What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?
June 4, 2020 1:30 PM   Subscribe

An anti-racist reading list means well. How could it not with some of the finest authors, scholars, poets, and critics of the twentieth century among its bullet points. Still, I am left to wonder: Who is this for?

The syllabus, as these lists are sometimes called, seldom instructs or guides. It is no pedagogue. It is unclear whether each book supplies a portion of the holistic racial puzzle or are intended as revelatory islands in and of themselves. Aside from the contemporary teaching texts, genre appears indiscriminately: essays slide against memoir and folklore, poetry squeezed on either side by sociological tomes. This, maybe ironically but maybe not, reinforces an already pernicious literary divide that books written by or about minorities are for educational purposes, racism and homophobia and stuff, wholly segregated from matters of form and grammar, lyric and scene. Perhaps better to say that in the world of the anti-racist reading list genre disappears, replaced by the vacuity of self-reference, the anti-racist book, a gooey mass.

Jarret M. Drake offers a "critique of the critique": "if one reads Sister Outsider and the primary conclusion is to become an 'anti-racist' then i would assume you didn't read the book. it is very explicitly about so much more, including nuanced yet clear commentaries on gender, sexism, and ableism."
posted by jshttnbm (56 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm well aware that there is valid criticism, but I also think it's unwise to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
posted by tclark at 1:32 PM on June 4, 2020 [42 favorites]


I don't really understand the complaint here. Book recommendations will not solve the world's problems, but I don't think they are inherently problematic. The argument that people have shorter attention spans and may not read books seemed a bit odd, too. That doesn't make books less worthwhile. The author also seems to suggest that people should listen to podcasts instead, or should simply have learned this stuff already. Perhaps I am missing something.
posted by snofoam at 2:12 PM on June 4, 2020 [4 favorites]


Will RTFA when I get home from work, but my initial reaction is that racism isn't a simple single "thing" that can be approached with a narrow focus. It inhabits and infuses every aspect of our lives as Americans. Offering a broad range of material increases the odds of someone finding something they're willing/able to engage with, and hopefully open their eyes to how racism informs their world.

The main point of Sister Outsider may not be anti-racist, but if it includes that in a conversation about other isms that definitely need to be raised in the collective consciousness, that seems to me a good thing.
posted by calamari kid at 2:16 PM on June 4, 2020


This article seems part of the "You're not doing it right!" school of cultural commentary.
posted by PhineasGage at 2:31 PM on June 4, 2020 [6 favorites]


Drake's posts are great, but I don't understand Jackson's point. The lists don't solve racism? People should go to college instead? ("And yet the person who has to ask can hardly be trusted in a self-directed course of study"). Podcasts are better than books? Books are supposed to offer "absolution"?

You have to start somewhere. Having read none of these books is not some mythical wonderland; it's where we all were once.

Maybe the worry is that someone will dutifully read the books and then stop, not caring any more? Then write an essay explaining what to do instead. (Oh, right, podcasts.)
posted by zompist at 2:36 PM on June 4, 2020 [2 favorites]


A couple of Jackson's points as they stand out to me are (a) that putting out a list and saying "read twenty books" without giving a sense of purpose and direction and rationale to that reading is reflexive and overwhelming, an unrealistic ask with no practical support structure under it, and (b) that in that process collapsing black literature, poetry, biography, anti-racist guides, etc. into some fungible "black/anti-racist reading" lump both further muddies the value of any given recommendation and erases the richness of genre and style and purpose in any given work.

Those both seem like pretty valid points. They also, and I think this is pretty clear from the tone of Jackson's whole short piece, are points being made in frustration about a cyclical and sometimes pretty clearly performative reaction to the spiking visibility of racism. It's trading card season for anti-racist and black literature, the way it won't be next month or six months from now or until the next big national racist thing happens that is so overt and undeniable that the lists start going around again.

Reading books is good! Working on being anti-racist is good! Reading books to work on being anti-racist is good! But it doesn't have to be flattened to "you're doing it wrong" to look critically at whether folks could be doing it better, could be proceeding with both greater care and greater consistency at saying what's worth reading, and why, and when, and for what purpose, beyond just general not-feeling-racist reasons.
posted by cortex at 2:46 PM on June 4, 2020 [23 favorites]


I think what Jackson is getting at, though she is not this blunt, is that if you have not been exposed to the books on these list already, you’re uneducated, ignorant, and potentially a lost cause. It’s an elitist argument, and while I don’t agree with it, I’m certainly sympathetic to it.

This is how someone with my life experience might construe this argument, which, again, I do not agree with: I read several of the central texts in this syllabus in high school 30 years ago: it was an all-boys Catholic school. I read others of them in college: a highly specialized science and technology college. And I’m a white man. So if you haven’t read them, if you don’t know how to find them, what the fuck is wrong with you? Does it even make sense to give such a naïve, uneducated person a reading list? Wouldn’t they be better off with a podcast? God forbid they be expected to understand a novel as a political work.

