When I watched the straw break the camel’s back and a racial justice movement exploded before my eyes, I compiled a reading list before I went to a protest. My Goodreads account that was once nearly full of old, white authors and young adult novels about white teenagers is now 60 books deeper, spotlighting the stories of Black youth, analyzing mass incarceration, and posing questions like “Why are all the Blacks kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” While nobody has ever argued the importance of educating yourself, there’s a problem when your activism begins with opening a book and ends with closing it. Tre Johnson put it best for The Washington Post: “When Black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs.”
The congregation of white people in a book club has only two potential results: they’re either going to have really uncomfortable conversations that dig deep into the way they sustain racist ideology, or they’re going to nod their heads and frown at trauma they pretend they can comprehend. Johnson writes, “This isn’t the time to circle up with other white people and discuss Black pain in the abstract; it’s the time to acknowledge and examine the pain they’ve personally caused.” He articulates the reality that if non-BIPOC aren’t challenging each other and actively engaging in the dismantling of inherent racist behaviors, all you have is a bunch of people observing racism as a literary theme.
I have an issue with white people reading and promoting anti-racist books but not being just as loud about their racist wrongdoings and mistakes. Inherently, the act of just now indulging in work that is anti-racist, authored by BIPOC, and literally brilliant is racist. It’s overdue. It shouldn’t have taken a global eruption of protests against inequity and anti-Black police violence for well-aware and well-meaning people to consider BIPOC authors and their ideas about the broken systems our peers and ourselves contribute to in some form. As Caroline Callowayoutlandishly words it, it is only recently that white people have “discovered racism.”
What we’re learning but not quite grasping is the fact that nothing about “the work” is self-serving. Researching abolition and microaggressions and white supremacy should not present feelings of absolution. We shouldn’t feel good that we’re “doing the right thing,” or browsing through Me and White Supremacy hoping it doesn’t (but assuming it won’t) remind us of ourselves and our actions. Fighting the good fight within the lines of your own ego and comfort isn’t a fight at all. I’ve protested the defunding of police and assumed my role of spreading awareness and data, but I’ve also read eight books in quarantine so far yet have hardly made a dent in The New Jim Crow because it’s not a light read. And that’s the point.
There are behaviors of various degrees embedded within us that perpetuate the ideology we are so vocally condemning. There are stereotypes and stigmas deep in our psyches that affect our actions whether we like it or not. We contribute to some while we criticize the others. It all needs to be uprooted. Activism isn’t a practice in character development. It’s about other people’s lives. What America is facing is nothing short of eye-opening, and the ignition of such a social movement after the civil rights era is an opportunity to give the fight for Black lives all the energy and dedication we have and to do it in numbers.
So while we let the Black community lead, it is essential that we take it upon ourselves to celebrate their lives as much as we educate ourselves on their pain. Black people don’t only exist when they are taken from the world and you want to read a book to rectify your guilt. They exist in the young adult section of the library, where their stories of coming of age and self-discovery and sexuality and culture deserve to be heard. They exist in books set in hospitals, newsrooms, youth centers, labs, spaceships, fantasy worlds, and apocalypses. Allyship doesn’t need to be solely centered on strife and trauma. Black pain is not an “abstract.” We are not here to just observe what the pain of the Black community looks like, but to ensure that we are doing all we can to create a world where they are alleviated of it. Not to erase those experiences and not to turn to the “color-blind” narrative that feeds ignorance and strips people of history and culture and individual identity, but to serve as support and ferocious demanders of justice.
Illustration by Lay Hoon