Authors: Ijeoma Oluo
These tips should help you have more healthy and productive conversations on race and racism. Look through the list and try to recognize where you have
had trouble in the past and make a concerted effort to practice the tips that may address where things have gone wrong.
But even with all of your practice, and with the best of your intentions, there will be times where this all goes to shit. There will be times where you truly lose the plot and you aren’t sure what has happened, but you do know that you have really messed it up.
It is important
to learn how to fail, to learn how to be wrong in a way that minimizes pain to you and others and maximizes what you can learn from the experience. Here are some tips for when your conversation on race has gone very wrong:
Stop trying to jump back in when a conversation is beyond saving.
When things have gone really wrong and everyone is upset, and every additional word feels like a knife
in the chest, stop trying to force a resolution. I know that it is very hard to leave an emotional conversation unfinished. It is hard to leave feeling unheard or misunderstood. A resolution can still happen, provided you haven’t already burned all the conversational bridges around you, but not right now. It’s obvious, by how things have been going, that you are not in a state to find a whole new,
productive path for this conversation. Step away, and take some time to calm down. Then think about where things went wrong, and what, if anything, can be done to revisit that conversation later in a productive and healthy way.
If you can see where you screwed up, where you made assumptions, where you got overly defensive, where you hurt someone—own up and say sorry. And mean it.
Don’t write your synopsis of this conversation as “the time you got yelled at.”
Remember why you had been in this conversation. Remember what the core issue was. Do not revise it in your mind so that instead of “an important conversation on race that didn’t go well,” it becomes “that tragic time you got yelled at for trying and felt bad.”
Don’t insist that people give you credit for your
If you screwed up and you hurt people, your good intentions won’t lessen that hurt. Don’t insist that people act less hurt or offended or angry because your intentions were good.
Don’t beat yourself up.
Yes, you should feel bad when you say or do something that hurts someone else. And it’s natural to feel frustrated when you aren’t communicating as effectively as you need to. But
you also need to keep in mind that this happens, a lot. If this was something that we were good at talking about, well, I certainly wouldn’t have felt the need to write this book. You shouldn’t expect those hurt by your actions to just brush what happened aside, but that doesn’t mean that you should consider yourself a monster. Instead of drowning in guilt, or ignoring your wrongdoing in order
to escape guilt altogether, take some time to really think about what was said and what you could have done better. There is a good chance that the person you were talking to was trying very hard to let you know where you were going wrong. Even if you don’t get the chance to make things right with the person you were talking to, you can use what you have learned to make sure you don’t screw up in
that same way again with other people. You can and will do better if you learn from this experience.
Remember that it is worth the risk and commit to trying again.
Okay, this conversation didn’t go well. In fact, it went horribly. And now you know that you have more to learn and more you have to do to get better at this. But you have to just keep trying, because the alternative is your complacency
in the continued oppression of people of color.
No matter what, when you are having a conversation about racial oppression, you will not be the only one who is nervous and you will not be the only one taking a risk. These conversations will always be hard, because they will always be about the hurt and pain of real people. We are talking about our identities and our histories and the ways in
which these are used and exploited to elevate and oppress. These conversations will always be emotional and loaded to various degrees—and if they are not, then you are likely not having the right conversation.
Racial oppression should always be an emotional topic to discuss. It should always be anger-inducing. As long as racism exists to ruin the lives of countless people of color, it should
be something that upsets us. But it upsets us because it exists, not because we talk about it. And if you are white, and you don’t want to feel any of that pain by having these conversations, then you are asking people of color to continue to bear the entire burden of racism alone.
Have these conversations, not just with people of other races—and I know that’s why the majority of you are reading
this book. You should be having these conversations with people of your own race as well. White people—talk about
race with other white people. Stop pretending that you are exempt from the day-to-day realities of race. Take some of the burden of racism off of people of color. Bring it into your life so that you can dismantle racism in the white spaces of your life that people of color can’t even
reach. People of color, talk to your people about race. Feel the therapeutic effects of honest and safe conversation about race. Examine and confront your internalized racism. Make space to heal and rejuvenate.
