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.

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

Where Are You From?

It’s complicated. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

When I lived in Dubai, taxi drivers often asked, “Where are you from?”

“Canada,” I would say.

Studying me through their rearview mirror, they always looked doubtful. “But where are you really from?”

Ugh. Taxi drivers in Dubai aren’t that interested in me, personally. They wanted to put me in a box and be done with it.

Here in Asia, I face a different set of boxes. When Derek was in China for business, a woman asked him where I was from.

“She is a Taiwanese Canadian,”

The woman scoffed. “No, she’s a Chinese Canadian,” she said indignantly.

Ugh. Clearly, this woman and I have a different definition of Chinese-ness. I hate it when people deny me of my cultural and political identity without my presence.

I used to think it was easy for Derek when people asked him where he’s from. Most often, he would say, “The U.S.”

People are generally satisfied with this answer.

However, when we are traveling, he sometimes tells people that he’s from Hong Kong. People would look at him like he has lost his mind. The look on their faces basically says: a white person can’t be from Hong Kong!

Derek was born in Louisville, Kentucky and grew up in Madison, Indiana. Madison is a historic port city on the edge of the Ohio River. Back in its heydays, with over 100,000 residents, it was one of the busiest river ports in the country.

However, steamboats lost their place as the king of transportation with the advent of the railroad. These days, Madison has become a relic of its past, with only 3,000 people living in the downtown area.

In many ways, Derek is very American. My friend Kuba’s description of Derek as a “Gentleman Redneck” is perfect.  Derek has a polished, educated exterior, but underneath it all, he can skin a deer like nobody’s business. He’s a good boy from rural  Midwest.

He is also a product of American popular culture— he listens to Cat Stevens and Biggie Smalls.  His favorite movies are Spaceballs and The Princess Bride. He also loves the food of his land— when I came back from Savannah earlier this year, I basically brought back half of Krogers— my suitcase was filled with peppercinis, Texas Pete hot sauce, and Old Bay seasoning. Culturally, he is American through and through.

Derek and I did one of the most American things during our last trip— a bourbon tour!

However, Derek doesn’t identify as an American because he has such a disdain for the governmentHe thinks the two-party system serves the interests of corporations, instead of the people. Also, he believes that the function of the American federal government and state governments have skewed from their original intention— the federal government has far too much power, often overriding state decisions. This imbalance of power is one of the causes of the many problems in American society, such as gun violence, the gutting of public schools, and police brutality.

“The United States today doesn’t align with the values I was raised with,” he said. “The country needs to steer back to these ideals, but it won’t happen without great peril to the average citizen.

Another reason Derek chooses Hong Kong to be his home is that he wants to witness the next shift in power. At the turn of the 20th century, his great-grandfather witnessed the transfer of power from Great Britain to the United States. Derek wants to experience the next shift when China takes over as the superpower of the world. By staying in Asia, he is in a better position to navigate in this new world order.

Ugh. I don’t want China to rule the world.

Derek, on the other hand, is excited about the transfer of power. This is going to sound crazy, but he said at least with Chinese rule, he would know who is in charge, whereas American politicians hide behind the ruse of democracy and do horrible things.

Anyway, to answer the original question of this post, “where are you from?”

“I am from earth.”

If you had asked me, “Where do you call home?”

Now, that’s a question that leads to many stories, as long as you have the patience to hear them.

Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

 

 

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com