Common Texts Invite Complex Conversations



This coming fall, incoming Seattle University students will arrive on campus with books in hand, one of those books being Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want To Talk About Race.” Oluo’s book sets out to distill complex topics of race, white supremacy, and an assortment of its ensuing effects into approachable discussion points for a wide variety of readers.

A board of 15 members of the Seattle U community selected this book as the Seattle U Common Text for 2019-20. The common text, as many students remember from their first year, is a resource selected for every incoming class of students to read.


The board starts out with more than 20 books and pares down the selection over the course of a year. The books are usually chosen long in advance of Welcome Week, but the selection of Oluo’s book was particularly unusual, as it was chosen in conjunction with Harriette Shelton Dover’s “Tulalip: From My Heart” about a year ago according to Director of Orientation Programs Leah Quinn.

The books were both favored during the process of selection for the 2018-19 common text. Dover’s book was eventually selected in order to to open the conversation about indigenous life in Washington to coincide with the opening of Vi Hilbert Hall. The selection of “Tulalip” as the common text for 2018–19 marked “the first step the university has taken to involve the entire community in a conversation about indigenous life,” Director of the Indigenous People’s Center Christina Roberts said.

Themes of tackling white supremacy in “Tulalip” will continue in Oluo’s “So You Want To Talk About Race.” Roberts is looking forward to discussing some of Oluo’s work in this book that she sees as particularly pertinent to many Seattle U students. Dover’s “Tulalip” brings up issues around the “layers of gatekeeping” regarding how some stories are shared.

There is a disparity in who gets to tell their own story: The introduction to “Tulalip” addresses how hard it was to get Dover’s works published in the way that she intended, without her portrayal of her experience altered to be more comfortable for a primarily white audience. This theme is continued in Oluo’s book, and Roberts hopes that it will help lift some of the misunderstandings students may have about why certain voices are not heard.

“There is a connection with the violence in the educational system—it was built as a mode of institutionalization,” she said. “There is a growing awareness of modes of education as something to be reconsidered.”

There was also a recognition that the work on Oluo’s book would need to be done in a very particular way. Its selection as the common text was delayed so the board could build a robust, structured discussion.

The content in this book will not uniformly impact each student, as each student brings their own background and experience to campus. In order to provide a structure for students to learn with this book over the summer, and address the impact of the book on individual students, the school will send out a pre-reflection sheet with questions and things to consider while reading.

Ruchika Tulshyan is a lecturer in the Communication department, and she said that reading the book has given her students the language to describe aspects of their own experience. In her experience using the book in her class, Reporting For Social Change, the conversations the book opens about racism, privilege, microaggressions, and the school-to-prison pipeline, among many more, are necessary and feel a lot better when everyone is reading the same text, as opposed to having these conversations out of the blue.

“Changing demographics in Seattle are a reality,” she said. “The ability to have culturally competent conversations about race is crucial.”

Tulshyan hopes that after reading this book there will be a greater understanding of how race affects not only students of color, but also white students and faculty.

While Oluo’s book seeks to provide readers with a base understanding of the impact of white supremacy, Roberts is concerned that “white youth socialized in white communities” may not have the toolkit to process a lot of what is in this book.

“There are so many moments I am excited to talk about, but also a little anxious to do so in a climate that deals with white fragility and white liberal identities.”

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