Books for White Folks Part 1: The Introduction

Books covers on race identity and culture
We all know that I’m an avid reader (and listener) of books. We also know there are like a bajillion books out there that I want to read.  Seriously, my “To Read” pile grows constantly, no matter how much I read.  A problem of such a burning curiosity is that I have to make decisions about what to read and when I look at the range of topics that my To-Read books covers, it’s a substantial range:

  • how technology is distracting us (The Distracted Mind by Adam Gazzaley)
  • how Baby-boomers & Generation X have screwed us later generations over (A Generation of Sociopaths by Bruce Gibney)
  • how the gig economy is ruining us (Shadow Work by Craig Lambert)
  • how elite colleges are selling students BS (The Golden Passport by Duff McDonald)
  • Misunderstanding the science of success (Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker)
  • understanding how fear works (Scream by Margee Kerr)
  • creativity in a digital age (The Maker Movement by Mark Hatch)
  • neoliberal economics (Free to Choose by Milton Freedman)
  • understanding the gun in American culture (The Gunning of America by Pamela Haag)
  • exploring single female status in our culture (All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister)
  • how American culture devalues, misrepresents, and disregards African American women (Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris-Perry)

That’s a mere spattering of just the nonfiction that I’m curious about and want to listen to.  As you can see, that’s quite the range of topics.  So to choose any one book, inevitably means there are other books that I won’t get to and for me--that’s always a hard decision.  It’s hard not just because I’m interested in all these books, but because the choice of what to read is inevitably political. That’s right, whether you realized it or not, reading is a political act, regardless of what you choose to read.

I read to better understand the world around me and my place in it.  Therefore, every time I choose one thing to read, I am choosing other things not to read.  I am prioritizing certain topics over others.  If I decide that today, learning about creativity in the digital age is important, then I’m also saying that for today, understanding how American culture devalues, misrepresents, and disregards African American women is less important.  By picking one, I’m abandoning the other--even if only temporarily.  I have decided where to focus my attention for the purpose of improving my understanding in the world and my place in it--that decision says that creativity outranks inequality.  

I don’t feel comfortable with that choice but it’s one I have to make every time I choose to read a new book.  It’s one we all make when we decide to read, listen, watch, or engage in any kind of entertainment or education--hell, how we use our time in any way, really. For many of us reading this (and because you can read this--that’s a strong indicator that this statement is true), we are inundated with entertainment and educational opportunities.  Each time we decide on one, we are deciding not to engage in others--at least temporarily.  

That’s a powerful idea and one that many of us don’t often think about--it’s also the idea that led me to write this and the following posts in this series.  

I’m a white, cisgender, able-bodied, bisexual middle-class male.  I identify these as markers of my place in our culture, which values each element differently.  In our culture, most of these secure me into a position of privilege to which I only have to question myself on the most superficial of levels--the level where I just have to be careful what I say around “certain people.” Even today, in the midst of many social justice movements, I can knowingly disregard, minimalize, or ignore people that our society has and continues to marginalize, disregard, and hurt.  I can do this and still be considered a “good person” or even an “upstanding citizen.”  

Let me be utterly clear--I am not parading this, but acknowledging that in our culture, that is one of the many ways privilege manifests.  I can be a good person and still ignore the systematic features that allow me a lot more opportunities to be a “good person” because of my markers rather than my actual abilities.  In fact, for some, just by acknowledging that privilege, I am somehow doing “good.”  

But I’m not.  I’m merely speaking a truth that way too many marginalized folks know and the fact that I’m somehow “good” for acknowledging my privilege, while they have been yelling it from the top of their lungs for generations, is just another perversity of this privilege; I get to whitesplain to other white folks and that somehow absolves me among white folks.  But I am often just as oblivious of my privilege and likely to think things that are disregardful of marginalized people as other white folks--if I’m lucky and mindful enough, I might catch myself before I say it.  Sometimes.  

Please note, I am using the term “white folks” interchangeably with people in our culture who disproportionately are awarded privilege. I recognize that intersectionalities of identities mean that other white folks may also be marginalized in a variety of ways--I’m not negating that, but whiteness in American culture does carry a strong level of privilege and has been etched into the foundation of our country and laws for centuries. I think gender, sex, and sexuality are also challenging markers in our culture, but that’s a post for another time).  

That seems wrong to me on many levels; how is it that just because of my birth, I can benefit directly and indirectly from inequality, ignore it or downplay it, and never really question my privilege and still be considered “good.”  But it’s true, so many folks do this their entire lives and never have to get into thinking about or grappling with what it means not to be white or male or cisgender or able-bodied or middle (or higher) class.  

But even those of us that do, have to be ever-vigilant in thinking about the how and why of what we are doing.  If we are to be the allies that we claim, we have to think about how to continually be a better ally.  Often, many of us float by with merely virtue signaling that we endorse or support marginal folk but never go beyond that.  That’s something I’m constantly trying to reckon with in my own work and efforts.  

One means of trying to continually unpack my place in such a culture is to consciously make decisions to read books by and about people that are not from the same identity groups as me and when possibly advocate for others to buy, gift, read, such books.  So for this series, I am particularly interested in exploring racism, privilege, and ethnocentrism but I hope I can do other interesting series in the future around gender, sex, and sexuality or class or ability.  

Over the years, I have made reasonable progress on reading and accumulating a list of some 200 (and growing) books on racism, identity, and culture.  For this series, I will be breaking those books down into different categories as a means of giving you a sense of what books might be of interest or relevance to read.  

So I hope you’ll join me for the series--maybe provide recommendations or let me know what books you’ve read and what you’ve thought about them.  

Some notes about the lists:
  • You will find that some books show up on several different lists.  That’s to be expected as the categories are not mutually exclusive.  For instance, I’ll have a list on history, one on systematic views, and one on education--needless to say, these are going to overlap.
  • This is not a definitive list.  These are merely the books that I’ve read.  And before any congratulations about my reading habits are offered, this list still represented less than 10% of the books that I’ve read in my life, which may be considered progress compared to the average reader, but not necessarily to me--or to marginalized folk.  
  • There are white authors on the list--that is, not all books are composed by people of color.  There are definitely some good white authors out there on the topic, but I would encourage readers to make sure that if they pick up books from this list, that they also place emphasis on people of color if only to give larger platforms for those whose voices don’t typically get heard.  
  • There are definite gaps in important texts on this list.  In time, I hope to fill those.
  • There are definite gaps of different marginalized groups.  This is heavily focused on African American with bits of Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Latinx Americans.  I clearly need to expand a bit more.  
  • I originally planned to name this series, "Exploring Racism & Ethnocentrism From One White Guy to Other White Folks" but that's a bit too long of a title, so, I'm going with Books for White folks.

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