Please understand the paragraph above as hyperbolic polemic: it is meant to represent how one might feel about the state of cultural exposure to books on the anti-racist reading list.

Maybe I’m reading too much Jackson’s piece, but that’s the sense that I get.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:01 PM on June 4, 2020 [2 favorites]


This article seems part of the "You're not doing it right!" school of cultural commentary.

Yeah, the article is really all over the place and almost nihilistic. What zompist wrote - "You have to start somewhere" - is totally right.

Some of the arguments I see:
  • racism is always a problem, so it's bad that you're seeing it now
  • the same books are always on these lists (and this is bad)
  • lists don't have guidance or teaching, and readers can't be trusted to learn without such direction
  • The author approached Toni Morrison's writing the Right Way, whereas if you learn of the book from a list, you are approaching it the Wrong Way
  • again, readers can't be trusted to learn from books on such lists because they need such a list
  • wanting to be anti-racist is the Wrong Way, you need to read and absorb the material without intent of betterment, and then you will become better - this is the Right Way
  • readers who need such a list won't get anything from reading, so they might as well just listen to a podcast
  • people wanting to read books from such a reading list can't be trusted to take any lifelong meaning or change from such reading
No thanks. I'd like to have some optimism that people can and will make meaningful changes from reading things that are presented in lists. Some portion will feel pleased with themselves and call it a day and others will continue on the journey and become better allies and better people and others will fall in between.

A couple of Jackson's points as they stand out to me are (a) that putting out a list and saying "read twenty books" without giving a sense of purpose and direction and rationale to that reading is reflexive and overwhelming, an unrealistic ask with no practical support structure under it, and (b) that in that process collapsing black literature, poetry, biography, anti-racist guides, etc. into some fungible "black/anti-racist reading" lump both further muddies the value of any given recommendation and erases the richness of genre and style and purpose in any given work.

Those both seem like pretty valid points. They also, and I think this is pretty clear from the tone of Jackson's whole short piece, are points being made in frustration about a cyclical and sometimes pretty clearly performative reaction to the spiking visibility of racism. It's trading card season for anti-racist and black literature, the way it won't be next month or six months from now or until the next big national racist thing happens that is so overt and undeniable that the lists start going around again.


I don't think the first one is really valid unless you hold a particularly dim view of humanity that readers can't make links between works and aggregate their reading experiences on their own without handholding.The second point I can agree with to some extent, but 1. people need to start somewhere, and 2. better to start somewhere than have complete choice paralysis. And if the argument is that by aggregating such a list you're othering the genre, I'd argue that the genre was already othered, and the list is just making that obvious.

I have a ton of empathy for the cyclical nature of these things, but if that was the author's intent, then they could have made that argument rather than the one that was written.
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 3:03 PM on June 4, 2020 [5 favorites]


For me personally, I think part of the problem is that the author doesn’t link to any examples and I think that makes this article very hard to put into context. I have not been subjected to a deluge of anti-racist reading lists, so it is very hard to understand her complaints and how much of a problem this really is. The article also seems like a bunch of small complaints that may apply to one list or another and ends up not making a very strong or clear argument. And it doesn’t seem to offer any real solution.
posted by snofoam at 3:15 PM on June 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


These are the three points that jumped out at me:

Anti-racism reading lists fail such a person, for they are already predisposed to read black art zoologically...This, maybe ironically but maybe not, reinforces an already pernicious literary divide that books written by or about minorities are for educational purposes, racism and homophobia and stuff, wholly segregated from matters of form and grammar, lyric and scene.

The very assurance of absolution is tainted.

The books are there, they’ve always been there, yet the lists keep coming, bathing us in the pleasure of a recommendation. But that’s the thing about the reading. It has to be done.


1. See Damn, You're Not Reading Any Books by White Men This Year? That's So Freakin Brave and Cool (previously). POC aren't educational, they're not there for you to gawk at or to be taken like medicine only when there is a national outrage. Weave them into your reading life, celebrate their joy and beauty as well as their pain, read fuckin Alyssa Cole's Reluctant Royals romance series (or black writers in whatever your preferred genre is, if that's not it) as much as you read tragedy porn and antiracist primers, so that you become used to the idea of POC as fully human. And then keep doing it, because in a society that continually teaches you otherwise, you need to keep reminding yourself. The work is never done.

