on their lives is the same? Oluo notes that such claims are often “defensive reaction[s]” triggered by fear or confusion. Oluo suggests... (full context)
Chapter 3: What if I talk about race wrong?
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Despite growing up in a mixed-race household, Oluo doesn’t think she has a meaningful conversation about racism with her white mother until she’s... (full context)
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Oluo dreads talking about race with well-meaning white people who think they “get it.” One day,... (full context)
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Oluo knows that conversations about race can get heated and uncomfortable. As a black woman, Oluo... (full context)
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Oluo wishes that she could guarantee her readers will never screw up a race conversation again... (full context)
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Next, Oluo suggests doing some homework. If you don’t know terms or definitions, Google them to avoid... (full context)
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Oluo next warns against tone policing. She says, don’t try to control the way people talk... (full context)
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Oluo says that even with the best of intentions, and no matter how much you prepare,... (full context)
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...conversations.  Sixth, remember that difficult conversations are worth it for the goal of social justice.  Oluo says that even if a conversation goes horribly, you have to keep trying—otherwise, your complacency... (full context)
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Oluo concludes that conversations about racial oppression are inevitably emotional and anger-inducing. Oppression is an upsetting... (full context)
Chapter 4: Why am I always being asked to “check my privilege”?
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Oluo felt like an outsider growing up in Seattle, especially at school where there weren’t other... (full context)
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Oluo hates the phrase “check your privilege”—it’s usually a sign of a conversation gone wrong. But... (full context)
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For example, Oluo has a college degree that she worked hard for while raising a child. She’s proud... (full context)
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Oluo thinks people feel threatened by the concept of privilege because we don’t like to believe... (full context)
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To Oluo, having privilege is like having power to speak up in situations where others don’t. She... (full context)
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Oluo suggests studying your list and thinking about how your advantages in life shape your views... (full context)
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Oluo continues, saying that once you’re aware of your privilege, you can start dismantling it. For... (full context)
Chapter 5: What is intersectionality and why do I need it?
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Oluo tweets about a famous black male musician who hasn’t been arrested for sexual crimes. Her... (full context)
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By the next day, the crisis is averted, but Oluo is “overcome with sadness.” She thinks that black women on social media feel “very alone... (full context)
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Oluo explains that identity is shaped by a lot more than race, and there are many... (full context)
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...include  other causes of oppression, including class, mental and physical ability, and sexual orientation. Yet, Oluo argues, intersectionality hasn’t gotten much traction in social justice movements. She offers some reasons for... (full context)
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Oluo argues that intersectionality makes activism more complicated: it’s much harder to figure out the needs... (full context)
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Oluo believes that most people who want to fight oppression aim to improve society for all... (full context)
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Oluo continues with some pointers for increasing attention to intersectionality in conversations. Most people don’t know... (full context)
Chapter 6: Is police brutality really about race?
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Oluo is driving with her brothers, and she gets stopped by a cop for speeding one... (full context)
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Truthfully, Oluo doesn’t know if she was racially profiled, but she also knows to never ask a... (full context)
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Oluo isn’t sure if the fear and stress of encountering police is worse, or the persistent... (full context)
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Oluo suggests looking at historical relationships between police and people of color to help understand why... (full context)
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Oluo argues that controlling people of color is entrenched American policing history. Among people of color,... (full context)
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Oluo acknowledges that black men are more likely to commit violent offences than white men. But... (full context)
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Oluo argues that police are armed with guns and empowered by a justice system that protects... (full context)
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To get to a place where everyone can trust the criminal justice system, Oluo thinks that people need to acknowledge the very different history that people of color have... (full context)
Chapter 7: How can I talk about affirmative action?
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Oluo recalls her school days: when Oluo is seven, her family lives with another family in... (full context)
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Oluo winds up divorced with a toddler at 22. She knows (from her mother) that education... (full context)
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Oluo switches departments. She’s the only black woman in a new team, and people make suggestive... (full context)
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Oluo luckily finds herself writing during a time when media outlets are seeking black and brown... (full context)
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Oluo wonders about the all the black and brown kids who were treated as difficult instead... (full context)
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Oluo thinks affirmative action isn’t well understood in society. The concept was introduced by President Kennedy... (full context)
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Oluo summarizes some of the arguments commonly used against affirmative actions: first, some people argue that... (full context)
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Second, some think that people of color can just sue racist or sexist employers. Oluo notes that technically, an employer can fire someone for any reason—so without a paper trail... (full context)
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...people think that affirmative action is unfair because it takes opportunities away from white men. Oluo sighs and notes that people of color and women are striving for an equal opportunity,... (full context)
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Oluo concludes that affirmative action can improve the  economic prospects of women and people of color.... (full context)
Chapter 8: What is the school-to-prison pipeline?
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Oluo discusses a woman named Natasha and her son Sagan. Natasha was called into school because... (full context)
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Oluo thinks that the public-school system in the U.S. labels black and brown children as “violent,... (full context)
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...mass incarceration that incriminates one in three black men and one in six Latino men. Oluo says that the pipeline starts with higher suspensions and expulsions for black and brown students.... (full context)
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Oluo knows teachers aren’t “evil racists who hate black and brown children.” Teachers are often “underpaid,... (full context)
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Oluo provides some tips for addressing the school-to-prison pipeline in conversation. She suggests including the topic... (full context)
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Oluo continues, arguing that it’s important to normalize the experiences of black and brown children. Depictions... (full context)
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The damage of the school-to-prison pipeline is profound, but the worst thing to Oluo is the way it steals childhood joy. It tells black and brown students that they... (full context)
Chapter 9: Why can’t I say the “N” word?
