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Book Reviews

Book Review: White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo

Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism.

I read this book for a book club. I did not necessarily go into it with enthusiasm–more like puzzlement as I was only guessing what “White Fragility” is. Fascinating, fascinating book–real game changer. The premise of this book is that racism is a ubiquitous system which constantly and hugely benefits all white people in modern American society. White people are generally raised not to see racism as something they benefit from or as something they participate in–we are “color-blind.” But in actuality color-blindness protects and preserves the racist system that we all exist in and which benefits all white people everyday.

This book really opened my eyes to the shit that I have done and said and invested in that supports the racist system. Several things in particular blew me away:

  • First, the idea that racism is something that white people may not “experience” because we live in “sheltered” existences where we don’t encounter people of color. I never thought before about how our societal segregation is exactly what makes me so deeply immersed in racism and exactly what makes me least sheltered from its insidious influence on my mind.
  • Second, the fact that the actual direction of danger between white people and black people is inverted in our perceptions so that we imagine that we are in danger from a black person who is walking through “our” neighborhood when in actuality they are in much more danger from us, should we call the police or otherwise act on our fear of them.
  • Third, the very fact that white people refuse to talk about race and difference, and the way in which that actually preserves the prejudgments we make. In an example the author discusses, if a small white child comments on a black person’s skin to their white parent in the supermarket, why does the parent shush the child? What are they communicating to the child about blackness and whiteness?

Another thing I took from this book is that if I want to make progress I need to accept that there will be discomfort. Discomfort is not the same as danger. I must confront my preconceptions and ask where they come from. I must be able to talk about these things, even if I mess up and say/do/think something “wrong.” There’s work to be done and I can’t just sit on my pretty lily white progressive bum. I need to get my hands dirty and read, learn, talk, and, most importantly, listen. So, more related book reviews coming as I work on my ignorance.

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Book Reviews

Heavy, by Kiese Laymon

This book just ate my weekend. It’s not the kind of book I would pick up on my own, or expect to like. I am not just saying that because it is filled with painful truths about how white people like me use our power to hurt black and brown people in America. I am also saying that because it is nonfiction, modern, American, and a memoir.

Lucky for me, a book club I recently joined is reading it this month. After failing to finish either of the past two months’ selections on time, I thought maybe I should get going on this one. I’ve been carrying it around with me for about a week and had gotten about 10 pages in. I had been warned that it contained discussion of sexual abuse, sexual violence, physical abuse, and racial violence. I was afraid to read it. But the first 10 pages were so well-written and compelling that I kind of wanted to anyway.

Yesterday morning I had some mental space and I sat down with it for a bit. Thinking I would push through 20 pages or so a day and in this manner finish the book by the end of the month. Push, my ass. Next thing I knew I had read 100 pages and desperately needed to pee. I forced myself to put it down, pee, and do what I was supposed to be doing with the day. Last night, supposedly sleeping, another 60 pages. And just now, supposedly working and getting ready for the week, the book is done and I again ignored needing desperately to pee for over an hour.

The book is gloriously well-written, and not in a generic way. Laymon plays with language, black language and white language, in lyrical sweeps that allow one to become deeply present in his story. The language is clear, never getting in the way of the meaning, but also so much more than just a vehicle for the story. I haven’t read something that I loved like this simply for the sake of its use of words, maybe ever.

More, it is honest to the bone. There is no holding back, no hiding, and no excuses, not for Laymon, not for any of his fellow travelers, and certainly not for me. Also, it is just nonlinear, elliptical, and confusing enough– it tugs you along trying to figure out what will or has happen(ed), without ever being lost enough to become distracted.

My brain has been stretched and opened in ways it never has before. Never in my life have I felt so close to actually understanding the challenges of growing up black and male and poor in Mississippi. Never have the reasons why my thoughts and behaviors about race in America are so inadequate been explained quite so well, demonstrated quite so thoroughly. As a cis, straight, white, wealthy American, I am so sheltered from so much of what he describes that I never hoped to feel like I got it. I know I still don’t really get it, because one of the things I got from the book is that I have no hope of ever really getting it, but at least I got a hint, an inkling, a flash. And a sense of the importance of working for more.

There’s more, much more, to the book than that–a different perspective on eating disorders, on sexual violence, on feminism, on teaching, and on higher education in America. I can’t possibly begin to do it justice, so let me just say that if you haven’t read it, do so now. Just be warned that you better have a free day or two in front of you, because you won’t get anything done until you finish it, once you start.