If You're a White Person Seeking to Be a Better Ally, Add These Books to Your Reading List
Throughout this last week of May, protesters across America have demanded justice for the continued acts of fatal violence against Black Americans. In the wake of George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police — which followed the recent shootings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade — many people are asking what they can do to turn their opposition to racism into action. White Americans, especially, should be asking that question of themselves. To be better allies, we need to educate ourselves, donate what we can, demonstrate, speak out, and confront our own complicity — even when it's uncomfortable. And it's not a one-time exercise, but an ongoing process.
Earlier in the week, activist and writer Brittany Packnett circulated a list compiled by two white activists, Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein, on Twitter. The list is full of resources for other white people to educate themselves on race — books, podcast, articles, and films. The selection of books below is partly culled from and inspired by that list. It also includes additional books I've read in recent years that helped me understand how I can become a better ally, educated me on our nation's real history, and exposed me to new ideas and understandings about both systemic and interpersonal racism. These are books I think may help you do the same.
Education is just the start — but it's an important step that's incumbent on white Americans to take ourselves. Of course, these books are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the outstanding literature on the topic that's available, but I think they're a good place to begin:
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
Every white person should be assigned to read White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo's unflinching book on the mundane and insidious ways racism is perpetuated — and why so many of us have such a challenging time even discussing it. In chapters like "White Women's Tears," she takes to task some of the most defensive and destructive behaviors white people use to deflect, distract, deny, and center themselves in conversations about race, and gives real, tangible advice on how to stop it.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
I really believe Claudia Rankine's Citizen is simply one of the most remarkable achievements in modern American poetry. Her reflection on the ways racism drives wedges between people and incites violence and pain will often startle tears to your eyes, like this passage from this book-length poem did for me:
Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven't you said this yourself? Haven't you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don't forget. If this were a domestic tragedy, and it might well be, this would be your fatal flaw — your memory, vessel of your feelings. Do you feel hurt because it's the "all black people look the same" moment, or because you are being confused with another after being so close to this other?
Biased by Jennifer L. Eberhardt
Jennifer L. Eberhardt's Biased is a book on race and discrimination full of compelling research and illuminating studies. But its most exacting arguments are found in the anecdotes and stories of her own, revealing the ways racism wields its forces in institutions like schools and law enforcement and in our personal lives. It should be required reading for anyone who works or lives alongside other human beings, but especially for anyone with a modicum of power.
When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
Patrisse Khan-Cullors's journey to activism and her personal pain and determination are both laid bare in this lyrical autobiography. When They Call You a Terrorist is a visceral meditation on the personal and institutional forces that gave rise to Khan-Cullors's activism around race and mental-health advocacy — and a clear-eyed manifesto about a social-justice movement we sorely need.
On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case For Hope by DeRay Mckesson
As one of the most public faces of the Black Lives Matter movement, DeRay Mckesson has become one of the most identifiable activists of our generation, but most of us know far more about his work than his origin story. In On the Other Side of Freedom, Mckesson tells his own coming-of-age story as an activist and gay Black man in America, gracefully weaving in his own meticulously argued philosophies about policing, race, homophobia, and injustice. It's an emotional, compelling look at a life shaped by a passion for social justice — and how a passion for social justice shaped a life.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates's work as a journalist, essayist, and novelist is expansive, from tracing the racist legacy of redlining in the pages of The Atlantic to writing The Water Dancer, a novel about a slave's journey to freedom alongside Harriet Tubman. And his book Between the World and Me is no less illuminating. Crafted as a letter to his son, Coates guides him through his own personal experiences and revelations to help him understand how to exist and thrive in a world that so often works to make that an impossibility.
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
Kiese Laymon's astounding memoir Heavy is a coming-of-age tale about what it means to grow up as a Black American man in a Black body. As he traces his relationship with his brilliant, academic mother and his own fraught relationship to his body and weight as a young man, he brings vulnerability and boldness to bear in equal measure.
Monument: Poems New and Selected by Natasha Trethewey
A good friend of mine introduced me to former United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey's poems, and I'm forever grateful. Trethewey's parents defied laws banning interracial marriage when they married in the 1960s, and she uses her poems to excavate family stories that are both personal and political, shedding light on too-often-ignored Black voices in American history.