2. YOU CANNOT GET OFF THE HOOK FOR WHITE SUPREMACY I DON'T KNOW HOW MANY MORE TIMES I CAN SAY THAT ON THIS DAMN SITE IT'S A PART OF AMERICA IT'S A PART OF ALL OF US

3. actually sit down and read the damn book (this does not seem like something MeFi would object to)

There are a lot of race threads going on right now where MeFites don't want to sit down and engage with the subject of a post, and instead find things to nitpick that are either side points or just something they made up in their head that they think the author is saying. This is a very MetaFilter way to engage in general (something that came up in a recent MeTa about racism) but it's particularly irritating at a time like this and when happening alongside current events threads where of course everyone is on the right side.
posted by sunset in snow country at 3:55 PM on June 4, 2020 [24 favorites]


I feel like people are not quite getting this piece and a lot of the summaries of the article in this thread don't really touch on what she's saying. She is NOT saying that it is bad to learn about books about racism. Rather, she is talking about anti-racism reading lists not as a pedagogical tool, but as a kind of social practice that ends up feeling cynical and useless because of its essential rote and unoriginal nature.

So she's not saying that you have to have a personal teacher guiding you through these works, etc. What she's describing is in fact a sort of asymptotic failure of these reading lists: they domesticate and commodify works that should essentially be dangerous. Her point isn't that you should read Morrison the way she does, but that you should read Morrison as possessing an artistic materiality, a wild surface area that is not reducible to being "about" anti-racism. I think of how when Zora put out it's top books by black women, it had to specifically proclaim that they liked the books and that you should read them because they are enjoyable and not just morally nutritious. Anthony Reed writes that the black experimental tradition is all about writing outside of normal white registers, e.g. with ruptures and black diction, but these lists make the black works too legible in the same way that James Baldwin and Audre Lorde have in the last few years become reduced to slogans on t-shirts and tote bags.

Because the same books are thoughtlessly recycled over and over again, the reading list has the results of deadening the books inside--and even creating a sort of cottage industry of black books for white readers. (I am reminded of an author was telling me how he didn't like one of the more famous books mentioned in the piece and then added something to the effect of, "What do I know? I'm black--it wasn't written for me.") The anti-racism syllabus feels especially idiotic in this moment when huge cultural institutions are just linking to random things they've done in the past, while a lot of smaller shoe-string nonprofits are actually donating money.
posted by johnasdf at 3:58 PM on June 4, 2020 [29 favorites]


Oh. And still read the books even though a writer on the internet is telling you it's pointless or they don't like it. If you're going to engage in non-performative allyship you cannot simply melt the first time someone criticizes you.
posted by sunset in snow country at 3:58 PM on June 4, 2020 [15 favorites]


I've been a bit nonplussed by the ubiquity and enthusiasm of these reading lists, most especially by one popular list of "things you can do" that was about 50% filled with "books you can read." I may be projecting but in the context of recommendations as a response to this specific moment I feel like points and questions make sense.
posted by mark k at 4:00 PM on June 4, 2020 [2 favorites]


Thanks, johnasdf, your insightful comments are clearer and more persuasive than the original article.
posted by PhineasGage at 4:03 PM on June 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


As a white person who is in social circles where reading lists like this get shared and reshaped whenever another Black person gets murdered by the police, and I get what this article is saying.

There’s nothing wrong with reading these books, not at all! But what’s more important is that you act on them - that you’re turning your reading about race into tangible things and becoming a better ally. Just doing the reading isn’t enough, and does absolve you of anything. You need to talk about this with other white people, too.

The other point is that amazing works by Black authors aren’t here to teach you about racism - they have worth and beauty and value that goes far beyond teaching white folks like me stuff. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read them - you should - but that they do work in the world that isn’t intended for you.

I like reading lists but I’m also wary of them - I’ve been in orgs where we all read things about how not to be racist and discussed them and whatnot and then nothing changed because our problems were systemic and we didn’t want to deal with that.
posted by heurtebise at 4:04 PM on June 4, 2020 [11 favorites]


Ok, johnasdf and sunset in snow country said this better than I did, so just go read their comments instead
posted by heurtebise at 4:05 PM on June 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


This is, frankly, asinine.

Still, I am left to wonder: Who is this for?

It is for people who wish to be less racist. There are plenty of these people. This is not rocket surgery.

And yet the person who has to ask can hardly be trusted in a self-directed course of study, not if their yearning for gentle education also happens to coincide with their earliest exposure to books written by people who are not white.

Oh, OK. They can't be 'trusted' to teach themselves. But higher education is outside the reach of many people in the US. So who's going to teach them? You? So why not reading lists? No, it's not a 3 year cultural studies degree. But it's not nothing, either.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:06 PM on June 4, 2020 [3 favorites]


Maybe it's because I'm an English professor, but like cortex, what I took away from the piece was her frustration with the wholesale lumping of Black texts together, as if one could read a novel or poem purely for "message" apart from the actual literary craft. When in fact, as she points out, the two cannot be separated. (Look at how Langston Hughes sharply calls Walt Whitman to account! The form of the poem is as much a part of the politics as the language [as it is in Whitman]!) Moreover, even the most didactic novel often can't be reduced to its high-concept message, let alone something as complex as a novel by Morrison.

