Chapters 15 and 16 

As a child, Oluo was taught that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X had irreconcilable, dichotomous approaches toward civil rights. This distinction still exists among social justice battles and their proponents. Privileged members of society regularly tell Oluo that Black people’s anger makes others uncomfortable. In other words, some Black people are good, polite, and worthy of freedom, while others are bad, rude, and unworthy. But King and Malcolm X both fought for freedom from oppression and were assassinated. Black people have never been seen as “nice enough” to be given freedom. They have always had to fight for it. And either a person believes that justice and equality is for everyone, without caveats, or they do not. Oluo describes the problem as “tone policing,” which she defines as privileged people telling minorities how to talk about their struggles for equality. Such admonishments are not made to keep the conversation civil, but to protect the majority’s feelings. Conversations about race are not about feelings, they are about the systemic abuse of people of color. It is unreasonable to ask people to talk about death, violence, and brutality in a more polite tone. People may not like every action or every person within social justice movements, but that does not invalidate the causes themselves or their efforts. People and movements are flawed, and they can be improved, but not by a white person telling people to calm down. Privileged members of society have difficulty understanding and empathizing with minority experiences. In the fight for social justice, the majority must prioritize that goal and manage their own discomfort without making others responsible for it. Oluo reminds people of color that their feelings matter and that they deserve freedom and equality, a fact that is easy to forget in a society driven by white supremacy. 

Chapter 16, I just got called racist, what do I do now? 

Oluo was initially mildly amused when George W. Bush said he was hurt by the accusation that was racist because of his poor response to Hurricane Katrina. Then she began writing about race and realized that many white people have a viscerally negative reaction to being called a racist. A Canadian reader personally and repeatedly attacked Oluo online because she noted ongoing patterns of racist behavior in Canada. The response seems disproportionate but is widespread and harmful to people of color, who risk their jobs, their friendships, and their safety when they call out racism. The fact that they continue to call it out demonstrates how painful racism is. Oluo speaks directly to white people, whom she acknowledges may be allies in the fight for racial justice, but who may also be racist, because in a white supremacy, white people exist in a power imbalance with minorities. Oluo points out that individuals tend to believe that they are trying to behave appropriately and have a positive effect on society. However, in a racist society, Oluo believes that, without realizing it, even people with the best intentions have racist attitudes as a result of being raised in a country where white supremacy is the norm. Speaking to people who want to support a fair and equitable society, Oluo states that the white majority needs to think carefully about how it votes, spends money, and interacts with others. Even if a person believes they have made choices to support social justice, other people may not feel their actions are sufficient. She advises people to think carefully about who they are and who they want to be. 


White people do not have the right to tell minorities how to fight for a freedom that whites have always enjoyed. Doing so is another way of exerting control over people of color while denying them full equality. People respond differently to being hurt. Some people withdraw, while others cry out and demand redress. No one has the right to dictate that response. Refusing to listen, or worse, telling a person to stop complaining not only demonstrates a lack of empathy. When one group is being systematically oppressed, negating their experience constitutes a denial of their humanity for the sake of one’s own personal comfort. In the social justice movement, no one has the authority to say, “You’re doing it wrong.” Doing so denies minorities the agency to own their pain, acknowledge its sources, place blame, and seek restitution.  

Equality is either absolute or meaningless. A deeply held American belief is that all people are born equal. Theoretically, equality is not granted to certain social segments or denied to others. Likewise, equality is not earned. It is an essential human right. Nevertheless, as Oluo has demonstrated, people of color in the United States do not enjoy equal rights in American society. One argument frequently made in the struggle for equality is that the people involved are too angry, belligerent, rude, and so on. However, this argument ignores the essential nature of equality. Rights are not earned, and people fighting for human rights do not need to demonstrate their worth. They simply need to be recognized as human. Any failure to do so, including instituting barriers such as tone policing, is a failure to recognize equality as a basic human right while upholding an unequal power structure in which one group has the right to tell another how to be. If Americans truly believe in equality, they must first acknowledge the widespread failure of all of its social systems from the government to the economy to education. Then, they must recognize that those who fight for equality have the human right to do so without worrying about their tone. 

White people consistently behave as if being called racist were the worst thing to happen to them, demonstrating an utter failure to comprehend what racism is and how it affects minority populations. In a system that oppresses minorities, any person who is a member of the majority population benefits from that system, regardless of their personal feelings, attitudes, or behaviors. In some cases, the system itself makes the majority racist. That fact might be unpalatable to individuals in a majority. It might damage a white person’s ego or sense of self. However, that fact doesn’t do any real harm to the majority, which continues to benefit from a racist, self-serving system of oppression. It simply makes the majority feel uncomfortable. The minority, on the other hand, are confronted daily with racism’s real effects. Minorities are under-educated, over-incarcerated, subject to police brutality and hate crimes, and burdened with poverty and homelessness. These are racism’s real harms under which people die, are physically abused, or are emotionally and psychologically afflicted. Meanwhile, the minority’s feelings and egos are rarely considered in discussions about racism. Instead, minorities are told not to be so angry, to be more polite, and to consider all the concessions white people have given them. The contrast would seem absurd if it did not inflict so much real damage on people of color.