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So You Want to Talk About Race

(10 customer reviews)


by Ijeoma Oluo


In this New York Times bestseller, Ijeoma Oluo offers a hard-hitting but user-friendly examination of race in America

Widespread reporting on aspects of white supremacy–from police brutality to the mass incarceration of Black Americans–has put a media spotlight on racism in our society. Still, it is a difficult subject to talk about. How do you tell your roommate her jokes are racist? Why did your sister-in-law take umbrage when you asked to touch her hair–and how do you make it right? How do you explain white privilege to your white, privileged friend?

In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo guides readers of all races through subjects ranging from intersectionality and affirmative action to “model minorities” in an attempt to make the seemingly impossible possible: honest conversations about race and racism, and how they infect almost every aspect of American life.

“Oluo gives us–both white people and people of color–that language to engage in clear, constructive, and confident dialogue with each other about how to deal


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About this book

270 Pages
5 -6 Hours to read
73k Total words


In this New York Times bestseller, Ijeoma Oluo offers a hard-hitting but user-friendly examination of race in America
Widespread reporting on aspects of white supremacy–from police brutality to the mass incarceration of Black Americans–has put a media spotlight on racism in our society. Still, it is a difficult subject to talk about. How do you tell your roommate her jokes are racist? Why did your sister-in-law take umbrage when you asked to touch her hair–and how do you make it right? How do you explain white privilege to your white, privileged friend?
In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo guides readers of all races through subjects ranging from intersectionality and affirmative action to “model minorities” in an attempt to make the seemingly impossible possible: honest conversations about race and racism, and how they infect almost every aspect of American life.
“Oluo gives us–both white people and people of color–that language to engage in clear, constructive, and confident dialogue with each other about how to deal with racial prejudices and biases.”
–National Book Review
“Generous and empathetic, yet usefully blunt . . . it’s for anyone who wants to be smarter and more empathetic about matters of race and engage in more productive anti-racist action.”
Salon (Required Reading)

  • Basic Books; September 2019
  • ISBN: 9781541619227
  • Title: So You Want to Talk About Race
  • Author: Ijeoma Oluo
  • Imprint: Seal Press
  • Language: English

In The Press

“Ijeoma Oluo is armed with words. Her words are daggers that pierce through injustice, while also disarming you with humor and love.”—Hari Kondabolu, comedian, writer, and co-host of Politically Re-Active

About The Author

Ijeoma Oluo is a writer and speaker whose work on race has been featured in the New York TimesWashington PostElleThe Guardian, and more. She has twice been named to The Root 100 and received the 2018 Feminist Humanist Award from the American Humanist Society. She lives in Seattle.

