Reading about race
Hi! As you can see from the dates on these posts, I’ve been away from my website for a while—teaching LGBTQ Literature at Macalester. (More about that in a future post). I did pick the wildest semester to start teaching college with a global pandemic in the middle of it. And also I live in Minneapolis, which is hopefully ground zero for the revolution, so let me formally start this post saying:
Black Lives Matter
My recent novel, In the Silences, is about a white teen learning to be a good ally, to see their implicit bias and to talk to other white people about implicit racism. It includes much of what I have to say on the topic and I’ll repeat some of it below. (This is primarily about the anti-blackness component of racism in the US. I know racism is broader than that and will write about it more broadly in the future. This post focuses on anti-black racism.)
First, here are some of the books I read that I recommend specifically to other white people:
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo – Great basic primer. You can jump to chapters on topics you have the most questions about.
Mindful of Race by Ruth King – A mindfulness-based approach that is impactful and intersectional. (Ruth is married to a woman, among other intersections.)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – The first book that literally stopped me in my privileged white tracks about the state of racism in the US today.
Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude M. Steele – Science about implicit bias, including what works to overcome it. Fascinating and hopeful.
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America [or] How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi – Read the first if you want history, the second if you want a skillfully woven narrative of Kendi’s life with a strong overview of racism and antiracism in America today.
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo – If you’re white and want to understand what not to do and why, this book will absolutely tell you.
Tips for White People
Here are a few important lessons I learned working on In the Silences and educating myself as a white person. I am not an expert on this; I’m an advanced learner. There are so many good experts, including the authors of the books listed above, so please read some of those. That said, here’s what I have to add:
Racial anxiety is a thing. – It’s been studied and scientifically documented that white people in America freak out about race. There are at least two bad outcomes of this:
When you’re in the grip of your racial anxiety, you’re not listening or being present.
When white people freak out about appearing racist, they tend to freeze up or withdraw, which makes them look racist to the people of color around them.*
I found that being able to name my racial anxiety made a huge difference in my ability to manage it. When I start to panic that I’m going to screw up a social interaction, I can pause and take a few slow breaths. Racial anxiety is like any other kind of anxiety and can be managed in the same ways. Now that I’m familiar with how my own racial anxiety feels, I name it, slow down my breathing, and return to paying attention to the people around me while smiling gently at myself.
*Also note that when we as white people get anxious around people of color, the reason for that is rooted in a system of racism and white supremacy, so we don’t just look racist, we are being racist. (Yes, we can be racist because we’re freezing up about the fear that we’ll look racist.) Instead of protesting that I’m not racist, I try to ask myself “how am I being racist?” Sometimes the answer is “you’re not!” but sometimes there’s an affirmative answer (see the next point below). I’d rather spot the racism that was programmed into me as early as possible so it won’t get out and hurt anyone.
You have racist thoughts. You’re not your racist thoughts. It’s not your fault that you have racist thoughts, but you are responsible for them. (It’s your fault if you allow them to persist.) – If you grew up white in America (a white supremacy), you were indoctrinated with a set of thoughts that you’ve probably carried unexamined for decades. A lot of this lurks as implicit bias, which means it’s below conscious awareness. And some of it we’re actively suppressing knowledge of. As part of retraining myself, I had to turn up the volume on any racist thoughts so I could examine them and refute them. That felt deeply uncomfortable but less so when I realize these thoughts are part of a system that wants me to feel and behave in certain ways—and it’s a system I oppose. As white people when we get in the habit of turning up the volume on potentially racist thoughts and feelings, we can nullify them inside our own minds, before they can get out and hurt anyone.
White people are dangerous. – We’re empowered by white supremacy and privilege in ways we’ve been trained not to see. I use superhero metaphors for this: it’s like I’m the Hulk and if I don’t understand how my Hulk powers work, I’m going to hurt people. I need to understand the systems of white supremacy—both in my brain and in the world around me—and become responsible for all the ways in which I am dangerous to the people of color around me.
Dangers can range from emotional: assuming people of color will answer race-related questions or do other emotional labor when I want, for free—to physical: assuming it’s safe to call the police with a noise complaint about my white neighbors even though there are black families within a few houses of mine. Being responsible for ourselves also means not spewing our feelings about living in this country on the people of color in our lives. Whatever feelings we’re coming to this year or the last four-plus years are feelings we need to process with each other and, ideally, our therapists.
Being anti-racist can be enjoyable. – I approach it with my strengths for storytelling and research. You’ll have your own strengths to leverage. A lot of the deprogramming of my own brain comes from reading interesting books and watching TV shows and movies that center the humanity, diversity, intelligence and creativity of people of color.
Here a few of the LGBTQ-inclusive young adult books by black authors/creators that I recommend:
Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender (really any of Callender’s books, but that’s my fave)
The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus
Running with Lions by Julian Winters
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Also see YA Pride’s 16 LGBTQIAP+ Books by Black Authors: http://www.yapride.org/2019/02/16-lgbtqiap-books-by-black-authors/
Queer YA Books by Black Authors Spreadsheet: http://www.yapride.org/2020/06/queer-ya-books-by-black-authors-spreadsheet/
Juneteenth! – I’m posting this the day before Juneteenth, June 19. If you don’t know about this holiday (or don’t know enough), here are resources to educate yourself: