Chapter 17, Talking is great, but what else can I do? 

At a dinner in Seattle with many Black, queer, and trans people from the art scene, a white male theater director who has had too much to drink frequently uses the word “n*****” while telling a story. Faced with their shock and hurt, he asks that they explain to him what he did wrong. The group scheduled to perform in that director’s theater demands that he and his staff take remedial action and training before the performance will go on, but he wants simply to talk about it. Oluo has witnessed countless white people who are happy to talk about the evils of racism but who take no action to stop it. Oluo was asked to speak at a women’s march in Seattle as they wished to feature women of color. She declined because they expected her to do so without payment, which she described as exploitative. A white woman wrote to her and asked her to explain why she felt that way. Too many people simply want to talk about racial problems, often to reassure themselves that they are right, which denies her lived experience. Oluo is frequently asked to speak, for free, to community groups who want the emotional high of talking about racism without the work of changing it. She compares such conversations to those about climate change. Most reasonable people understand that both racism and climate change are massive problems, but few people are doing anything about either. She encourages her readers to talk, to act, to make mistakes, to learn from them, and to talk and act with greater understanding.  

In case the problem feels too big, Oluo offers some concrete steps. Make racial issues a priority in local elections and school systems. When you see racial injustice in action, offer to help. Demand change from your unions and support minority-owned businesses. Do not do business with banks or businesses that exploit people of color. Donate to organizations that are doing the work. Support minority arts groups and businesses, minimum wage increases, and police reform. Demand diversity in higher education and government. If the problem seems too large, remember that its systemic nature gives us the power to change it every day every time we interact with government, business, or education. Oluo shares the stories of two local officials who were not held accountable for killing Black youth. Social media protests prevented their reelection and denied them a livelihood while setting an example to others in power. She was part of a Seattle group that fought an expensive new police facility from being built. Their arguments initially were not heard, but eventually, they stopped the project and were able to redirect the funds to people in need. Small changes add up.


In this chapter, Oluo addresses the exploitative nature of asking people of color to volunteer their time, knowledge, and experience. She explains how she is often asked to speak to groups about racism, without regard for the fact that talking about racism is her job. Being a writer, an educator, and an activist are not hobbies for Oluo. These are the ways that she makes a living. In an information age, knowledge is power. Asking anyone to share their knowledge without compensation is a type of exploitation. As a capitalist society, America philosophizes that people deserve to be compensated fairly for their efforts. In practice, America often denies minorities that right in an economic tradition dating back to 1619. Black labor has historically been used to meet white people’s needs and build wealth. The same is true for Latinx and Asian-American immigrants who have long labored far below the minimum wage while the corporations they work for continue to profit. The American capitalist system relies on people of color to give freely without recompense so the white majority can continue to live relatively easier lives. 

People of color are subject to a unique type of exploitation when they are asked to explain their minority experience to white people. This request is exploitative for three reasons. First, describing such an inherently traumatic experience as racism can never be a simple thought exercise for a person of color. It is deeply personal and often traumatic, so it requires an unreciprocated level of vulnerability. The white person asking for the explanation has no similar experience, which leads to the second way in which minorities are exploited. The request is disingenuous. White people who ask Oluo to explain her experience of racism do not seek to understand. Instead, they want to defend themselves or receive absolution. Worse, they might be curious to hear dramatic retellings of racism’s tawdry or brutal effects. That can be exhilarating for some people, but to demand it at the expense of a person who is traumatized is simply cruel. Finally, the request continues the American tradition of demanding that people of color give themselves to the white majority body and soul. White people in America have never been satisfied with treating Black people as slaves, property, or chattel. They have historically demanded that Black people admire them, entertain them, and provide them with personal pleasure. Asking Black people to educate white people about racism and to share their darkest moments continues this sick condition of enslavement.   

Oluo acknowledges that addressing a white supremacist social system is daunting, but the size of the problem provides people with more opportunities to create change. Small, local changes accumulate over time and infiltrate the greater systemic injustice, cracking its foundation until it can no longer stand. Decisions made at the local level have immediate and lasting consequences, so voting, speaking out, and spending more conscientiously make a concrete impact on people’s lives. Every American has the power to vote, to use their voice, and to make economic decisions, but very few Americans consider the effects of such power. Oluo asks that instead of simply talking about race, her readers use their power to both create and demand change on a local level. These actions are particularly important in government, business, and education, which are the three systems in which racism is the most firmly entrenched. At the government level, people have voting power and campaign influence, in terms of both time and money. It’s necessary to hold discussions about police reform, listen to and support minority voices, and pressure leaders into making decisions that lead to equality and justice. In business terms, people decide where to spend their money, which products to purchase, and which banks to engage with. Finally, regardless of whether a person has school-aged children, everyone is affected by their local educational system, which trains future generations. Everyone has a say in what young people are being taught and how. Small, local actions become large, systemic changes when enough people engage in them.