So You Want to Read about Race?

You may not get to every great title, so here’s where to begin.

So You Want to Read about Race?

Many booklists about race have come out recently, and we may intend to read all the titles included on them. But how many are we likely to get to? These weeks of social-distancing have provided more room for reflection, but it’s hard to concentrate on sustained reading during such challenging times.

And, unfortunately, many of the recommended books are currently on backorder, having been catapulted to bestseller status sometimes years after publication. So, as you settle on a book or two and wait for them to get back into print, I thought I’d provide an overview of a few standout nonfiction titles focused on race.

In Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, British blogger Reni Eddo-Lodge traces the origins of racism in the U.K. from the slave markets in Liverpool, Bristol, and London through Brexit. When the book was recommended by a Black colleague in 2017, I thought self-righteously that it wasn’t really for me. But it was for me and white people like me, who have sort of prided themselves on colorblindness.

Eddo-Lodge writes that in order to get rid of “unjust racist structures we must see race.” Colorblindness ignores the problem. She goes on to examine the “dull grinding complacency of white privilege,” and her identity as a Black feminist — which is sometimes mischaracterized as bullying by white feminists. She writes about tiptoeing around her Blackness because “whiteness positions itself as the norm,” and she dismantles the tired argument that the real question is one of class, speaking directly about white anxiety.

Eddo-Lodge’s thoughtful discussion of intersectionality and her own identity as a Black woman and a feminist brings me to poet and activist Audre Lorde. Sister Outsider, which is on many recommended-reading lists, is a collection of 15 of Lorde’s essays and speeches (and includes, as well, an interview with poet Adrienne Rich), and it’s both muscular and lyrical. Lorde, who died in 1992, wrote from her perspective as a Black woman, a feminist, and a lesbian. To read this book is to do a deep dive into the complexities of racism, sexism, and homophobia.

When I first picked up Sister Outsider a year or so ago, the essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” was the one that spoke to me most. In it, Lorde writes about how women have been wrongly alienated from the erotic in their lives, drawing a clear distinction between the erotic and the pornographic. Erotic knowledge, she writes, is a grave responsibility which “empowers us and becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives.”

Over the last few weeks, I went back to the essays in Sister Outsider that made me uncomfortable. For example, in “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred and Anger,” Lorde writes, “My Black woman’s anger is a molten pond at the core of me, my most fiercely guarded secret.”

In “Uses of Anger,” she says that any discussion about racism must recognize the role of anger, which she is careful to differentiate from hatred. “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.” She goes on to explain:

“I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.”

It’s a good idea to keep these words in mind if you decide to pick up Ijeoma Oluo’s bestselling So You Want to Talk About Race. She warns at the outset that it won’t be an easy read. Indeed, at times, she gives the reader a really stern talking to. She suggests, however, that we sit with our discomfiture.

When is a given situation about race? Oluo lays out three basic rules:

  • It is about race if a person of color thinks it is about race.
  • It is about race if it disproportionately or differently affects people of color.
  • It is about race if it fits into a broader pattern of events that disproportionately or differently affect people of color.

These rules apply to the importance of checking privilege, the effect intersectionality has on social justice, and the insidious undermining power of microaggressions, which, she says, “find their way into every part of every day.”

In her view, good intentions don’t absolve you of guilt if you hurt someone. “If you witness racial microaggressions against someone else you should strongly consider speaking out as well especially if you are a white person,” she writes, admonishing readers, however, to “please take the lead of the person of color who is being directly harmed by the microaggression. If it seems like they do not want the issue addressed, do not decide to come to their rescue anyway. People of color have very good reasons why they speak out and why they choose not to and you don’t want to remove that agency from them.”

Her chapter on police brutality sheds a stark light on the history of law enforcement in America, which began not as a way to protect people of color but rather as a way to control them. She writes about the training of police and the organizational structure of American policing in ways I hadn’t considered, and her description of being pulled over at 16 is chilling.

That description echoes an essay by Hanif Abdurraqib in his 2017 collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Abdurraqib is a poet and music critic, and to read any one of these essays is to enter a world of refreshing language and new perspectives. In “My First Police Stop,” he writes:

“I spend a lot of time trying to pinpoint exactly how fear is learned. Rather, how we decide that fear is a necessary animal that grows out of our relentless expectations to survive at all costs, and how I have been afraid and been feared at the same time.”

The jumping-off point in these essays is usually music, and Abdurraqib covers everyone from Chance the Rapper and Prince to Fleetwood Mac. From there, the writing expands from music into lived experience, whether joyful or painful. He writes about Black lives besieged and lost during Hurricane Katrina and of his experience as an American Muslim on 9/11.

He underscores, too, the significance of music to Black Americans in “Tell ’Em All To Come And Get Me.” In it, he writes:

“The link between black music and black survival shows up most urgently when the stakes are at their highest. When I say that music is how black people have gotten free, I mean Harriet Tubman echoed songs along the Underground Railroad as a language. I mean the map to black freedom in America was built from music before it was built from anything else. Black music is the shepherd still pointing us toward…needed liberation, giving us a place to set our emotions, a room of our own.”

[Editor’s note: Click here to read the Independent’s review of Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race.]

Amanda Holmes Duffy, author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a book-club facilitator for Fairfax County Public Library and hosts the weekly podcast “Read Me a Poem” for the American Scholar.

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