This past year, I’ve been trying to understand American society from perspectives outside my own. I’ve been troubled by the resurgence of white nationalism and by my own sense of helplessness to change anything. I’ve been troubled too by my own ignorance.
So I’ve been reading. It may not be much, but educating myself seems like a good place to start. The following books are several I’ve found helpful in understanding racism, both in the country at large and in my own hidden biases.
A couple of notes before I jump to the books: my list is hardly comprehensive (a more thorough list is available here) and is based on my own reading experiences. Though I’ve read and list several books that are specifically about anti-black racism, it’s especially deficient in understanding the racism that other minority groups face. That’s something I hope to correct with further reading and action. But hopefully this list can serve as a starting place for others like me who’d like to start their antiracist education.
By Jennifer L. Eberhardt
Eberhardt is a Stanford social psychologist who has dedicated her career to researching implicit bias. Her book combines research data, illustrative stories, and personal experience to show the ways we all, generally unknowingly, make assumptions based on race. She also explains how these biases can have drastic consequences, particularly in the criminal justice system, but also in day-to-day human relationships. BIASED particularly shines in arguing, with extensive data, against a color-blind attitude that “doesn’t see race.” Even if we aren’t consciously focusing on race, are brains are noticing it, and only by acknowledging that reality can start to change our assumptions
By Robin DiAngelo
This book is a challenging book with ideas that are often uncomfortable, but I recommend it for anyone who’s willing to confront their own shortcomings. DiAngelo emphasizes again and again that the way we think of racism isn’t particularly accurate or helpful. Racism isn’t just men in white hoods with ropes in their hands. It isn’t restricted to the past, and it isn’t restricted to bad people. Because we tend to think of racism only in its most dramatic forms, white people are often horrified, hurt, and denying if their racist words or actions are called out. DiAngelo calls on white readers to let go of this defensiveness and instead engage in meaningful listening, dialogue, and change.
HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST
By Ibram X. Kendi
Kendi’s book offers a new perspective on racism. He argues that there is no neutral territory in the fight against racism; there’s no such thing as being simply not racist. You are either racist, or you are antiracist, and to be antiracist is to actively promote policies that produce or sustain racial equality and to fight against policies that produce or sustain racial inequality. Antiracism is active. Antiracism is activism. In any given moment, an individual is being either an antiracist or a racist, and the goal should be regular self-evaluation in that regard.
By Yaa Gyasi
This novel might seem like an odd fit in a list of social justice nonfiction books, but nothing else I’ve read has so effectively shown the lingering effects of slavery and colonialism in modern society. Gyasi follows two branches of an African family, one remaining on the continent, and another brought forcibly to America, through more than 200 years of history. With exquisite writing and vibrant characters, Gyasi reveals the consequences of anti-black racism, present and past, personal and structural.
RISING OUT OF HATRED
By Eli Saslow
Based on the subtitle of this book, “The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist,” and its story of a famous white nationalist who changed his views through education and friendship, you might think I’m recommending it as a kind of how-to guide to unmaking a racist. In fact, that’s what I expected going into it.
Instead, I came away certain that Derek Black was the exception, not the rule, and I felt more alarmed about the rise of white nationalism than ever. That alarm is precisely why I recommend this book, though. Derek Black (before his change of heart), his father, and their followers used a variety of tactics to make white supremacy more palatable and “nice,” which allowed their ideas to subtly infiltrate American media and politics. RISING OUT OF HATRED is hauntingly eye-opening and a necessary read for anyone who thinks racism is a problem of the past.