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Posts Tagged ‘racism’

I have a lot of books on my coffee table. I used to try to clean it off before anyone came over, but over time, I have become lax. Also, I have an excuse: I’m a writer. Of course I have books on my coffee table!

My friend was over the other night, and he asked about the book on top: Stiff, by Mary Roach. “Oh yeah,” I said. “I’m supposed to read that for research for my book. I should actually do that.” And then I was struck by an idea. “Ooh! I wonder if Mary Roach is a person of color.”

A quick flip to the back of the book and the author photo nixed that idea. “No. White, white, white. Gah!” I threw the book back on the coffee table in disappointment. (Okay, I didn’t actually throw it. I am physically incapable of throwing a book. But I set it down with gusto.)

My friend laughed at me, but it’s true. Since I started my POC authors reading challenge last year, this is my reaction upon finding out a book isn’t written by a person of color

The reason? Because almost all the books I have just lying around, or that I’ve heard buzz about, or that I pick up and want to read at the bookstore, or that I’ve selected to read for research are by white people. The number isn’t a hundred percent, but it’s close enough to be really freaking appalling.

The most important thing I learned from my POC reading project last year is that reading books written by authors of color takes real effort and mindfulness. This is because of the way publishing works right now, and let’s not beat around the bush, because of racism.

Fewer authors of colors are published than white authors. A LOT fewer. Books by authors of color are not given the same publicity campaigns. They are not reviewed as often. They are sometimes shelved in the wrong category, making it difficult for readers to find. They are not put on as many lists. When they are talked about at all, authors of color are often talked about for being authors of color instead of because of the merits of their work. They are placed on panels about race instead of panels on other subjects on which they are experts, which means they don’t reach as large an audience at conventions. And this is just a scratch on the surface of what’s going on here.

All of this means that when we don’t read mindfully, we’re a lot more likely to not read very diversely. And when we don’t read diversely, publishing can continue to tell the same old story about how diversity doesn’t sell, and nothing will change.

My reading project wasn’t really about setting a quota for myself. It was about challenging myself and stretching myself outside of my reading comfort zone. It was about trying different authors and different books to see if I would enjoy them (and the answer in many cases was a resounding yes). It was about reading more diversely so my reading experience would be more reflective of the world around me. It was about choosing new experiences for myself. It was about building my own awareness of how institutionalized bias was affecting me personally.

So every time I metaphorically throw a book down because it’s by yet another white author, that’s a victory. Not because there’s anything wrong with reading books by white authors. I do it all the time. But because now I’m aware of the imbalance. I’m aware of the problem.

And it is through awareness that change becomes possible.

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I’ve written this blog post so many times in my head, and every time I end up crushing it into a metaphorical paper ball and throwing it in the trash. Because every one of them ends up sounding as if I think I know what it’s like.

And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I DON’T KNOW.

I don’t know what it’s like to be the target of racial slurs.

I don’t know what it’s like to worry that my child might be killed because of the color of his skin.

I don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over because of what I look like instead of how I was driving.

I don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against not just because I’m a woman, but also because of my race and class.

I don’t know what it’s like, as a person of color, to try to break into a publishing industry that is hugely white and for the most part doesn’t see the problem with that.

I don’t know what it’s like to see someone who looks like me be the first one to die in movie after movie.

I don’t know what it’s like to be demonized for my skin color.

I don’t know what it’s like to know I’m three times more likely to be killed by police.

I don’t know what it’s like to be frightened enough to seriously look into emigrating from the United States.

I don’t know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a never-ending stream of racially related micro-aggressions, day after day after day.

I don’t know what it’s like to have one of the big moments of my career marked with a stereotypical joke about my race.

I don’t know what it’s like to have people assume I’m violent or aggressive or stupid before I take a single action or say a single word.

I don’t know what it’s like to receive a longer or harsher sentence than a white person would have received for the exact same crime.

I don’t know what it’s like to see the KKK in action and to know its members would be totally behind a world in which I was merely property. Or dead, even though I’ve never done anything to them.

I don’t know what it’s like to have no choice about dealing with the problem of racism in the United States.

I don’t know what it’s like to live in a country with a history of seeing my ancestors as animals, of counting my ancestors as each only three-fifths of a white person, of thinking the slavery of my ancestors was morally okay, of lynchings and segregation and dehumanization and murders of those of different racial backgrounds.

I don’t know what it’s like. All this and so much more.

*

What do I know?

I know that racism is an easy thing for a white person like me to ignore. I know I can choose to remain ignorant without huge consequences. I know I can avoid the discomfort of looking at my own privilege. I know I can pay lip service to being a decent human being by saying race is invisible to me. I know I get to be outraged and not simultaneously deeply afraid. I know I don’t have to be courageous, that I can say nothing and probably no one will be upset with me and maybe no one will even notice and it’s not like my life is made personally unbearable if the systemic racism in our country isn’t addressed.

But I choose NOT to ignore the realities of racism in our country and in our world. I choose to practice my empathy. I try to educate myself instead of placing the burden of my education on others. I donate to the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, and I implement my own reading project to increase the diversity I’m exposed to in the books I read. I try not to say anything too ignorant or hurtful, and I prepare for the possibility of me screwing up, so maybe when that time comes I’ll have the grace to apologize well and make the amends I can. I try to be a safe and supportive person. I listen. I listen some more. I listen even when I don’t understand. I listen as much as possible because I know I don’t know, and because listening is a way of legitimizing voices that have gone too long unheard. And this is, quite frankly, not very much. But it is a beginning.

I want to be very clear about my thoughts. I don’t have to know what it’s like living without white privilege to know racism is a big problem in this country. I am not okay with this status quo. I support change with all my heart, and I believe that change is possible. I believe we as a nation can be better than this. The path to change will continue to be long and difficult, but it is a path I believe in and support.

I hope I will see you there on that path with me.

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