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Oluo recalls the first time she was called a “nigger.” In her memory, she’s 11. Oluo... (full context)
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...term to express hatred toward black people—especially by the Ku Klux Klan—since the 1700s. To Oluo, all oppression is rooted in language. Sometimes, she notes, the word “cracker” is used to... (full context)
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...people of color have very little power to stop anyone using racial slurs, but to Oluo, it’s really about why anybody would want to trigger such pain. It might seem unfair... (full context)
Chapter 10: What is cultural appropriation?
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Oluo is at an airport terminal, frazzled and hungry, and she finds a food spot called... (full context)
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Oluo sees cultural appropriation as something that happens when a dominant culture exploits or uses an... (full context)
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Take music, for example: Oluo argues that music has been an important way for black Americans to process the pain... (full context)
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The biggest problem, for Oluo, is that cultural appropriation betrays a society that “prefers its culture cloaked in whiteness.” In... (full context)
Chapter 11: Why can’t I touch your hair?
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Oluo discusses a work meeting in which she’s excited to meet her new team after a... (full context)
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Oluo says that most people know a lot about white hair styles—the cuts, products, and fashions... (full context)
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Oluo explains that since slavery, black Americans’ bodies have been treated as tools, curiosities, property, and... (full context)
Chapter 12: What are microaggressions?
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Oluo recalls a conversation about lipstick in seventh grade, in which Oluo told a white girl... (full context)
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Oluo recalls a college scholarship conference for black and brown students that she attended in her... (full context)
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...similar to comments from hypercritical parents that make you feel “less than” good enough. To Oluo, microaggressions are psychologically harmful, but they’re also small (meaning people often dismiss them as mistakes... (full context)
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Oluo says that microaggressions are distracting and exhausting. Moreover, they make racist assumptions a part of... (full context)
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Oluo thinks that it’s important to call out microaggressions when you witness other people using them... (full context)
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If you’ve been called out for a microaggression, Oluo advises taking a pause (it’s easy to become overwhelmed and defensive), ask yourself why you... (full context)
Chapter 13: Why are our students so angry?
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Oluo recalls a conversation with her eight-year-old son. Oluo’s son is nervous because he doesn’t want... (full context)
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Oluo was born in 1980 and grew up with the promise that racism was outdated and... (full context)
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Oluo thinks today’s kids are fighting for more justice than she could have ever imagined possible... (full context)
Chapter 14: What is the model minority myth?
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Oluo recalls growing up poor. She spends her childhood with other poor black, brown, and white... (full context)
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Oluo thinks that the model minority myth actively harms Asian Americans. Sociologist William Peterson invented the... (full context)
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...marginalized people fall out of the picture when they’re lumped into a broader general category. Oluo believes that Asian Americans also face professional limits: while Asian Americans comprise up to 60... (full context)
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...instance, Islamophobic people often target Sikhs without knowing that they practice a completely different religion. Oluo also thinks that people use stereotypes of Asian American women as subservient to mask domestic... (full context)
Chapter 15: But what if I hate Al Sharpton?
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As a child, Oluo is taught that Martin Luther King was a nonviolent person who didn’t see color while... (full context)
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...black people have been told that they will achieve equality by being nice, which to Oluo, sounds like saying black people need to earn their humanity. But, she reasons, if you... (full context)
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Oluo argues that policing someone’s tone is a way of asserting dominance. A privileged person actually... (full context)
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Oluo offers some strategies for white people who want to avoid tone-policing. She say that your... (full context)
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Oluo also offers advice for people of color who are being shamed for their tone. She... (full context)
Chapter 16: I just got called racist, what do I do now?
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...W. Bush talks about how hurt he is that Kanye West accused him of racism. Oluo similarly recalls an ugly Twitter fight in which a Canadian person harasses her for insinuating... (full context)
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Oluo writes this chapter for white people who are afraid of being called racist. She says... (full context)
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...if you didn’t mean to be harmful, you were, and you can’t change that now. Oluo also advises trying to understand the broader impact of your actions. Imagine you’ve been talking... (full context)
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Oluo says to remember that some aspects of life as a person of color will simply... (full context)
Chapter 17: Talking is great, but what else can I do?
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Oluo recalls a dinner with colleagues in a theater group, during which a white theater director... (full context)
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Oluo remembers another time when she’s asked to give a speech at a feminist protest because... (full context)
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Oluo acknowledges that people can’t understand racial oppression without talking about it, but she also thinks... (full context)
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Oluo suggests voting in local elections for candidates who prioritize racial justice, police reform, increasing diversity... (full context)
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Oluo knows that dismantling systemic racism seems like a “huge” and “insurmountable” task, but she argues... (full context)
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Recalling another local election, Oluo says that the 2015 defeat of Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez (who notoriously refused... (full context)