So You Want to Talk About Race: Understanding Racism in America

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.

Have you ever tried to ignore the uncomfortable conversations about race that happen around you? Have you ever been angry that your well-intended comment has been labeled as racist? Have you ever defended yourself as not a racist because you have African American/Asian/Other People of Color friends? Have you accused a person of color of being overly opinionated or sensitive when someone cracks a racist joke? Do the words “white supremacist society” make you cringe?

If any of the above has happened to you, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo is the book for you. It’s a vital book in our divisive society, to help all of us understand what is racial oppression and why we need to talk about it.

This may not be a popular opinion, but here it is: As humans, we are inherently racist. Our tribal roots make us feel safer around people who look like us. However, this does not justify racism— in our globalized world, we need to question and address our tribal conditioning. We need to treat everybody, regardless of the color of their skin, with dignity and respect.

From the get-go, Oluo makes a strong case that race is a system of power and that racism is a systematic oppression against people of color. She says that its goal was to “profit and comfort of the white race, specifically, of rich white men. The oppression of people of color was an easy way to get this wealth and power and racism was a good way to justify it.”

This may sound harsh, but it’s true. Racism goes way back to slavery when slaves imported from Africa were considered less human than their white masters.  They were treated as property, were abused and dehumanized. Just because slavery was technically abolished 153 years ago doesn’t mean that racism died with it.  On the contrary, it still thrives.  In her book, Oluo provides statistics about African Americans and how they are less likely, compared to White Americans, to graduate from high school and go to college. Furthermore, they are also more likely to be incarcerated, repeatedly.  Not to mention that the number of African Americans who died at the hands of police brutality is high, and the number of prosecutions low.

Something is broken, and we must talk about it.

As a Taiwanese Canadian based in Hong Kong, my reality is vastly different than the African Americans in the United States. Hong Kong and Canada have their own set of problems related to racism, but nothing like it is in the United States. In the autumn of 2017 and the winter of 2018, I lived in Savannah, Georgia, taking classes for my M.F.A. degree in writing at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). There, I made a close friend. Her name is Halle. I adore her because she is talented, thoughtful, and one of the most poetic writers I know. She is also smart, funny, and a beautiful person inside out. She is also the first African American I can call a friend. Growing up on the west coast of Canada in the 90’s, I didn’t know very many African Canadians, let alone one I could call a friend.

Watching American news in Hong Kong, I was aware of police brutality, but I never knew how deep the fear is until I had spent time in the United States.  When Halle and I became friends, I got a glimpse of her world and reality. Earlier this year, we took a short road trip from Savannah to Atlanta to see a talk by the amazing Zadie Smith, one of our favorite writers. Our spirits were high in the car—we were singing along to the music, gossiping, laughing—until a police car drove by us. Halle flinched and her whole body tensed.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Oh, I get nervous when I see a police car,” she said, her hands gripping the steering wheel, her eyes frightened, looking straight ahead.

How can the police, who are supposed to protect the citizens, put so much fear in a law-abiding young woman? Halle was so terrified of getting pulled over, she didn’t go over the speed limit once during the whole 4.5-hour journey.

During that trip, I begin to understand the privilege of not having that same fear. Still, her fear resonated with me; it made me sad and angry.

So You Want to Talk About Race helped me further understand Halle and millions of African Americans’ experience in the United States. It explains how racism was created and how it still works in America. Oluo, in her informal and engaging way, defines racism, how to talk about it, and how to do something about it. She defines racism as”any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power.” She further elaborates that racism is interwoven into our social, political, and economic system. She says, “instead of trying to isolate or ignore race, we need to look at race as a piece of the machine, just as we’d look at class or geography when considering social issues. Race alone is not all you need to focus on, but without it, any solution you come up with just won’t work.”

In addition to defining racism, Oluo also discusses different concepts that are related to racism, such as the importance of intersectionality, the disrespecting of oppressed racial groups through cultural appropriation, and the harmful effects of microaggression. Oluo is biased, as she should be—African Americans are dying within the racist system in America.

For those of us who stand by and do nothing when our colleagues make a racist comment or claim that we are not racist since we have African American friends, or think our African American friends are being over sensitive when something happens to them, remember:

“It’s the system, and our complacency in that system, that gives racism its power, not individual intent. Without that white supremacist system, we’d just have a bunch of assholes yelling at each other on a pretty even playing field—and may the best yeller win.”