Additional information


Hardcover, Paperback

10 reviews for So You Want to Talk About Race

  1. Nancy W. Randall

    I attended a book club the other morning, “So You Want to Talk About Race” by a young social-justice warrior, Ijeoma Oluo. I went to help me understand why people believe what they believe, listen and learn. It quickly became about identity. Before each person spoke, they announced their identity before making their comments- black/Chinese, legal immigrant, white with a hired black in my household, etc., which confirms a racist point that you can’t talk or be heard about race unless you are not white. White people often get attacked for having opinions about race and are called white supremacist or white privileged because for some reason, we have white guilt on our hands. I hated this book. It made me cringe on every page.We need to have a conversation, or so this book leads you to believe. This book is more of a lecture about her opinions of her experience with racism than a conversation using facts. She uses emotions to help lure you into her “disadvantages” of growing up Mulatto in Seattle with a white mom in a white city (I can think of worse places to live and more hostile environments). For young Ijeoma, every injustice was related to her skin color. Every job that passed her by was because she was black. Cringe. Her definition of racism is absurd. I recommend everyone re-read her definition but reverse the words black for white. Or for that matter Hispanic for white. I bet that gives you a little bit of the cringe I felt when I read it. Her rules of engagement to conversations were one-sided and left many white folk handicapped since we are not permitted to “force” blacks into conversations because it’s “too painful and exhausting” on “them” to defend themselves. Not to pivot to another problem with our education system, the rewriting of history to suit their agenda, but this idea that “we” whites owe reparations to blacks including giving up our “advantages” that we earned to support their perceived “disadvantages”, can lead to a zero sum game. For every winner, someone must be a loser until we reach “equality” which she never defines where the end game is. This idea of oppressing one race for another will only widen the gap between races and weaken the chance of any real healing.She could have used some facts. They are out there but she chose to ignore them so she could simplify her arguments and correlate anything negative that happens to a black person is due to racism. Yes, racial bias exists. Prejudice exists. It exists between races and within races. But it is insulting to Americans of any race to be blamed for bad outcomes of blacks. Statistically speaking, problems with black kids in school, crime, prison and police activity all point to the fact that 69% of black households are single parent. They systemically lose the benefit of economics, education, and health and allows easy access for criminal behavior. She says Travon “stand up don’t shoot” Martin was her motivator in becoming an activist. She must be disremembering the fact that George Zimmerman acted in self defense and was acquitted of any crime. I’m sure she still believes Jusse Smollett had an attempted hanging one cold winter morning in Chicago by a Trump supporter. Black activist are very quick to activate for any white on black or cop on black crime without all the facts and never back down when their story doesn’t play out to meet their agenda. They are okay with Black Lives Matter destroying public property in cities all over the country, tearing down statues of historic US leaders, changing school names, town names, and lake names because they were once slave owners. White guilt must exist.There is no end to their social justice agenda. Many white elitist are sympathetic to the racial justice movement. This book is specifically taking aim at them. Ijeoma would want nothing more than to use them to push Institutional policy changes for schools, businesses, governments, and all private institutions of all kinds. She wants whites to surrender their power and accept that it’s necessary to chose a black candidate over a white candidate on the basis of race. Maybe we should ask them, are you willing to forfeit your child’s spot at this school and give it to a “disadvantaged” child? Actions speak louder than words. Ijeoma is part of a revolution. She is part of socialism. She is part of identity politics. And for me, she is part of the problem.

  2. Gary Moreau, Author

    What author would write a book with a target audience that is likely to consider reading it, much less paying for it, akin to wishing for a root canal? Apparently, Ijeoma Oluo.I am a white, sexagenarian, male, and former CEO. I am, therefore, a r#cist. (And yes, I am being sensitive to the censors who will look at this before posting it.) And I accept that because this isn’t about me. My personal tolerance is irrelevant. If a picture says a thousand words, an action is worth ten thousand pictures. That is how we should judge each other.From my very privileged position in America, I have had a bird’s eye view of the systemic, institutional privilege (which in the negative is discrimination) that currently defines virtually all Western institutions today, including virtually all corporations.Women have not shattered the corporate glass ceiling because the corporate institution was designed and built by men. Blacks have not achieved equity in the economic arena because it was designed by white men. Which is why, as Ijeoma points out, it really doesn’t matter if the man in charge is a racist or a misogynist or not.The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements are all about gender and racial discrimination. What has enabled misogyny and racism, however, is the definition and allocation of power in our institutions and our society. Tolerance is great, but it’s nowhere near enough. Until we challenge the structure of power, we will not address the underlying cause of social and economic injustice.Here are the main takeaways I got from this book:- It’s not about me or Ijeoma. This is about structural injustice.- It’s not about the tone of the discussion. This is about structural injustice.- It’s not about intent. This is about structural injustice.- It’s not about who is right and who is wrong. This is about structural injustice.- It’s not about who can use what words. This is about structural injustice.In the end, the great strength and the great weakness of our political economy is our over-riding emphasis on the individual and his or her opportunities and rights. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. But in this crowded, technologically enabled world we live in, it’s not enough. We can live individually but we can only be judged collectively. Our insistence that every conversation be about me, or you, or Ijeoma, or that person over there, is blinding us to the degree that we really are all in this together.Scientists used to view the environment as a collection of independent and discrete parts. There was a prairie here, an Arctic ice field there, and a rain forest someplace a long way away. They now realize, however, that there is only one ecosystem and what happens in the rain forest is just as important as what happens in the Iowa corn field.Other scientists have discovered the same thing about the other hard and soft sciences. Biology and economics don’t cut it any more. We have to think in terms of evolutionary biology and behavioral economy. Real understanding lies not just within a functional discipline, but also in the spaces that separates them and the overlaps that interconnect them.So, I go back to my original question. Why did Ijeoma write this book? I won’t pretend to know the answer but it is clear that she has a genuine desire to see us face the issue. And after reading this book it is clear that the desire is genuine. And while it is theoretically true that if she is successful she will have to find something new to write about, so what? That is exactly the kind of binary, digital thinking that is at the heart of the problem. Life is not either/or. It is, with tolerance, and/but.Ijeoma has a perspective. And the tone is sometimes a bit harsh. But how could it not be? In the end I think the most amazing and laudable thing about her language is that she obviously worked so hard to keep a lid on her passion. If she were white, we would elect her to high office.Am I appropriating Ijeoma’s book by writing this review? Yes. But that’s irrelevant. I am not her. And my appropriation is going to paint racism with a white brush and, potentially, demean that pain. But that is the thinking of a binary thinker—either/or. And that, in the end, is what we have to overcome. Tolerant people are not binary thinkers. Tolerance is not a function of embracing the other side of the binary issue. It is about eliminating the binary divide. Ultimately, the racism talked about here is about institutional models of power that disadvantage one group over another. (And, as Ijeoma points out, there are many.)In the end, I won’t say this was the most pleasant read. It was, however, a good read. It made me think. And for that I am grateful to the author. I won’t say, “well done,” because that would be an appropriation, as if I could evaluate how well she had represented her pain. I can’t. It’s hers, not mine. I will say, however, that “I listened.” And I listened because you were clear and authentic. And I do thank you for that.A must read. Period.

