Since undergrad, I’ve prided myself on being a rather inclusive person. You know? I’ve liked to think that I was a good ally. I listen when others that are unlike me talk, I engage with the discourse, I’m an activist for causes that do not benefit me, and I erase words from my vocabulary when someone from a minority group says its offensive; no questions asked. But I can pinpoint the exact moment that it hit me just how privileged I was. It hit me all at once. I was like a giant flashback to every time I had ever heard a black person say that white people have no idea what its like. Every time I ever heard a queer person talk about their coming out. Every time I had ever sat with an immigrant. All of those memories came flooding back to me.
I wish I could say that moment was long ago, maybe at the beginning of my undergraduate career. I wish I could say I figured it out early, before #BlackLivesMatter or before Trump or before the wall or detention centers or the legalization of gay marriage. But no.
I figured it out this summer. After I had considered myself “progressive” for years. I had already thought I was well read and educated. I thought I was empathetic to POC and minority groups. I thought I understood privilege and intersectionality. I’m apart of some oppressed groups and some privileged groups; I thought I knew what it meant. But apparently not.
This summer, I was going on one of my library trips, as I do. I always have a book in my hand, especially this year. I’ve been devouring books like crazy. I can’t seem to get enough of them. But on this particularly day, I was just dropping one off. I hadn’t finished it and didn’t feel like I was going to, which is an anomaly for me. But I wasn’t into it. It didn’t get to me. I already had my next book, so I just dropped this one off. That was it. The moment.
I dropped the book into the slot outside of the library and I could feel time slow down. I felt the spine of the book slip through my fingers, the smooth plastic that was placed over it. I felt the cold of the air around me and the cold of the metal door I held open. Then the sounds; the cars around me, the trains, and the thud of the book hitting the bottom of the box. That was it.
I was privileged.
As I walked away, it finally fucking hit me. I’ve missed the whole point of being an ally. It just hit me like a pile of bricks. I have always tried to to advocate for equality and social justice but I missed a crucial aspect of it: listening.
The book I was returning was Bipolar Faith by Dr. Monica Coleman. I had picked it up because it was a book that talked about the intersection of mental illness and faith, an issue I’m very passionate about and have experience with. I was looking for a book that would resonate with me and maybe give me some insight to my own past with the issue. However, that wasn’t what I got. What I got was even better, I just couldn’t appreciate it at the time. See, what I didn’t account for was the fact that Dr. Monica Coleman is black. It wasn’t a book about faith and mental illness, but rather, about how faith and mental illness were shaped by her culture and upbringing. It was a book about having faith and mental illness while being black. When I read about Dr. Coleman and her experiences, I was looking for someone like me. But she wasn’t like me. One of the worst realizations I have had was in tossing her book back into the return bin, unfinished, because she wasn’t like me.
All the things I had thought about her book came to mind as I walked away. Boring. Not inspiring. Not useful. Not interesting. Not relevant. Just not into it. I don’t get the hype. I just don’t care. All of these words made sense now. I didn’t think the book was relevant because it wasn’t speaking to me. I didn’t think it was useful because I had never had a use for it. I didn’t think it was interesting because I am not a black woman sitting at the intersection of faith and mental illness. And I think if I hadn’t been so ignorant, I might have learned something.
I remember thinking how stupid it was of me to toss out a book and deem it “unfinishable” because it wasn’t speaking to my experiences. Must everything be about me? I have grown so accustomed to having everything be about the white experience that when it isn’t, I don’t have the brain space to listen. I tune it out. Isn’t that what we do?
The painful truth is that I’ve always done that. As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve rolled my eyes when people talk about diversity in the media and gotten uncomfortable when people discuss race. I’ve hated that everything has to be about inclusion but hell, I’ve always been included. I finally fucking get it. We need to start listening to the voices we have tuned out all this time. We need to listen to people who share different experiences than us. Not everyone sees from the same perspective. Not everyone has the place in society. Not everyone has the same privilege.
I’ve always believed I was well-read and educated on issues regarding minorities. But after this incident, I went back to look at my reading list and realized that I have almost exclusively read books by white people. And I have read hundreds of books. The amount of white authors I read is more than what could be randomly assigned by chance. Like, if you put an equal amount of books in a random generator and randomly assigned 20 books, there would be more books by POC than I have on my Good Reads list. If you don’t see the problem with that, you might want to think about why.
The number of POC that white people learn from is horrifyingly low. The danger of this is that you come to learn about the world in a specific way and you think its fact; that this is the way everyone sees the world, because all of your media plays into that confirmation bias. Because white people produce the TV shows, the books, the podcasts, the art, and the films you engage with. Because the second a black or Latinx or Native person does it, we call it a “black film” or a “Latina book.” Because even if there are POC in it, more likely than not, they didn’t get to be in the room where the character was made. Take the Netflix show, Atypical, for example. They did an amazing thing by making a show about a teenager on the spectrum, but they failed by not letting a teenager on the spectrum write for the damn show.