So You Want to Talk About Race? You probably want to say, not really. But we must. Please read the book. Please recommend it to your friends. If you are a teacher, please assign it as a class reading. If you are a parent, please read it with your children (though they are some cuss words in it, FYI). If you are a manager, please use this book when doing cultural sensitivity training. It’s time we all get uncomfortable and start talking about race.

 

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Heating & Cooling: A Delicious Bite-size Memoir

 

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly.

Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs is an absolute delight. They are delicious bite-sized stories, filled with the wisdom and humor of Fennelly’s life as a wife, a mother, a daughter, a feminist, and a writer. The book deals with the whole spectrum of the human condition: joy, love, jealousy, loss. They read like flash fiction, except they are non-fiction pieces. Each piece is about a few pages to a few sentences long; there isn’t a single wasted word.

Some of my favorites pieces are short:

“Morning: bought a bag of frozen peas to numb my husband’s sore testicles after his vasectomy. Evening: added thawed peas to our carbonara.”

This little gem is number four of the “Married Love” series, and it gives the reader a snippet of Fennelly’s marriage and of course, cooking.

When I was watching 13 Reasons Why on Netflix, I’d cringe when the high school boys would call each other pussies. In “What I Think About When Someone Uses ‘Pussy’ as a Synonym for Weak,” Fennelly described the thoughts going through her head while giving birth to one of her children. She ended the piece with:

“The pain was such that I made peace with that. I did not fear death. Fear was an emotion, and pain had scalded away all emotions. I chose. In order to come back with the baby, I had to tear it out at the root. Understand, I did this without the aid of my hands.”

I wish every time a boy (or a man) call each other a “pussy”, he remembers that his mother tore him out of her body without using her hands. Pussies are strong and badass.

The book also deals with the challenges we all face, such as a quiet feud with a neighbor,  raising stubborn children, and the death of a loved one. I don’t want to say too much more about this book without giving it all away. All I can say is, when I finished reading the 52nd piece, I was sad. I wish there was a 53rd piece. Fennelly’s warm and humorous micro-memoirs are like little brain candies. I gobbled them up pretty fast. When you pick up your copy, I suggest you savor them while you can.

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Motherhood: Should I, or should I not?

Motherhood by Sheila Heti

I picked up Sheila Heti’s Motherhood because like the narrator of the book,  I am in my mid 30’s, a writer and often ponder whether or not I want a child with my loving and supportive husband, Derek. I had no idea what to expect when I started reading it, and the book is something beyond my imagination—it is not a conventional work of fiction.

The book is an intriguing journey of a woman talking herself out of motherhood. The narrative is generally plot-less and follows the stream of consciousness of the unnamed narrator, who I believe might be the Heti herself. Heti blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction, and the result is a poignant work that made me think about my attitude towards having children.

Throughout the book, the narrator obsessively tackles and reasons with herself about having children with Miles, her long-term boyfriend. She tosses her coins, which is a technique used by people who consult the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination system, used to help people with their life problems. Through the coin tossing, she addresses her uncertainty such as whether or not she is truly deserving of Miles, whether her anxiety is ever going away, and visualized her fear (a kitchen knife with a black handle) that cuts away hope and optimism out of her.

At one point, Heti tries to reason logically, at why having a child is narcissistic. She writes,

“The egoism of childbearing is like the egoism of colonizing a country—both carry the wish of imprinting yourself on the world, and making it over your values, and in your image.”

Then she follows up by comparing her religious cousin who has six children and herself, who has six books. Then she muses, “maybe there is no great difference in our faith—in what parts of ourselves we feel called to spread.”

I think I would rather have six books too.

Deep down, the narrator has never wanted a child, but often feels pressured by society. She thinks perhaps she might be sorry for not having a child, and therefore, should have one to prevent future regret. Furthermore, there are unrelenting expectations people have over women, to fulfill their “biological destiny.”She writes,

“It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their thirties—when you finally have some brains and some skills, and experience—from doing anything useful with them at all. It is hard to when such a large portion of your mind, at any given time, is pre-occupied with the possibility—a question that didn’t seem to preoccupy the drunk men at all.”

It is true—men don’t think about having a child in the same way because men aren’t expected to be the primary caretaker of the child. This responsibility squarely falls on women, to feed, clothes, and love the child while the man is away in the big world earning a living.  Heti criticizes our contemporary world— after all these years of feminism, the structure of our society hasn’t changed much at all. It is still patriarchal, and women are the ones judging other women when they choose not to have a child.

