By Josiane Joseph
Last year, while moving through the realm of a fast-pace M.D.-Ph.D. student I was gifted something I did not know I needed. It was a book—a really good book. As I read it, I found time to reflect on new perspectives and savor a different flavor of thinking, the non-scientific variety. It was then that I realized that by buying into the myth of “I don’t have the time” to read new stories, I was neglecting myself. Ever since my youth, I was an avid reader of everything; reading is woven into the fabric of my being. It is probably the most direct contributor to any success I experience in life, and has shown me many aspects of the world before I could live it for myself. After realizing what a disservice to me it would be to put off fun reading, I vowed to resurrect my oldest most reliable hobby by reading 12 great books in the year 2019. What follows is my evaluation of book number 10.
Whenever I read a book, particularly if it is a good one, I will look for more information on the author. The background of a writer interest me because sometimes it alludes to what might be shaping their views and enhances the work overall. Ijeoma Oluo is a mixed raced woman (which surprised me somewhat). She is a mother, was a wife, is a sister, identifies as part of the LGBTQ community, has a bachelor's in political science, and has a platform that allows her to make her living as an advocate for equity and justice. In So you want to talk about race we see stories of her in all of these roles which adds new dimension to the topics she broaches and speaks to the passion that inspired the novel.
For someone who may not have much time to devote to reading, this book is perfect because it has seventeen discrete chapters that can each be enjoyed individually. If I was the type to skip around to parts that most interested me, I could easily do so because a neat table of contents was included. Many of the topics listed such as privilege, police brutality, and the definition of racism are commonly discussed in diversity meetings which I often make an effort to attend. Therefore at the start of the novel, I was a little weary of redundancy but simultaneously intrigued because it was not clear which direction Oluo might take. By the end of the book, I was impressed with the broad range of subjects she was able to address, several of which I never considered (for example, the model minority myth); I was also relieved that many conclusions it might take years of investment for someone like me to accept were boldly and rationally presented. This is definitely a timely novel with something to offer everyone.
From the very first chapter Oluo drives home the point that pretty much all aspects of life for humans are influenced by race (though race is not the only influencing factor). As a rising professional who—due to the paucity of diversity in my field—must always work with people who are very different from me, I am learning more and more that this assertion is true. To quote Oluo "…being a person of color in white-dominated society is like being in an abusive relationship with the world." Throughout the novel, she speaks to the pain that many people of color experience while existing as unwelcome citizens, gave salient recommendations about appropriate ways to respond during conversations about race, and also provided insights to what might be driving adverse behaviors when the topic of race comes up. The parallels she made for several concepts and the scientific work she cited made Oluo’s work a useful tool to do just as the title suggests: talk about race.
It is worth commenting on Oluo’s writing style because it may be reflective of how she came to prominence as a writer. The language Oluo uses in her writing is both direct and casual which made the piece overall more relatable. As she discussed issues of non-black people touching black women’s hair without permission or the over-persecution of children of color in schools, I was mentally snapping my fingers in approval because these are topics that I know from experience that many of my peers never took the time to discuss. Reading Oluo’s work felt as though she and I were swapping stories in a serious conversation about race (though it was clearly one sided). Overall her book is humorous and the informal approach, rather than detracts, compliments the seriousness of the subject matter.
In the past, I have read several books about health disparities and social justice which, like So you want to talk about race, were extremely enlightening. What makes this book unique is how much the authors personality shines through the work, how clear it became from the breadth of the novel that issues of race is a topic that Oluo has pondered and experienced for years, and how useful the suggestions she included may be to a broad audience. Simple pointers, such as listening without invalidated the experiences of minorities and using the internet to gain knowledge rather than demanding it from minorities, were thoughtfully included in this book. Each component combined made for a great read that I would recommend (and will be recommending) to others.
Generally speaking, reading So you want to talk about race was informative and a valuable use of my time. With all of this said, I would like to end by paying homage to my once neglected hobby by reminding readers this: make the time for yourself. If busyness is the excuse to abandon the activities you love, then you are probably missing out on a great part of your only life.
About the Author: Josiane Joseph is a Haitian-American MD-PhD student at Mayo Clinic. She was born in Miami, Florida and earned her BS at the University of Florida. During her free time she enjoys movies, writing, attending church, and learning about what makes other individuals unique. Josiane values discussions of meaningful issues and looks forward to sharing diverse views with others.