Nonfiction November: Reading about Race

This week’s Nonfiction November prompt is hosted by Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction:

Week 3: (November 16-20) – Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Over the last year, like many others, I’ve been reading more about race. I had already been trying to read more diversely over the last few years, but this summer my reading switched over from memoirs and novels to books that address the topic of race directly.

I read these books in 2020:

  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race edited by Jesmyn Ward

I’m not going to review those books, but I will talk a little bit about what I’ve taken away from them. I feel they’ve been helpful in giving me a way to talk about race, and to think about my own feelings. In the past I’ve been afraid to broach the topic at all, and that’s a problem. I recently took a new job where I’ll be supervising a group of diverse employees, and I’ve learned from experience that ignoring race isn’t helpful. I can’t pretend to be race-blind or completely non-biased.

So You Want to Talk About Race is a book I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to read on this topic. Oluo discusses a range of issues in a thoughtful but also personal way, sharing her own experiences as a black woman. I was particularly struck by her description of what it was like learning to drive, and experiencing being pulled over by police again and again, sometimes for driving just one mile over the speed limit, or for having tags that were close to expiring. When I compared that with my own experience of having never been ticketed (and I do not consider myself a particularly good driver) I was shocked and saddened.

White Fragility is written by a white woman who leads seminars on addressing race issues in the workplace. She regularly talks with people about their perceptions of race, and her book provides helpful ways for white people to consider their own biases. Her book is highly regarded by many, but it’s also been criticized; it oversimplifies some issues and is quite repetitive. That said, I found her book helpful, because of her frame of reference as a workplace trainer, and because I saw myself in much of what she talked about.

I also found The Fire This Time meaningful and relevant. It’s a collection of essays inspired by James Baldwin’s classic work, compiled in 2016 to address incidents of police violence like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Reading this today, I found it so disturbing that despite all the protests, nothing seems to be getting better. As with any book of essays, some resonate more than others. I was particularly struck by an essay by Garnette Cadogan about walking as a black man in Jamaica and New Orleans. Like driving, the experience of walking down a street is completely different depending on whether you’re black or white.That feels so wrong to me.

So here are some of the things these books have made me think about – and resolve to do better:

  1. Don’t be defensive and don’t assume I understand. DiAngelo talks about how every progressive white person thinks they understand the experiences of black people, but we don’t. For example, just because I had family die in the Holocaust, or because I grew up wearing thrift store clothing, or because I’ve had jobs where I was nearly the only white person — those experiences may have shaped who I am, but they don’t mean I understand what it means to be black.
  2. Be aware of privilege. I may have experienced discrimination but I’m also privileged in ways I haven’t been aware of. It’s time to be aware. Learning to drive without being afraid of being shot was a privilege. Having teachers go easy on me when I did something wrong was a privilege. Not having people question whether I’m capable of a job based on my name or skin color is a privilege.
  3. Good intentions aren’t enough. White people make the mistake of thinking if their intentions are good, that’s the important thing. These books have made me realize that’s not the case. Maybe my intentions are good, but if I say something that seems racist, I need to apologize and listen. I know I won’t always say the right thing, but if something I say bothers someone, I need consider why they are upset and take responsibility instead of explaining why I meant well.
  4. Don’t expect black people to educate me about race.
  5. Learn the history of racism in this country that’s been covered up or ignored, like the massacre in Tulsa in 1921and the history of voting suppression, lynching, and forced labor.

Two other books on this subject I recommend often (but read before 2020) are Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum. I’m currently reading Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge, about racism in Britain.

The more I read on this subject, the more I feel I need to learn. I know a lot of other bloggers have been reading and writing about this topic as well. What books on racial issues do you recommend?

  14 comments for “Nonfiction November: Reading about Race

  1. November 21, 2020 at 11:15 am

    Excellent post! I have seen a lot of bloggers discussing “So You Want to Talk About Race” and I definitely mean to read it at some point. I like the points you are listing, in particular, “don’t assume you understand”. Reading books like “The Vanishing Half” and seeing discussion posts about who are a person of colour (is it all about privilege and background and not about actual skin colour) has made me think a lot about what it really means to be white or coloured and how ridiculous it is to judge people based on our perception of colour. I wish we could all learn to be colourblind in the positive meaning of the word.

    • November 23, 2020 at 7:40 am

      Thanks for commenting! I loved The Vanishing Half, and find the topic of what it means to be a person of color really interesting. Color-blindness is a nice ideal – but I think since color blindness isn’t really possible, we need to wrestle with what it means to be biased and how we (maybe subconsciously) express that bias.

  2. November 21, 2020 at 11:38 pm

    Really great post! I’ve been reading a lot more on race, but I’m still a little nervous posting my thoughts on what I’ve learned in detail for fear of getting something wrong. I appreciated you summarizing your takeaways. It’s really helpful to hear what someone else has been getting out of these books too 🙂

    • November 23, 2020 at 7:42 am

      I’m glad you found it helpful! I’m always nervous posting something like this. I’ve been rewriting this post since around August, and Nonfiction November seemed a good opportunity. As you say, it’s always helpful for me to hear others’ thoughts on the subject.

  3. November 22, 2020 at 8:57 am

    All of these books are on my TBR list because race is a topic I really want to know more about. I’m glad you found them helpful.

    • November 23, 2020 at 7:43 am

      Thanks AJ! If you read any of these, I’d love to know what you thought.

  4. November 22, 2020 at 12:35 pm

    These are all very good points. I’m reading Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race at the moment and have had some eye-opening moments. The chapter on feminism shocked me although I missed out generationally on being that much of a member of the women’s movement as such. I’m building up to reading Me and White Supremacy but trying to read as much as I can on people’s direct experience first, and in the UK. I recommend The Good Immigrant UK and US for more on direct experiences.

    • November 23, 2020 at 7:47 am

      Thanks for commenting Liz! I plan to read Me and White Supremacy as well. For personal experiences I felt So You Want to Talk About Race was most helpful (though not UK). The Good Immigrant books look great, I hadn’t heard of those. Thanks for sharing.

  5. November 23, 2020 at 10:54 pm

    Okay, I LOVE your takeaways. I really hope that all of the learning people are doing about privilege and race this year doesn’t disappear, it is so important. I, for one, really want to read more of Ta-Nehisi Coates.

    • November 25, 2020 at 7:40 am

      Thanks for commenting! I agree with you in hoping that reading and talking about race and privilege has lasting impacts. That’s something I need to think about more. I’ve read We Were Eight Years in Power by Coates and it was excellent, but I need to read his other books as well.

  6. November 25, 2020 at 11:05 am

    Wonderful post. I have a bunch on these on my TBR and need to get serious about getting to them. Really insightful — thank you.

  7. November 25, 2020 at 11:18 am

    I admire your decision to improve your understanding of racial issues. Racism is an issue in my country too, but there are differences in our social and cultural makeup to the US or UK so I want to focus on books that explore those specifics.

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