  3. R. Coker

    Ijeoma Oluo has some excellent advice for white folks in “So You Want to Talk About Race.” This book may be most helpful to people who think “I’m not racist” or who read about Black Lives Matter and #takeaknee and can’t understand why they’re necessary. Oluo addresses topics that you may hesitate to raise with black friends, encourages you to revisit your understanding of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and explains concepts including emotional labor and white privilege. Consider this anti-racism 101.For white folks ready for the 200-level anti-racism course — people who are ready to accept that White Supremacy is real and that they’ve benefited from it — Oluo offers additional challenges. I especially appreciated her call toward the end of the book to move beyond talk and into action. Find a place, whether it’s your kids’ school or the local political scene, and use your privilege to help dismantle systems that have done so much damage to people of color.If you’re not ready for this book or don’t view discussions of race as a necessary part of your life as a white person, I’d encourage you to read “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, both of which led me to empathy and anger and prompted me to speak out in ways I hadn’t previously.

  4. Franco Facchini

    This book is written in a breezy style that is in contrast to Ta Nehisi Coates or even Barak Obama. The author will expect you to accept two assumptions, apparently a priori:1) Any data-driven demographic outcome that shows negative racial correlations (e.g. Income Levels, Rate of Graduation from College, Infant Mortality, Crime, etc) can ONLY be explained by racism. There are no other possible causes.2) For every Disadvantaged Group, there is a Privileged Group whose advantage came directly from oppressing the Disadvantaged Group. It’s a zero sum game. The Law of Conservation of Privileges. Every winner extracts his/her winnings from a loser.Judging from the stellar reviews Ijeoma gets on Amazon, I suspect most readers already accept the above assumptions. It is possible, however, for reasonably intelligent people to disagree. See Jason Riley’s articles in the WSJ.I give the book 3 stars for writing style and for opening up a point of view I hadn’t appreciated before. It also explains Intersectionality in easy to understand terms. Unfortunately, this book has made me pessimistic that further healing of the racial divide in our country is possible.

