Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Insufficiency of Good Intentions 

Most people are not inherently, hatefully, evilly racist. Oluo states that most people do not burn crosses in their neighbors’ yards, shoot young Black men for walking with a hoodie, or even use racist slurs. Nevertheless, racism is so deeply interwoven into American society that it is inevitable that white people, who benefit from minority oppression, will engage in racist behaviors. Oluo explains that if you hurt someone, it doesn’t matter whether you meant to—the damage is done. Using examples of white behavior, such as making racist jokes, touching Black people’s hair, or doing business with banks that deny loans to people of color, Oluo suggests that white people must be held accountable for perpetuating systemic racism and that a white person’s intentions are irrelevant. When a white person’s behavior harms individuals and communities, Oluo argues, good intentions do not negate the damage. 

The Discomfort of Talking About Race  

When white people talk about race it is necessary to discuss who benefits from a system of oppression and who is harmed by it. These discussions are eye-opening, because so many white people are unaware of the ways in which they benefit from systemic racism. When they're confronted with this fact, it often results in incredulity, pain, and defensiveness. When something is not happening to you, has never happened to you, or is unlikely to happen to you, it can be difficult to believe that it happens to anyone. But when the same thing happens every day to a person of color, a fair-minded person who cares about social justice has a responsibility to listen and to trust. Such discussions can be painful for both the majority and the minority members. People of color are talking about ways that they suffer, and reliving trauma is traumatic. White listeners are hearing ways they have failed their fellow human beings, and no one likes to fail. That feeling can turn into defensiveness, but that reaction is prideful and self-protective. It ignores the lived experience of minority people and doesn’t help to create a more just, equitable society. 

The Systemic Nature of Racism 

Oluo defines racism not as an individual feeling of hatred or animosity but as an oppressive and unjust system that permeates all of American life, including government, business, and education. This definition is important to her thesis that talking about racism can lead to greater understanding and social change. Simply changing people’s feelings about race is unlikely to lead to expansive changes at the systemic level. However, societal change can result when people understand the ways that racism infiltrates policies and decisions about housing, incarceration, the economy, and our school system. Oluo exposes the way that racist comments and behaviors small and large are related to and even stem from America’s history of racial oppression. In so doing, she helps the reader understand the experiences of both white and minority America while also suggesting ways every American can make real social change.  

The Interrelationship Between Race and Identity 

Race constitutes only one part of a person’s identity. Many factors, ranging from ancestry and childhood, to talents and fears, and gender and age, play a role in who we are and how we experience the world. No one can be neatly labeled or placed in a single box. So Oluo advocates for intersectionality in the fight toward social equity in America. Intersectionality means that any movement toward greater equality embraces all of a person’s identities without reducing them to a single one. For example, the feminist movement cannot move forward until it acknowledges that Black single moms have different workplace and educational needs than white married moms. Similarly, the LGBTQ movement must acknowledge the different struggles faced by their Native American and Asian American members. Otherwise, each time one group wins a victory, they will become an oppressor of another group.