The point made was made for me when I discussed my realization with a pastor who shared a beautiful, and painfully real-life scenario, of what happens when we let one kind of individual make the decisions. He said that the church bathrooms had recently been redone. They were beautiful and well done and they got many compliments. But the women had an issue; there weren’t any places to dispose of tampons or pads in the stalls. It was only when that issue was raised that the church staff realized they hadn’t had any women on the construction or planning team for the bathrooms, and never even consulted a woman to discuss the bathrooms that the women would be the ones using.
Just because you have some kind of knowledge about a group other than your own does not mean its comparable to lived experience. And make sure your knowledge isn’t coming from a white person, cis-gendered, straight man. We aren’t all looking at life the same way, so if you’re only hearing one side of the story, your view will always be a little lopsided. There is a whole other world of individuals who aren’t seeing life the same way, and they have beautiful things to say. It’s time we listened to them.
Now, I’m not one to make New Year’s Resolutions, but I needed to do this one. I needed to be held accountable to this one. For 2020, its my goal that for every book by a white author that I read, I also read one by a POC or queer person and maybe even, by the end of the year, have my reading list filled more with minority groups than straight, cis, white people. And hell, I should start with Dr. Monica Coleman and Bipolar Faith. And maybe you should too.
I 10/10 recommend doing this with me. I’ll try to blog my way through the year. It’s my goal to highlight the amazing queer and POC that are making amazing content. But to start you off, here is a list of books and such that I’ve read by POC/queer/Native people this year that I recommend.
Books I’ve Read
Bad Feminist and Hunger – Roxane Gay (stereotypical answer, I know. But Roxane Gay is a legend.)
This Is Just My Face, Try Not To Stare – Gabourey Sidibe (A memoir of the actress from Empire, Gabourey talks about her poor upbringing in New York, her stumbling into stardom, and being a fat actress in the world today.)
Things That Make White People Uncomfortable – Michael Bennet (This half autobiography book highlights the issue of racism in the NFL. It was amazing.)
The Pretty One – Keah Brown (This was a great book on pop culture, blackness, and disability. There aren’t many good books out there on disability and even less on the intersection of disability and blackness.)
This Will Be My Undoing – Morgan Jerkins (Another great book on intersectionality; this one talked about feminism and blackness. I really enjoyed being able to read about a subject I’m very passionate about but from a different perspective. It really helped me to look at feminism in a new light and honestly take in the criticism from black women.)
Glory Happening – Kaitlin Curtice (I’ve been following her work on Indigenous rights for a while and its been really eye opening. Indigenous rights were not something I ever even considered before reading her work. 100% recommend her books and following her on Twitter.)
Books I Want To Read
Infidel – Ayaan Hirsi Ali (I don’t know much about this book other than its a memoir of sorts about an Islamic political figure who is, apparently, a badass. It was mentioned in the book I’m currently reading and got intrigued.)
Black Feminist Thought – Patricia Hill Collins (I’ve wanted to read this book since undergrad. Its a classic sociology book on feminism from a black perspective.)
The Cross And The Lynching Tree – James Cone (An amazing theologian that its a damn shame I’ve never read because his books on Christianity and black liberation are, so I hear, groundbreaking.)
The Color Of Compromise: The Truth About The American Church’s Complicity in Racism – Jemar Tisby (Its in the title: its about how the church has been complacent when it comes to racism. I absolutely cannot wait to read this.)
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made For Whiteness – Austin Channing Brown (Again: just read the title. Amazing.)
White Fragility: Why Its So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism – Robin DiAngelo (This one has been blowing up since it came out and its been on my list for a while. I feel like this one is going to be really convicting and I’m sure it’ll be a tough pill to swallow at points. I can’t wait.)
So You Want To Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo (Another popular one, but it seems relevant and intriguing. I know I need to do better about listening to non-white people when they critique me, my work, my politics, etc. I’m hoping it’ll expand my horizons.)
All You Can Ever Know – Nicole Chung (A memoir about a Korean woman who was raised by a White family and her reckoning with her culture and upbringing. I love memoirs and this one touches on the issues of ethnicity and culture and on adoption, which is another issue I’ve been reading a lot about lately.)
Non-Binary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity – Michah Rajunov, et al. (Feeling disconnected to the gender I was assigned at birth is something that I personally can’t relate to or understand, but I’m trying to be a better advocate and ally to my trans/non-binary friends. This book is a collection of multiple essays by various people so it offers a wide array of perspectives which should make for a really informative read.)
We Have Always Been Here: A Queer, Muslim Memoir – Samra Habib (I don’t even have words other than Samra sounds like a badass and I can’t wait to hear her story.)
And many more to come! If you want to follow along my book journey, follow me on GoodReads or Instagram where I share more play-by-play updates on the books I’m reading. This year I want to do my best to intentionally read more books by people different than myself and to use my platforms to signal boost POC/queer/Native/marginalized voices so they can be heard. The world doesn’t need another White blogger. But these stories need to be told. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to send them my way! I read a million books and am always searching for more.