Ijeoma Oluo’s first full-length, nonfiction book, So You Want to Talk About Race, grew out of her journalistic writings about racial inequity. Each chapter is structured much like a blog post, beginning with an anecdote that illustrates the chapter’s topic. Oluo then roots the story in data and definitions before providing tips or suggestions for addressing the problem. The personal nature of the anecdotes is always frank, sometimes blunt, and occasionally disturbing. When the anecdote is especially long or detailed, it warrants special attention, as Oluo does not generally rely on emotion alone to make her argument. Longer, more detailed anecdotes may indicate a topic that is particularly psychologically damaging to minority communities or one that the majority has difficulty understanding.  

Oluo uses the introduction and first five chapters to outline her central premise. Four of these sections are about race, indicating a massive conceptual divide between how minority and majority communities interpret America’s social inequities. Oluo must prove that America is a systemically racially unjust society before she can move on to other topics. Given racism’s deep underpinnings in America, proving that to a skeptical white audience is a tall task. Chapters 6 through 12 identify various ways that systemic racism plays out in sectors of American society. Chapters 13 through 16 address the struggles minorities face in their fight, how the majority continues to work against them, and how both can work toward a solution. In the book’s final chapter, Oluo encourages her readers to move past discussions about race, which can become an emotional panacea, to take action and make America a more just society.  

Oluo’s method of argumentation consists of a unique blend of anecdotal evidence; statistical, empirical, and longitudinal data; practical responses to realistic counterarguments; acknowledgments of her own shortcomings; and carefully reasoned, empathetic rhetorical questions. Together, these strategies make the book realistic, sound, and practical. While Oluo sometimes comes across as blunt and angry, she is also honest, sympathetic, and heartbroken. In the first chapter, Oluo relates how the internet has given Black people a platform for sharing their experiences, which has helped them realize they are not alone. Even as Oluo was ostracized by her Seattle friend group for speaking out, she was able to build a new online community of people who understood and shared her experiences. A single anecdote can be dismissed as an anomaly. A mass of eerily similar anecdotes constitutes empirical evidence. The internet gives us empirical evidence that Black people in America continue to be targeted and disadvantaged solely for their race.  

That evidence is bolstered by data from every segment of American society from our school systems to our police forces, from our housing communities to our professional workplaces. Oluo has engaged in discussions about race for years, so she knows how people respond in various situations. She doesn’t dismiss those responses. She raises them, acknowledges their sources and whatever validity they have, and then shows where they fall short. An argument’s weakness is usually because the respondent has failed to consider the systemic nature of racism or the intersectional nature of identity. In talking about affirmative action, her own parenting experiences, and the model minority myth, Oluo describes the ways in which she and the social justice movement have failed, and she resolves to do better as she encourages her readers to take concrete actions to reduce racism. Not all of Oluo’s arguments are irrefutable, but she makes a clear case that America needs work, honesty, and empathy, not perfection, to become a better, more just union. 

Oluo treats racism as a systemic problem rather than an emotional one for several reasons. Doing so allows her to redirect attention from people’s personal, oftentimes visceral, reactions to discussions about racism and toward the social inequities resulting from racist attitudes and behaviors. Instead of calling out a person who describes Black people as lazy or unmotivated, Oluo explores the ways that belief plays out in the workplace to rob minorities of job opportunities and promotions. Systemic racism also allows Oluo to defuse otherwise heated conversations such as those surrounding a white person’s privilege or the reasons white people can’t say “n*****.”  

Describing racism as a personal belief or emotion can cause white people to feel wounded or aggrieved, to feel that they are being denied the right to free speech, or to defend themselves on the grounds of their good intentions. A systemic understanding of racism requires that white people understand the effects that widespread oppression has had on their own lives and the ways their behaviors continue to perpetrate that oppression on others regardless of their intentions. Finally, by treating racism as systemic, Oluo changes the nature of social justice work. It is no longer an effort to win over the hearts and minds of individual Americans, an effort that has taken centuries and is still failing. Instead, the social justice movement becomes an anecdotally and statistically based effort to demonstrate conclusively that America is an unjust, unequal white supremacy. From that base, the movement can then propose concrete solutions to move America toward its ideal of liberty and justice for all. 

Fundamental to Oluo’s argument is the concept of intersectionality. This works initially as a rebuttal to white people’s counterarguments or attempts to redirect conversations about race so they focus on socioeconomic inequalities. When white people interrupt racial discussions with counterarguments about the economy or educational disparities or single-parent families, intersectionality allows Oluo to acknowledge those problems while insisting that race remain part of the conversation. Of course the problems Black children experience in America’s school system are connected to the over-incarceration of their parents and their poverty level and crime, and these problems are also about race. Of course a queer, Black woman’s struggle to get promoted is about the glass ceiling and LGBTQ issues in the workplace, and it is also about race. These questions cannot be addressed in isolation, but race must be part of the equation because everyone has a racial identity. Some Americans benefit from it and others are oppressed because of it.  

Race is not the only reason that people experience advantages and disadvantages in society, but in America, it is one major factor. For Oluo, however, intersectionality is also a crucial tenet of social justice. Feminists, the LBGTQ community, Native Americans, and others must all consider their own minority members and include their vision of justice in the pursuit for social equality. Crafted this way, the effort is more difficult and will take longer. But without considering intersectionality, any movement toward social justice will inevitably create yet another privileged group that oppresses another minority. Social equality has to work for every person’s whole identity if it is to work at all.