  5. JB

    This book is intended to be a primer for how one can talk about race in America, particularly those who aren’t very educated on racial matters. If that’s you, then keep reading. I may be giving this book a 2-star rating, but there’s definitely something here for you. Alternatively, if you pay attention to the news and fights regarding race on social media, then look elsewhere – you’ve heard most of it already.In the spirit of fairness, let’s start with what the book did well:1) The chapters are short (10-20 pages), focus on a few topics, and contain relatively few citations. Oluo’s tone is informal, so the chapters read like an online blog instead of an academic paper. Reading 1-2 chapters a day was easy, even after a 12 h shift.2) The first five chapters were great! If you don’t understand what the fuss is about with BLM protestors, campus SJW’s, and that passionate relative at the dinner table, then the first 80 pages are for you. I particularly liked how Oluo separated conversations about individual racist actions and conversations about systems of racial injustice. It’s a common place where well-meaning people talk past each other.3) When Oluo talks about having “conversations” on race, she advocates against getting angry, losing patience, and becoming overly dismissive. This is the mature way to speak with people when you disagree, and something we don’t see enough on social media.4) Chapter 6, which was about police brutality, was the best chapter in the book. It was a good blend of commentary, references to statistics, and telling a compelling story.5) Periodically examining your privilege is humbling. It’s very useful to reflect on your actions and realize places where you said/did something that could be demeaning or harmful. The effort to do better is at the heart of this book. In short, a little mindfulness goes a long way.So, are you someone who is uneducated on racial matters and wants to know what’s going on? Borrow this book from the library and read the first 100 pages and then skip to the end (or read about a topic that interests you in the interim).Here’s what I didn’t like about the book:1) This book is not about having “conversations” about race. A conversation implies a mutual exchange of ideas; it is a two-way street. Those aren’t the “conversations” that Oluo advocates. The assumption for each chapter is that someone has inadvertently done something wrong and you’re given a strategy to confront it with the occasional statistic. The “exchange of ideas” is one-way.In other words, we’re not learning to have “conversations” about race; we’re learning how to lecture people about race. If you’re black, then you’re encouraged to educate whites on the systemic oppression of blacks (but only if you’re comfortable doing so). If you’re white, then you’re encouraged to shut up, listen, seek more knowledge (blacks can’t be expected to constantly educate everyone), and then start advocating for people of color.Oluo does not prepare the reader for disagreement and reasoned debate (actual conversations). There are a number of counter-narratives to racial disparities in America and none of them are addressed in this book. For example, many right-wing commentators point to the >60% single parenthood rate in the black community as a source of both economic and criminal disparities. How does the reader address this? How do they engage in debate when their premise, as dictated by the book, is that their opponent is a privileged racist? This book is great if you want to educate your coworker on why it’s not ok to retweet a microaggression. The book fails when your coworker claims that proactive policing saves black lives and cites some sources. Calling them racist simply won’t do. Maybe this is a topic for another book?2) Oluo never presented a long-term vision of what, exactly, she’d like these “conversations” to achieve. Racial equality? An end to white supremacy? Toppling the patriarchy? The closest thing we get to a long-term vision is “not what we have right now,” which is disappointing. It’s easier to “work towards a better tomorrow” if we have a goal. If “change” is self-defined, then we shouldn’t be surprised when many find the “change” to be too slow or insufficient.In the last chapter Oluo outlines other ways that allies could help. She promotes a number of causes and organizations, which gives a better idea of what she, personally, would like to see. This would have been helpful much earlier.In fairness, a discussion group suggested to me that the long-term vision can’t be defined. Being steeped in a racist system, we are incapable of envisioning what a “post racial society” should look like in, say, 200 years. That’s a fair comment, though it’s hard to communicate. Again, maybe this is a topic for another book.3) Oluo uses the language of a revolutionary, but stops short of calling for a revolution.Here’s an example: “When we look at racism simply as ‘a racial prejudice,’ we are entered into a battle to win over the hearts and minds of everyone we encounter – fighting only the symptoms of the cancerous system, not the cancer itself.” (pg 29).Another example: “We have to actually dismantle the machine if we want to make change.” (pg 20).And another: “We have to tackle this problem with real action, and we will not know what needs to be done if we are not willing to talk about it.” (pg. 45).The entire book describes a white supremacist system that gives advantages to whites at the expense of blacks and POC. Sounds like a broken system. What do we do with broken