Race Matters

An illustration on the cover of RACE RULES depicts a Black person whispering behind her hand.

Fatimah Gilliam ’96

Race Rules: What Your Black Friend Won’t Tell You
Berrett-Koehler Publishers
368 pages, $27.95

If you are a white nationalist, a neo-Nazi, or an ultraconservative, you can skip this new book by Fatimah Gilliam ’96—she didn’t write it for you. Gilliam, an Ivy-educated attorney who is CEO of her own diversity consulting group, is aiming at people she thinks can change the way race is viewed and treated in this country. Basically, she wrote her book for white people who have Black friends and colleagues, maybe even relatives, in the hope that they want to do better, and by so doing, make America better.

Gilliam describes Race Rules: What Your Black Friend Won’t Tell You as a race etiquette manual—a reference that will help white people who are carefully picking their way through the minefield of racial tension that has ratcheted up in the last decade or so, and who sometimes don’t understand why they’ve offended the people of color they meet. “You may not always understand or agree with what I say,” she writes in her preface, “… but there’s value in looking at race, white supremacy, and racial harm through the lens of what many people of color privately feel and believe,” but are too hesitant or exhausted to say themselves. Gilliam is taking one for the team: “I’m saying the quiet part out loud. … At some point, somebody had to say it, so I have raised my hand.”

Race Rules is divided into 30 chapters, or rules, that encompass everything from recognizing that most racists aren’t swinging ropes or burning crosses (Race Rule #5: White Liberals, Democrats and Good White People Can Be Dangerous Racists) to a reconsideration of why Black folk and other people of color don’t always want to plumb the depths of your racial anxiety (Race Rule #22: It’s Not Personal When POCs Don’t Want to Discuss Race). There are plenty of bullet points, charts, and graphic illustrations to pique the reader’s interest—and maybe raise a few hackles.

Because Gilliam, as the elders sometimes say, takes no tea for the fever. In other words, she is not out to coddle you into learning how to disrupt racism. “I engage in intentional, uncomfortable candor,” she writes, “because that is where the learning is.” So she will tell you to stop insisting you don’t see color, “because it’s racist” (Race Rule #18) and ask you why being colorblind is so important: “What are you gaining by denying color exists? What are you afraid of losing if you stop professing you’re colorblind?”

Will Race Rules annoy you? Maybe. But it will also give its intended readers a valuable tool for navigating an increasingly diverse world. And that would be good for people of all races.

Bates reported on race for NPR for more than two decades. She lives in Los Angeles. 

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Cheryl A Seraile (Seraile) ’81
WRJI invites you to join us at Reunion for a unique, engaging, and provocative conversation about race in the US today, with Fatimah Gilliam ‘96, author of "Race Rules: What Your Black Friend Won’t Tell You". Our program will include an expert interview with the author by a WRJI leader, productive small group dialogue, and a plenary conversation with the author, WRJI leaders, and alums. Saturday, May 25. 1:30-3pm. Pendleton Atrium Want to join the discussion, but won’t be on campus? We’re pleased to offer participation via Zoom! Trained facilitators will coordinate virtually with Zoom attendees for the small group discussion portion. Register for the webinar here: https://wrji.org/event/race-rules-an-interactive-discussion-with-author-fatimah-gilliam-96/

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