Heti, through her narrator, also criticizes how women are conditioned to have children to find fulfillment, instead of pursuing their interests and careers. She writes:

“All this wondering about children is just evidence of how much a person can give up what they know is right. It would be easier to have a child than to do what I want. Yet when I so frequently do the opposite of what I want, what is one more thing? Why not go all the way into falsehood, for me? I might as well have kids. Yet that is where I draw the line. You can’t create a person dishonestly.”

This passage was a bit of a revelation for me. I never really thought that it would be easier to have a child than to pursue one’s dreams. I’ve always thought to have a child would be so much harder, and the stakes are so much higher because once I am a mother, I’d be responsible for another person’s safety and well-being. There will be no more time to write, to travel, or do anything. That seems daunting to me.

I have nothing but respect for all the mothers of the world, and glad that their children bring them satisfaction and fulfillment. But I can’t help but think, how many women fell into the trap of motherhood because it’s too scary to say, pursue a new career at age 35?

At the end of the day, the question of motherhood is emotional and illogical. Logically, I understand all the reason against having children. However, as I get older, emotions are slowly clouding my logic. I can’t help but wonder: what would it be like to have a child?  I think Derek and I would make a pretty and bright child. We would teach her (I want a girl) to be kind, and she will make the world a better place.

As I sit here in front of my computer writing this book review, I ask myself, would I rather do this than say, comforting a screaming baby? The answer is, I would rather write.

But, I still think I might want to have a child.

 

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation: A Vapid, Spoiled Brat Took Pills to Sleep for the Whole Year

 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. The premise of the book is pretty far-fetched— a thin, pretty, and rich young woman, our unnamed narrator, decided to check out from life for a year by sedating herself with an array of pills. This was made possible with the assistance of the world’s most unethical psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle.  She was the impersonation of the pharmaceutical industry who touts that there is a pill for every illness and cure for every ail. If only life was that easy.

When not in a drug-induced sleep, our unnamed narrator watched movies on VHS, ate animals crackers while taking Ambien and Nembutal, and eventually drifting off into a deep somber on the couch. Instead of having her laundry picked up and dropped off like a civilized person, she opted to throw away her dirty underwear and orders tacky lingerie from Victoria’s Secret. The only time she left the house was to get coffee and cigarettes from the bodega at odd hours of the night. Meet our spoiled, vapid, and entitled narrator—who despite all that she had, went into “hibernation” in June 2000, when she was 24-years-old. At this time, she had been fired from her cushy job at an upscale art gallery for sleeping in the supply closet. Her on-again-off-again boyfriend Trevor treated her like a disposable piece of trash. Her only friend, Reva, was a whiney, insecure woman who was jealous of the narrator’s beauty, wealth, and her size 2 wardrobe.

This is the starting point of the book, and needless to say, none of the characters seemed likable. Yet, I couldn’t put down the book. In some ways, reading the book is like witnessing a trainwreck— it is horrifying, yet fascinating in a morbid way—how will this unnamed narrator destroy or redeem herself?

I’d like to be clear: the trainwreck metaphor only applies to the characters in the book. The book itself is flawlessly written— it is engaging and funny in a despondent way:

“You’re so needy,” I said. “Sounds frustrating.”

“And there’s Ken. I just can’t stand it. I rather kill myself than be all alone,” she said.

“At least you have options.”

In some ways, whether I like to admit it or not, I can relate to Reva, or even the narrator herself, living in a world consumed by vanity. As women, we are always told to strive for the size 2 body, the rewarding career, and give all that up when we meet the perfect man. When we don’t achieve what is expected of us, we are made to feel bad about it. Ironically, the unnamed narrator seemed to have it all, and instead of living it, she chose to sleep her life away. What does this say about ourselves and the values we hold dear?

This book took place in the year 2000, right before the boom of smartphones and around-the-clock tweets.  And yet, little has changed since then. Like 18 years ago, women are still subjected to ridiculous expectations, and we continue to allow men to treat us badly (in the book, the narrator’s boyfriend Trevor would come over to have sex with her like it was a favor for her, and Reva was involved with a middle-aged married man who just “loves” her on the side.) Many of us are still afraid to die alone and would do anything to avoid this fate. The #MeToo movement brought some awareness to women’s plight, but, has it achieved a lasting impact on how women view our worth?

Through My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Moshfegh is holding up a mirror for us to examine ourselves, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. It’s an intriguing and refreshing read, perfect summer book for the beach.

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