systems? We fix them. Here’s where her lack of vision plays a key role: what are we fixing? The hearts and minds of racists? Implicit bias? Capitalist society? If we’re left to our own devices there will be plenty of whites satisfied with limiting their use of microaggressions or posting a “woke” meme on facebook, yet doing nothing to help, say, a black family living in poverty.4) Empathy is a central theme to the book. Understanding oppression in America is an exercise of collecting information, putting ourselves in their shoes, and then collecting more information to better identify with their feelings. By definition, empathy is imperfect. You can never feel EXACTLY what another is feeling. We lack the context of their entire lives, of all of their “lived experiences.” Imperfect though it may be, it’s the best we have and it opens the door to approximate emotions that we have never experienced in our own lives.The book gives conflicting advice about empathy. On the one hand, a white person can never understand what it’s like to live in an oppressive society. “When you run the situation through your own lived experience, it won’t compute” (pg. 22). “What has happened to you is valid and true, but it has not happened to everyone” (pg. 97).The situations are so ineffable to whites that it must effectively be received and not challenged. “People of color are not asking white people to believe their experiences so that they will fear police as much as people of color do. They are asking because they want white people to join them in demanding their right to be able to trust the police like white people do (pg. 98). In other words, whites CANNOT empathize with blacks, but they SHOULD stand with blacks in demanding institutional changes and policies because blacks feel very strongly about it.On the other hand, whites are instructed to use empathy. In the context of checking your privilege, “they are asking you to pause and consider how the advantages you’ve had in life are contributing to your opinions and actions, and how the lack of disadvantages in certain areas is keeping you from fully understanding the struggles others are facing and may in fact be contributing to those struggles” (pg. 63).So which is it? Do whites use the coarse approximation of empathy to understand oppression as if they themselves were black, or do they admit that they can’t “really” empathize with blacks and accept (e.g.) all of the policy proposals of BLM because they lack the context to understand why those policies are desired? The latter sounds like an all-too-convenient political tool.5) Oluo presented her first principles with respect to racism in the first couple chapters. They are as follows:a) Whites enslaved blacks for economic gains.b) Whites dehumanized blacks to cope with the horrors of slavery.c) Whites did well/continue to do well at the expense of blacks.In other words, power in society is a zero sum game. The success on one must mean the failure of another. The success of whites means that blacks must fail. I don’t think I’m misreading this based on the following quotes:“a privilege has to come with somebody else’s disadvantage – otherwise it’s not a privilege.” (pg 64).“When you say that a representational number of women or people of color cuts out more deserving white men, you are saying that women and people of color deserve to be less represented in our schools and our companies and that white men are deserving of an over-representational majority of these spots.” (pg 118)“People of color have inherited the pain of these words. The oppression they face today is a direct result of how these words were used in the past. Today, black people are still suffering….In contrast, white people have inherited the privilege that these words made possible.” (pg 140). “these words” = the n-word, ghetto, nappy, uppity, articulate, thug.Let’s assume that this is true, that power in society exists for some at the expense of others. This necessarily means that blacks and POC must seize power from whites to ensure equality. Perhaps “seizing” is the wrong word since Oluo seems to want whites to surrender their power peacefully, or grudgingly accept that it’s necessary a black applicant got the job over a white applicant on the basis of race (e.g.).Practically, this means that whites must accept unequal treatment until equality is reached. In other words, whites must face what will feel like oppression until their institutional power is equal to the other races. This” oppression” is apparently “preferred,” which raises the question: “do two wrongs make a right?” It makes one yearn for a solution where the present doesn’t have to atone for the sins of previous generations.Note that I’m specifically referring to institutional limitations on speech (similar to speech laws in Canada, the U.K., etc) and affirmative action. I fully support efforts to call people out for using microaggressions, or to ask school boards to consider minority students with their policies, or to punish powerful bosses or executives if they say something horrible on twitter or at dinner. I don’t need any convincing that this isn’t right, and I think that most would agree.In closing, I didn’t hate this book by any means, and it’s definitely informative if you’ve never really understood the broader conversations about race happening largely over social media. I do agree with other reviewers that it’s “important.” However, it’s importance doesn’t excuse it from the issues that I have outlined and I can’t in good conscience give it a higher rating.

