“So You Want to Talk about Race.”

Over the past five years (since the Mother Emmanuel murders), part of my anti-racism journey has been a lot of reading and study. My bibliography is closing in on 50 titles. I know that reading and study is not all of the journey, but for me, it’s an important piece. Reading and study are a big part of how I navigate the world.

My pastoral work includes meeting and establishing a relationship with community leaders, and I’ve tried to be intentional about reaching out to BIPOC leaders. I have no other agenda for those meetings than to relate to another leader in the community. While listening is always a key ingredient in relational meeting, it’s especially important when I’m meeting with those whose experience is very different than mine as a white, cis-gendered, male. I’m always hopeful that I will learn something about how I can do better and be better in this anti-racism work.

It’s not uncommon that at some point in those conversations, we turn attention to what we’ve been reading. I want to know what they’re reading and what they think I should be reading. And therein is the reason I picked up this book. Consistently in conversations with BIPOC leaders, this is the book that I should be reading. I’m thankful for the recommendation.

Before writing the book, Ijeoma Oluo was active in a variety of on-line writing platforms in which she answered questions about matters of race. Her posts tended towards addressing the real, practical, on-the-ground questions that kept coming up about how to talk about race; she became known for quickly getting at the core truths surrounding the questions. As she writes in the preface, “My claim to fame was writing commentary on social issues that could be ‘of use’.” This book is an extension of that desire to “give readers the fundamentals of how race worked, not only in a way that they would take into their graduate race theory classes but in a way that they would take to the office or to their Thanksgiving tables.”  

Though I’ve been through two 25-hour anti-racism training sessions, read a lot of books, and led several racism conversations in my congregations, I found Oluo’s direct answers to common questions about race probably more clear and straightforward than anything I’ve ever read.

It’s critical for the white church to engage the work of breaking down the evils of structural and institutional racism. To do that, we have to engage the conversations. Often they will be hard and uncomfortable conversations, and as leaders, we will get pushback. This book offers the pastoral leader excellent guidance on how to frame those conversations and even the language that will be helpful. For instance, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that we engage in anti-racism conversations to change someone’s mind, to gain a convert, in short, to win. “Conversations on racism should never be about winning. The battle is too important to be so simplified. You are in this to share and to learn. You are in this to do better and be better.”

She spends whole chapters explaining matters that white people, unfortunately, have a hard time understanding: the connection between police brutality and racism, deconstructing the many misconceptions about affirmative action, micro-aggressions, and on and on. From this standpoint, it’s almost like a reference book for bolstering confidence about engaging these important matters. And all of them are interlaced with her own stories that put a human face on these challenging issues.

Throughout the book, the eyes of my mind opened in unexpected ways. One of the chapters that had a strong impact is the one entitled, “What if I talk about race wrong?” It has served as an encouragement to continue this work even though its hard (I know – that’s part of my privilege that I even get to say that – to decide to continue this work). I know about doing the race conversation wrong. It all started for me when I asked an African-American pastoral colleague if his congregation could help us learn about racism. He replied sternly, “That’s not our job.” Yup. I said that. And thankfully, our relationship was solid enough and he was confident enough to tell me to go do my own work.  Reminding me that I’m going to do conversations about race wrong, repeatedly and royally, she offers the encouragement that I need to have them anyway. And then offers some clear, no-nonsense tips that will increase the chance of a conversation success.

One caution I would raise for pastoral leaders: Oluo is not shy about profanity, including the occasional f-bomb. As always, each needs to make the decision based on their own people and their own situation. In my setting, the profanity wouldn’t prevent me from using it, as long as I let people know what to expect.

I can see clearly why my colleagues have recommended this book. I’m joining the chorus. It ought to be in the toolbox of every pastoral leader.

3 thoughts on ““So You Want to Talk about Race.”

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