But also: I have to write syllabi, and syllabi have a point. They're telling a story of some sort. It's legitimate to ask if the reading lists have a narrative structure that will help readers make sense of what they're encountering (even if only at the level of "read X before Y"), or if they just...throw new swimmers in at the deep end and leave them to flounder around. (I mean, if someone were to say "hey, I know nothing about Jews and antisemitism in contemporary America, where do I start?" the answer is definitely not "oh, Nathan Englander.") I do see reading lists/syllabi coming across my social media timelines fairly frequently (academics tend to pass them around), and it isn't always clear that they're going to be helpful in the way they're intended, I guess.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:13 PM on June 4, 2020 [13 favorites]


It's just... there's enough insane racist bullshit this week without tearing down innocuous efforts to help people who want to do better.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:13 PM on June 4, 2020 [5 favorites]


If you're going to engage in non-performative allyship you cannot simply melt the first time someone criticizes you.

This applies in so many areas of life as a general self-management pro-tip that it isn't surprising it applies here.

I don't know if I'm doing *that* right, tbh, but trying to be clear with myself on what I'm doing for approval and what I'm doing because I think it brings the world a little closer to my values seems to be a good start. Also, paradoxically, separating the discipline of giving *attention* from the idea that I owe anyone my buy-in on some particular seems to keep my capacity for engagement higher.

YMMV. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, there really are bunches of ways apparently idealistic actions can fail to be productive, sometimes you just start with good intentions and try to adapt to observed shortcomings and feedback along the way.
posted by wildblueyonder at 4:29 PM on June 4, 2020 [4 favorites]


Maybe it's because I'm an English professor, but like cortex, what I took away from the piece was her frustration with the wholesale lumping of Black texts together, as if one could read a novel or poem purely for "message" apart from the actual literary craft.

Except one of the most commonly shared lists is from Ibram X. Kendi, and his article in The Atlantic.

I totally get it that performative wokeness is not a good thing. I totally get it that bandwagoning on this is not necessarily a good thing either.

But this is a list *specifically* designed for people like me. People who grew up utterly saturated in the bullshit white-oriented "colorblind" world where I didn't realize until adulthood that half of what I heard was just dogwhistles.

I had previously read some of the books on the list, and found them incredibly educational and moving, both as literature and as messages. As wake up calls to the fucked up society that mostly left me alone because I'm white.

And while I do have some hesitation about bandwagonism, my only response to that is if not now, when?

Or as Kendi puts it:
This anti-racist syllabus is a first step. It is for people beginning their anti-racist journey after a lifetime of not truly knowing themselves or their country. It is for people opening to knowledge now, to changing themselves now, to changing the world now.
This list applies to me. According to some friends and acquaintances, I'm this fire-breathing "SJW" but really I know better. In real life, practical terms? I may have read a couple of these books on and off over the years, but I'm still beginning my anti-racist journey. This isn't me trying to be showy, or to perform wokeness or to get a pat on the back and a cookie. This is me learning, and maybe some of the even-more ignorant folks around me might see what I'm doing and start learning, too. Isn't that the whole point?
posted by tclark at 4:44 PM on June 4, 2020 [12 favorites]


In the short term, I think some of the Get Yourself Educated on this topic lists do serve a useful purpose. That is there are (white) people out there who are disturbed by this undeniable recent brutality that would otherwise be tugging on the sleeves of black people they know (likely acquaintances not friends) and pleading "What can I dooooooo?" If a list can divert many annoyingly well meaning people and get them doing some independent learning, then that's a small positive. No one needs an energy vampire in their face now.
posted by puddledork at 5:09 PM on June 4, 2020 [5 favorites]


Meanwhile, suddenly-outraged white people jumping into the fray and doing "Something, Anything, But This, Because it's Something, And Hey Look at Me I Solved Racism So We Don't Have to Think About It Anymore!" often turns out poorly. Luckily, there are a bunch of good books about how and why this tends to go badly... And it's great when people aspiring to be actually-helpful allies read them.

SURJ Bay Area has been doing 'Study and Action' groups for the last few years, where new members commit to a guided reading group with to pick up the history, while also helping regularly with organizing efforts while they level-up their knowledge. It seems like a good alternative model to just handing someone a reading list, but, still, the reading list helps.
posted by kaibutsu at 5:10 PM on June 4, 2020 [4 favorites]


I have to wonder about the utopian bubble the author lives in, where apparently everyone is inherently anti-racist and just has acquired all this knowledge automagically, or through the privilege of a graduate education in comparative literature and American studies.

Performative smugness on the left is the equivalent of "thoughts and prayers" on the right. I'm not here for any of it.
posted by basalganglia at 5:24 PM on June 4, 2020 [3 favorites]


The original article has some good points that it mostly fails to express clearly, probably bc the author doesn't seem to be sure what point she wants to make.

TBH, I'm a little lost as to the point of the critique of the critique, because it seems sort of in agreement with the original article, but on what aspects is unclear?
posted by Saxon Kane at 5:30 PM on June 4, 2020


Oh my god, you all are hilarious and maddening! This thread is both striking proof of the need for the reading lists and the need for this kind of article.