  6. A-aron

    As a African American male I choose this book in hopes of further educating myself on our society as a whole and the plight of the African American community. Unfortunately, I was unable to learn much from it. One of the big issues I had with this book is that the author is forcing her sexual identity into a book that’s supposed to be about race. She continually forces lesbian, trans, and other groups into a book that I believed to be about race. While those groups are also important, that could have been saved for another book.The next issue I had was that she comes off extremely arrogant and condescending at times. I actually listened to this book so I was able to hear her tone and not imagining what she meant while reading it. It was a huge turn off at times and made it hard to listen to.Finally, she played the victim way too much for my liking. The constant whoa is me stuff at all times is not my cup of tea. Sometimes we have to pick our battles and save other battles for later. She seems as if she wants everything her way and she wants it now.While she did talk about some very important topics, I was not totally able to get behind her because of these things. Because of these things I can not in good conscience recommend this book if you’re looking for something that stays on topic and does not have other agendas.

  7. shiawase

    Everything I hoped it would be and more, easy to understand chock full of numbered points of advice on various topics, personal anecdotes that connect to the larger picture and the inspiration to have these conversations and also take action.If you’ve read and loved and learned from Ijeoma Oluo’s words online or in social media, you’ll recognize her same understanding of the complexity of these conversations (especially those that white people should be having with one another) and also her passion for social justice.If you’re not familiar with her incredibly important work, and you’re willing to listen openly about racism from someone with much lived experience woven beautifully into a larger picture where we can all have an impact – positive, if we choose – I’d highly recommend this book.This book covers many of the basics as a reminder so some but also encourages deeper reflection within ourselves. There are parts that feel necessarily squirmy, but it’s clear that she remains focused entirely on helping us all have better conversations about race and take better actions to change a system that isn’t fair.If you’re not sure that’s the case about our system that still oppresses people but are open to listen, this book is a great place to do that, quietly away from some internet fight and with time to pause and consider.Please read this.

  8. Jack White

    Nothing but straw man arguments and once upon a time stories.I got nothing from reading this book.Complete waste of time.

  9. H. Kennedy

    I love Oluo’s style. She leaves your unquestioned assumptions nowhere to hide. She writes about systemic beliefs and the need for systemic change. I say that it’s sad that this book is indispensable because I had thought, as a child during the Sixties, a college student during the Eighties and a professional during the Nineties, Aughts and Teens, that we would be beyond such deep-rooted racial divisions in America by now. But as Oluo points out, this stuff runs deep. In fact, it’s worse than you think, or fear. Racism is America’s Original Sin, and as the excellent work of Joy Buolamwini and her Algorithmic Justice League points out, racism and prejudice are literally being encoded into algorithms that shape decisions about what we’re approved for (a job, an insurance policy), whether we’re seen (by Facebook or other facial recognition software) or even what our punishments should be. We have to have a much broader involvement of race in all our conversations, and that means that white people like me need to cut right to the heart of issues and foster not just conversation, but meaningful systemic change. I’m so glad I heard Oluo on the radio speaking about this book, and even happier that I didn’t delay in buying it.

  10. Nate

    I was hoping to read a book that bridged the gap with race relations in this country. Instead, this is full of hypocritical generalities about white people. The author has the audacity to talk about racism while judging others by the color of their skin. This goes as far as disrespecting her own mother for the same reason. It’s not easy to be a person of color in this country, but we have many marginalized people here and throughout the world. Blaming others solely based on their skin color is counter-productive and produces an even larger gap. I’m ashamed and would like a focus on the future of what a diverse and unified country means. This book just fuels the racial divide. Please open your minds and hearts to skip this read. There are so many other positive and uplifting examples of how to push through adversity to find the greatness in yourself!

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