Take care in your conversations, remember that you are dealing with the real hurt of human beings. But be brave in that care, be honest in that care. These conversations will never become
easy, but they will become easier. They will never be painless, but they can lessen future pain. They will never be risk-free, but they will always be worth it.
OR A VERY LONG TIME,
EATTLE WAS A VERY LONELY
place for me. I’d spent my entire life here, but it wasn’t until my early thirties that I had really found a community.
My entire childhood spent in the working-class suburbs of Seattle had been very isolating. Until high school, my brother and I were almost always the only black kids
in class. We had both found small groups of kids who would allow us to hang out in the periphery, but we never really belonged. As we became adults and race shaped more and more of our daily lives and the lives of the white people around us, our racial identity took on “real world” meaning, and isolated us from many of the few friends we’d managed to obtain over the years.
That all changed for
me when I was invited to join a Facebook community of people of color in the greater Seattle area.
I was suddenly immersed into a world of black and brown artists, professors, musicians, and tech leaders. We would have hangouts where we’d eat vegan soup and sip fancy cocktails and talk about bold art and systemic oppression and political theory. We put together art showings and community conversations.
We had amazing New Year’s Eve parties where hundreds of elaborately dressed people of color danced the night away, afros and locs swaying to the beat. It was a dream come true. Suddenly, Seattle didn’t seem like the gray city of repressed white comfort that it had previously been. I had found another Seattle—hip, smart, diverse Seattle.
I’d found a home.
We gathered one sunny afternoon for a
picnic in the park. Sunny days in Seattle are almost as rare and unpredictable as outsiders think, but somehow, we’d managed to plan this afternoon and carry it off without a raindrop in sight. We met in Capitol Hill, a neighborhood I usually work very hard to avoid—as the overwhelmingly hip white pretentious vibe aggravates my anxiety. This is one of those neighborhoods where upper-middle-class
white kids dress up in the same thrifted clothes that branded me a poverty-stricken outcast in school, but become cool when you are thin, white, and financially comfortable. But here we were, more people of color in one tiny park than the entire neighborhood had probably seen in the decades since people of color had been priced out of the neighborhood.
My younger son played with a little girl
his age who had bouncy brown curls and a vocabulary far exceeding her six years while I talked with her father, a photographer, about his work. I talked with people on various arts commissions about
what shows they were looking forward to seeing this year and the funding they were hoping to provide to community projects. I talked with tech workers about what they were doing to diversify both their
staff and the reach of their products. And we chatted about our children, our neighborhoods, our homes. We ate a variety of fancy hummus and salad and drank a fair amount of wine. It was, by any measure, turning into a lovely afternoon.
A few hours into the shindig, a group of black men walked over hesitantly from the basketball courts. They had a look of curiosity on their faces—likely wondering
by what magic this large island of picnicking black people had suddenly appeared in the middle of this ocean of whiteness.
“Hey, what are y’all—some kind of group? What are you doing out here?” one of the men asked.
“We’re a community of people of color in Seattle and we’re having a picnic.”
The man scanned the spread of people, appetizers, and wine and nodded, “Can we join you?”
conversation in the group came to a stop and an uncomfortable silence took its place.
At first I didn’t know why. But then I knew. These were black people, but they were definitely not
. They had a different style, a different swagger than ours. They were close-cropped fades and basketball shorts, we were long locs and hipster jeans. These were people who came to this white-dominated part
of town simply for the well-maintained basketball court. We came for the gastro-pubs and art walks and a lot of us lived here. These were people that would have been called “real black” by people I grew up with who often used such terms to point out how “not black” my education, speech, and fashion sense obviously made me.
“Sure,” the organizer said, and handed up a bottle of wine. The awkwardness
was eased and the men sat down and joined us. Conversation resumed as it had before, and after an hour or so, I gathered my kid and my picnic blanket and went home.
