Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race is one of a growing number of books that communicates critical race theory to a popular audience. Critical race theory is a scholarly enterprise based on the assumption that racism is 1) permanent, 2) pervasive, 3) structural, 4) part of an interlocking system of oppressions and 5) best understood through lived experience. The most noteworthy aspect of the book is how clearly it illustrates “idea laundering,” the process by which lofty academic ideas filter into the popular consciousness through a succession of authors, making it difficult to recognize their origins. Consequently, readers come to think that critical race theory isn’t a particular ideology with a questionable set of assumptions but is just “the way sophisticated people talk about race.” Thus, the presuppositions and language of CRT come to be mainstreamed and accepted to the point that they are simply taken for granted.
By way of illustration, the “Notes” section of Oluo’s book contains only 37 references, the majority of which link to websites or news organizations (The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, CNN, and USA Today are all cited). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with citing popular sources. But in a book with entire chapters devoted to questions like “What is racism?” “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?” “What is cultural appropriation?” and “What are microaggressions?” it’s remarkable that Oluo cites so little scholarship. Certainly, she gives the reader no hint that any of these concepts are controversial.
Rather than offer any further critique, I’ll simply provide quotes which demonstrate the extent to which Oluo’s view of race has been framed in terms of CRT.
“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.” (p. 1)
“There is real pain in our racially oppressive system, pain that I as a black woman feel.” (p. 6)
“If you are looking for a simple way to determine if something is about race, here are some basic rules…
- It is about race if a person of color thinks it is about race.
- It is about race if it disproportionately or differently affects people of color.
- It is about race if it fits into a broader pattern of events that disproportionately or differently affect people of color.
Now, looking at this short list, it’s easy to think–hey, that is far too broad, almost anything can fall under those categories! And it’s true, almost anything can fall under these categories. Why? Because race impacts almost every aspect of our lives.” (p. 15)
“It is about race if a person of color thinks it’s about race. This may sound at first like I’m asking you to just take every person of color’s word for it, as if they are infallible… But the truth is, whether or not someone is fallible is beside the point. We are, each and every one of us, a collection of our lived experiences… And so, if a person of color says that something is about race, it is— because regardless of the details, regardless of whether or not you can connect the dots from the outside, their racial identity is a part of them, and it is interacting with the situation.” (p. 15)
“For the purposes of this book, I’m going to use the second definition of racism: a prejudice against someone based on race, when those prejudices are reinforced by systems of power… When we use only the first definition of racism, as any prejudice against someone based on race, we inaccurately reduce issues of race in America to a battle for the hearts and minds of individual racists–instead of seeing racists, racist behaviors, and racial oppression as part of a larger system.” (p. 27)
“The truth is, you don’t even have to ‘be racist’ to be a part of the racist system.” (p. 28)
“Who we see as successful, who has access to that success, who we see as scary, what traits we value in society, who we see as ‘smart’ and ‘beautiful’ — these perceptions are determined by our proximity to the cultural values of the majority in power, the economic system of those in power, the education system of those in power, the media outlets of those in power.” (p. 29)
“We can get every person in America to feel nothing but love for people of color in their hearts, and if our systems aren’t acknowledged and changed, it will bring negligible benefit to the lives of people of color.” (p. 31)
“it is never okay to battle racism with sexism, transphobia, ableism, or other oppressive language and actions. Don’t stoop to that level, and don’t allow others to. We must be willing to fight oppression in all of its forms.” (p. 47).
“Don’t insist that people give you credit for your intentions… Don’t insist that people act less hurt or offended or angry because your intentions were good.” (p. 50)
“a privilege has to come with somebody else’s disadvantage–otherwise, it’s not a privilege.” (p. 64)
“When we are willing to check our privilege, we are not only identifying areas where we are perpetuating oppression in order to stop personally perpetuating that oppression, but we are also identifying areas where we have the power and access to change the system as a whole.” (p. 64-65)
“Try to remember that the alternative to not being made aware of your privilege (no matter how it may sting) is your continued participation in the oppression of others. Someone is giving you an opportunity to do better, no matter how unpleasant the delivery. Thank them.” (p. 68)
“Each of us has a myriad of identities —our gender, class, race, sexuality, and so much more— that inform our experiences in life and our interactions with the world… the different hierarchies, privileges, and oppressions assigned to these identities affect our lives in many ways.” (p. 75)
“Either you believe these disparities [in schools and corporations] exist because you believe that people of color and women are less intelligent, less hard working, and less talented than white men, or you believe that there are systemic issues keeping women and people of color from being hired into jobs, promoted, paid a fair wage, and accepted into college.” (p. 118)
“I can assume that there is something fundamentally wrong with black and brown people, something fundamentally broken that is sending our kids out of school and into prison. Or, I can assume that the school system is marginalizing, criminalizing, and otherwise failing our black and brown kids in large numbers.” (p. 124)
“We can broadly define the concept of cultural appropriation as the adoption or exploitation of another culture by a more dominant culture.” (p. 146)
“The problem of cultural appropriation is primarily linked to the power imbalance between the culture doing the appropriating and the culture being appropriated.” (p. 147)
“Microaggressions are small daily insults and indignities perpetrated against marginalized or oppressed people because of their affiliation with that marginalized or oppressed group” (p. 169).
“As a person of color… you have the right to call out each and every [microaggression] that you choose to. Do not let people convince you that you are being oversensitive, that you are being disruptive or divisive. What is harmful and divisive are these acts of aggression against people of color that are allowed to happen constantly, without consequence.” (p. 174)
“Tone policing is when someone (usually the privileged person) in a conversation or situation about oppression shifts the focus of the conversation from the oppression being discussed to the way it is being discussed. Tone policing prioritizes the comfort of the privileged person in the situation over the oppression of the disadvantaged person” (p. 205-206)
“if you live in this system of White Supremacy you are either fighting the system, or you are complicit. There is no neutrality to be had towards systems of injustice — it is not something you can just opt out of.” (p. 211).
“if you are white in a white supremacist society, you are racist. If you are male in a patriarchy, you are sexist. If you are able-bodied, you are ableist. If you are anything above poverty in a capitalist society, you are classist. You can sometimes be all of these things at one.” (p. 216-217)
“You are racist because you were born and bred in a racist, white supremacist society. White Supremacy is, as I’ve said earlier, insidious by design. The racism required to uphold White Supremacy is woven into every area of our lives. There is no way you can inherit white privilege from birth, learn racist white supremacist history in schools, consume racist and white supremacist movies and films, work in a racist and white supremacist workforce, and vote for racist and white supremacist governments and not be racist. That does not mean that you have hate in your heart. You may intend to treat everyone equally. But it does mean that you have absorbed some f——up s— regarding race, and it will show itself in some f——up ways.” (p. 218)
“if you’ve been confronted with the possibility of your own racism, and you want to do the work, here are some tips:…
- Set your intentions aside. Your intentions have little to no impact on the way in which your actions may have harmed others. Do not try to absolve yourself of responsibility with your good intentions…
- Remember that you do not have all of the pieces. You are not living as a person of color. You will never fully understand the impact that sustained, systemic racism has on people of color. You will never be able to fully empathize with the pain your actions may have caused. Nothing will get you there. Do not discount someone’s complaint because their emotions seem foreign to you…
- Nobody owes you a relationship… In a hostile world, people of color have the right to cut off contact with people who have harmed them…” (p. 220-221)
See all content on critical theory here.