The original essay is well written and had already said everything that I summarized in my comments. For example, when she cautions against the predisposition "to read black art zoologically"--that's great!

This thread however is like a nonstop irony machine--most notably the flood of earnest liberal anti-racist readers criticizing a black writer for not standing behind liberal anti-racist reading lists and endlessly commenting on how bad this black woman writer is! The piece is about the limits of liberal diversity thinking, of which the anti-racist syllabi is the lowest common denominator. Because the diversity/inclusion framework turns race into a matter of ethics, the original essay is literally incomprehensible, as seen in this thread, since she is saying, What if black literature is actually not nutritious or ethical, but fun? Wild? Interesting? What if rather than being a moral good needed for American public, it was something created for a more intimate and imaginative exchange? To which people in this thread reply: How dare she says Toni Morrison is great art, can't she see how much broccoli I've eaten!? Doesn't she see how good I'm trying to be?

I would also add that she is not at all accusing these syllabi of being performative allyship. That article incidentally is another hilarious paradox, since posting it has generally seemed to me like a sign of showing that you are an even better ally than all the others! She is criticizing the lists for something different: for their reductiveness, banality, triteness, cynicism, futility.

I have to wonder about the utopian bubble the author lives in, where apparently everyone is inherently anti-racist and just has acquired all this knowledge automagically, or through the privilege of a graduate education in comparative literature and American studies.


The universe is probably one of other people of color, who are not perpetually stuck having the most basic possible conversation about race! (which is where the reading list always starts from).

And if I may go off on my own tangent, rather than ending up rather predictably being the POC explaining what the article literally says: the anti-racism reading lists often are just bad! They are educational, but they typically educate within an incredibly narrow apolitical, ahistorical Americanist space. It would be great to see a reading list that did not include the obvious titles mentioned in her piece, but writers like Kamau Brathwaite, NourbeSe Philips, CLR James, Cedric Robinson, Wanda Coleman, Oliver Cox, Richard Wright, Aime Cesaire, Fran Ross, Claudia Jones, etc. If it actually helps, there is a great reader of the black radical tradition here (warning PDF).
posted by johnasdf at 6:10 PM on June 4, 2020 [55 favorites]


Thanks for the PDF reading list/syllabus! It's a great opportunity for a deeper dive into these topics. But it's not a "first pass," like a Toni Morrison/Zora Neale Hurston/TaNehisi Coates reading list is. You can't have a radical discussion about race, or anything, without first having a basic discussion about it. And there are a shitton of Americans, and others, who have never even had a basic, face to face discussion with another human being about race. I'm one of them. And I want that to change.

Frankly, as a woman of color who is not Black, I really appreciate having some sense of direction when trying to expand my knowledge. And I'm bewildered by people who write thinkpieces implying that needing direction means a reader's motives are somehow impure.

If the argument is that schools should be introducing students to this, then yes, absolutely. But most schools don't, and probably never will, absent a major restructuring of who decides the curriculum.

If the argument is that Black authors have literary merit outside their "use" to White readers, then yes, absolutely! So White people should be encouraged to read them! (And also non-White readers, like yours truly.)

If it's frustration that this topic comes up over and over without moving the needle, then yes. Absolutely. Hence the allusion to "thoughts and prayers."

I love that some of you all have moved past Anti-Racism 101. Don't be smug at the rest of us.
posted by basalganglia at 6:52 PM on June 4, 2020 [3 favorites]


I don't at all disagree with the position that Black literature is full of wonders for the interested reader and that it is rarely good and usually deadening to read a novel as a form of moral instruction. If the position of the piece is "fiction shouldn't be lumped together with nonfiction" on this kind of reading list, I basically agree. In some ways, the article feels like a rearticulation of Baldwin's frustration/exhaustion with the protest novel.

But, unfortunately, there are still many many many white Americans in need of basic moral information and instruction on the myriad of injustices against Black Americans woven into the American past and present. Many many many. They are instructed (correctly) not to bother their Black friends and co-workers, but to educate themselves. These people need suggested reading for this particular purpose and moment. They really do. I hope that at some point they realize what a glorious literature they are standing right in the middle of, oblivious to. But they need some guidance now, some path to understanding of facts that are often obfuscated and political positions that they have only seen in caricature. That's the answer to the question of who the reading list is for. Some are better than others for that purpose, but that's who it's for.
posted by praemunire at 7:05 PM on June 4, 2020 [4 favorites]


Oh wow, johnasdf, this reader looks incredible, thank you so much for sharing it.
posted by jameaterblues at 7:44 PM on June 4, 2020 [2 favorites]


Do y’all know why Drake has such a low opinion of Kendi? Like, should I literally not read How To Be An Anti-racist?
posted by hapticactionnetwork at 8:05 PM on June 4, 2020


reading with interest. nothing particularly useful to add but that i often welcome and sometimes solicit recommendations from others whom i recognize as more deeply grounded than myself in a subject of which i would like to know more, i think not through some failure of my capacity for learning.
posted by 20 year lurk at 8:31 PM on June 4, 2020


What did the author say about Kendi, beyond saying his book is the "mac daddy" of most of these reading lists and criticizing the term "anti-racism" that he uses in his title? I just skimmed the article and I'm not seeing it. I'm open to having missed something but I'm also wondering if you're seeing something not actually there.