In the following days I couldn’t stop thinking about those men who had approached us at the picnic. I couldn’t stop thinking about the silence of our group as they walked up. Why had it been so awkward? Why would our own people, fellow
people of color, make us so uncomfortable?
And then I realized why with a sinking feeling to my stomach. When we were building our community, those men weren’t who we had in mind as members. When we talked about expanding art opportunities for people of color in Seattle, they weren’t who we had in mind. When we talked about diversity in tech, they weren’t who we had in mind. When we talked about
getting a hip group of black and brown people together for a picnic on a sunny day, they weren’t who we had in mind. When we talked about community, they weren’t who we had in mind.
And this wasn’t because we felt any animosity towards these men, it was because when we talked about people of color, we talked about
people like us.
We were talking about people of color with college degrees, and
“high-fashion” clothes and eclectic tastes in music. We talked about people in our social groups with our interests and our opportunities and struggles. We talked about yes, people of color all facing oppression due to the color of our skin, and many due to our genders and sexuality—but we were also talking about people with our specific sets of privilege.
And we hadn’t examined that.
smacked us right in the face when a group of fellow people of color walked up to us and we immediately knew that they weren’t invited. And what sucks is that they could have been all of these things—they could have been tech engineers or artists or lovers of eclectic music and this entire awkwardness could have been built off of nothing more than assumption and stereotype, or they could have had
completely opposite interests and circumstances, but no matter what, they still would have been our people. But we didn’t see them, because they simply hadn’t occurred to
I then realized that there was a distinct set of my black friends who I had never seen at any of this group’s events, even though just about every person of color in town was aware that the group existed. I began to ask
some of them why they hadn’t been around.
“Too pretentious,” some said.
“I just don’t really feel like I belong,” said others.
“Nah, those are some bougie black folk,” said a black woman I had dated.
I began to see how unaware of our privilege our group had been. We had been patting ourselves on the back for creating this great community, for creating a home for people of color in a hostile
city—and our unexamined privilege had kept out those most negatively impacted by overwhelmingly white, wealthy Seattle—those who, unlike us, could not cushion some of the blows of racism with at least some of the indicators of success that white Seattle valued. Yes, we had worked
very hard for what we had been able to accomplish, but we’d also been very lucky. But we forgot the luck and wore our
status as a symbol of pride—creating a hierarchy in a group in desperate need of solidarity. And no, I’m not saying that those men who approached us at the park needed us to save them or embrace them, but if we weren’t going to be there for and with
people of color, we should probably at least stop pretending to be creating a radical space of acceptance and just admit that we were simply a
social club for comfortable people of color.
That group has grown and changed over the years, and I don’t really know if it’s still as privileged or ignorant of its privilege as it once was. I’m not nearly as involved with it as I used to be. It is not what I’m seeking anymore. I wouldn’t call it disillusionment—at least not with the group. It’s an amazing and much-needed space for many who are
often made to feel alone. But that one afternoon in the sun definitely brought about a disillusionment with myself and what type of black woman I thought I was, and caused me to question my individual work and change my focus to ensure that when I talk about black people, I’m talking, as best as I can while acknowledging the limitations of my own life experience, about
black people—of all
classes, all education levels, all genders, all sexualities, and all abilities. And once I shifted that focus, my community opened up to me in ways that I never thought possible.
T KNOW IF THERE
S ONE PHRASE MORE MALIGNED
in social justice language than “check your privilege.” It is a
phrase most likely to be met with dismissal and derision. It’s a phrase viewed as an ineffective weapon
hurled at someone with no other purpose than to win an argument or at least silence opposition. Often people will preempt requests to check said privilege in heated social justice conversations by saying, “I bet this is where you tell me to check my privilege” with the eye-roll–filled sarcasm seeping through. But as disliked as the phrase “check your privilege” is, I’ve found from my conversations
and from witnessing the conversations of others that very few people actually know what privilege is, let alone how they would go about checking it.
