In casual conversation, many of us tend to avoid complex academic theories and topics that will elicit divergent and heated reactions. So how likely is it that we’ll strike up a conversation about racial formation in the United States? Despite their trickiness, such conversations are essential.
In Racial Formation in the United States (Routledge 1994), Michael Omi and Howard Winant define a racial project as “an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines” (Omi and Winant 56). Such a project could be essentializing and racist, or explicitly anti-racist. Racial projects abound in the United States— but we don’t often think of them by that name, or even recognize their presence.
In her book So You Want to Talk About Race (Seal Press 2018), Ijeoma Oluo, without using this language, asks readers to recognize racial projects and undertake one of their own. She asks white people to consider the underlying assumptions and goals of their racial beliefs and asks everyone to engage in meaningful discussions around race as one step in the process of dismantling systemic racial injustice. Oluo writes, “…if you are white, and you don’t want to feel any of that pain by having these conversations [about race], then you are asking people of color to continue to bear the entire burden of racism alone” (Oluo 51). Here, she points to the burden of emotional labor, time, and energy created by a system that asks people of color to both experience and solve racism. If white people were to take on more of the responsibility of educating ourselves and each other, the crucial resources of time and energy would be more equitably distributed. Although Oluo does not conceive of her work explicitly as a racial project, Omi and Winant’s definition illuminates this aspect of her work.
Just as Omi and Winant’s theory provides insight into Oluo’s strategies, Oluo’s anecdotes and praxis-based arguments show the importance of understanding racial projects in action. Making harmful racial projects visible and refusing to normalize them is essential in the work of dismantling racism. Often, theory can appear intangible and inapplicable to daily life, while pragmatic strategies that lack theory can be misguided and therefore unsuccessful. Reading Omi & Winant and Oluo in conversation with each other reveals how a symbiotic relationship between the theory of racial formation and the everyday work of creating meaningful conversations about race enriches both projects.
Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race. Seal Press, 2018.
Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s. Routledge, 1994.