Summer Reading Series: So You Want to Talk About Race

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

This is the sixth entry in our dialogic pedagogy summer reading series. For more on the series and a full list of texts, see here

Title: So You Want to Talk About Race (published in 2018; $11; available to purchase HERE)

Author: Ijeoma Oluo

Context of Creation:

This bestselling, mass market book was written, Oluo writes in her preface to the paperback edition, to offer “the basic, often unsexy fundamentals” needed “to understand race better, and how to talk about race more effectively, and with more kindness” (xii-iii). The author is a writer and speaker whose work on race has been published in a range of prominent and widely-read venues. 

Context of Reception:

I read So You Want to Talk About Race over the course of a day of traveling — on the airplane, in the airport, and at our destination. In the sense that it is written in extremely clear, plain language and scaffolded logically, it was a very easy book to read in pieces in this fashion. 

Overview of Structure and Content:

The book contains seventeen short chapters averaging about 7-12 pages each, all (save the introduction, which repeats the title) titled in the form of questions, most of which suggest a White intended audience (e.g. “Why can’t I touch your hair?” or “I just got called racist, now what do I do?”), although Oluo does directly address people of color as well throughout the book. Oluo’s first five chapters lay a foundation for engaging in conversations about race both by defining basic terms (e.g. “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?”) and addressing fears (e.g. “What if I talk about race wrong?”). The twelve chapters that follow are all topics-based, designed to give readers both a basic primer on an issue and guidelines for how to discuss it (e.g. affirmative action; microaggressions; cultural appropriation). Oluo starts every chapter with personal narrative and refers to her own background and experiences as an interracial, Black, queer woman throughout each chapter (recalling hooks’s approach in Teaching to Transgress).

Resources for Teachers:

The way Oluo has both structured and written the book — including many lists of tips and guidelines; and written in short chapters and digestible, undergraduate-friendly language — means that much of the book is ready-to-use in the college classroom. The topics-based chapters all lend themselves very well to being scanned individually to be assigned as (part of) pre-dialogue reading. Oluo also includes a discussion guide in the back of the paperback edition that addresses both broad guidelines for embarking on a discussion of the book and a set of questions, some overarching, some targeted specific chapters. 

Therefore, instead of the usual 3-2-1 format of thought-starters, practices, and an activity, I have spent my time in gathering together some of Oluo’s guidelines from across all chapters and formatting them into a single infographic called “Ijeoma Oluo’s Rules of Engagement for Conversations about Race.” 

The infographic contains Oluo’s guidelines for the following: 

determining whether a given issue is “really” about race; 

definition of racism; 

engaging someone (or a group) in a dialogue on race; 

learning how to fail; 

handling microaggressions; 

checking your privilege; 

and turning talk into action. 

The text comes directly from Oluo, with occasional minor paraphrasing to fit the space better.

Some ideas for using this resource

This infographic should not be presented as a “summary” or encapsulation of the book (it is just a snapshot of a few of its concepts, all of which are much more fully developed within the chapters from which they come). Here are some of the ways I envision it being useful: 

This is something that might be distributed to students ahead of a dialogue about race or that includes race-related topics, then reinforced through a few minutes of review and checks for understanding before starting the conversation. 

You might give this to students in class and have them role-play some scenarios (for example, microaggressions). I have found it really useful and beneficial to have students role-play and reflect on difficult or uncomfortable moments that might occur during dialogue before the dialogue proper ever begins. The “Improv Prototyping” fishbowl structure from Liberating Structures would be useful here.

You might model and invite storytelling around moments when people have failed previously in a conversation about race — perhaps encouraging follow-up reenactment and role-play in these scenarios, as well, so that students can practice what they wish they had done or said differently. 

You could ask students to brainstorm examples to illustrate each of the three criteria for determining whether something is “really” about race. (Oluo provides her own in the chapter “Is it really about race?” if you, or your students, get stuck.) 

You could have students generate place-based or community-specific additional actions for racial justice. You might also ask students to put one or more of these principles into action and reflect and/or report back to share experiences and compile group resources to support additional action in the future (e.g. how easy was it to find a Black-owned local business in Austin? How did people go about finding out whether a business exploits its workers of color? Where did students see racist behaviors or comments and what scripts did they use to address them? What new works of art, film, TV, music, and literature created by people of color did students explore, which did they particularly love, and how can they not just consume this content (if free of charge) but also support its creators?). 

Here is a digital version of the infographic, and here is a plain-text document in case that is more accessible for you and/or your students.

Next Week . . . 

We will be reading Be the Change: Lessons and Strategies for Teaching Social Comprehension (Ahmed, 2018).