It is a shame that so much derision has been heaped upon a concept that so few people understand—especially one as important as privilege. Not only is the concept of privilege integral to our real understanding of issues of race in the West, it is
crucial to the success of any efforts towards social justice that we make.
So what is privilege? Is it, as many fear, “good shit you should feel bad about having so that other people can feel better about not having it?” No, it’s not. But that isn’t to say that understanding privilege won’t make you feel bad. It might make you feel very bad, and I’m convinced that is why so many of us are quick
to dismiss discussions on privilege before they even get started. We may not fully “get” privilege, but we have a feeling that understanding our privilege will change what we feel about ourselves and our world, and not in a good way.
The definition of privilege is in reality much simpler than a lot of social justice discussions would have you believe. Privilege, in the social justice context,
is an advantage or a set of advantages that you have that others do not.
These privileges are not due 100 percent to your efforts (although your hard work may indeed have helped), and the benefits of these privileges are disproportionately large or at least partially undeserved when compared to what the privilege is for. These advantages can often be ascribed to certain social groups: privilege
based on race, physical ability, gender, class, etc. But these privileges can also lie in areas that you may have not considered, like sexuality, body type, and neurological differences. It is in these advantages and their coupled disadvantages that the health and well-being of large amounts of people are often determined. If we are truly dedicated to addressing systemic oppression and inequality,
we must understand the full impact of these advantages and disadvantages in order to move toward real change in our society and ourselves.
Let’s use a bit of my privilege as an example: I have a college degree in political science. I worked very hard for my degree, studying at all hours of the night while also taking care of a small child. I probably worked harder than many of the other students
in my class, being the only black female single parent there. I also worked hard to get into college in the first place, maintaining my grades while working every evening to help my single mom make ends meet. I’m proud of my degree and the effort that I put into it. While I do have a right to be proud of my degree, it would be dishonest of me to pretend that this degree is 100 percent owed to
my efforts. I was raised by a college-educated mother who taught me that a degree was important. I grew up as a neuro-typical, nondisabled child whom school was designed to serve and for whom teachers were willing and trained to dedicate their time and efforts. My grade school education was free and
open to people of all genders and economic classes. I had enough security in my home and nutrition
as a child to be able to concentrate on my studies. I live in a country that provides at least some college grants and loans. I grew up in an area that allows and supports the advanced education of women. I did not have to drop out of school to help support my family. I am a documented citizen and therefore eligible for financial aid. These are just some of the many ways in which privilege helped
me get my college degree. To look at this list and say, “anybody could do this if they just work hard enough” would be a lie.
Some of the benefits that I’ve received from my degree are also not what the degree, in itself, has earned. Benefits that should go with my degree are things like being more qualified for a job in politics, government, or social services. Also the ability to yell, “I HAVE
A DEGREE IN POLITICAL SCIENCE!” during arguments about politics. I get a well-earned warm feeling when I stare at my diploma. I get to talk about my degree in political science in this book. That’s about $30k in benefits, right? Right? If you can think of any more, please email me because it would make me feel a lot better about these student loans I’m still paying. But there are some benefits
to my degree that are, well, let’s say they’re “problematic.” Yes, my degree makes me more qualified for jobs that utilize my political science knowledge, but that degree—any degree—made me eligible for management positions in the marketing and tech fields I’ve worked in, while more talented coworkers without a degree were automatically disqualified. Yes, I do deserve to feel proud of my degree,
but it isn’t deserving of the general reputation that
I, as a college graduate, am a smarter, more responsible, and more valuable citizen than those without a degree (especially when you consider all the advantages listed above that helped make my degree accessible to me). My degree has also gotten me higher pay than other people of color that I worked with in just about every job I’ve held in
my adult life, and I’ve never worked in a field (until perhaps now, as a writer) that has even mildly utilized my political science skills. All of these advantages, for a status that I didn’t fully earn, set me higher up in a socioeconomic hierarchy than others, and place other people below.