Talking About Race (with help from Ijeoma Oluo)

For the last few months, the President’s Office has been talking about race. Using Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race (2019) as our guide, we have been setting aside time to gather as a group, and to face the challenges of racism as well as the opportunities to dismantle it.

Our conversations have been honest, difficult and illuminating, and they have helped me to see things that weren’t visible from my various positions of privilege. Next month, UFV will be hosting two opportunities to have a university-wide conversation on So You Want to Talk About Race. In the lead-up to those events, and in recognition of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination this Sunday, I’d like to share some of the valuable lessons I’ve learned from reading and discussing So You Want to Talk About Race.

1. Systemic racism is an essential part of the definition of racism

Like many, I have tended to think about racism in terms of overt acts of bigotry. When I thought about systemic racism, it was as an abstract concept — something that was abhorrent but outside of my ability to impact. Oluo challenged that pattern of thinking with one powerful statement in her book:

Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and by just letting it be, we are responsible for what happens. (p. 30)

We can’t change racism without thinking about the whole picture, and we are all part of that picture.

2. Privilege is a problem; it’s also an opportunity

I found Oluo’s chapter on privilege and her breakdown of her own privileges instructive. She recognizes how uncomfortable we are with the idea of privilege — particularly the notion that our privilege is at the expense of someone else. She also notes the tendency to offset our privileges by cataloguing our disadvantages. Resist that urge, she asks, and examine your privileges as a way of making “your understanding of justice and equality more inclusive.” (p. 66)

My most important takeaway was that understanding my privileges not only brings me face-to-face with my own role in oppression, but it also helps me identify areas where I have the influence to make change. “When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression,” Oluo says, “we’ll find our opportunities to make real change.” (p. 65)

3. It’s not about me

One of the biggest challenges as a white person talking about race is dealing with the range of emotions that can surface when the conversation gets difficult. We are all used to making mistakes, and many of us have learned over time to quickly acknowledge our errors and apologize to those who were impacted. But making a mistake that is called out as racist holds a special horror for us, and our instinct is to fight that label.

Throughout the book, Oluo illustrates how that instinct compounds the mistake. If I make my own emotions the focus, I negate the feelings of the person who has been hurt. If I plead good intentions, I fail to take responsibility for the impact of my actions. “Do not make this about your ego,” Oluo says. “If you truly meant well, then you will continue to mean well and make understanding what happened your priority.” (p. 177)

Above all, I am reassured when Oluo says that we are going to talk about race wrong, and that our fear of getting it wrong shouldn’t keep us from trying: “It is important to learn to fail, to learn how to be wrong in a way that minimizes pain to you and others and maximizes what you can learn from the experience.” (p. 49)

If you haven’t read So You Want to Talk About Race yet, I hope you do — you can find copies in the Library and at the UFV Bookstore. Employees who purchase a copy of the book can be reimbursed by UFV. I also encourage you to start your own conversations about the book (see resources below) and to join the UFV conversations on April 7 and April 28.

While reading this book is easy, I acknowledge that having conversations about racism is more difficult. That said, I encourage you to join the conversation as putting in the work is well worth it. As Ijeoma Oluo says in the last line of her book: “we can do this, together.” (p. 238)

Joanne MacLean
President and Vice-Chancellor

Resources for discussing So You Want to Talk About Race