Review: Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo

Mediocre is a book about racism and sexism in America, and like Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, it’s written in an accessible, personal manner. This one is more a discussion of U.S. history, similar to Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, though I found the book most powerful when she was talking about her own experiences (such as in the closing chapter). 

The downside to Mediocre, is that if you’ve read Caste and you follow the news, there won’t be a lot in here you don’t already know.  Oluo focuses each chapter on a different topic area, describing historical racism and sexism in higher education, the workplace, political office, professional sports, and others.

Oluo begins the book with a detailed discussion of America’s conception of the “Wild West” and how Buffalo Bill was charged with going out and killing as many buffalo as possible to rid white America of Native Americans. He became a big star by exaggerating a single gunfight, and his traveling show became a model of what the American man should be. She draws a line from that mentality to the violence of white men protesting government regulation of land use. 

Rather than being a comprehensive history, Oluo chooses examples that illustrate her theme. She’s certainly correct that a white male doesn’t need to be exceptional to succeed (as far as I can tell he really just needs to not watch porn at work, and even then he’s probably fine). Her argument is that everyone is harmed by the current sentiments – white men feel they’re entitled to everything and don’t know how to cope when things don’t go their way.  At the same time they aren’t taught to express emotion and they grow up in a culture that glorifies violence and then gives them easy access to arms. And in the meantime, we’re suffering as a country when it comes to scientific advancement, ecological conservation, and the economy.

The chapters about politicians didn’t work well for me, the portrayals of Biden and Bernie too negative and the four female politicians of color (Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib and Pressley) a bit too glowing.  And I don’t need Oluo to tell me that Biden and Bernie weren’t the ideal candidates or even the best candidates from among the primary competitors. I found the chapters on higher education, women in business, and race-related protests in sports to be more informative.

The question is what do we do with this information, and while I don’t expect easy answers, I wasn’t sure where we go from here. Not that it’s fair to expect Oluo to solve the problem. But I do wish this book had more suggestions beyond just thinking about who you vote for. I’m struggling with the question of how we can make progress on addressing racism and sexism, at a time when it feels like we’re plummeting backwards.

Note: I read this book for the TBR Pile Challenge, the Backlist Reader challenge, and the Nonfiction Reader challenge.

  9 comments for “Review: Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo

  1. WendyW
    February 10, 2022 at 7:11 pm

    Wow, what a fascinating book. Change is so slow, but things are changing. Just not fast enough for my taste. After 40 years in the workforce I can totally agree with your statement in the review, “She’s certainly correct that a white male doesn’t need to be exceptional to succeed (as far as I can tell he really just needs to not watch porn at work, and even then he’s probably fine).”

    • February 12, 2022 at 5:09 pm

      It’s a powerful book with a lot of good research and examples of how we can do better. I’m glad you feel like things are changing. I do feel like progress is being made in some ways, but then it feels like we’re going backwards in other ways.

  2. February 11, 2022 at 8:54 am

    I’ve seen this book around, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a review of it. I wish there were more books that offer possible solutions to problems. I feel like there are a lot of books that explain problems, but nobody knows what to do about them.

    • February 12, 2022 at 5:07 pm

      In truth, I’m not sure what she could possibly suggest, but it just seemed disheartening not to have any sense of positive movement or efforts that should be supported. It’s such a huge problem.

  3. February 12, 2022 at 1:28 pm

    Hm, this looks like it overlaps with a lot of other books, though the point about White men is a valid one that I haven’t seen elsewhere. I found “What White People Can Do Next” by Emma Dabiri and Sophie Williams’ “Anti Racist Ally” were more practical, and also “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo had good info modelling what to do if one is called out for racism, etc.

    • February 12, 2022 at 5:05 pm

      Thanks for the suggestions! I really liked Oluo’s other book. I also got a lot out of White Fragility. I’ll look up the other two you mention, I’ve heard of Emma Dabiri.

  4. March 4, 2022 at 7:45 am

    I’ve been curious about this, thanks for sharing your thoughts

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