I'm going to paraphrase something that was said in the MetaPoC slack (that I think actually came from someone's anti-racist white friend), which is that when you really start doing the work, you take a moral stand and decide which POC speakers and thinkers you stand with, because of course, we are not a monolith. So if (for example) a Black person thinks Ibram Kendi's work is a load of shit, it's not something to wring your hands over, because you already know where you stand. Of course we can always take in new information and do our own research, especially if someone turns out to be abusive in their personal life or a hypocrite or something like that. And you need to have a grounding in the basics before you can make that stand, and the primers and the reading lists help with that. And yes, we are told to listen to POC and Black voices. Those are the baby steps, for those whose default is NOT to listen to POC, and as you grow in your anti-racism you get to the point where you know who you agree with and can handle the deeper disagreements.

Been thinking a lot about how we criticize all the newly woke white people. It does seem kind of mean sometimes, but it's not for meanness' sake - I honestly think that being able to withstand that criticism and to listen is a necessary step in building an anti-racist mindset. Someone who can't handle one thoughtpiece about the downsides of synthesizing all Black art into an educational reading list for white people cannot be an effective ally.
posted by sunset in snow country at 8:35 PM on June 4, 2020 [23 favorites]


If anybody wants to check out the Black Radical Tradition reader johnasdf linked above but might prefer a format other than PDF, this seems to be a reformatted version of the same collection, also from Libcom and available in .mobi and .epub. Thanks again johnasdf!
posted by jameaterblues at 8:39 PM on June 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


sunset in snow country, Jarrett M Brown accuses Ibram X Kendi of making things up, which I think is what people are trying to find more information on.
posted by sagc at 8:39 PM on June 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


Thank you, I hadn't heard about that. I will take my own advice and do some research.
posted by sunset in snow country at 8:51 PM on June 4, 2020


Sorry, I’m not great at Twitter, but in the Critique of the Critique thread Drake says “some of these White people gotta start somewhere. by God, i hope it's not with Kendi!” And the tweets that sagc linked to as well. I was curious where that came from. Thanks, sunset in snow country, I think that’s all helpful for me to think about.
posted by hapticactionnetwork at 8:57 PM on June 4, 2020


Someone who can't handle one thoughtpiece about the downsides of synthesizing all Black art into an educational reading list for white people cannot be an effective ally.

It’s quite a leap from considered critiques to “can’t handle”, but the leap was made anyway.
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 9:16 PM on June 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


Hmm, okay. I'm sorry for minimizing. I just worry that a lot of what I see here (and this isn't directed at any one commenter) is concern about whether a random article writer thinks you're doing wokeness wrong, and I think that's counterproductive. If that's not you, then don't worry about it, I guess
posted by sunset in snow country at 10:01 PM on June 4, 2020 [5 favorites]


If anybody wants to check out the Black Radical Tradition reader johnasdf linked above but might prefer a format other than PDF, this seems to be a reformatted version of the same collection, also from Libcom and available in .mobi and .epub. Thanks again johnasdf!

And if you would like an even closer link, Noisy Pink Bubbles posted this to MeFiProjects a while back.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:15 PM on June 4, 2020 [2 favorites]


And I'm bewildered by people who write thinkpieces implying that needing direction means a reader's motives are somehow impure.

I feel you on that reaction, but I don't think that's what Jackson is saying. Contrary to that, really: it read to me that she was saying that providing some direction in your reading list, that saying "here's why you should read this book, and here is what you might get from this book", and providing a guidance and differentiation beyond merely "here is a set of correct books to read", would be more useful and instructional and so less handwaving than what sometimes happens with rote and rehashed lists of works by and about black people.

Which, again, I feel like there's a degree of misunderstanding in some of the reactions here that assumes Jackson is trying to write the first and final word on Do Reading Lists Have Value For White People when in fact she's writing to an audience of people who are willing to consider the merits and problems with reading lists as an attested phenomenon, at a more complex critical level. Make the next step to assuming a context for it other than the most simplistically activist. Not every essay is a slogan on a protest sign.
posted by cortex at 11:27 PM on June 4, 2020 [3 favorites]


It is for people who wish to be less racist.

Will reading these books make you less racist? Is the purpose of reading these books to make you less racist?
posted by atoxyl at 5:29 AM on June 5, 2020 [1 favorite]


I really appreciate having some sense of direction when trying to expand my knowledge

Does a list of books with absolutely no additional context, details about the structure of the list, or explanation for why these particular books were picked accomplish this goal?

