Chapters 2 and 3 

Chapter 2, What is racism? 

Oluo relates an anecdote about a coworker posting about how people on welfare should be subjected to drug tests and forced sterilization. The two engage in an argument via the internet. Relating the conversation the next day, Oluo is surprised when her friend objects to her description of the coworker as racist. He argues that racism describes egregious acts like those committed by the Nazis but does not apply to broad and demeaning generalizations of minorities. Realizing that he is refusing to acknowledge an essential part of her experience, she now feels unsafe around him. Oluo defines racism as discrimination against a person because of their race in ways that are reinforced by a power structure. This definition allows her to transcend individual, personal emotions, opinions, and behaviors to focus on systemic abuses of power. It also allows her to open the door to systemic change, and it relieves minorities of the responsibility to prove their own worth. Instead, this definition of racism demands that the system bear the burden of proving that it treats everyone equally.  

This book is not about getting people to be kinder to one another, although that is a laudable goal. Oluo intends to show the ways the system is racist and what we can do about it. Oluo argues that racism is a means by which powerful white men reinforce their power, not an emotional reaction to people of color. In an effort to make this argument practical rather than theoretical, Oluo suggests a response to people who raise the question of “reverse racism” that redirects the conversation into a discussion of the ways such incidents operate systemically. Such a response will either reveal the person’s insincerity in making the argument or open the door to real communion. Oluo also suggests that people who identify racist behaviors should link those incidents to larger, more systemic problems. And she shares her hopes about how having these conversations differently might result in systemic changes. 

Chapter 3, What if I talk about race wrong? 

Oluo describes a childhood essentially devoid of substantive conversations about race because Oluo’s white mother did not understand race’s pervasiveness. As an adult, Oluo was wary when her mother called wanting to share an epiphany she had about race. Over the phone, her mother describes being confronted by a Black coworker for telling a joke at work. She describes the joke as having a punchline for rather than about Black people. She assumes that because she has three Black children, she understands what it’s like to be Black, and she intends to share this epiphany with her coworker. Mother and daughter then have a long, uncomfortable conversation about how living with Black people is not the same as being Black and about how to talk with people of color about racism. Afterwards, Oluo feels that she and her mother now have a better relationship, and that her mother manages race relations more realistically. 

Oluo states that avoiding uncomfortable conversations about race means ignoring the problems that people of color face. She starts by offering nine suggestions for productive conversations. These include: 1) stating intentions for the conversation, 2) keeping emotions out of it, 3) doing research to understand the topic and terminology, 4) avoiding oppressive arguments about any group, 5) reflecting on defensive feelings, 6) not requiring others to make you feel comfortable, 7) setting personal feelings aside, 8) not trying to be right above all else, and 9) not forcing people into conversations about race. Then, she offers six suggestions for addressing missteps. These include: 1) recognizing when a conversation is beyond hope, 2) apologizing sincerely, if warranted, 3) focusing on the core issue, 4) not expecting credit for good intentions, 5) not beating yourself up, and 6) remembering why these conversations are important. Finally, she encourages white people to have conversations about race with one another so that minorities do not have to be the only ones addressing the topic. 


Oluo seeks to redefine racism in the context of a system that underlies, empowers, and encourages it. This removes it from the realm of personal attitudes and responses. Doing so offers numerous benefits. First, it lowers the emotional temperature in conversations about race by taking the focus away from individual actions or perceptions that are rooted in prejudice. Accusing people of racism poses obstacles to discussion or resolution. Identifying racism as a systemic problem allows individuals who might harbor negative feelings about minorities to understand where those feelings originate. By identifying an outside source, Oluo gives people the opportunity to distance themselves from such feelings and learn to respond differently. This approach also relieves minorities of the psychological and emotional burden of proving that their experience of racism is general and not isolated. Isolated incidents exist in a context that can be used to minimize discrimination. By contrast, a systemic perspective reveals that society is designed to treat some people differently than others. This reality cannot be easily excused. Finally, an understanding of racism as a systemic problem allows us to start identifying solutions. When we treat racism at the individual level, we are reduced to psychotherapists, burdened with the responsibility of changing peoples’ hearts and minds. When we understand the ways racism is embedded in our society, we can begin to change systemic infrastructures such as education, criminal justice, and social welfare. 

Oluo’s book is practical rather than theoretical, so she transforms our ways of not only thinking about racism but also talking about it. She has several goals in doing so. First, she hopes that such conversations will redirect attention from a person’s feelings toward the reasons we talk about social problems. For that reason, she encourages her readers to consider their own intentions in holding such conversations. If the goal is to impart guilt, the conversation is likely to be limited and unproductive. Other goals she suggests are enlightenment and redress. The first works by reframing an individual’s concerns to understand how isolated discriminatory incidents differ from systemic ones. Slowly, such repeated conversations can help people see the ways that one awkward encounter does not inhibit from living a full, productive life, whereas prejudicial educational and hiring practices deeply impact generations and communities. Beyond enlightenment, Oluo hopes that such conversations can lead to corrective action and even well-intentioned people can call attention to racist behaviors, incidents, or practices while linking these to broader, systemic abuses. Doing so directs attention away from justified anger at a single discriminatory incident and encourages social change. 

Oluo’s two sets of suggestions about how to talk about race are both predicated on the assumption that people who try to talk about race will fail, an assumption that is based upon 400 years of precedent in a racist society. Failure is discouraging, and its repetition can cause people to stop making the effort, so it’s important to acknowledge that failure is inevitable. Doing so lowers the bar for a person’s expectations in talking about race, but it also reiterates that this effort is a lifelong journey toward creating a more equitable society, a goal that will not be accomplished in a single sitting. Oluo also argues that societal change is much bigger and more important than any one person’s feelings, which must either be transcended or at least set aside when we talk about race. The failure to do so can lead to volatile conversations and relationship changes but not societal change. Oluo insists that we each take the responsibility to educate ourselves to the extent that we can and to use language intentionally and cautiously, forcing every person to own the consequences that racism has for our society and to work together to discover solutions. These themes are repeated in her suggestions for how to put failed discussions behind and manage future ones differently. Here, she continues to insist that people take responsibility for their own roles and resist the temptation to soothe hurt feelings by reinterpreting what was said and what was meant.