The leaves were orange from the approaching winter as 5 pupils, myself included, were let out early from school. I walked the 2 kilometres home as quickly as my 10-year-old legs could manage, packed myself dinner, changed into a clean school shirt and jersey, then begun the walk back to school. I arrived just in time to catch the shuttle to the English Reading Competition to which we’d been invited. I watched as we were shuttled from our school and into a town whose streets were lined with trees and street lights; we were being hosted by Riebeeckstad Primêre Skool, named for Jan van Riebeeck.
We arrived at our location and the excitement of the moment made the spilt rice and gravy in my backpack feel unimportant. The competition was split into 2 parts; reading compression and speed reading. As my stomach grumbled, I was handed a page containing a short story that approached being a riddle. I tore through the reading within a minute, then explained what had occurred in the tale. After receiving my perfect score and praise for being “so articulate”, I sat back and watched as the other kids, the ones belonging to the school, stumbled through their readings and barely comprehended what they had read.
We left that evening with mixed emotions; myself and the other kids were mostly delighted to have been invited at all, but our teacher was less than amused. As well as we’d performed, we had nothing material to show for it — this is how one of my earliest conversations about race begun — I learned on that day that my skin colour would determine how the world receives me. Was the judging on that afternoon racist? How about all the debate tournaments lost while teachers of the opposing school acted as adjudicators, did those too contain bias? Who’s job is it to prove an act as racist? What even is racism? Even now at 28 with my 18 years of racism discussions, I fall short of an answer. This is why I picked up a copy of So You Want To Talk About Race — here is what I learned.
The book is directed at discussing the most common and impactful form of racism, systematic racism. Discussions of race are not only painful and draining for people with lived experiences but are notoriously complex. Ijeoma provides not only the language for having these conversations constructively but backs it with many affirming personal tales, tales that many black people have in common.
Unless someone is flinging around the “k-word” people will often excuse an act as not racist, mostly ignorant, this makes discussions of everyday racism increasingly difficult to have, putting the onus on the person suffering.
Those raging instances of racism are few and far between; racism is mostly encountered in archaic policies and micro-aggressions, similar to how when I joined a primarily white school I was asked for an English nickname as my name was too difficult to pronounce.
Black, indigenous and persons of colour (BIPOC) experience the same ills as white people, but often the reasons are different — when minimum wages are raised it doesn’t benefit everyone equally as job and interview opportunities are not equal — people are not poor for the same reasons. This is why the discussion of matters that disproportionately affect BIPOC can often leave white people who suffer from similar issues angry and feeling erased. Things do not have to be like this; addressing skin cancer does not reduce the harm caused by breast cancer.
To all the BIPOC who have felt close to tears due to discussions of race I highly recommend this book, not only will it equip you to have difficult discussions about micro-aggressions, affirmative-action, police brutality, “why can’t I say <insert racial slur>” and privilege, but it will leave you feeling seen and understood.
If you are a white person who wants to increase their odds at having a productive conversation on race, I especially recommend reading chapter 16, “I just got called racist, what do I do now?”, this chapter will help you navigate the emotions and fears that often come up when confronted with your blindspots around race. There is no shame in having blind spots. As a straight, able-bodied and light-skinned man I benefit from many ‘isms, what’s important is to confront them and not allow my feelings of discomfort to outweigh the pain the next person is experiencing. As the person who benefits from inequality — homophobia, racism, sexism, colourism etc.. — it is your job to educate yourself, as people who are suffering do not owe you a debate or lesson.
Talking about race will always be uncomfortable, but it is important to have these conversations; discussions aimed at winning over a single person or proving one’s humanity are futile, what is most important is to shed light on the actions which serve to maintain the systems of oppression that make these conversations ever important.
Talking about race is only the first step, we must learn from these conversations then proceed to make efforts to affect change. Only then can we call ourselves advocates for fairness and equality.