I've seen a variety of recommended reading lists on a variety of topics over the years. An awful lot of them are the non-annotated list sort. Which has its place, but isn't a syllabus.

Maybe some of us are thinking of different examples in the genre of lists being critiqued than others, and so are unwittingly talking about different things? I'm working on the understanding that we're talking about a list of books that has a title (eg. "An anti-racist reading list") and maybe sub-headings for genres (fiction, essay, autobiography, etc.), but no additional information.
posted by eviemath at 6:34 AM on June 5, 2020 [2 favorites]


I'm well aware that there is valid criticism, but I also think it's unwise to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

But what if "good" is the enemy of the people? What if "good" is the domain of the white moderate who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice?

What if "good" is what white Americans have been signalling for decades and all people of color have gotten from it are "America's Next Top Not Racist" kinds of performative wokeness competitions?

cortex and johnasdf have said so much of what I wanted to say as I read through these replies, but I will echo johnasdf's point that the irony of some of the comments on this topic of all topics is incredible.

To build on another one of johnasdf's points: if the goal is to understand how to dismantle white supremacy, these reading lists are often terrible because they are so shallow and rarely include anything on anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and ultimately, the topic of systemic power itself.

And what do you get when you have an understanding of racism that does not incorporate anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism?

You get the "good" of the Obama years, where countless people of color died in liberal cities and states like San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and even more people of color died in drone/cruise missile strikes personally authorized by Obama himself. Reading lists like those are dangerous in their own way because they lull readers into thinking all we need is "good".
posted by Ouverture at 8:36 AM on June 5, 2020 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure I understand what so concerns people who feel this article was harsh or unconstructive. Is it that white people who are interested in anti-racist reading lists will give up on the idea of learning more about racism because someone wrote an article on Vulture that critiques the concept of the anti-racist reading list?
posted by dusty potato at 9:40 AM on June 5, 2020 [2 favorites]


What if "good" is the domain of the white moderate who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice?

Is that what Kendi's anti-racist syllabus advocates and the books on the list teach their readers? The White Fragility book advocates an absence of tension? That The Autobiography of Malcolm X is shallow, and has nothing to say about imperialism or capitalism? That Between the World and Me says nothing about the toxicity embedded in our political culture and that Ta-Nehisi Coates is saying comfortable, comforting things to white people so they can be happy in their symbolic color-blindness?
posted by tclark at 9:42 AM on June 5, 2020 [2 favorites]


The piece didn't particularly resonate with me, personally-- I felt it was sort of meandering in exactly the way you'd expect from an online thinkpiece by a cultural critic published in a mainstream online venue. So it's with that in mind that I feel it's particularly illustrative how provoked people feel when a Black woman writes a bog-standard piece in this genre that politely prods at one practice of "good" white people.
posted by dusty potato at 9:53 AM on June 5, 2020 [6 favorites]


Is that what Kendi's anti-racist syllabus advocates and the books on the list teach their readers? The White Fragility book advocates an absence of tension? That The Autobiography of Malcolm X is shallow, and has nothing to say about imperialism or capitalism? That Between the World and Me says nothing about the toxicity embedded in our political culture and that Ta-Nehisi Coates is saying comfortable, comforting things to white people so they can be happy in their symbolic color-blindness?

That's the entire point of the original article. These lists do not teach their readers. For example, I have met so many white people and people of color who have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and walked away learning nothing at all from it other than some pithy quotes or a revolutionary aesthetic facade to paint over "good".

Funnily enough, Ta-Nehisi Coates and his inability to connect anti-racism to anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism is an excellent example of what I am talking about:
The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.

Coates rightly highlights the vicious legacy of white supremacy – past and present. He sees it everywhere and ever reminds us of its plundering effects. Unfortunately, he hardly keeps track of our fightback, and never connects this ugly legacy to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia.
posted by Ouverture at 10:15 AM on June 5, 2020 [5 favorites]


The piece is about the limits of liberal diversity thinking, of which the anti-racist syllabi is the lowest common denominator. Because the diversity/inclusion framework turns race into a matter of ethics, the original essay is literally incomprehensible, as seen in this thread, since she is saying, What if black literature is actually not nutritious or ethical, but fun? Wild? Interesting? What if rather than being a moral good needed for American public, it was something created for a more intimate and imaginative exchange? To which people in this thread reply: How dare she says Toni Morrison is great art, can't she see how much broccoli I've eaten!? Doesn't she see how good I'm trying to be?

Yeah, this. Like everyone else here, I've given it a lot of thought lately. I don't for a moment think she's saying, don't read the books, rather she's pointing out an imaginative hurdle that's hard work to overcome. And honestly, I can see the hurdle, and I wonder if it's not an insurmountable barrier.

The first time I read The Count of Monte Christo*, I don't think I gave much thought Dumas' background and his experience of racism. There's no need to ponder when you can enjoy a cracking story. But once I learned about how the plot originates in Georges, suddenly the yarn took on a whole new dimension. Likewise, I recently watched Spike Lee's Inside Man, which is not about race politics per se, but nevertheless weaves in some salient commentary, crafting a very entertaining thriller from an African-American perspective. Of course, neither of these works would make it onto anyone's anti-racism studies syllabus, because, well, we should all be reading Frantz Fanon's cliff-notes. But both have something to say on the subject. We can all agree that Toni Morrison made great art, but what about writers of genre fiction like, say, Walter Mosley, Octavia Butler or Terry McMillan? All of them implicitly deal with similar issues in their own specific contexts, and are accessible to different readerships.

So I agree with her that the logical conclusion of the "race reader" seems to be self-defeat. If books are evaluated for their ethical capital or lack of it, it reinforces all the same prejudices, because everything has to tackle racism head-on, and artists who have dealt skilfully with these concerns in other genres get sidelined. Meanwhile, people who enjoy fiction are not reading to be informed, but to inhabit other imaginative universes. There are plenty of fine fiction writers to help with that, and only a handful of them would turn up on these reading lists.

And on preview, I have long thought the same about Ta-Nehisi Coates, but that's not how I read the original article.

* i will freely admit it, i am obsessed with this book.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 10:27 AM on June 5, 2020 [2 favorites]


So it's with that in mind that I feel it's particularly illustrative how provoked people feel when a Black woman writes a bog-standard piece in this genre that politely prods at one practice of "good" white people.

Yeah, I strongly agree. It's fascinating to watch how fragile white liberals feel the moment a Black woman insinuates that any aspect of their allyship might merit criticism and how vociferously they respond. I am really, really curious as to what people are truly taking exception to here because when people collectively have such a disproportionate response to something so mild, it's usually revealing more about them than the thing they're responding to. It's reminding me *hard* of the performative allyship piece posted earlier.
posted by armadillo1224 at 11:42 AM on June 5, 2020 [7 favorites]


I think White Fragility is a great example of the issue here. It's a fine book and every white person should read it, but you can't stop there! It only scratches the surface and doesn't give you the deeper insight into the many intersections of oppression; in fact, it's all about white people and how they derail the meaningful work! It holds a mirror up to the reader who might not like what they see, but taking things to the next level means going deeper than just learning how white people make an ass out of themselves in conversations about race.
posted by zeusianfog at 12:36 PM on June 5, 2020 [2 favorites]


> I think White Fragility is a great example of the issue here. It's a fine book and every white person should read it, but you can't stop there!

Yeah, it's a great book for us white people to recommend to each other, along with Ijeoma Oluo's book, and it stands on its own -- it doesn't need to be part of a curriculum. I believe these sorts of book lists can be helpful, but I agree with everyone else who says they'd be better if they were guided.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:27 PM on June 5, 2020


Huh. I thought the article was a fairly gentle reminder to actually read the books, while chiding those who might be caught up in the urge to engage in shallow performative wokeness on social media and attempt to curate the perfect bookshelf zoom backdrops to absolve themselves of responsibility for the white supremacist society in which they are complicit.
posted by thedamnbees at 10:52 AM on June 6, 2020 [4 favorites]


Does a list of books with absolutely no additional context, details about the structure of the list, or explanation for why these particular books were picked accomplish this goal?

Yes, a little bit, for me. I'm a voracious reader and I don't expect any single book to have all the answers for an important topic. But if I google for books to educate myself, I get an undifferentiated swamp of ads and reviews for things which might not be anything like what I want. Or might be flat out wrong or harmful when I don't have the skills yet to spot the problem.

A bare list with no structure or explanation isn't great. But if someone I trust recommends the list, and it's not just "here's all the ones I get affiliate money for" or "here's all the ones from my publisher" then I can at least narrow down the options. I'd prefer a structured list with explanations, but I'm also aware that it might be a bit much work to demand from the people likely to know how to do this.

My goal for reading books from a list like this is to help develop my own taste and opinions, to check the bibliographies for books which go deeper into specific topics. I'd love more thoughtful lists because they'd speed things up for me. But I'll take what I can get.
posted by harriet vane at 6:00 AM on June 7, 2020 [5 favorites]


It took this thread to make me RTFA - and it's so good! The author is on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour having a chat about it here.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 4:40 AM on June 10, 2020 [2 favorites]


I love this article. I was actually putting together a "ladder" of stuff white people could recommend to their family and loved ones based on where people assessed themselves. AND THEN someone linked me this scaffolding that did all that work for me.

Everyone who is looking for a more thoughtful list, I think this is the beginning of that.
posted by midmarch snowman at 4:47 PM on June 11, 2020 [3 favorites]


That is a fantastic resource, midmarch_snowman - thanks.
posted by PhineasGage at 6:13 PM on June 11, 2020


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